Relationship: How the word undermines itself

Relationships are vital to human existence. Taking on numerous forms in families and partnerships and existing in all systems, we are essentially in some degree of relationship with somebody at any point in time. Much of how we define ourself is through relationships.

Here is an example: I am mother, wife, sister, asian, vegetarian, painter, runner, and writer. Some of these categories describe what the person does, but all identify her as someone who is similar in relation to others. At least one other person is like her in some way and sometimes that has more meaning than the activity or classification itself. We even conceptualize and make decisions about experiences and objects in relation to one another, whether buying a consumer product or deciding where to go on holiday.

Human relationships are often hierarchal and have certain responsibilities associated with each person or group involved. The level of hierarchy and degree of responsibility is subjective and determined by those involved. Outside influences such as culture or tradition usually have a significant influence in this decision as well.

Look at the definition of relationship by Oxford Dictionary. Complications arise with definition 1.2 which reads as follows:

“The way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave towards each other.” 

Herein lies the potential for conflict between individuals and groups. How one party regards the other will influence how that party behaves towards the other. Likewise, how one party is being treated by the other will influence how it regards that party. Here are some common examples of relationships where hierarchies do or may exist:

parent / child          teacher / student          politician / constituent      boss/ employee          doctor / patient          prison guard / prisoner partner / partner          perpetrator / victim          clerk / customer          therapist / client          famous person / fan             wealthy / poor         ethnic or religious majority / ethnic or religious minority            educated / non educated       law enforcement / law breaker

With real or perceived hierarchy, either party can easily loose sight that both are human and have shared needs. By putting aside how they are connected, one is better able to see the other as a person. This makes the obvious visible. Perceived or real abuse of power and control quickly diminishes the ability and need to relate and understand one another as humans.

We often forget that our most basic relationship to one another is human to human and not title to title or label to label. Forgetting this simple fact puts any individual and group relationship at risk of conflict. Our humanness always exists in any relationship regardless of the nature of the relationship.

A new word like humanship or personship needs to replace definition 1.2 to help remind everyone of our most fundamental connection—human to human—particular in unhealthy and harmful relationships. How are you humanly treating the other person in the relationship? This question minimizes the harmful impact of real or perceived abuses of hierarchy. It can help stop abuse of power or the mistreatment of others in dysfunctional relationships.

For example, a wealthy person may feel superior in relation to someone poor, purely because of the definition of the relationship, which is in regard to purchasing power. The definition of the relationship alone points out differences of status which can influence differential attitudes and treatment of one another. Another example could be a school principal seeing her role as more important in relation to the janitor due to the differences of job title, position on an organizational chart, and responsibilities. In both cases, the relationship does not erase the fact that both are people.

The word relationship should just describe how two people or groups are connected and not describe attitudes and behaviors towards each other. Why? Because the differing roles and duties—more so when hierarchy exists—inherent in relationships can diminish one’s ability to regard and treat the other as a person. One can be easily consumed by how the roles in the relationship should be played out according to societal norms, disregarding the human element. Let’s revisit some previous examples by replacing the word “relationship” with the words humanship/personship to describe how one regards and behaves towards the other.

My relationship to Mary is that she is unemployed and begging. I pass by her each day on my way to work. What is your personship to Mary? My personship to Mary is one of acknowledgment and concern as she is a person with the same human needs as me. I greet her and occasionally give her some change.

What is your relationship to John? John is our school janitor. How is your humanship like with John? My humanship to John is appreciative and respectful. His contribution to the school’s maintenance and cleanliness is imperative in creating a positive learning environment and I tell him that often.

For the sake of all relationships, the word we use to define how individuals and groups regard and treat one another needs to stress commonalities and humanness and not denote differences or hierarchy. The word relationship, by its definition, undermines that goal as people and groups are in numerous forms of relationships where differences, not similarities, are highlighted. The words personship or humanship keeps our fundamental connection to one another as person to person or human to human. This helps improve any relationship by ensuring positive regard and proper treatment of one another regardless of the relationship. Using either personship or humanship removes the hierarchical structure and superior attitude and behavior that may arise with it.

We are always behaving to fulfill shared basic human needs regardless of the relationship we are in when doing so. Next time you are asked “What is your relationship like with …..?” begin your answer with “My personship/humanship with….” Notice if there is a difference in how you conceptualized the relationship. How did your attitude and behaviors change toward the person or group?

Basic needs bind us all regardless of our relationship to one another
Basic needs bind us all regardless of our relationship to one another
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