Saturday, August 7, 2010

Three Axis Model of Relationship Structure

Gramatical note: 'Axes' as used here is the plural of 'axis', not 'axe'. Crazy English and it's redundant spellings. In case you are curious 'axises' is the plural of a 'axis', a type of deer found in Asia.

There are a wide variety of relationships that any pair of people can have: friends, lovers, romantic partners, friends with benefits, and many others. Often, there is even confusion between partners as to the exact nature of their relationship, such as when one person thinks that they are dating and the other thinks that they are just friends with benefits.

I look at relationships on three axes: connection (friendship), love, and physical (sexual), as show below:

Each of the relationship types that I put in the various zones are meant to be examples, not an exhaustive list of relationship types.

The point of this model is that it gives us a way to look at a relationship in order to get a more solid idea of what the relationship really is and what to expect from it. Often times, a relationship is only considered from the standpoint of two axes, which can create misunderstandings.

The Connection Axis refers to attributes of the relationship which make good friends: interests in common, ability to hold good conversations, comfort together, etc.

The Love Axis is the affection, emotional connection. If this axis is strong then each partner will want to place the needs of the other person before their own, be happy in the other's happiness on a gut level.

The Physical Axis is the simplest to understand. It is the physical connection. Unfortunately, it is often mistaken for love. Two people will be tremendously physically compatible which leads to passionate feelings, but the feelings are only about the physical connection, not the emotional.

Suzie says: I was seeing this guy, and I really thought it was going somewhere. The sex was really mindblowing, and I felt that we had a deep connection and would talk for hours. Turns out that he thought we were just a casual thing. I was heartbroken.

In Suzie's relationship, there was plenty of physical and some connection, but the love element was not there. They were really just friends with benefits. Suzie felt the physical connection and the friend connection, and mistook it for an emotional connection because she was not looking at all three axes separately.

When considering a relationship, one should consider how it lies on all three axes, and make sure that both partners agree on what type of relationship this is. The model of connection, love, and physical gives you a framework in which to discuss the relationship and what both parties might expect in it.

Being a model, it is highly abstract. It is meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.


  1. This kind of reminds me of psychologist Robert Sternberg's theory of love, in which true love involves passion, intimacy, and commitment.

  2. I find I always have a great deal of trouble understanding what "romance/love" is in contrast to friendship and physical attraction. I hate to say this, because there's a part of me that thinks it shouldn't be true, but a lot of times it seems to me that the only difference between a romantic/love relationship and a deep friendship is the physical intimacy.

    To help me understand the axis labeled "love" a little better, can you tell me what a "love" relationship would be if there were no friendship component and no physical intimacy involved?

    Put another way, if you take the Ideal Romantic Relationship, and remove the physical and friendship components, what's left?

    Or, put even another way, imagine meeting someone new. After getting to know them for about a week, you realize that you feel love/romantic attraction for them, though you don't find them physically attractive, and don't think you'd be particularly compatible as friends. Is this even possible? It seems to me like the "love' axis is somehow intrinsically dependent on the other two axes, and that in order to have a "love" relationship with someone you either need to be good friends or f***buddies first.

    Please help me understand.

  3. Clearly I need to stay better on top of my comments. Better late than never, I will address Anonymous's question.

    When love exists without attraction or friendship, it becomes more of an infatuation with the concept of a person than with the actual real person themselves. It is the kind of situation that tortured poets write bad love poetry about.