It seems to me, based on what I have heard from older people and what I have learned about society in even the recent past, the concept of the relationship is a fairly recent one. That is, the word itself was not often used; people had friends, family, business associates, and romantic or sexual partners, and all these types of relationships were usually identified specifically as to how they figured in a person’s life.
More importantly, especially in terms of modern usage, romantic interests went by the name of “boyfriend”, “girlfriend”, “fiancee”, or “that person I’m dating”. This factor of other means of address immediately strikes me as an interesting part of the definition of “relationship”, because the older terms were all about roles people were playing. A girlfriend is a person; a relationship is a thing someone is in with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and I am beginning to wonder how much of how we define “relationship” has to do with this stature we give to this non-existent thing.
Today, a relationship is usually presented as a fairly serious romantic process. It seems to be the thing people are in that is beyond a dating connection, and something removed from friendship. It is clearly something that many people aspire to have, or be in, and yesterday’s complaint about not having someone special is now expressed as a desire to “be in a real relationship”. It is almost as though we have taken the people out of the activity, and this is where I think the definition runs into real trouble.
Most anyone you would ask today would give you a definition of a relationship along the lines referred to. They would say that it is a meaningful connection between two people, and one with potential for a lasting future. That potential is also a large part of how relationships are perceived today; people still date, but when they begin referring to being in a relationship, it means that one or both concerned parties are thinking in terms of a future together. Above all, the word is never used to suggest something not serious, unless it is identified as a “sexual relationship” or “business relationship”, or another way that indicates boundaries.
This makes me think about investing any single word with too much power, and I am inclined to think that people, in defining “relationship” as an actual thing, create many problems for themselves. As I see it, the word “relationship” has taken on a strangely specific meaning, and people have a certain idea regarding what a relationship must translate to. It is very much like the word “change”; in modern life, change is viewed as a positive thing, but the reality is that change can be anything at all that is different. It is a process or an occurrence completely independent of the good or the bad it leaves behind, but many people insist on seeing it as, somehow, automatically good.
It may be that people are merely eager to believe the best of all possibilities, and this is why both “relationship” and “change are typically viewed as desirable things. I think, however, that there is a danger in this kind of thinking because, again, an activity is being invested with actual value it does not inherently possess. The danger here with “change” is obvious; when change is perceived as a fundamentally good thing, it is turned to when things might be better unchanged.
With relationships, I believe the danger is of a different kind, and it goes directly to that vague concept of what a relationship should be. Obviously, people romantically involved want the romance to be uplifting and good, and there is nothing wrong with the assumption that “relationship”, as expressed by most people, means “good relationship”. However, when an idea is given a shape or form independent of actual circumstances, it becomes something of a goal, even though the actual making up of it cannot be known until it happens. It used to be that a man might be unhappy because he did not have a girlfriend, and that is perfectly human and natural. Today’s men, however, are complaining because they are not in relationships, and that is different because they are more referring to some sort of idealized state of being, or romance.
Plainly speaking, men and women think about romantic partners all the time. When asked to go into detail, they can usually give a fairly clear idea of what their romantic ideal is, as a person. This is vastly different, however, from the popular mentality of desiring a solid relationship because, ironically, that concept requires nothing more than a vague ambition to be happy and fulfilled with somebody else. It is the thing two people forge together, and it carries a weight in today’s culture no vague concept should have. As a relationship cannot begin to exist until the connection between two people begins to take on its own, unique characteristics, it has no meaning at all until then.
Unfortunately, people seem to believe that the relationship is somehow waiting “out there” for them, to stumble into with the right person. This then creates a further sense in the popular mind that good relationships are being enjoyed by everyone else, when the reality is that “relationship” is a simple word that has been twisted far beyond its scope or abilities. This can be seen simply by breaking down the components: they are two romantic partners, and all the individual and combined benefits and disadvantages each brings to the other. That is all, and “relationship” is nothing more than the catch-all word assigned to the interaction. It has no definition, really, because it is a changing, unpredictable result of whatever two people are sharing at any given time.