Key Idea: All relationships consist of three elements.
Every relationship is created through the dynamic interaction of three different elements. Each element is distinct yet absolutely necessary for the existence of the relationship. Being able to recognize and evaluate each element separately is the key to understanding How Relationships Work.
In the simplest terms, all relationships take place:
- IN an Environment
- ON a Structure
- BETWEEN Two Copartners
The ENVIRONMENT is the physical setting and circumstances surrounding the relationship. Every relationship must take place within a specific environment. This environment may have a major or a minor influence on the relationship, but it always forms one element of the relationship.
The Structure is the second element that creates a relationship. The structure represents an objective template or set of guidelines for what the relationship is to accomplish. Different relationships have different structures. For example, there is the Boss/Employee structure, the Friend/Friend structure, the Parent/Child structure and many more (twelve in all). Think of the relationship structure as a seesaw.
Two Copartners (People)
The third element that creates a relationship is the Copartners (the two people involved in the relationship). Every relationship must have two people riding on the relationship structure (like a seesaw must have two riders to work correctly).
What happens if only one person is on a seesaw? It doesn’t work correctly. In the same way, if only one person is on a relationship structure (seesaw), he or she can’t fulfill the potential of that relationship. (This may seem simple, but you’d be surprised how many people are riding on a relationship structure by themselves trying to make it work.)
During my live seminars, I often use examples from movies or television, such as The Cosby Show, to illustrate How Relationships Work. For example, on The Cosby Show there is the relationship between Bill Cosby and his son, Theo.
- The Environment of this relationship is the house and neighborhood in which they live.
- The Structure of this relationship is the Parent/Child structure (Father/Son version).
- The Copartners of this relationship are Dr. Cosby and Theo.
If any one of these elements was missing, the relationship wouldn’t exist.
You can also take popular movies, (such as I have with Working Girl and Terms of Endearment) and evaluate each major relationship in the movie using the three elements: the Environment, Structure, and Two Copartners.
You may not appreciate it yet, but knowing how to identify these three elements gives you the key to understanding How Relationships Work. Once you have a working knowledge of these elements, you will be able to easily and effectively evaluate any human relationship.
The best part is, you will be able to evaluate any type of personal relationship. Some examples of different relationships you will be able to evaluate are those:
- in which you (or someone you know) are personally involved
- on television or in the movies
- involving celebrities like Burt and Loni, or Bill and Hillary
Key Idea: The Playground Analogy
You must be able to remember each of the relationship elements. An easy way to do this is using the Playground Analogy. The Playground Analogy will be a useful reference point while you are learning How Relationships Work. Your intuitive understanding of the parts of a children’s playground will help you to easily visualize and clarify the three elements. You will be surprised how much you know already even if you’ve never studied relationships before!
I have posed the following question to hundreds of people during consultations, seminars, and even parties, and every single person gave the correct answer:“What are the three basic elements of a children’s playground?”
People always describe, in one form or another, these three elements:
The first element people observe is that the playground has a physical setting (or environment). This could be a park, a yard area, or an open field.
The second element people point out is that there must be pieces of equipment within the physical setting such as swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds.
Children to Play
The final element always mentioned is the children themselves. After all, what is a playground without children? They are the ones who come to the environment and enjoy playing on the structures.
As you can see, it is a simple matter to describe a typical playground: it will have a physical area, some different structures, and playing children. If there was a book called The Great Playgrounds of the World, it would include a collection of the most famous of playgrounds on Earth. They would have breathtaking environments and extraordinary equipment for the children to play on. But, for all their diversity and uniqueness, each playground would always contain the same three elements: an environment, structures, and children.
Use the Playground Analogy to help you remember that all human relationships have three basic elements: an ENVIRONMENT, a structure, and TWO COPARTNERS. Without each of these elements, a relationship doesn’t exist. If there were a book called The Great Relationships of the World, each relationship described in the book would necessarily have an ENVIRONMENT, a structure, and TWO COPARTNERS.
Let’s look at some examples that will be meaningful to you. All you have to do is answer these questions in your head. Think of your best friend when answering these questions.
- Where do you hang out and do things together? (the Environment)
- What relationship Structure are you on? (because he/she is your best friend, you are riding on the Friend/Friend seesaw)
- And who are the Copartners on the seesaw? (you and your friend)
How about another example. Think of a relationship from your favorite television show or movie. I’ll reverse the questions just to show it works from either direction.
- Who are the two people in the relationship? (the Copartners) ____________ / ____________
- What relationship do they have? (type of seesaw Structure) ____________ / ____________
- Where do they interact together? (the Environment)
Practice picking the three elements from other relationships, either from your life or the movies. Try at least five different relationships.
