Interpersonal relationships make up a huge and vital part of your life. These relationships can range from close and intimate to distant and challenging. No matter the nature of the relationship, different types of relationships help make up the social support network that is pivotal for both your physical and mental well-being.
To better understand and discuss these relationships accurately, it can be helpful to learn more about the different types of relationships that a person can have.
What Is a Relationship?
A relationship is any connection between two people, which can be either positive or negative.
You can have a relationship with a wide range of people, including family and friends. The phrase “being in a relationship,” while often linked with romantic relationships, can refer to various associations one person has with another.
To “be in a relationship” doesn’t always mean there is physical intimacy, emotional attachment, and/or commitment involved. People engage in many different types of relationships that have unique characteristics.
Basic Types of Relationships
Relationships typically fall into one of several different categories (although these can sometimes overlap):
Situational relationships (sometimes called “situationships”)
These different forms of relationships can vary greatly in terms of closeness, and there are also different subtypes of relationships within each of these basic types. Some of the different kinds of relationships that you might experience at some point in your life include the following.
A platonic relationship is a type of friendship that involves a close, intimate bond without sex or romance. These relationships tend to be characterized by:
Platonic relationships can occur in a wide range of settings and can involve same-sex or opposite-sex friendships. You might form a platonic relationship with a classmate or co-worker, or you might make a connection with a person in another setting such as a club, athletic activity, or volunteer organization you are involved in.
This type of relationship can play an essential role in providing social support, which is essential for your health and well-being. Research suggests that platonic friendships can help reduce your risk for disease, lower your risk for depression or anxiety, and boost your immunity.
Romantic relationships are those characterized by feelings of love and attraction for another person. While romantic love can vary, it often involves feelings of infatuation, intimacy, and commitment.
Experts have come up with a variety of different ways to describe how people experience and express love. For example, psychologist Robert Sternberg suggests three main components of love: passion, intimacy, and decision/commitment. Romantic love, he explains, is a combination of passion and intimacy.
Romantic relationships tend to change over time. At the start of a relationship, people typically experience stronger feelings of passion. During this initial infatuation period, the brain releases specific neurotransmitters (dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin) that cause people to feel euphoric and “in love.”
Over time, these feelings start to lessen in their intensity. As the relationship matures, people develop deeper levels of emotional intimacy and understanding.
Romantic relationships often burn hot at the beginning. While the initial feelings of passion usually lessen in strength over time, feelings of trust, emotional intimacy, and commitment grow stronger.
A codependent relationship is an imbalanced, dysfunctional type of relationship in which a partner has an emotional, physical, or mental reliance on the other person.
It is also common for both partners to be mutually co-dependent on each other. Both may take turns enacting the caretaker role, alternating between the caretaker and the receiver of care.
Characteristics of a codependent relationship include:
Acting as a giver while the other person acts as a taker
Going to great lengths to avoid conflict with the other person
Feeling like you have to ask permission to do things
Having to save or rescue the other person from their own actions
Doing things to make someone happy, even if they make you uncomfortable
Feeling like you don’t know who you are in the relationship
Elevating the other person even if they’ve done nothing to earn your goodwill and admiration
Not all codependent relationships are the same, however. They can vary in terms of severity. Codependency can impact all different types of relationships including relationships between romantic partners, parents and children, friendship, other family members, and even coworkers.
Someone who feels more comfortable being needed, for instance, may avoid focusing on their own needs by choosing a partner who constantly needs them.
Casual relationships often involve dating relationships that may include sex without expectations of monogamy or commitment. However, experts suggest that the term is vague and can mean different things to different people.
According to the authors of one study published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, casual relationships can encompass situations such as:
Friends with benefits
Such relationships often exist on a continuum that varies in the levels of frequency of contact, type of contact, amount of personal disclosure, discussion of the relationship, and degree of friendship. The study found that people with more sexual experience were better able to identify the definitions of these labels compared to people with less sexual experience.
