No offense is greater in a lover than this: that he should treat his love “impersonally.” No lapse is more final and devastating in courtship or domestic life than a lapse from personal feeling between those who have known the pitiless intimacy of love or marriage. Anger, hatred, and jealousy, so long as they are fraught with personal meanings, are likely to dissolve in unaccountable ways or transmute themselves into love according to strange laws of their own. They are frequently no further removed from passionate affection than the width of a hair.

The distinction between personal and impersonal relationships is a vital one in human affairs. Personal relationships, be they those of friend to friend or of husband to wife, be they motivated by love or by hatred, be they transitory or permanent, stand apart and in a class by themselves. They cannot be explored by the social sciences, they are alike inexplicable to political theory, sociology, and economics. Theirs is a special level of being, a peculiar order of existence, which must be especially studied, defined, and described.

The most obvious and inevitable quality of a personal relationship is that it is not transferable. It attaches to determinate individuals who cannot be duplicated nor replaced. A new personal relationship can be established, [p.32] an old one can be abandoned, perhaps the driving force that initiated the relationship may give way to another, but no substitution can be made of one individual for another in the same relationship. It Helen leaves Menelaus and flees with Paris, it is absurd to describe the new situation as a continuation of the personal attachment of Menelaus and Helen, with Paris acting as a substitute. The personal relationship between Helen and Menelaus continues, with love changed to fear and resentment. The attachment of Helen and Paris is a new entity, a new relationship.

On the other hand, any relationship which can be transferred from one individual to another is to that extent impersonal. When citizens enter and leave the allegiance of a State, when laborers enter and leave the employ of a factory, when men supplant each other in all the diverse functions of organized society, their personality is only incidental to the political, economic, or social tie which they assume or avoid. We consider that these relationships themselves are constantly in being, whoever may be the persons bound therein. Generation after generation follows each other in the life of the State, and the order of political relationship perdures, oblivious to these innumerable personal replacements. But not so with relationships of personality. If a friend dies the friendship is at an end, even though new friends be found; if the wife deserts and obtains a divorce, the marriage is at an end, even though a new marriage ensues. This non- transferable character of a personal tie is so obvious that to state it is to prove it.

The second characteristic of a relationship of personality is that it is variable. Love can give place to hatred, [p.33] understanding to misunderstanding, respect to loathing, between the same two persons. Likewise affection can increase, love can become more intense, an intellectual attachment can become an erotic attachment, and the relationship continues a personal one. Such variations are not merely possible; they are normal and necessary. They can no more be avoided than change can be prevented in the life of an individual. Just as human beings mature and grow old, so must their personal relationships run a gamut of change. When a virgin becomes a bride she may imagine that her attitude toward her husband is fixed for all time, yet in fact she is standing on the threshold of unavoidable novelty and discovery. If her erotic personality is aroused and developed, a wealth of new meanings will cluster around her attitude; if there is no such awakening of erotic life, new tensions inevitably appear. There are infinite possibilities before her; the only thing she cannot do is to remain just as she is, with her love for her husband continuing to be exactly as on the wedding day. The very meaning of the verb to love changes with ripening experience. So it is with friends. Friendship can deepen or it can become attenuated; it cannot remain unchanged. When two friends who have not seen each other for years are reunited by some chance meeting they speak to each other with the same language that they were wont to use in earlier days, each tells the other that there has been no change, but the sense of change is actually overwhelming. They inquire for news and they resort to reminiscences, and it may be that the absence seems to have deepened the regard of each for the other. But the change is there, whether it is brought about by sharing each other’s life or by not sharing each [p.34] other’s life, by remaining in contact or by not remaining in contact.

The variation in a personal relationship is not only inevitable; it is also continuous. It proceeds historically, the present being continuously built upon a past. In this respect personal relations must be viewed as growing or unfolding things which develop with indescribable intricacy toward loves or hatreds, or toward their own dissolution in indifference and oblivion. Every love and every friendship has its own case history, to which harsh words as well as kind actions contribute. The quarrels, pacts, and promises of lovers are all parts of the continuity of their love. No one fact or event can permanently fix or define a personal relationship – not even so critical a fact as a betrothal, a marriage, a divorce, or the birth of a child. The trivial and the commonplace events of life constantly contribute to the flow of variation. As every lover who is not a bungler knows, there is no external distinction between great things and trivial things in matters of love.

The third thing we know about a personal relationship is that it is free. It involves an element of consent and free will. In this respect it differs from a relationship of status, wherein the element of freedom and consent is of no consequence.

