Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Horizontal and Vertical Relationships

Horizontal and vertical relationships are two broad classifications of the various relationships that an individual can have with others over the course of a lifetime. Most of these relationships are social ones, from the different members of the family to friends to partners. At the same time, horizontal and vertical are used to describe the relationship between an individual and something more abstract such as the government or the god of that individual’s religion.

The words horizontal and vertical do mostly refer to the direction, most apparent as to who are the members of that particular relationship, as will be explored further. However, even a traditional horizontal relationship can take on the characteristics of a vertical relation and vice versa. So aside from the members of each type of a relationship, the two also differ in their characteristics and the context that maintains the relationship. More about these two classifications and their differences are discussed further in the following sections.


What is a Horizontal Relationship?

Horizontal relationships refer to relationships where it is defined and maintained by equality in both standing and obligation. Democracy, reciprocity and cooperation are evident qualities in horizontal relationships. In families for example, a husband and wife relationship as well as sibling relationships are horizontal. These types of family relationships are also called intragenerational relationships. The members are also equal in knowledge and wisdom, or at least relatively so. Other examples of horizontal relationships are those between friends, equal partners, peers, and colleagues.

Some relationships, even when there is a clear difference in standing between members can still be described as horizontal. For instance, a teacher and student may not have the same knowledge and authority within a classroom but can still be described as a horizontal relationship when the student is invited to speak truthfully and confidently. The same is true in democratic governments where the people have freedom not only to criticize the government, but also a responsibility to take part in governance. A relationship stops being horizontal when disagreements between its members are resolved via a mediation of a third party. This is the case for example when disagreements in an equal relationship arise and one party is coerced to perform an obligation by power of the law.

Even though rooted in equality, horizontal relationships can still go wrong. If the relationship is not properly maintained by its members, it can lead to bitter rivalry and competition instead of cooperation. More serious consequences in the larger scale can be seen in relationships between nations that lead to a war of mutual fear and defense as what happened in the Cold War between the United States and the former U.S.S.R.


What is a Vertical Relationship?

Vertical relationships are those where one of the members has greater standing, whether due to power and authority or knowledge and wisdom. These relationships are by nature hierarchical and needs to be benevolent in order to function properly. Grandparent, parent and child relationships are the most common. These family relationships are also known as intergenerational relationships. In the wider society, many relationships are traditionally vertical and are beneficial in terms of imparting knowledge, distributing goods and keeping order. Teacher and student, employer and employee, warden and prisoner, and governments and its people are all vertical relationships. No matter the amount of freedom given, it is still clear where the greater standing lies in these relationships.

As described above, vertical relationships can be contextualized as horizontal relationships. Any equal partnership can become unequal as well whenever one of its members gains power over the other. A husband and wife relationship becomes vertical when they seek the mediation of the court for their family arguments. Sibling relations become vertical when one child is favored by parents over the other due to some virtue or achievement.

With its hierarchical nature and the inherent difference in power and authority between members, vertical relationships easily get out of hand. Abuse of power and authority is tyranny and leads to dictatorial regimes in a government, and the oppression results in revolts. On a greater scale of power imbalance, more powerful nations tend to conquer and subjugate less powerful ones, as has been the case in much of history.


Difference between Horizontal and Vertical Relationships


Horizontal relationships are relationships where members have equal standing whereas vertical relationships are those where one member has greater power, authority, knowledge or wisdom over the other.


Horizontal relationships are defined by democracy, reciprocity and cooperation while vertical relationships are defined by a hierarchical nature and by benevolence.

In families

Also called intragenerational relationships, these are the relationship between husband and wife as well as sibling relationships. Vertical relationships are also called intergenerational relationships, those between grandparent, parent, and child.

In government

Although most governments are traditionally vertical, democratic governments have horizontal relationship with its people who have the freedom and responsibility to take part in governance. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand have a vertical relationship with its people.

In law

Horizontal relationships in law are those where the objectives and obligations in a partnership are met willingly by its members. A relationship is vertical when a third party steps in and one of the members is required to meet its obligations by coercion or force of law.

At work

Colleague relationships are horizontal relationships while employer and employee are vertical relationships.


Horizontal relationships tend toward bitter rivalry and competition instead of cooperation while vertical relationships tend toward tyranny and oppression.

Horizontal vs Vertical Relationships



  • Horizontal and vertical relationships are terms used to refer to the nature of a relationship. Horizontal relationships are those where members have equal standing while vertical relationships are those where one member has greater standing in terms of power and authority or knowledge and wisdom.
  • Horizontal relationships are defined by democracy, reciprocity and cooperation while vertical relationships are characterized by its hierarchical nature and benevolence.
  • Relationships go wrong when horizontal relationships turn into rivalry and competition while vertical relationships become tyrannical and oppressive.

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1 Comment

  1. You didn’t mention marriage. That’s a horizontal relationship, right?

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References :

[0]Cohen, Philip N. "Horizontal and vertical family relationships, literarily." Family Inequality. December 20, 2010. https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/horizontal-and-vertical-family-relationships-literarily/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

[1]Harvey, Ronald. "The Role of Relationships in Society." Anarchy 22, 1962: 372-376. https://libcom.org/library/role-relationships-society (accessed November 28, 2019).

[2]Luxor, Joxua. "Vertical vs. Horizontal Relationships." Thought Technology. September 20, 2013. https://terminclature.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/vertical-vs-horizontal-relationships/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

[3]Image credit: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1440469

[4]Image credit: https://p0.pxfuel.com/preview/520/923/664/achievement-agreement-arms-asian.jpg

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