“Have You Seen your Relationship in 3D?”

That’s a question I’ve never received, at least to my recollection. However, there is another question I have received: “Have you seen that movie in 3D?” The question is usually followed with, “Oh, you have to see it in 3D. It’s so much better!” I’ve seen a few movies in 3D format and, overall, I’ve been impressed with the visual ingredients and the viewer impact. Seeing something in three dimensions is certainly more “real” than a two-dimensional view. The absence of one dimension deprives the viewer of a total sensory experience. Recently, while considering the effects of 3D technology, I began to ponder the idea of “3D Relationships.” Specifically, I was wondering about our ability to experience the height, length, and depth dimensions of a human relationship. The height of the relationship could reflect the level of joy we experience, while the length clearly indicates the duration of the relationship. The depth of the relationship deals more with issues of intimacy, understanding, and overall maturity. Without the depth dimension the individual is cheated out of the best part of the relationship.  Therefore, the preference is clear:  let’s see relationships in 3D!

In regard to a “3D Relationship” you might have already raised in your mind a good question:  “How many dimensions does a relationship really have?” I asked the same question, and my ponderings reminded me of some research done in the late 1950’s about three key dimensions of personal relationships. In his book The Interpersonal Underworld published in 1966* Dr. William Schutz presented and discussed his research and the resulting FIRO models. The acronym FIRO stood for Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation. As I read his book and examined some of his research I was particularly impressed with the concept that every human relationship is comprised of three key dimensions:  inclusion, control, and affection. Our behavior within those three dimensions affects our level of satisfaction and happiness with our relationships. In my professional work as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve shared that concept with many couples, and the discussions usually helped them toward better mutual understanding of their basic relationship. In this brief article I’d like to share with you several aspects of Dr. Schutz’s work, along with some adaptations to contemporary relationships. In our discussion I’ll use the marriage relationship as the primary setting, but the concept concerns relationships in general.  

A healthy relationship means that the two people are, at the least, reasonably satisfied with each other on all three dimensions—inclusion, control, and affection. For each dimension there are two types of behavior: the amount of behavior we express outwardly to the other person and the amount of behavior we want to receive from the other person. Since we aspire to have healthy relationships we need to make sure that all three dimensions are receiving adequate attention in our day-to-day efforts. With that need clearly in mind let’s explore the three dimensions by defining the core concepts, determining the current level of mutual satisfaction, and developing the application. Hopefully, our exploration will provide a fresh way to view 3D relationships.

                                                                          DEFINING THE DIMENSIONS

Dimension #1: Inclusion—“Doing Things Together”

The first dimension contained in the FIRO model is “inclusion.” The focus of this dimension is upon issues of interaction and association, specifically the extent to which we do things together within our relationship. Our inclusion behavior is to be considered in two ways:  first, how much we express or initiate interaction toward other people and, secondly, how much we want to receive the behavior, that is, the extent to which we want them to initiate interaction with us. People who value companionship, belongingness, and interaction will have higher levels of inclusion behavior than people who prefer isolation and aloneness.

The inclusion dimension deals with both the formation and the maintenance of the relationship through mutual interaction. Perhaps we could describe this mutual interaction with the phrase “in or out.”  Simply put, we’re included or else we are excluded. The person who values inclusion may be viewed as an extravert, whereas the one who is not interested in inclusion would appear to be an introvert. In the extreme the “oversocial” person would confess “I can’t stand being alone” whereas the “undersocial” individual would declare “I can’t stand being with people.”
Dimension #2: Control—“Deciding Who Is in Charge”

The second dimension of the FIRO model is “control.” This dimension deals with the decision-making process within the relationship and is about authority, leadership, influence, and power. The key issue is “Who is in charge?” Some individuals prefer to function in the leadership role, while other people shy away from the responsibilities of decision-making. A person who values being in charge may not be interested in high inclusion; he might prefer a low level of interaction while he stays in charge as the “power behind the throne.” While the high-inclusion person pushes toward “let’s get together” the high-control individual would say, “There’s no time for social stuff; let’s get right down to business and make some decisions.” Again, while the inclusion dimension deals with “in or out” the control dimension focuses upon “top or bottom.” The high-control person is the autocrat who has to tell everyone what to do, whereas the low-control individual is more like an “abdicrat” who is not willing to tell anyone what to do.
Dimension #3: Affection—“Displaying Closeness”

The third FIRO dimension is “affection.” The key focus of this dimension is upon behavioral issues of physical and emotional closeness. Couples who value closeness usually display a great deal of affection behavior and, as a result, they feel emotionally connected to each other. In contrast, other couples are not interested in closeness and are seemingly content to be emotionally distant or disconnected. This dimension of affection involves the issue of “close or far” in regard to how the two people relate to each other. 

