16.4 — Association

In the previous two lessons, we’ve looked at two types of object composition, composition and aggregation. Object composition is used to model relationships where a complex object is built from one or more simpler objects (parts).

In this lesson, we’ll take a look at a weaker type of relationship between two otherwise unrelated objects, called an association. Unlike object composition relationships, in an association, there is no implied whole/part relationship.


To qualify as an association, an object and another object must have the following relationship:

  • The associated object (member) is otherwise unrelated to the object (class)
  • The associated object (member) can belong to more than one object (class) at a time
  • The associated object (member) does not have its existence managed by the object (class)
  • The associated object (member) may or may not know about the existence of the object (class)

Unlike a composition or aggregation, where the part is a part of the whole object, in an association, the associated object is otherwise unrelated to the object. Just like an aggregation, the associated object can belong to multiple objects simultaneously, and isn’t managed by those objects. However, unlike an aggregation, where the relationship is always unidirectional, in an association, the relationship may be unidirectional or bidirectional (where the two objects are aware of each other).

The relationship between doctors and patients is a great example of an association. The doctor clearly has a relationship with his patients, but conceptually it’s not a part/whole (object composition) relationship. A doctor can see many patients in a day, and a patient can see many doctors (perhaps they want a second opinion, or they are visiting different types of doctors). Neither of the object’s lifespans are tied to the other.

We can say that association models as “uses-a” relationship. The doctor “uses” the patient (to earn income). The patient uses the doctor (for whatever health purposes they need).

Implementing associations

Because associations are a broad type of relationship, they can be implemented in many different ways. However, most often, associations are implemented using pointers, where the object points at the associated object.

In this example, we’ll implement a bi-directional Doctor/Patient relationship, since it makes sense for the Doctors to know who their Patients are, and vice-versa.

This prints:

James is seeing patients: Dave
Scott is seeing patients: Dave Betsy
Dave is seeing doctors: James Scott
Frank has no doctors right now
Betsy is seeing doctors: Scott

In general, you should avoid bidirectional associations if a unidirectional one will do, as they add complexity and tend to be harder to write without making errors.

Reflexive association

Sometimes objects may have a relationship with other objects of the same type. This is called a reflexive association. A good example of a reflexive association is the relationship between a university course and its prerequisites (which are also university courses).

Consider the simplified case where a Course can only have one prerequisite. We can do something like this:

This can lead to a chain of associations (a course has a prerequisite, which has a prerequisite, etc…)

Associations can be indirect

In all of the previous cases, we’ve used either pointers or references to directly link objects together. However, in an association, this is not strictly required. Any kind of data that allows you to link two objects together suffices. In the following example, we show how a Driver class can have a unidirectional association with a Car without actually including a Car pointer or reference member:

In the above example, we have a CarLot holding our cars. The Driver, who needs a car, doesn’t have a pointer to his Car -- instead, he has the ID of the car, which we can use to get the Car from the CarLot when we need it.

In this particular example, doing things this way is kind of silly, since getting the Car out of the CarLot requires an inefficient lookup (a pointer connecting the two is much faster). However, there are advantages to referencing things by a unique ID instead of a pointer. For example, you can reference things that are not currently in memory (maybe they’re in a file, or in a database, and can be loaded on demand). Also, pointers can take 4 or 8 bytes -- if space is at a premium and the number of unique objects is fairly low, referencing them by an 8-bit or 16-bit integer can save lots of memory.

Composition vs aggregation vs association summary

Here’s a summary table to help you remember the difference between composition, aggregation, and association:

Property Composition Aggregation Association
Relationship type Whole/part Whole/part Otherwise unrelated
Members can belong to multiple classes No Yes Yes
Members existence managed by class Yes No No
Directionality Unidirectional Unidirectional Unidirectional or bidirectional
Relationship verb Part-of Has-a Uses-a

16.5 -- Dependencies
16.3 -- Aggregation

134 comments to 16.4 — Association

  • Haldhar Patel

    A problem I faced regarding association between two objects:

    >If two objects are in bidirectional association relationship and if any one object is destroyed then the other object will be dangling and accessing it will be a UB . How can someone resolve this issue.

    I made a program which have two classes Teacher and Department and I thought that a Teacher should know about the Department in which he is working on and vice versa , hence I make association between the two and glad that my program run.

    But later I thought that what if the Department is destroyed then the Teacher will be left dangling and yes the program crash, here is the main() snippet of my program:

    Name: Alex
    Qualification : PHD in CS
    Department : ░↑╢     P☺╢
    Subject(s) : É$╕     Ç↨╢  

    I wanted to know if there is a way to handle this issue , maybe if we can know that something is now dangling we may print message and handle the issue.