It is necessary to insist at this point that the “personality” of which we speak is not the legal or sociological abstraction which sometimes goes by that name. From the legal point of view a person is a subject of legal rights and duties. A corporation can be a legal person. From the sociological point of view a person is a subject of social rights and duties. “An individual is born into the [p.35] world, he acquires status, and becomes a person.” So writes Park in developing a definition of personality. These conceptions are useless for domestic theory because in outlining such a theory we are trying to uncover facts which lie beyond the range of legal and social status. The pure metaphysical definition offered by Boethius is better suited to the purpose of domestic theory: “Personality is the individual substance of a rational being,” and hence the ultimate unit of any ethic. In this sense a person is a complete and total individual, in all aspects, biological, psychological, and rational. Better yet is Kantor’s conception of personality as the complete psychic organism in action. Here is the person we know in everyday life, who acts willfully and responsibly, and whose welfare is a matter of ethical value.

Only those beings can participate in a personal relationship who are capable of acting as free agents. A German philosopher has bid us imagine a mechanical sweetheart who should in every respect except one resemble a human individual. This monstrous mechanism would have beauty and softness and warmth and all the external qualities of a human being, but would lack autonomy. She would do nothing whatsoever of her own will. All her actions would proceed from immediate external causes. It would be impossible for our minds to ascribe any action whatsoever to herself as its author. If she responded to an embrace, the response would be a mere reaction to our own act, like the rebound of a ball thrown against a wall. There would be nothing that originated within herself. Truly such a sweetheart might be valued, as a lovely picture or a vase or an ivory is valued, and the possession of her might give rise to aesthetic enjoyments, [p.36] but she could not enter completely into a personal relationship.

Even when two persons are wont to act freely and autonomously toward each other, it may be that certain of their particular actions are performed under constraint. Usually such actions are more or less indifferent and inconsequential in developing their personal relations. The husband who contributes to his wife’s support by order of the court receives no thanks for his bounty. The friend who merely pays a lawful debt does not normally expect to have his payment counted as an act of friendship. Even if actions done under constraint should enter into the fabric of a personal relationship, it would still be true that no personal relationship could maintain itself on these alone. The qualities of consent and free action must be present; the hypothesis of free will must be accepted; otherwise the relationship is not personal.

Finally, a personal relationship is comprehensive. It involves the complete personality of one who engages in it. It extends itself to his whole being, because he is not only a subject but also an object in the relationship. As a subject he has autonomy; as an object he has value. And his value attaches not to any particular aspect or activity of himself but to his whole self. In this respect a personal relationship differs fundamentally from the social relationships which are described in other social studies. For social relationships do not usually involve complete personalities, and social theories isolate for discussion this or that capacity or aspect of a personality.

In describing the relationship of citizen to state, buyer to seller, individual to community, no attempt is made to account any individual a complete person. Human con[p.37]duct is discussed as if each man were made up of segments, like an orange. The purchase of a cigar is an economic act and concerns man in his economic capacity; the casting of a ballot is a political act and concerns man in his political capacity. If we undertake to give an account of Henry Ford’s economic behavior we will be much concerned as to whether he oversupplies a demand, whether or not he employs men, whether he buys or sells stock, whether or not he is honest in business engagements. But we will not concern ourselves as to whether he is happy or sad, religious or irreligious, handsome or ugly.

But where relationships are personal, everything matters. Account must be taken of everything that a man may do, and of everything that may be done to him. His reputation and his tennis stroke, his indigestion and his bank account, his stock of after-dinner stories and his secret discontents – all these are matters of moment to his friends and to his family. The facts and experiences of office and shop which the husband does not mention to the wife none the less enter into the domestic relationship because they affect the personal totality of his self. They produce exaltation or rheumatism, wisdom or weariness, jocularity or tuberculosis, and all of these enter into a personal reckoning.

Young people contemplating marriage are sometimes terrified by the all-embracing character of this personal relationship which they are to establish, for better or for worse, before the world. They imagine that they are entering into a sort of bondage, the one to the other; that the personal relationship, because it takes all interests into account, must dominate all interests. They hedge themselves about with reservations and declarations [p.38] of autonomy. “I love you,” says the man, “but I object in advance to any suppresssion [sic] of my passion for red neckties. I reserve the right to select my own haberdashery.” “I love you,” admits the woman, “but I certainly do not engage to admire you while you are shaving, or to be amused at your parlor talk. My aesthetic sensibilities must not be coerced.”