                                                                  DETERMINING THE DIMENSIONS

In this brief overview we’ve defined the three FIRO dimensions. Now let’s try to determine where we might fit within this model. We are accustomed to determining the dimensions of a physical object simply by using a ruler or measuring tape. The best way to measure the FIRO dimensions is to answer and score the questions contained in the inventory published by the developer, Dr. William Schutz. However, in the absence of that inventory and to simplify the process let’s try to estimate where we would be on each dimension.

Remember, each dimension has two components: first, how much of that behavior you express to others, and, second, how much of that behavior you want to receive from the other person. Consider a one-to-nine numbering scale in which 1-3 represents a Low level of the behavior, 4-6 is a Moderate level, and 7-9 is a High level. Use the attached chart to estimate your current level in each dimension. In the Inclusion column write in the level that seems to fit you for both “how much I express” and “how much I want to receive.” You can enter a number 1 through 9 or you can enter the words Low, Moderate, or High. Next, repeat the process for the Control and Affection dimensions. You will then have two scores or levels for each of the three dimensions, indicating the amount of behavior you tend to express and the amount of behavior you want to receive.

Let’s explore several possible score combinations in terms of their suggested meanings for married couples. Suppose your scores under Inclusion are 8/7. The first (or top) number is your Expressed score while the second (or bottom) number represents your “Want to Receive” score. Your 8/7 scores suggest that you express a lot of behavior to get your wife to interact with you, and you want her to invite you often to do things with her. Two high scores probably mean that you’re a very sociable person. If your scores are a 1/3, you’re probably not sociable at all in that you make very few attempts to interact with your wife and you want to receive a low level of interaction from her. The combination of a low score on top and a high score on the bottom (such as 1/9) could mean that you want to receive a lot of inclusion but you express very little. You wait around and hope that your wife will invite you to do something together. However, she observes that you’re making very little effort at inclusion and assumes that you don’t want to do things together. Understandably, she chooses not to invite you in, thinking that you’ll be pleased. You experience the opposite reaction and you’re very disappointed as you remain on the outside wishing to be “in.” This type of an assumption is typical of people in that they assume we want to receive in proportion to the level of behavior we express toward them. The same assumptions are frequently made in the other two dimensions.

What about the Control dimension? A high Expressed score (the top score) means that you tend to take charge in decision-making, while a low top score would suggest that you back away from being in charge. In the “Want to Receive” box a high score means that you want your husband to take charge, whereas a low score suggests that you do not want him to make the decisions. For example, a 9/2 might mean “I’m in charge and will make the decisions; I don’t want you to be involved much at all.” In contrast a 1/8 suggests “I am not making the decisions; I’d rather you take charge and make them for me.”

Consider the Affection dimension. A score of 9/8 means that you express a great deal of affection behavior toward your wife and you want to receive a lot of affection back from her. You may be so physically oriented that you might hug a tree just for the physical contact! Other people probably view you as a “huggy, touchy” person who likes to be “up close and personal.” The opposite would occur with a 1/1 score because your message is “I’m not expressing affection and I don’t want to receive it.” I recall one lady’s comment after she had completed the FIRO inventory. We were engaged in a group discussion about the implications of various score combinations and got to the Affection dimension. When I mentioned the meaning of a Low/Low score combination she turned around to the man behind her and said, “That’s why I don’t like for you to hug me at church services.” The man was probably a 9/9 and she was a 1/1. Once he realized her scores he could understand her discomfort at his efforts to show affection. High scorers on the Affection dimension must be cautious about expressing that behavior toward Low scorers simply because the affection is not welcomed. Consider another example. If your combination score is a 1/8, you’re probably very frustrated. You express very little affection toward your husband but you want to receive a lot from him. However, he observes the amount you express, assumes that you don’t like affection, and therefore withholds his affection behavior from you. He misinterprets your behavior and you both wind up frustrated.