    Without destroying the Department I get the following result

    Name: Alex
    Qualification : PHD in CS
    Department : Computer Science
    Subject(s) : OperatingSystems

    Name: Nas
    Qualification : Masters in CS
    Department : Computer Science
    Subject(s) : DSA

    Name: Haldhar
    Qualification : studying in learncpp
    Department : Not working in any department
    Subject(s) : Currently not teaching any subjects

    Department : Computer Science
    Subjects : 1.OperatingSystems Alex
    2.DSA Nas
    3.CSA Not alloted yet
    4.UNIX Not alloted yet
    5.JAVA Not alloted yet

    P.S: I don't know about anyone's qualification I just wrote them :)

  • Aphamino


    In the doctor/patient example why was the line   #include <cstdint>   there? What was that needed for?

  • J34NP3T3R

    i dont understand reflective association

    the system when reading this would not get into an infinite loop ?

    • nascardriver

      You'd only get a "loop" (Won't compile) if an object contained (stored) an object of the same type.
      Having only a pointer/reference to an object of the same type is fine.

      If inside every gummy bear there's a gummy bear, you'd have an infinite gummy bear.
      If inside every gummy bear there's a note saying where another gummy bear is hidden (or an empty note), that's fine.

    • Person

      No, Course only holds a pointer to another Course, so it never creates an instance of itself. The programmer has to create one and pass a pointer of it to the next course.

  • Anirban

    From implementation point of view, what is the difference between association and aggregation ? In both the cases, one class can hold a pointer to another class, where the pointer can be initialized on demand.

  • goiu

    Hi there!
    I ask this question here because I've tried this with the last example of an indirect association: if I try to delete the memory pointed by the car pointer, then the program won't terminare succesfully.
    I guess it is because I am trying to delete a memory location with static durage, but I'm not sure, let me know if I miss something or if I have to review some past lesson ^^

  • SaMIRa

    I was wondering if the following code makes sense to remove a car from car lot after the driver was given the car.

  • Rushhahb

    In the Reflexive association example, shouldn't the relation between prerequisites and university course be composition? When the university no longer exists, there hasn't to be any courses.

    Is Linked List data structure an example of Reflexive association?

  • SaMIRa

    1) I was wondering if I could define function member 'addPatient' in the way below so that we don't have to define 'addDoctor' anymore.

    2) If there was a situation where we couldn't define operator<< at the end of the class, then would the function 'getPatientName' be fine?

    Thank you.

  • ammawn

    Is there a common way to handle the circular dependencies with separate files? (I've had this same issue in 9.10 — Overloading typecasts with Cents/Dollars where I tried to make them castable to eachother).

    I implemented the Doctor/Patient Classes keeping each class in separate files and failed to get it to compile. The problem I came up against is that the friend function

    gives the error: "incomplete type is not allowed". Then if I include Doctor.h into Patient.h and Patient.h into Doctor.h it gives me the error: "use of undefined type Doctor" because I only have forward declarations

    Things that I have tried are:
    1.) Forward declaring both classes in each others files
    2.) #including both classes in the .cpp files.





    I feel like the simple answer to my question is "you don't deal with circular dependencies," but that makes it seem like Association is not useful in some cases where it would make sense. Thank you for your time responding.

    • ammawn

      Sorry, it's too late to edit my comment. The solution I have is instead of making a friend function just friend the whole Doctor class

    • Yan Yan Yan

      It results in an error because [Patient.h] doesn't yet know the definition of the [Doctor] class, you've only given it a declaration. Thus, it doesn't know whether there's a [addPatient()] function within the [Doctor] class.

  • raghav kumar

    Here association is implemented using vectors. However a special note should be given about the fact that list should be used instead of vector. I made a school time tabling program in c++ and the classes 1)classroom 2)teachers and 3)subjects were all in association with each other however since the objects of these classes were stores in a vector, all pointers would become invalid once the vector capacity was exceeded. This seems like the right place to mention iterator invalidity.

  • tdinh

    Hi everyone,

    I've tried to type the example of Doctor and Patient in my IDE, but I could not compile the code. The compiler error message is "void Patient::addDoctor(const Doctor&) is private". But when I changed this method into public, I got SIGSEGV error.

    Any help or explanation is highly appreciated.

    Many thanks,

  • kavin

    I was in templates chapter and looked back at aggregation chapter to refer something and boom! its changed.
    I thought that "Create a Patient outside the scope of the Doctor" means you should dynamically allocate Patient. But the updated code in the "chapter 10.3" suggest that dynamic allocation is not needed. So, what does "Create a Patient outside the scope of the Doctor" exactly mean ?
    Could we allocate patient like this in the 1st example?

    • nascardriver

      Dynamic allocation is not needed and shouldn't be used here. If we don't want an object to be non-existent (ie. be a nullptr), references should be used instead. On top of that, manual dynamic allocations are prone to memory leaks.
      I updated this lesson to use `std::reference_wrapper` just like the previous lesson. Thanks for pointing out the inconsistency!

