I was reading the book 'Emotional Intelligence' (by Daniel Goleman) and I saw an expression that I'm not sure I understood.


"bonding with a mate"

similar to getting married? Or starting a relationship with a girlfriend?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Dan Bron, jimm101, AndyT, Scott, J. Taylor Nov 20 '18 at 7:47

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    It strongly depends on the context. In a David Attenborough NatGeo doco, yes. In a pub in Brisbane, no. Give us the bigger context and we’ll tell you which it is. – Dan Bron Nov 19 '18 at 13:08
  • This a recent metaphor, last 20-30 years. I'm not sure if it originated with Goleman's book. – Mitch Nov 19 '18 at 14:03
  • For those voting to close this, note that the many dictionary definitions differ in which nuance is the most important so it may be difficult to decide which is intended by the author (if you don't already know the word's many connections). – Mitch Nov 19 '18 at 14:36

No, it almost-certainly does not imply anything like marriage, or even a girlfriend. Even in cases where it does refer to a romantic or sexual relationship, the act of bonding is a gradual thing, not a sharp, specific change in relationship status (as marriage, or starting to date, would).


[ T ] to develop a close and lasting relationship:

The puppy and his master bonded quickly.

(Cambridge English Dictionary)

This is very generic; you can bond with just about anyone. You can bond with people in a professional, academic, familial, romantic, or friendly setting, and many more besides. It just means to become closer to. “Team bonding exercises” are common in many professions for example, which are not-strictly-work-related activities that are supposed to promote bonding among co-workers, because those bonds tend to lead to a friendlier, more productive workplace. Most businesses definitely do not want to promote romantic relationships among co-workers!

Then we have mate which can refer to a sexual partner, but that usage is almost always reserved for non-human animals. For the phrase “bonding with a mate,” it is vastly more likely to refer to

mate noun [ C ] (FRIEND)

br infml a friend, or a person you work with

(Cambridge English Dictionary)

Notably, this “British informal” usage is Cambridge’s first entry for mate, before “an animal’s sexual partner.” Any usage referring to a human’s sexual partner is lower still.

So outside of context, this phrase almost-certainly means “getting closer to a friend,” and not any change in relationship status. Context could change the meaning of the phrase, but it would have to be very, very clear from context because without context this is definitely what it means and it would be a very strange phrase to use for another context.

An example of such a context, as suggested by @DanBron, would be a nature documentary, where we’re clearly discussing an animal and so therefore we clearly are talking about an animal’s sexual partner, where the bonding would be establishing the relationship that will presumably lead to shared rearing of young (in most animals that do not rear young together, minimal bonding, if any, takes place).

Another context in which the meaning here could differ is in an academic context—which Emotional Intelligence could easily be considered. And the fact that the author is American author supports this interpretation. Here, the author may be using mate as an academic term, which is supposed to cover a variety of similar relationships with their own cultural and/or legal and/or religious terms. That is, a committed, sexual partner, whether or not that is formalized as a “marriage” or “girlfriend” or whatever. The usage winds up quite similar to the usage with respect to non-human animals, as above. If this is the case, this particular line is unlikely to be the sole use of the word: I would look to surrounding context of its usage to back up this interpretation.

Importantly, the implication here is that there is an established relationship here, rather than this merely being a “hook-up” or “one-night stand.” Again, the bonding is the gradual increase in closeness between the mates, not the specific moment that relationship starts. It may, however, imply that the relationship is new—while bonding continues throughout any close relationship, the most intense bonding takes place when it is new (as there is simply more ground to cover than there would be with someone you are already closely bound with).

Also, note that bonding here most likely refers not just to the fact of the friends becoming closer, but specifically to spending time with one another that leads to them becoming better friends. That might be particular activities in their shared interests, or just spending time hanging out and talking, or even working through tough and difficult times together. Anything that promotes the closeness of their friendship could fall under the category of “bonding.”

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    I think you're right about bond, but mate in this context could easily refer to an intimate partner. It's used in some social science literature and similar for humans as a sort of shorthand for "spouse or other committed partner". For example, "(human) mate selection" is a common topic of interest for social psychologists. If it's a US source I'd say that meaning is almost certainly intended, as the "friend" meaning of mate is virtually non-existent here unless we're trying to sound Australian. – 1006a Nov 19 '18 at 14:07
  • @1006a True; the source of the phrase wasn’t available when I wrote this answer. The author here does seem to be an academic who would use it in that manner. That said, I’m not sure I buy that it is “almost certain” that this usage would mean that in a US source—in a non-academic context, I’d be much more likely to suspect the author is simply using a British phrase (which we know even if we don’t use it ourselves much) than that they are using it as academic jargon. – KRyan Nov 19 '18 at 14:11
  • It's also used that way in a lot of certain kinds of women's literature, from self-help blogs to paranormal romance, so I don't think I'd call it "jargon". And it's commonly enough associated with the verb that I've heard teenagers snicker at the British usage, so I'd find it odd or affected without any other reason for its use by an American. – 1006a Nov 19 '18 at 14:16
  • @1006a That doesn’t quite match my experience, but maybe I watch too much British television. Either way, added a section covering that usage. – KRyan Nov 19 '18 at 14:17

The OED gives a very recent entry for 'bond':

b. intransitive for passive. To form an emotional or psychological bond with a person (esp. one's child) or social group.

  1. Time 27 Sept. 81/2 You bonded with a team, and it became part of you.
  2. Times 26 Mar. 8/7 I..saw a midwife get a prize for spouting out some stuff about being careful to watch whether mothers were ‘bonding’ with their children.
  3. A. Tyler Accidental Tourist xviii. 293 She and her husband need to bond with the baby.
  4. Church Times 27 Mar. 5/1 If a mother has the ‘right’ to procreate a child, hasn't she the ‘right’ to bond with it and call it hers?

The metaphorical usage started out in behavioral psychology/anthropology to describe having a strong relationship. One could say a romantic relationship is a strong bond, but the term 'bonding' is usually used for non-romantic situations, like, in the examples, parents to a child or a team of people at work.

Note that in the 1983 citation, quotes are used, meaning it was considered a strange new usage for readers at that time. Currently it is not special anymore and is a very common usage; M-W has this nuance as its first entry meaning it is the primary usage nowadays (compare with OEDs ordering where the entries are in chronological order, so they consider this meaning the most recent addition).

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