8 Forms of human relations

..belongingness, respect, protection, love, security, self-esteem, .. cannot be satisfied by trees, mountains or even dogs; only from healthy relations with other human beings. It is also, only, to other human beings that we can give these in the fullest measure – Maslov (p. 97-98)

In designing social institutions, perhaps not enough focus is given to the human relations that would be inherent or nurtured by their structures. A good social institution gives to its members the greatest possibility of health and self actualization by having its institutional arrangements set up to foster a maximum of high level relations and a minimum of low level relations (Maslow, p. 105). This essay attempts to describe various human relations that can be classified either as high or low level.

At the heart of all human relation are the various capacities that are characteristic of the human organism, including those in the hierarchy of needs. In high level relations, these capacities are permitted and nurtured, contributing to the health and self actualization of the individual. In contrast, in low level relations, the capacities are exploited, suppressed for the purpose of domination, and thereby contribute contribute to the development of neurotic and other behavioral and chronic illnesses (Maslow p. 151-157, Mate p. 1-12).

Dependence is a key factor in all relations. While it, in high level relations, can be said to be healthy, empathetic, cooperative, mutual and reciprocal, in low level relations, it is unhealthy, isolating, exploitative, competitive, enslaving, demeaning and dehumanizing.

Characteristics of high level relations

(Maslow p. 151-157)

High level relations permit the greatest self expression: spontaneity, the greatest naturalness, the greatest dropping of defenses, and protection against threat.

The relations are not a struggle but something that just happens;  there is a growing intimacy and honesty (allowing one’s faults, weaknesses, and shortcomings to be freely seen by the other) and self-expression, … it is possible to be oneself, to feel natural. Furthermore, it is not necessary to be guarded, to conceal or to try to impress, to feel tense, to watch one’s words or actions, to suppress or repress. One can be themselves without feeling that there are demands or expectations upon them; they can feel psychologically as well as physically naked and still loved and wanted and secure. It can also be said that the high level relations are also cheerful, humorous, and playful. They come naturally as an enjoyment and a delight.

(Maslow p. 154): Respect is also a fundamental characteristic of high level relations. Respect is the ability to be pleased rather than threatened by the triumphs on another individual. Respect also acknowledges the other person’s independence and autonomy. Respect also means that the wishes of another are not controlled, or disregarded. It affords the respected individual a fundamental irreducible dignity, and protection from humiliation. Inherently, one’s relation to the other is  of enjoyment, admiration, delight, contemplation and appreciation, rather than use.

High level relations also allow the expression of a healthy amount of passivity, relaxation, childishness, and silliness, since if there is no danger and we are loved and respected for ourselves rather than for any front we put on or role we play, we can be as we really are, weak when we feel weak, protected when we feel confused, childish when we wish to drop the responsibilities of adulthood (Maslow p. 98).

In addition, high level relations feature cooperative behavior, mutual reciprocity, a responsibility towards each other, and empathy.

High level relations enable the gratification of those human needs that only other humans can fulfill e.g. Love, respect, belonging, …

High level relations tends toward holistic growth of the individual and thus health as there is no repression on individuality. High level relations also enable the gratification of those human needs that only other humans can fulfill e.g. Love, respect, belonging, .. It is healthy individuals that are also more likely to have high level relations with others (Maslow, p. 97-98). As Mate (p. 202) explains, “one learns to love not by instruction, but by being loved”.

Characteristics of low level relations

Low level relations’ characteristics can be said to be the opposite of high level relations. The litany can include the absence of genuine concern for the other, and interaction with others that is strangulated and mixed with embarrassment, guilt, defensiveness, role play, and with a struggle for dominance (Maslow, p. 99).

Boundaries are a fundamental aspect of low lever relations. Boundaries are usually implicit e.g. as traditions or identities but can also be explicit for instance in a constitution, or in society’s human or organizational roles. Boundaries limit the expression of oneself and conceal one’s true nature – one cannot be oneself. Individuals involved in low level relations therefore struggle as their true nature is repressed. At their most extreme e.g. in ethnocentrism, the boundaries afford little or no human freedom or expression.