We know of a young couple who took this matter very much to heart. They agreed before they were married that if it should turn out that matrimony was a bar to the young man’s career, a divorce would be freely granted, with good will on both sides. They tried to mark with a sharp line the extent to which each partner was to assume an interest or responsibility in the affairs of the other. They thought that in this way they were guaranteeing to each other an autonomy which would otherwise be sacrificed. In fact, it is not uncommon for partners in marriage to make extraordinary efforts to retain for each such complete independence. Husband and wife live in separate apartments and meet only once a week for dinner, to the end that the personality of the one may not infringe on the personality of the other.

We are here confronted by a paradox. For we have described the new marriage as being free because it is personal, and at the same time we have perceived that a personal relationship reaches comprehensively to every interest of the persons who participate in it. How does this freedom permit comprehensiveness, and how is this comprehensiveness consistent with freedom? The solution of this paradox requires that we analyze more carefully that personal value which he has who is the object of a personal relationship.

[p.39] It is obviously necessary that those who are personally connected should have a kind of value for each other. This is the truth that calls forth the perpetual protestation: “I love you for yourself alone.” For if I do not love you for yourself alone, I do not love you at all. If I love you for your money, or for your social position, it is these I love and not you. If I love you as a means to anything whatsoever and not as an end in yourself, then I do not love you personally. Likewise, if I hate you for your position, because you are a capitalist or a policeman, I do not hate you personally. If I love or hate you personally it is because my attitude focusses on the totality of yourself. You in all your completeness are the object to which I attach value. And thereby I am led indirectly to take note of everything that concerns you, because it concerns you, and only in so far as it concerns you. Your world becomes my world, but only indirectly. If I am interested in the externals of your business or social success, it is because these are factors in your welfare. Only those rays from outside which are caught up and refracted from your personality can light our relationship.

But it I try to pick and choose among those of your interests that I will make my own, then I degrade the personal character of my interest in you. If I say that I will concern myself about your cooking, but not about your painting, about your appearance but not your reading, I replace my interest in you with a mere interest in some of your accomplishments. In principle my attitude degenerates to the level of his who loves you for your income or social position.

The lovers who strove so diligently to limit the range [p.40] of their interest in each other did not understand this intricate and beautiful dialectic by which a personal attachment ramifies and extends itself to all fields. “If I interfere with your career, I will leave you,” promised the girl. This promise cannot be viewed as a limitation of her interest in her lover; it is not a renunciation of interest in his career, but rather an assumption of unlimited interest in it, based on a recognition that the career is a matter of first importance to her beloved.

The freedom and comprehensiveness of personal relationships are not contradictory qualities; rather they are complementary. Without the possibility of free autonomous action by the subject of a personal relationship there could be no effective appreciation of personal value in the object thereof.

These four qualities: nontransferability, continuous variation, freedom, and comprehensiveness are the characteristics of every personal relationship. To the extent that these are present, the relationship is personal; to the extent that they are lacking, the relationship lacks personal character.

Is this capacity for entertaining personal relationships a universal and inevitable human quality? Anthropologists of the old Morgan school used to depict savage society as if the individual therein was “completely dominated by the group, the horde, the clan or the tribe – [as if] he obeyed the commands of the community, its traditions, its public opinion, its decrees, with a slavish, fascinated, passive obedience.”1 Malinowski has helped to change the picture of savage life and to portray primitive [p.41] man as neither an extreme collectivist nor an intransigeant [sic] individualist, but “like man in general, a mixture of both.”

The unitary, self-determining individual human being is an ultimate datum which the social sciences find it difficult to dispense with. His very existence connotes the possibility of personal relationships.

True enough, personality concepts may be differently colored in different cultures. The close association which the Western mind makes between personality, motivation, and freedom may be an accidental historical product of the Christian-Teutonic fusion. A study of Samoan culture by Miss Mead suggests that the personality concept of the Samoan adolescent links personality with overt achievement alone, and is indifferent to the introspective world of motivation. The variations in the notion of personality may modify, but cannot extinguish, the general pattern of personal relationship in human affairs.

In some civilizations the most distinctive imprint of this personality pattern is borne by friendship groups, age groups, or erotic groups. The kinship group may be a relatively impersonal establishment. But in the contemporary Western World the pattern of personal relationship is most fully realized in the family group of parents and children. This fact will appear as we explore more carefully the nature of marriage and the family.


  1. Paraphrased from B. Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society (Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1926), p. 3.