Relationship vs. Relation

Relationship vs. Relation

“The relationship between husband and wife should be one of closest friends.”

B.R.Ambedkar, an Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer

Harmonious and stormy, friendly and strained, happy and uneasy… Relationships differ and so do relations. What is a relationship and what is a relation? Make sure you know…


Relationship is a countable noun which means:

  1. the way in which 2 people/groups/countries feel and behave towards each other: You should keep up a good relationship with your neighbors. The school has a very good relationship with the community. We can see the friendly relationship between Germany and France.
  2. a close friendship between 2 people, especially one involving romantic or sexual feelings: I hope our relationship is going somewhereHe was not married, but he was in a stable relationship.
  3. the way in which 2 things are connected: The fee bears little relationship to the service provided. They discovered a relationship between depression and lack of sunlight.


Relation is a countable noun which means:

  1. (usually relations) contacts between people/groups/countries and the way in which they behave towards each other: Good employee relations remained a high priority for management. Many problems affect ethnic relations in the district. Belarus enjoyed friendly relations with all its neighboring states. 

Note that “relations” is used more formally than “relationship”. Usually we use it to talk about interactions between countries/groups of people. When relations is used of 2 particular people, it’s very formal and means the act of sexual intercourse.

2. (usually relation) the way in which 2 things are connected: The study shows the close relation between poverty and ill health. The theory bears no relation to reality.

Note that this use of “relation” overlaps use 3 of “relationship”. But “relation” is more likely to be used like this, meaning interconnection of things, since relationship is mostly used of 2 people and their romantic feelings. Compare: The fee bears little relation to the service provided. He’s not very good at handling personal relationships.

3. members of your family, connected by blood or marriage (relatives is more commonly used in this sense): You are all my relations. What a blessing distant relations are in times of trouble.

When I find myself in times of trouble, my relations are there for me!

Would you like more context? Read the texts bellow to see how relationship and relation work. Useful words and expressions that may be new are underlined:

Starting a relationship 

Are you looking for a partner? You might have ended up ( = found yourself in a particular situation that you hadn’t planned to be in) with a wrong one last time, but there are so may wonderful people out there ( = in the world)! However, it’s important for you to get over ( = to recover from the end of a relationship) any previous relationships and feel that you are ready to start a new relationship.

When you go out with someone ( = date someone), don’t expect too much on the first date. But if you have a good time, there’s no harm in texting or phoning to say you enjoyed it. Don’t insist on another date but try a gentle “would you like to meet up ( = meet) again?” Even if the first date wasn’t a great success, give it a second try. Then, if it doesn’t work out ( = develop in a successful way), you can cut your losses ( = get out of a bad situation before it gets worse instead of waiting to see if it improves) and move on ( = start doing something new).

Most important of all, listen to your gut feeling ( = intuition) – it’s rarely wrong.

Scenario planning

Richard Johns works on long-term strategy in a large oil company:

“My job is to contribute to long term plans for our future activities. We have to anticipate (= judge and estimate) what competitors’ behavior and activities will be. We also have to look at trends in the general social and economic environment, and be ready to respond to changes in society and changes in the economy as a whole. This is called scenario planning. In our organization we imagine ways in which the energy industry might change and evolve ( = develop) and what the place of oil will be in relation to alternative fuels in 20, 50 or 100 years from now.”

Would you like to practice? Choose the right word to complete the sentences:

  1. The Act covers both trade union and industrial (relations / relationships) law.
  2. We must work together to make international economic (relations / relationships) more human and to eradicate poverty.
  3. They enjoyed a close working (relation / relationship).
  4. In my experience, it is usually (relations / relationships) who pay.
  5. He had brief  (relations / relationships) with several women.
  6. The energy an animal uses is in direct (relation / relationship) to speed and body mass.

Answer key: 1. relations 2. relations 3. relationship 4. relations 5. relationships 6. relation

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