For many students the hardest part about evaluating a relationship is remembering the three elements. Now you can easily bring these elements to mind using a simple and easy-to-remember analogy. The Playground Analogy helps you to recall the three elements when you are “in the world.” You’ll need to access this information many times throughout the day, and it won’t be practical to carry this module everywhere you go. Instead, simply think of the Playground Analogy to remember the elements whenever you want to begin evaluating How Relationships Work.
Key Idea: The first major element of a relationship is its Environment.
The first major element that determines How Relationships Work is the Environment. Without an Environment, there is no area within which the interaction of the relationship can take place. The Environment may be an integral part or simply a backdrop for the relationship interaction of the Copartners.
The Environment is the physical setting that surrounds the relationship interaction. Typically this is the immediate surroundings of the Copartners. In terms of its effect on a specific relationship interaction, the Environment can:
- or simply be neutral
If the Environment is extremely helpful to a relationship, this is an advantage. Although this also means that a positive Environment might prop up an otherwise weak relationship. If an Environment is hostile, a relationship can have a correspondingly difficult time.
The premise of many movies begins with a set of normal relationships that are then placed into an extremely hostile environment. A recent example is Jurassic Park. A group of people with typical relationship structures were forced to suddenly cope on an island with real live dinosaurs. This had a big impact on the experience of their relationship interactions! Some examples of difficult physical environmental factors include:
Another factor to keep in mind is that an Environment can have an emotional climate as well. Consider what might be the difference between two relationship structures:
- one that takes place in a loving, supportive, and nurturing emotional environment
- one that takes place in a hostile, non-supportive, and abusive emotional environment.
For example, the Boyfriend/Girlfriend Relationship could take place against the neutral backdrop of a big city, small town, or anywhere in between. What if the Boyfriend/Girlfriend structure took place inside a prison? In this case the Environment would have a distinctive influence on the experience of the relationship.
Another example of the Environment affecting a relationship is when the Copartners are separated by great distance. In this situation you might say there is too much Environment. Consider a Husband/Wife structure where both Copartners normally live in Los Angeles but one of them is obligated to spend two weeks of every month in England. Although the Structure and the Two Copartners may be positive, the relationship will still suffer considerable stress due to the Environment.
Here is a final example of the Environment’s influence, this time in the Boss/Employee Relationship. Suppose you work in the office right next door to your Boss. This would have a different effect on your Boss/Employee Relationship than if your office was located two floors away. In this situation, your relationship could be negatively or positively influenced by the physical circumstances of your work Environment.
Learning to evaluate the Environment as a specific element of how relationships work can help you immensely. Most people never consider the damaging influence of the Environment on a relationship. Other times, the Environment can help a relationship so much that, if the Environment changes, so does the relationship. As you practice isolating and evaluating the particular factors of the Environment, you will be able to easily determine its impact on How Relationships Work.
Key Idea: The second major element of a relationship is its Structure.
The Structure (also called the seesaw) is the second important element of a relationship. Each relationship Structure gets its name from the two roles that combine to create it.
The Structure of a relationship represents an objective standard or ideal of what that relationship is supposed to accomplish. It always consists of two roles that work together. There are many possible roles to play in a relationship, but only certain roles can go together to name a structure. For example, could there be such a thing as a Wife/Friend Structure? No. It’s either the Husband/Wife Structure or the Friend/Friend Structure. Certain roles naturally go together, and these combinations create the twelve classic relationship structures.
Although a relationship Structure is not actually a physical structure (like a seesaw), it is important for you to begin thinking of it as if it were. The Structure is completely independent of the other two elements (the Environment and Two Copartners). Each combination of roles functions like a objective platform that the Copartners ride, just like a seesaw. As you look at the following list you will see that all human societies have these standard Structures.
Here is a listing of the twelve classic relationship Structures. Each structure is created by two objective roles that go naturally together.
In the Family Category, the Structures are:
- Adult Child/Aging Parent
In the Social Category, the Structures are:
In the Work Category, the Structures are:
The Work Category also has a sub-category of Professional Relationships. Some examples are:
One common situation that confuses many of the new students in my seminars is when two Copartners are on more than one relationship Structure. A good example of this is when a son works for his father. Most people assume that this is only one relationship. However, the Two Copartners are actually on two separate Structures, the Parent/Child seesaw and the Boss/Employee seesaw. People then entangle the behaviors associated with the two different Structures, when they ideally remain distinct and separate. When the participants confuse two separate structures in this way, it causes problems in both relationships.