Casual relationships are often common among young adults. As long as casual relationships are marked by communication and consent, they can have several sex-positive benefits. They can satisfy the need for sex, intimacy, connection, and companionship without the emotional demand and energy commitment of a more serious relationship.
An open relationship is a type of consensually non-monogamous relationship in which one or more partners have sex or relationships with other people. Both people agree to have sex with other people in an open relationship but may have certain conditions or limitations.
Open relationships can take place in any type of romantic relationship, whether casual, dating, or married.
There tends to be a stigma surrounding non-monogamous relationships. Still, research suggests that around 21% to 22% of adults will be involved in some type of open relationship at some point in their life.
The likelihood of engaging in an open relationship also depends on gender and sexual orientation. Men reported having higher numbers of open relationships compared to women; people who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual relative to those who identify as heterosexual were more likely to report previous engagement in open relationships.
Such relationships can have benefits, including increased sexual freedom and pitfalls such as jealousy and emotional pain. Open relationships are more successful when couples establish personal, emotional, and sexual boundaries and clearly communicate their feelings and needs with one another.
Open relationships are a form of consensual non-monogamy. While there is a primary emotional and often physical connection between the two people in the relationship, they mutually agree to intimacy with other people outside of the relationship.
A toxic relationship is any type of interpersonal relationship where your emotional, physical, or psychological well-being is undermined or threatened in some way. Such relationships often leave you feeling ashamed, humiliated, misunderstood, or unsupported.
Any type of relationship can be toxic including friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships, or workplace relationships.
Toxic relationships are characterized by:
A lack of support
Sometimes all people in a relationship play a role in creating this toxicity. For example, you may be contributing to toxicity if you are all consistently unkind, critical, insecure, and negative.
In other cases, one person in a relationship may behave in ways that create toxic feelings. This may be intentional, but in other cases, people may not fully understand how they are affecting other people. Because of their past experiences with relationships, often in their home growing up, they may not know any other way of acting and communicating.
This doesn’t just create discontentment—toxic relationships can take a serious toll on your health. For example, according to one study, stress caused by negative relationships has a direct impact on cardiovascular health.6 Feeling isolated and misunderstood in a relationship can also lead to loneliness, which has been shown to have detrimental effects on both physical and mental health.
Toxic relationships can be stressful, harmful, and even abusive. If you are in a toxic relationship with someone in your life, work on creating strong boundaries to protect yourself. Talk to a mental health professional or consider terminating the relationship if it is causing you harm.
Defining Your Relationship
How you define your relationship depends on various factors, including what matters to you and how the other person feels. To define your relationship, it can be helpful to ask a few questions:
Do you have romantic feelings for one another?
What does each person hope to get out of the relationship?
How much time do you want to spend together?
Where do you see the relationship going?
Are you currently involved with or want to be involved with other people?
Figuring out what matters to you and your partner is an important step in defining the type of relationship you are interested in having. You might find that you are both on the same page or discover that you want different things out of your relationship.
Defining your relationship doesn’t have to mean committing for the long-term. Instead, it can be a way to help you both better understand the boundaries and expectations of your relationship
Communication is often the single most important thing in a relationship. Good relationships are also marked by honesty, trust, and reciprocity. This doesn’t mean that the relationship is purely transactional; it indicates that you naturally engage in a give and take that provides mutually beneficial support.
How to Leave a Toxic Relationship in 6 Steps
A Word From Verywell
No matter what type of relationship you have with another person(s), it is important for it to be a healthy one. Healthy relationships are characterized by trust, mutual respect, openness, honesty, and affection. Good communication is also a hallmark of a healthy relationship.
There are steps that you can take to improve your relationships with other people. Making sure you let others know you care and showing your appreciation are two strategies that can be helpful.
But if a relationship is causing stress or shows signs of being toxic, look for ways to establish clear boundaries, talk to a therapist, or even consider ending the relationship if it is too unhealthy.
Social relationships are important and they come in all different types. Having a variety of relationships with different people can ensure that you have the support and connections you need for your emotional health and well-being.