The 5 Kinds of Relationships

Written by
Michael Wells

The 5 Kinds of Relationships

That Define Your World

Written by
Michael Wells

The 5 Kinds of Relationships

That Define Your World

Written by
Michael Wells

This article is part of the series 


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One of the more fascinating aspects of the human mind is our tendency to group and organize our world.

In psychology, this is known as Gestalt laws of grouping, and we apply these organizational concepts and patterns most strongly to the things that are most important to us.

Even relationships.

Perhaps, especially relationships.

This drive is so strong that we have even have a term to describe the drive itself.

DTR... Define the Relationship

In our romantic relationships, we want to know... what are we? Are we just lovers, or friends with benefits, or are we dating, or are we an exclusive couple? Are we getting engaged, or married?

What are we, where are we going, and what are we to others?

The more "committed" the relationship, the more we invest, and the more strongly we want to advertise and protect that relationship.

Certainly, some of this tendency is social, due to social pressure and cultural norms. But I think it goes deeper into that.

I believe that many of our identifiable groupings in relationships have a basis in evolutionary psychology.

The 5 Kinds of Relationships

In social psychology, our different types of relationships describe different types of social groups. A social group is any group composed of two or more people who interact and depend on each other in some way.

I can identify 5 fundamental kinds of cooperative relationships that we have evolved to value, and to pursue.

#1 - Society

The people around you.

You may not know their names, or have ever met them personally. You may not even speak their language, but you feel some small degree of trust that enables you to be around them without the fear of serious harm.

Society offers you a degree of protection in that, just like of flock of birds, you will likely be alerted to a threat by someone else warning you or crying out. By yourself, in the woods, you more vulnerable to a surprise attack, and you certainly can't sleep as soundly without anyone to look over you or wake you in a moment of danger.

#2 - Tribes

Tribes are a more tightly knit social group.

Here you generally know their names, and see these people regularly. You're familiar with each person's individual behaviors, and have a greater sense of predictability.

Usually tribes form around shared needs such as a resource of shelter, food, water, money, etc.

Tribes for part of our identity, and often, tribes themselves can cooperate or compete with other tribes. In our modern world even a company is a tribe.

#3 - Companions

These are the people that you work directly with, to achieve more than you can by yourself.

Someone that you go hunting with, who helps you carry the food back. Someone that helps you build a farm, or fight an enemy.

Companions are the people who we can achieve specific things with that are difficult or impossible for us to achieve alone.

However they are not necessary "trusted," they are often not that well known. Your relationship tends to be transactional, focused on a particular goal.

Example are the workmates at your company, or people on your sporting team. Your Uber driver is a companion for the duration of the drive.

#4 - Friends

People that you trust to look after your well-being directly.

They are in your life to add security, and you add security to theirs.

Often friendships start around mutual interests, backgrounds, beliefs or ideologies, but they don't need to.

#5 - Guardians

The role of protector.

This most commonly describes parent-child relationships, however in modern social structures you can see this role in other places as well.

Theoretically, our leaders have this role, as well as military and police. Ideally, their purpose is to protect and serve.

Wait, But What About...

You might be thinking...

"But what about... playmates, or my boss, or my wife?"

Every relationship you can think of falls into one or more of the categories above.

Here are a few examples.

  • Playmate. This is a special kind of companion who you interact with for the purpose of skills development and learning. As children, we usually think of these relationships as fun, but they don't always need to be...
  • Competitor. In sports, science, business, and arts, we often see adversarial relationships form which also fit the definition of a playmate. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier probably weren't the best of buds, but they sure tested & motivated each other to be their very best. Competitors can be a type of playmate too.
  • Lover. Another special kind of Companion, who we have intimate sexual connection with, for the purpose of mutual pleasure. Just like other companions, this relationship is more transactional, built around a common goal. If that goal changes, a Companion relationship evaporates. It can also evolve into a different kind of relationship, such as a Friend, or a Co-Parent.
  • Co-Parent. The person or people that we raise our children with. Often it's the mother and father of a child, but it doesn't need to be. Today, step-parents, grandparents, and siblings play this role as well. Historically, most of the adults in a tribe played some kind of parenting role to the tribe's children.
  • Romantic Partner. What we think of today as a girlfriend or boyfriend is usually a combination of a Lover, a Friend, and a Playmate.
  • Wife or Husband. is usually a Romantic Partner, who is possibly also a Co-Parent.

Do Non-Cooperative Relationships Exist?

Not really.

Adversarial relationships happen when two individuals or groups are pursuing the same resource, competitively rather than cooperatively.

This typically happens when the resource is limited.

When you're a kid you play baseball with your friends, and the experience is mostly cooperative. You're all there to have fun, and to learn together.

Let's say, that 10 years later you and those same friends are all professional baseball players. Are you still cooperating, or are you competing? If you are on opposing teams, then there is suddenly a limited resource that only one of you can win- a title, a trophy, a win, and the money and fame that go with it.

Chances are, you're competing now.

In humans especially, this dynamic can be rather fluid.

Mammals are fairly clear-cut in the separation of friend v. foe, however Humans are more flexible in this regard. A good example would be Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, two elite competitors who were famous adversaries- but who also tested & motivated each other to be their very best.

Bodybuilders Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu are another good example. They were the best of friends as training buddies, and as housemates- but on stage, the competitiveness would surface.

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This article is part of the series 


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First published on 
. Last updated on 
July 26, 2021

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