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Relationship Metaphors: Helpful or Toxic?

Is your relationship a bowl of cherries or a dumpster fire?

Key points

  • Metaphor is not just a literary flourish, but also a powerful source of understanding used in all realms of human thought.
  • Metaphors construe relationships as a journey, machine, investment, container, organism, thing, or bond.
  • Like relationships, metaphors can be strong, weak, or toxic.

People in romantic relationships need to understand each other and the nature of their relationships. Metaphor is not just a literary flourish, but also a powerful source of understanding used in all realms of human thought. Accordingly, people often use metaphors to describe their relationships, which may be a bumpy road, broken down, needing work, suffocating, stormy, or a thriving partnership.

Psychologists and linguistics have identified dozens of relationship metaphors that fall roughly into seven categories that construe a relationship as a journey, machine, investment, container, organism, thing, or bond. Each metaphor compares a relationship to something more familiar, transferring factual and emotional information from the metaphorical source to the relationship target. For example, if people describe their relationship as a rollercoaster, the comparison captures both the up-and-down variability of the interaction and the emotional changes that the participants experience.

The comparisons performed by relationship metaphors can have purposes that include description, explanation, prediction, decision, and entertainment. Capturing the nature of a relationship in literal words can be difficult so a metaphor such as rough patch can be useful. Moreover, the metaphor may help to explain why the related people are getting or not getting along, for example when the metaphor of the crossroads points to sources of disagreement that explain conflict. Similarly, a dire metaphor such as dumpster fire may provide a prediction that the conflict cannot be happily resolved. The emotional transfer performed by the metaphor may help the people in a relationship make important decisions, for example when conceiving it as a partnership may encourage the couple to work on the relationship rather than hit the road. Finally, metaphors can be entertaining sources of humor that lighten difficult discussions, for example when someone uses the hyperbolic description of a relationship as Game of Thrones to amuse and deflect rather than escalate conflict.

The distinguished clinical psychologist Donald Meichenbaum urged psychotherapists to attend to the metaphors used by clients in their self-descriptions and to help them acquire more positive metaphors. For example, clients who think of themselves as ticking time bombs or deer caught in the headlights would do better if they thought of themselves as works in progress or looking up. Similarly, troubled couples might be helped by a joint kind of metaphor therapy that helps them to find more positive ways of understanding their relationships.

Just as there are good and bad relationships, there are good and bad metaphors. Some metaphors are helpful in describing, explaining, and directing relationships, but others are toxic in that they generate more harm than understanding. No relationship benefits from being described as a dead-end or a dumpster fire.

Here are some relationship metaphors organized into seven categories.

Relationship as Journey

  • Long and winding road
  • Destination
  • Crossroads
  • Detour
  • Rough patch
  • Drifting apart
  • Dead-end
  • Go separate ways
  • Rollercoaster
  • We’ve come a long way
  • Bump road

Relationship as Machine

  • Well-oiled machine
  • Cracks
  • Breakdown
  • Maintenance
  • Repair

Relationship as Investment

  • Assets and withdrawals
  • Costs and benefits
  • Return on investment
  • Exchange

Relationship as Container

  • In a relationship
  • Inside and outside
  • Deep or superficial
  • Pressure
  • Prison
  • Suffocating

Relationship as Living Organism

  • Birth
  • Development
  • Maturity
  • Chemistry
  • Death
  • Flourishing
  • Hurting

Relationship as Thing

  • Dumpster fire
  • Bowl of cherries
  • Game, competition
  • Mixed bag
  • Hot, cold, warm, sweet, or sour
  • Close or distant
  • Breakup
  • Stable, unstable
  • You, me, and us
  • We are one
  • Erosion
  • Collapse
  • Stormy
  • Dangerous

Relationship as Bond or Union

  • Attachment
  • Partnership
  • Commitment
  • Alliance
  • Reunited
  • Dissolution
  • Unravel
  • Crumbling
  • Split up
  • Durable


Baxter, L. A. (1992). Root metaphors in accounts of developing romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9(2), 253-275.

Baxter, L. A. (2021). Relationship metaphors. International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. Retrieved from

Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought, 2nd edn. (pp. 202-251). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Landau, M. J. (2017). Conceptual metaphor in social psychology: The poetics of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

Thagard, P. (in press). Balance: How it works and what it means. New York: Columbia University Press.

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