Another popular example from one of my seminars is of the married couple who thought they were having problems with their marriage (along with their boss). What they found out during the seminar was they were actually on all of the following relationship structures:
- Husband/Wife (this they knew)
- Parent/Child (they had a 1-year-old child) which added two more structures, Mother/Son and Father/Son
- Boss/Employee (for certain duties, the wife was the husband’s boss)
- Coworker/Coworker (they were coworkers working together under their boss
- Boss/Employee (2 more Boss/Employee structures with both as employees of their boss)
- Landlord/Tenant (it turns out their mutual boss was also their landlord)
- Landlord/Manager (the husband also managed the apartment complex in exchange for rent)
Add to all this the fact that they were living and working in the same Environment (an apartment house—a non-typical work environment!), on ten different relationship Structures, and you might wonder why they thought they were having trouble with their “marriage”!
Once this couple understood that their total relationship experience actually included several separate structures, they learned to determine which structure they were on at any particular time. They were then able to begin resolving their problems by behaving appropriately for that structure, not one they weren’t on at the time. For example, when they knew they were on the Coworker/Coworker structure they behaved differently than when they were on the Husband/Wife structure. They knew which behavior was appropriate for which role, they had just never realized how many different Structures they were actually on.
People often miss the importance of defining what relationship Structure they are on. Until you can define the relationship Structure, you don’t have a basis on which to judge the relationship. You can’t know how to play a role, until you know what role you are supposed to play!
Now, when you want to evaluate how relationships work, you know that you must determine the specific type of relationship Structure you are evaluating. Later you are going to learn that each type of relationship Structure has its own roles, rules, and customs. There is a big difference between a Parent/Child Structure and a Boss/Employee Structure. There is a big difference between a Boyfriend/Girlfriend Structure and a Husband/Wife Structure. In fact, all twelve classic Structures of human relationships are completely different, and that’s because their roles, rules, and customs are different.
Key Idea: The third major element of a relationship is its Two Copartners.
The third important element that creates a relationship is the two people on the relationship seesaw. I call them the Copartners because there always must be two. The Copartners reflect the personality aspect of How Relationships Work. The way that each Copartner plays his/her role determines the success of the relationship.
Every human being is a unique individual with his/her own personality. How that individual plays a relationship role will vary according to his/her personality traits. As part of the Structure (the second element), the different roles (Parent, Husband, Friend, Wife, Neighbor, etc.) a Copartner can play are objective. As part of the third element, the Two Copartners that play each role are personality-based.
Think of it this way: the Boss role is part of the Structure of the Boss/Employee relationship. It has a standard set of acceptable behaviors that are deemed positive in that role by society. But, if the person playing the role doesn’t perform the positive behaviors, he/she is a lousy Boss.
Another way to look at this is to consider the famous role of Hamlet. If an actor playing Hamlet does a terrible job, critics don’t blame the role of Hamlet; they blame the actor playing the role.
In the same way, if a personality playing the role of Boss does a terrible job, the blame should be placed on the personality playing the Boss, not the role itself. Each role is positive and healthy as defined by its relationship structure (second element). The difference in different relationships comes from the skill and style of the Copartner playing the role (third element).
Understanding the difference between the Role and the personality playing the Role is very important. Imagine the role of a father being played by:
- Bill Cosby
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Bill Clinton
In each case, the father has the same role—to take care of and be responsible for his children. But the differences in how that role is performed by the different personalities can vary widely.
Imagine the role of a mother being played by:
- Roseanne Arnold
- Barbara Bush
I have found the ability for people to differentiate between the role (part of element two, the structure) and the person playing the role (part of element three, the Copartners) to be one of the more difficult points of understanding How Relationships Work. So many people who have a problem with one or two bosses begin to hate anyone playing the Boss role. Unfortunately, they had (the fairly common) experience of a lousy personality playing the Boss role. But, they shouldn’t hate the Role.
This works the same for any role. If a woman only experiences “bad” personalities playing the Boyfriend role, she might decide to hate all men. If you have a bad experience with someone playing the Neighbor role, you might decide to distrust all your neighbors. Each person playing a role has his/her own personality. As you will learn in Section 9, this personality—composed of traits, needs, and tactics—will make or break the relationship.
Now you have the knowledge to determine the difference between a role and the person playing the role. When you fully understand this, it will help you so much I can’t tell you. In Section 9, I will show you exactly how to evaluate any person (personality) playing the role in a relationship. You are now able to avoid the doubt and confusion that others face, when these two distinctly different relationship elements become enmeshed.