There are a lot of relationships one can be in. You're in a mutually amicable relationship with your friends, in a familial or parent–child one with your parents, in a professional or business one with your co-workers and in an on top–below one with a table you are stood on top of. However, if you were to say 'I am in a relationship with my mother' or 'I am in a relationship with my co-worker', people would assume you to be partial to incest or consummately unprofessional, respectively.

When did the default assumption for the nature of 'a relationship' become 'a romantic relationship'? Has this always been the case, or is it a relatively recent phenomenon? If the latter, can we blame it on Facebook?

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    I would say that I 'have' a relationship of some sort with my friends, relatives, acquaintances, pets, etc, and that I 'am in' a relationship with my partner, with whom I live. I think that nuances such as these, coupled with customary assumptions, will take care of any possibility that people might think I have sex with my aunt or my cat. Regarding that sense of the word, I would guess that it is maybe post-war, and gained traction around the late 1960s when cohabitation became more sanctioned, and adults weren't just 'engaged' to their fiancé(e)s, or 'married' to their spouses. Jul 29, 2018 at 19:53
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    Also, when I discuss the relationships I have with people (as opposed to the single quasi-conjugal one I am in), it tends to be about some aspect of the relationship, e.g. I have a difficult relationship with my uncle since he swore at my mother. Anyone who said "Hee hee, you shag your uncle" would be not only crass but missing the point. Jul 29, 2018 at 21:33

2 Answers 2


Nothing became of anything.

You have always had relationships.

Just that being in a relationship arose as a phrase in the mid forties and became popular in the eighties.

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Compare with "have a relationship."

(src: Google nGrams)


It appears to be a relatively recent sense of the term:


1640s, "sense or state of being related," from relation + -ship. Specifically of romantic or sexual relationships by 1944.


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