Communal Relationships

Communal Relationships Definition

Communal relationships are those where an individual assumes responsibility for the welfare of his or her partner. In these relationships, when the partner has a specific need, wants support in striving toward a goal, would enjoy being included in an activity, or simply could use the reassurance of care, the other partner strives to be responsive. Importantly, partners do so with no strings attached. Common examples of communal responsiveness are a mother providing lunch to her child, a person providing encouragement to a friend who is training to run in a marathon, or a person giving his or her romantic partner a compliment. In each case, the benefit enhances or maintains the welfare of the recipient, and the recipient incurs no debt.

Communal RelationshipsCommunal relationships vary in strength. In very strong communal relationships, one person assumes a great deal of responsibility for the other person and would do almost anything, unconditionally, to promote his or her welfare. Parents often have very strong communal relationships with their own children, putting their child’s welfare above their own welfare and spending years providing emotional and tangible support. In very weak communal relationships, a person assumes just a small amount of responsibility for another’s welfare; yet, within the bounds of that small sense of responsibility, the person is unconditionally responsive to the other person. For instance, most people are willing to tell even a stranger the time or give the stranger directions with no expectation of repayment. Most communal relationships, for instance those with friends, fall somewhere in between these extremes of very high and quite low communal strength.

People have implicit hierarchies of communal relationships ordered according to the degree of communal responsibility they feel for others. A person’s entire set of hierarchically arranged communal relationships may be shaped like a triangle with a wide base representing the person’s many weak communal relationships and a peak representing the person’s few very strong ones. At the base are the many strangers and passing acquaintances for whom small courtesies may be provided without expecting a specific, precisely equal repayment. Higher in the hierarchy, and fewer in number, are relationships with colleagues and casual friends, higher yet relationships with closer friends and a variety of relatives. For many people, relationships with best friends, immediate family members, and romantic partners are near or at the top. The needs of those higher in the hierarchy take precedence over the needs of those lower in the hierarchy.

Although some communal relationships (e.g., that with one’s own infant) may be universal and even dictated by biology or social dictates, others are voluntary. The exact nature of hierarchies will vary from person to person and, certainly, from culture to culture.

Communal relationships can and often are symmetrical, meaning that each person in the relationship feels the same degree of communal responsibility for the other. Friendships, sibling relationships, and romantic relationships often (but not always) exemplify symmetrical communal relationships. Other communal relationships are asymmetrical, with one member assuming more responsibility for the other than vice versa. Perhaps the clearest example of an asymmetrical communal relationship is that which exists between a parent and a newborn infant. The parent typically assumes tremendous communal responsibility for the infant; the infant assumes no communal responsibility for the parent. As the child ages, the asymmetry typically diminishes and, in the parent’s old age, may reverse.

Although it might seem that a communal relationship is necessarily an unselfish relationship, the basis for communal relationships can be selfish as well. It is the assumption of some degree of unconditional responsibility for the welfare of another person that is the marker of a communal relationship. However, one can assume such responsibility for unselfish or selfish reasons. For example, one may feel empathy for another when needs arise and assume unconditional responsibility for that person to alleviate their distress. This is a seemingly unselfish reason for communal responsiveness. However, one might assume communal responsibility for rather selfish reasons as well. For instance, one may be communally responsive to a grumpy elderly relative because one fears criticism by others if one does not do so. One may be unconditionally responsive to a peer because one hopes (but cannot require) that the peer will desire a symmetrical communal relationships (friendship) and will be similarly responsive to one’s own needs if and when such needs arise. Such reasons are more selfish. It appears likely that there is an evolutionary, as well as a cultural, basis for the existence of communal relationships.

Communal relationships can be very short in duration, such as when one gives a stranger directions with no expectation of repayment, or very long term, as in a typical parent’s relationship with his or her child. It is, however, undoubtedly the case that the strength of a communal relationship is positively correlated with the length (and expected length) of that relationship.

Establishing and maintaining strong communal relationships can be difficult. There is evidence that people who are high in self-esteem and high in trust of others are best able to sustain relationships that operate primarily on a communal basis.


  1. Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37,12-24.
  2. Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1993). The difference between communal and exchange relationships: What it is and is not. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 684-691.
  3. Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (2001). Behaving in such a way as to maintain and enhance relationship satisfaction. In J. H. Harvey & A. E. Wenzel (Eds.), Relationship maintenance and enhancement (pp. 13-26). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  4. Clark, M. S., & Monin, J. K. (2006). Giving and receiving communal responsiveness as love. In R. J. Sternberg & K. Weis (Eds.), The new psychology of love (pp. 200-223). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.