Low level relations inhibit the gratification of those human needs that only other humans can fulfill e.g. Love, respect, belonging, …

Low level relations are likely to result to psychopathology and other forms of sickness as there is little or no gratification of needs that only other humans can fulfill (Maslow, p. 100). As Mate (p. 16) argues ‘a lack of psychological independence, an overwhelming need for love and affection, and the inability to feel or express anger have long been identified as possible factors in the natural development of the disease’It is also the sick that are more likely to have low level relations with others.

Another way to look at low level relations is in terms of what can go wrong in human relations; i.e. either things that should happen do not happen or things that should not happen, happen.

High level relations

1. Parent-child

Before birth

The Parent-child relation is a special one. Firstly, the relation is cemented by nature. It contains a bond that goes beyond the bodily interaction with one another; one that is fundamental to the growth of the baby and the parent. The bond is like no other in the sense that at the beginning of the relation, the parent and child are one; they both reside in the same body; the need for belonging for the human organism begins here. Even before birth, the baby can experience its environment including the physiology of the mother and experience a belonging in it.

After birth

A parent-child relation is perhaps the highest form of human relation. It involves the enjoyment of the other, as it is, without necessary seeking to change it. It also features an interesting form of respect and empathy; one of speaking the language of the other; a mother speaks to a child in a simplistic manner so that the child can understand, a child tries on his parents shoes. The mother and the child play together, with each finding joy and laughter in the actions of the other even when they are simple and not necessarily meaningful. They enjoy the company of each other.

As Maslov (p. 86) suggests, one of the reasons that babies are loved and wanted so much must be that they are without visible evil, hatred, or malice in the first year or two of their lives.

Most interestingly to note in this form of relation is the fact that the child is without (for lack of a better word) hypocracy and prejudice. He or she acts out and speaks their minds without fear of judgement. They may show uncertainity towards things and people they are not familiar with but they do not withhold their curiosity in paying attention to them.

“No infant is born with a propensity to repress the expression of emotion. If an infant is uncomfortable or unhappy, she’ll cry, show sadness, show anger. Anything that we do to hide pain or sadness is an acquired response. We repress our emotional intelligence in order to avoid an ongoing war with the crucial people in our lives, a war we cannot possibly win” (Mate, p. 200 – 201, 254, 267).

We may hypothesize that it is not until they have been prejudiced that babies develop the character of repressing their intentions or emotions, saying things they do not mean and so on. Perhaps it is at this point in life that a disconcerting split occurs within them; that they are one thing yet they are expected to be another, a burden they have to carry hence forth.

As a result, the parent-child relation may transition to friendship, neighborly or other low level relations depending on the reciprocity exchanged by the two as the child approaches adolescence and seeks independence.

2. Love-Sexual

This relation, we may say, is a foundation for the highest form of human relation: the parent-child relation. In addition to the various values exchanged and experienced in friendship and neighborly relations, the love-sexual relation surpasses these two specifically in one aspect: it leads to the gratification of sexual needs, which are considered important for the human organism, at least in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

A difference (and perhaps an important one) that may be noted between the love-sexual relation and other high level relations is that while you can be a parent to many children or be friends or neighborly to many, cultural/state/religious/ideological arrangements have at some point suggested or dictated that an individual only love one and not many. Why has this been the case when we know in practice it has not been so? Why have the social, economic and political institutions suppressed the expression and satiation of a basic human need? Why is the sex need, out of the many, singled out to have this limitation?

3. Friendship

Friendship may be described as a long term relation between individuals, with respect, understanding, enjoyment and caring for each other as its main aspects. It may also involve love for each other but not necessarily with a sexual aspect.

Friendship mainly differs from the neighborly relation in the dimension of time; in friendship the striving to be the guardian of the other is long term while in a neighborly relation, it is short term – it happens only in the moments of contact without necessarily being future oriented. It may however, be said that friendship transmutes from the neighborly relation and in turn it – friendship – can transmute to a love-sexual relation.

4. Neighborly

Simply put, a neighborly relation involves a striving of one to be the guardian of the other. Not in the sense of running their affairs but in safe guarding their well being (in the moments of contact) as if it was one’s own.  It is best expressed in non-commodified social transactions such as giving a seat to an elderly in a bus, or helping a child cross a road, or noticing someone is experiencing a problem and attempting to help them. It is not necessarily determined by the familiarity of each other but the acting of each other as humans – the acknowledgement of human vulnerability depicted by developing, declining or weakened human capacities. Neighborly relations are however endangered and are quickly getting replaced by the strangerly relation.