What could you and your spouse learn about each other if you both listed your estimated scores in the three dimensions and then openly and honestly discussed the results? The discussion could clarify your personal wants and the various assumptions being made about each other. Let’s consider four different couples** who chose to explore their 3D relationships through the FIRO model.

First, picture John and Jane in regard to the Inclusion dimension. As a 2/9 John stands at the door and says to Jane, “I’m going to run a couple of errands.” He does not invite her to go with him, but he hesitates and hopes that she will initiate togetherness with a statement like “I’d love to go with you, if it’s okay.” However, he does not hear that from Jane because as a 2/8 she also is very slow at expressing Inclusion behavior. Her high “Want to Receive” score means that she is hoping that’s he’ll initiate the invitation. So, she sits quietly and waits for John to invite her to go with him. Both spouses assume that the other one is not interested in “doing things together” because of the low level of Expressed behavior. Sadly, they both misread each other in terms of what is actually wanted, and they both wind up feeling very left out and lonely. Like John and Jane, many couples go for years with incorrect assumptions about each other’s wants and preferences.

In the Control dimension Ted scored a 9/2 and Tara scored a 9/1. In view of these high Expressed scores and low “Want to Receive scores,” what do you think will happen in their relationship when a decision has to be made? You’re probably right if you predict that they will both try to be in charge and neither one will want the other one to have control. This couple will probably do a lot of arguing and “head-butting” until they learn to accommodate each other through effective conflict resolution. In contrast, Jack and Jennifer are both very low in Expressed behavior but very high in “Want to Receive” behavior, as reflected in their 1/8 and 1/9 scores. These two spouses are very passive about decision-making, and each one waits for the other one to take charge and make the decision. For Jack and Jennifer a major decision can seemingly take forever to be completed. However, if Tara with her 9/1 were married to Jack with his 1/8 the two people would be compatible in that their scores are complementary. Tara wants to be in charge of decision-making and Jack is very willing to let her play that role. His friends might accuse him of being “hen-pecked” by Tara, but he is perfectly content with her in-charge approach.

In exploring the Affection dimension Bob and Billie gained important insight into their mutual frustration. Their Affection scores of 2/8 and 2/9 suggested that they both wanted to receive a much higher level of affection and closeness than they had been expressing to each other. As is typical, each one had assumed that the other person did not like affection because very little was being expressed. As Bob and Billie came to understand their affection wants more accurately, they decided to step out of their usual “comfort zone” and to work hard at being more physically affectionate and doing things to promote emotional warmth and closeness. After several months of consistent effort both spouses reported good progress and greater satisfaction in the arena of Affection behavior.

Other examples could be provided but perhaps these four couples will illustrate the insights and benefits brought by an exploration into the three dimensions of a 3D relationship. I encourage you to imitate these couples and to consider your estimated scores and potential implications of those scores for your relationship.

                                                                      DEVELOPING THE DIMENSIONS
While a clear understanding of our current levels in the three FIRO dimensions is very important, our overall relationship will not move toward increased healthiness unless we exert effort in specific improvement. In other words, we need to see our relationships from a 3-D perspective. Our work could involve an increase or a decrease in either the Expressed behavior or the “Want to Receive” behavior, depending on what is needed to achieve greater mutual satisfaction within our relationship. As we strive to develop the three dimensions we would do well to keep in mind certain assumptions we need to resist along with several assurances we need to reinforce.


First, resist the assumption that your spouse wants to receive a specific level of Inclusion, Control, or Affection behavior that seems proportionate to the level of behavior that he expresses. For an example let’s recall John and Jane, the couple we discussed earlier. John expresses a low level of Inclusion behavior toward Jane in that he rarely invites her to do things with him and hardly ever initiates specific interaction with her. She observes his Expressed behavior and assumes that he wants to receive a low level of inclusion, meaning that he does not really want her to initiate interaction with him. So she chooses to accommodate the assumed preference and therefore does very little to get him to participate in activities with her. However, her conclusion is inaccurate in that John really does want her to invite him to do things with her, and he feels excluded and left out because of her decision. Simultaneously, John makes the same assumption about his wife. John and Jane represent the couples who want to receive a very different level of behavior than they tend to express. Unfortunately, like John and Jane these other couples misread the signals and make faulty assumptions that result in unmet needs, personal frustration, and relationship stress.

