Every relationship is unique with different characteristics, strengths, and challenges. It can often be difficult to pinpoint your needs in a certain relationship. In order to get a sense of your needs, it may be helpful to think of relationships as comprising a few distinct elements. Core components of relationships include stimulation factor, ego support, and utility. These elements have different presentations in each relationship, and everyone has a unique experience with these components of relationships. Some relationships have one of these elements, others have two, and some have all three of them. The workability of a relationship given the presence of certain elements is highly dependent on the context of the relationship.
Stimulation factor refers to anything about the relationship that makes you feel energized. Sources of stimulation factor can include emotional connection, intellectual interest or curiosity, physical attraction, shared interests, and sense of humor. Stimulation factor is a crucial component of friendships and romantic relationships. In other words, one would likely feel unfulfilled in a friendship or romantic relationship with someone who they don’t feel excited about or connected to. On the other hand, the stimulation factor isn’t necessarily important for a meaningful professional relationship. For example, one can have a functional relationship with their doctor without feeling excited about or emotionally connected to the relationship.
The next component of relationships is ego support, which refers to reliability, trustworthiness, compassion, and sense of safety and security. In other words, ego support is a relationship in which you think of the other person as being a good friend, someone who has your back, and someone who is there for you. A relationship with strong ego support is one in which you feel comfortable turning to one another during times of need and feel confident that you will receive the support you are looking for. Examples of ego support include talking to a friend after a stressful day at work and getting emotional validation from them, and feeling confident that the other person will follow through on plans. Ego support is an important component of healthy romantic relationships, as it would likely be difficult to be vulnerable with someone whose trust, reliability, and safety are questionable. For example, one would likely feel lonely in a romantic relationship with someone who they don’t feel safe discussing challenges with, even if stimulation factor (e.g., physical attraction or intellectual stimulation) is present. While ego support can certainly strengthen a friendship, it doesn’t necessarily need to be present in order to have a meaningful friendship. For example, people can enjoy doing shared hobbies or activities together, without necessarily turning toward one another for emotional support.
The third factor of relationships, utility, refers to being responsible, productive, knowledgeable, skillful, and helpful on a practical level. Utility entails having some functional purpose in a relationship. Relationships with professionals who provide a service tend to have high utility. Examples of relationships with utility include relationships with accountants, doctors, and lawyers. If you feel that these professionals are knowledgeable about and skilled at the service they are providing for you, the relationship likely has high utility. A relationship with utility can be a meaningful one, even in the absence of stimulation factor and ego support, as one doesn’t necessarily need to be excited about or think of a professional service provider as a friend. On the other hand, a romantic relationship that lacks utility will likely become frustrating if one feels that their partner is irresponsible or unproductive, even if stimulation factor (e.g., physical attraction, shared interests) and ego support (e.g., emotional security) are present.
Each relationship varies in terms of the levels of stimulation factor, ego support, and utility. Some relationships can be meaningful, rewarding, and fulfilling with just one or two of these components, while other relationships may not be sustainable long-term in the absence of one or more components. The workability of relationships varies based on the context of the relationship, whether it be a friendship, professional relationship, or romantic relationship. Romantic relationships tend to be most meaningful and rewarding when all three factors are present in the relationship. Keep in mind that relationships are fluid and there is usually room for improvement in each element of relationships.