Low level relations

5. Strangerly/Proximal abandonment

Just as it sounds, this is a strange form of relation. One way in which is it is expressed is in the feeling of loneliness in the midst of other people. This form of relation is weird as it appears to be neutral – there are no negative attitudes towards others even though genuine concern for others is usually subdued – yet it bears negative results; that of feeling alone. Inescapably, since there is no relation with others, there is no gratification of human needs that only other humans can fulfill.

The phrase proximal abandonment has been used to refers to the strangerly relation – where people in the same physical location – whether it be in a house, car, office, or whatever – do not interact with each other for whatever reason. Mate (p. 208) calls it proximate separation and defines it as “the phenomenon of physical closeness but emotional separation.

Perhaps proximal abandonment can be seen as an inherent characteristic of social institutions. Urbanization, schools, businesses, health institutions; hospitals, nursing homes etc separate generations and tear familial and high level relations for various reasons (Mate, p. 223). Children are kept separate from adults and their parents, in schools or daycare, adults are locked in offices, the old in nursing homes, the disabled and the sick in hospitals or in special schools and homes. This means that no generation can withstand, understand or know how to interact with the other. The young cannot stand adults. The adults do not stand the young. No one understands or can stand the old, the disabled, the sick and so on, and they in return are unable to stand other generations. A household may physically appear to be but its members could be emotionally detached. Every generation is a waste to the others. And so, like the garbage they are, they have to be placed out of sight of each other (Carse, 1986 p.133). The resulting society is one whose members are maladjusted to dealing with their own human condition.

The danger of proximal abandonment has to be taken seriously, as it is now acknowledged, the lack or denial of physical or emotional contact is detrimental to health (Mate, p. 199 – 209). Proximal abandonment is the case where what is supposed to happen – social and emotional attachment, gratification of social needs – does not happen. Mate (p. 187-198) describes in detail how these contributes to reduced immune systems leaving individuals susceptible to stress and illness. He (p. 211 -225) strongly cautions on the neglect to resolve social-emotional stresses as this are easily transmittable across generations as has been demonstrated with the Adult Attachment Interview and Strange Situation studies.

Particularly and increasingly, urban dwellers are not part of any reciprocal, continuous, well-articulated community and are profoundly alienated from their own human interests – those of interacting, relating and having genuine concern for each other. It may also be said that the ubiquity of communication technology is contributing to the rise of proximal abandonment: increasingly, people are tending to technology rather than to their fellow beings next to them.

In contrast to other low level relations, in proximal abandonment, what is supposed to happen does not happen, while in the other low level relations, what is not supposed to happen, happens (Mate, p. 202).

6. Explotative – dependence (master – slave)

This form of human relation is mostly found in commodified interactions. I.e., where the basis for relating and interacting are on the one hand exploitative – one party gets more than they give back – and on the other hand are structured in such a way that the dependence recurs. As Dr. Richard Wolff [Youtube] illustrates, exploitative-dependence is the hallmark of leading economic paradigms.

It is through this type of relation that the modern society has achieved the 1% – 99% split among other socially stratifying and disintegrating elements. This form of relation impedes the realization of the high human relations especially when it replaces genuine social transactions with commodified ones.

A fundamental aspect that may be observed in exploitative-dependence relations is that they start out with seemingly good intentions but end up as undesirable. For instance with fractional reserve banking, loans may be seen as good, except the end result is an exploitative dependence.

By this measure, the exploitative-dependence relation can be described as addiction if addiction as Mate defines it is any pattern or behavior that you crave that gives temporary pleasure or relief in the short term but negative consequences in the long term, that you still persist in despite the negative consequences. And in turn by this measure, the exploitative-dependence can also be termed enslavement.

In schooling, emotional and intellectual dependencies (both effects of the invisible curriculum) impedes the growth and development of children. Inevitably, they become maladjusted for their own futures. Governments and corporations may also be observed as institutions that cement and promote this relation; whether it be the in cases where a minority govern the majority or the business owner gives less to the worker than he gets from the worker. For economic institutions to promote high level relations, Dr. Richard Wolff suggests cooperatives as alternatives.

