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What do you call a word relation such as employer-employee, parent-child, teacher-student or doctor-patient, i.e. the relation between two roles that are dependent on each other? You can generally only be an employee if there is an employer, you can only be a parent if there is a child (as in offspring, not minor), etc.

For some reason, I find the term antonym too general since the term I'm looking for would be for describing a very specific relationship between roles.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

This may not be the specialized term you are looking for, but I would call them complementary.

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The complement to teacher is student. Sounds pretty good. – Zano Dec 15 '11 at 14:05

These are often referred to as "hierarchical" relationships, in that they are structured in a vertical way. One person is subordinate to the other.

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Though I think "hierarchical" is normally understood to mean that there are multiple levels. Like, company president to vice presidents to department heads to employees. It's rarely used when there are only two levels. – Jay Dec 15 '11 at 14:51
@Jay That probably depends on whether you're talking formally or informally. I do agree with Raven that two layers already make a hierarchy, because a member of one layer is lower or higher than a member of another. It's the presence of an order relation that matters, not the number of layers. – Raku Dec 15 '11 at 14:59
Possibly, but the problem I find with hierarchy is that it requires some kind of chain-of-command, or subservience relation. Take doctor-patient for instance. Where's the hierarchy? Who's the boss? The doctor that prescribes a treatment, or the patient that buys a service? – Zano Dec 15 '11 at 15:25
@Raku: Well, I don't want to argue about it, but I think the normal understanding of the word "hierarchy" implies more than 2 layers, not just the idea that there is a superior and a subordinate. That's a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Like, I can't say exactly how many people you need to make a "city", but I don't think we'd call two people a "city" except in some very specialized case. – Jay Dec 15 '11 at 18:16
@Jay Agreed. It's just a matter of how formal you want to be and, as you said, there's not always a formal definition for everything. Peace :-). – Raku Dec 16 '11 at 10:20

I think you mention a good way of saying this in your question: it is a "dependent relationship" as in "determined or conditioned by another". In their contexts, the role of one depends on the role of the other, regardless of any power balance or hierarchical nuances.

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If the essential point is that both parties benefit from the relationship, I would call it symbiotic.

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If your emphasis is on the fact that it is essentially between two people, then it is a binary relationship. On the other hand, if you stress on the nature of a give-and-take, esp., as in employer-employee relation, it is a reciprocal relationship.

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