Relationships and Metaphor

Are you in a relationship? This question makes the word “relationship” sound like it references a container. You and someone else are in an enclosure that excludes everyone else. The notion that a relationship is like a container provides one insight into what “relationship” means, but there is so much more to a “relationship,” isn’t there?

Yes, I am in a relationship. We have had a relationship for two years. This response about having a relationship makes a “relationship” seem less like something that contains two people and more like something two people share, like lunch. I’d like to have a long-term relationship with you for my main course with an adulterous relationship on side and a fling or two for dessert. The insight about a relationship being shared seems sound. Add that to the idea that a relationship is expected to be exclusive helps to better define the term “relationship,” but I’m still not satisfied.

Is your relationship good? Well, like everyone, we’ve had to work on it, but overall, our relationship has been wonderful. This response makes it seem like a relationship is something two people own, like a house. We’ll build it, decorate it, make repairs, and slap on some coats of paint for appearance sake every once in a while. We have to keep up our property.

Is a relationship like a container, a meal, and a house? Is it something exclusive, shared, and jointly owned? Max Black, an insightful analytic philosopher from England, wrote an article years ago where he tried to define “metaphor.” He said that a metaphor, by comparing two things that are largely not alike, had the power to generate new meaning as we think about the ways in which those two things are comparable. He said that the two things being compared interacted in our minds, and we created something new by coming to understand the result of those interactions.

In a way, Max Black’s interactive theory of metaphor is a good metaphor for understanding the meaning of a “relationship.” Two similar people get involved in a relationship. They agree to share their lives. Their relationship is interactional. It contains elements from both people, but something entirely new is constructed. They jointly have responsibility for the relationship, which has to be created; developed; and maintained, or it falls apart.

Relationships are a lot like metaphors. They are necessary, thought-provoking, and difficult to understand.

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