Another main aspect of this relation is that the individuals involved in them do not voluntarily choose each other, unlike in the high relations such as friendship or love. Maslow (p. 101) argues that human relations aimed at improving the health of individuals should be based on participants selecting each other where the choice should be made not solely on the basis of reputation, size of fee, technical training, skill, and the like, but also on the basis of ordinary human liking for each other.

Vigilance is a necessity in the design of social, political and economic institutions, else they result to and nurture exploitative-dependence relations whenever applied.

7. Competitive-combative

This human relation strives to find, expose and exploit the vulnerabilities of one by  another, so that the one is diminished and the other exalted. Sibling rivalry may also be seen as a competitive or combative relation (Maslow, p. 87). When the competitive-combative relation takes place over long periods, it may impede or inhibit the coming into being of the high levels of human relations. Enemies, as the opponents they are, either come together with the intent of defeating or destroying each other.

While the intent of relating to each other is of this kind, any high relations that may form are likely to be factitious. Potentially this form of relationship can transmute to ethnocentrism

8. Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism can be said to be the lowest form of human relationship. It is built on the premise that one’s culture – beliefs, customs, and traditions – are better than those of others. By default ethnocentrism seeks to belittle, demean, disregard and even to outright eliminate the other.

No need to point fingers on this as most societies have histories laden with ethnocentric driven atrocities. Unfortunately this is also evident in the present. To sidestep a bit, Stephen Hawking have warned us against making contact with aliens; he believes that what happened to the natives in the Americas with the arrival of the Europeans would be a likely occurrence were aliens to visit earth.


Peculiarly, it is possible for a human to have all forms of relations with others simultaneously.

It is paramount to consider the human relations that may be nurtured or inherent in various social institutions arrangements, if not for other things, simply for the health of the human members participating in these institutions. As Maslov (p. 92-110) argues, there are human needs that can only be satisfied through positive interaction with other humans.


A healthy human relation is akin to the relation between a seed and the soil, where a seed sees a part of itself health – the source of growth – in the soil and the soil – its renewal – and thus part of itself in the seed.

In other words, the relation is of mutually reciprocity and non-exploitative. The seed sees the source of its growth in the soil – through the use of the various minerals in the soil while the soil sees its regeneration (renewal) through the growth, fruition and finally fertilization by the plant (after its life), – not in an exploitative way but to continually nurture new seeds. The plant itself does not necessarily die but rather also goes a renewal. This relationship is special in a number of ways, but most importantly in the respect of the well-being of the other (perhaps due to the recognition that the health of the one is also in the other).

Certainly if either or both the soil and seed would suppress their relation to each other, growth for both would be inhibited. The seed would lack vital nutrients and minerals for its growth while the soil would not regenerate. Both the soil and seed would be under stress; they would lack an expression of their originality in themselves and the other. In absence of a vital attachment – healthy relation – to each other that spurs growth in each, both would eventually die!

Ref & further reading:

  • Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row. [Love in self actualizing people. (p. 199 – 209, 151-157)]
  • Maté, G. (2011). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Random House LLC.
  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games. (p. 4-10)

3 thoughts on “8 Forms of human relations”

  1. Quite beautiful article and some solid relation, relationship and self to other(s) as our seed/soil environment. I really look forward to rereading this more carefully. Thank You…regards greg

  2. This reminds me of a scene from Dr. Becker (a sitcom), where a patient asks his help picking out a casket from a brochure. The doctor replies: My job is to keep you alive, after that you are on your own.
    Of course we see the humor in this, but we also see subtly the relation the doctor has with his patients; it is not one of keeping the patient healthy but alive; as long as the patient is alive and unhealthy, she will keep bringing business to the doctor. For the doctor there is no intrinsic need to heal..
    Now that should be some food for thought. Consider what human relations are inherent or nurtured in professional roles.

  3. […] Furthermore, the basis for a humanistic institution must be in the human purpose and not in institutional goals that may lessen or demean the human purpose. For instance in designing humanistic institutions we must consider what kind human relations may be inherent or else nurtured through their arrangements to ensure a maximum of high level and a minimum if no low level relations (8 forms of human relations). […]

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