Secondly, resist the assumption that your spouse wants to receive Inclusion, Control, or Affection in the exact same way you want to receive it. You have two questions to ask your spouse: “How much do you want to receive?” and “How would you prefer that I express that behavior to you?” The delivery system is vital to the fulfillment of the desired behavior. You might want to receive physical affection in a way that is very different from the way your spouse wants it, even though you both score a 3/9 on the Affection dimension. Therefore, discuss with each other specifically what you like or don’t like in regard to physical affection, mutual inclusion, or decision-making control. Through open discussion and honest feedback you can be reassured that your delivery system fits your relationship with your spouse.

Thirdly, resist the assumption that your spouse knows clearly what you want to receive in the three dimensions and is intentionally refusing to fulfill your wants. Unless your spouse is a skilled mind-reader you are taking a huge risk in assigning such a motive or intention. Admittedly, it is possible that your husband does know exactly what you want and simply chooses to withhold that behavior from you. On the other hand, you could be sending a mixed signal to your husband in that your Expressed behavior is different from your “Want to Receive” behavior, and, as a result, he is uncertain and confused. He may not be clear at all about what you really want. Rather than making inaccurate assumptions and imputing negative intentions to your husband choose instead to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t expect him to read your mind. The time has come for you to talk and communicate clearly what you want to receive, both in terms of the amount (quantity) and the delivery system (quality).

Fourthly, resist the assumption that your relationship will somehow get better automatically with the mere passage of time. Without increased mutual understanding and greater mutual effort the three dimensions will tend to remain constant. The truth is that a continuation of negative patterns will probably continue to yield the same painful results. Therefore, if you’re not satisfied with the status quo, do not allow things to stay the same. Step out of your personal comfort zone and initiate open discussion and work for positive change so that your relationship will be stronger and healthier.


In addition to resisting these four dangerous assumptions couples also need to reinforce two important assurances. We understand that there are no real guarantees for any human relationship, but we can create and maintain certain assurances that will help sustain the basic relationship. In the absence of guarantees I’ll take assurances any day! 

First, relationship assurance can be reinforced by increased mutual understanding. Each spouse needs to understand the individual scores in the three FIRO dimensions, that is, how much behavior each one is expressing and how much of that behavior each one wants to receive. Then each spouse strives to understand the other spouse’s scores and what those scores mean for their interaction as a couple within the relationship. This type of mutual understanding is achieved only through a great deal of open, honest self-disclosure and effective listening.

Secondly, relationship assurance can be reinforced as both spouses work hard to satisfy each other’s wants based on clear understanding rather than uncertain assumptions. This work usually requires a significant stretching of one’s personal comfort zone in order to express the level of behavior desired by the other spouse. The relationship equation is clear:  mutual understanding plus consistent effort equals increased satisfaction.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

Travels along the Relationship Highway are better when we understand the three basic dimensions of Inclusion, Control, and Affection. The FIRO model developed by Dr. William Schutz provides a useful tool for relationship repair and renewal. Both relationship partners will experience greater health and happiness when all three dimensions are mutually understood and accommodated.

Clearly, a 3D relationship is much better than one based primarily on height and length, even though joy and duration are important components in a healthy relationship. The addition of the depth dimension will certainly add new perspectives and will motivate movement toward relationship maturity. The application of the three-dimensional FIRO model will help you add this depth dimension to your current relationship.

Best wishes in your travels toward “Relationships in 3D.”  And, as always, I wish you well in all of your relationship journeys.
*Schutz, William C. (1966). The Interpersonal Underworld. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books, Inc.

FIRO Information:  For additional information about the FIRO assessment inventories available from CPP, check out the publisher’s website by clicking on the link below.
                                       FIRO Information      
CREDIT:  I express my thanks to Dr. William Schutz for his pioneering research in interpersonal behavior that led to the FIRO model. I extend my apologies for any inaccurate interpretation or inappropriate application of his basic ideas. -- BJB
**CLARIFICATION:  The couples described in this article are not actual couples but are representative of the many relationships with which I’ve worked in both therapy and educational settings. – BJB


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      (Healthy Relationships Blog #114)


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