  • kavin

    In last example line 63,

    why are we creating the object car as a pointer type, but not Driver d in line 61 ? Why are we creating a pointer object without having a pointer member variable ?

    • nascardriver

      `CarLot::getCar` potentially returns a `nullptr` (If there is no car with the given id). If we want to store the return value of `CarLot::getCar`, we have to use a pointer.
      The driver on the other hand is created by us. We're certain it exist.

  • David

    Hi,I don't understand the meaning "The associated object (member) is otherwise unrelated to the object (class)".
    Dose the meaning of "otherwise unrelated to the object" be the same with "unrelated to the object"?
    Thanks for replying

  • ejamesr

    Hi nascardriver!  You have a typo near the bottom of this lesson (10.4) where you say "... referencing them by an 8-bit or 16-bit integer can save lots of memory."  I believe you meant to say "... referencing them by a 32-bit or 64-bit integer can save lots of memory.".

    BTW, wonderful content, this is helping me get back up to speed on C++ after several years of focusing solely on C#.

    • Alex

      No, it's correct as written. If pointers took 4 or 8 bytes, there would be no space savings by replacing that with a 4 or 8 byte index. The space savings comes in if we can use an index that takes less memory (e.g. 8 or 16 bytes).

  • noobmaster

    in Doctor-Patient example (line 86), we can just use pat.m_name instead of pat.getName() right?

    And here's my full code if the patient is the one who add the doctors, not otherwise

  • Behzad

    I have a slightly modified version of Doctor-Patient example in which I have tried to change the Patient::addDoctor function such that the Patient can also modify the doctor object and update its patient list. But when I run the code, it gives me Segmentation fault: 11
    If I comment out line 96, the code runs just fine. Could you please help me find what's causing the Segmentation fault?

  • Atas

    Wanted to be pedantic and make the parameter const in

    but as it turns out you cant push_back a pointer to const in a vector of regular pointers. Makes sense, I guess.

  • Louis Cloete

    Hi @Alex. I had a hunch that rearranging the two classes will enable you to friend only void Doctor::addPatient(Patient *pat) instead of the whole class Doctor. Here is my adjusted code:

    Now my question is, is there any benefit doing things the one way or another? I would guess that my adjusted code is better, since you expose less of the private innards of class Patient to the outside via Doctor's public interface. It is also expressing intent more clearly and directly in code. Am I reasoning correctly?

    • Alex

      For this particular example, your solution is better because it exposes less. If Patient and Doctor were more intertwined, having to friend each individual function might be burdensome -- but that's not the case here. I've updated the lesson incorporating your adjustment. Thanks!

  • lucieon


    I tried to code the Doctor-Patient program using header files but it doesn't compile.
    My code:

    1) Doctor.h

    2) Patient.h
    Note: Here I made the addDoctor(Doctor *) function public because I don't know how to friend a Patient class' function in Doctor class.

    3) Doctor.cpp

    4) Patient.cpp

    5) association.cpp

    And the output I get after building the project:

    Is it possible to do resolve the circular dependency between Doctor and Patient this way? If not then can you please explain why?
    And is there any other alternative than the forward declaration option because it just feels unnatural to code it like that.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Lucieon!

      > Is it possible to do resolve the circular dependency between Doctor and Patient this way? If not then can you please explain why?
      No, now you have circular includes.

      > is there any other alternative than the forward declaration
      No, you need forward declarations. Use as few includes as possible in header files.

    • Louis Cloete

      You need to forward declare class Doctor; in Patient.h and class Patient; in Doctor.h and then #include both Patient.h and Doctor.h in both of Patient.cpp and Doctor.cpp. You should also declare void Doctor::addPatient(Patient *pat) as a friend of class Patient. Then your code should be equivalent to the example given in the text.

  • beginnerCoder

    Hello! I wonder why we don't also add this line of code to the function addDoctor:


    since if a patient sees a doctor then the doctor has a new patient!

  • Gaurav Arya

    Hi Alex,

    Taking the example of university course and its prerequisite course, will the relationship between them still be called reflexive if there are multiple prerequisites to a single course? A trivial example would be physics, for which one may have 2 prerequisites maths and english.

  • So linked list is implemented using reflexive association relation...

  • Hi Alex,

    I see that for functions taking in std::string as an argument, you sometimes pass by value and at other times pass by reference (even though it isn't being modified.) I'd really like to know what the best practice is.

    If the modification is to be seen in the calling function, then yes, pass by reference is the way to go. If not, what's the best practice? Pass by value, or a (const) reference?


    • Hi Nitin!

      If the argument isn't being modified, pass by const reference, unless it's a built-in type (int, float, double, ...).
      If the argument is being modified, pass by pointer if the caller is supposed to see the change, otherwise pass by value.
      Only pass by non-const reference, when passing by pointer is not possible or too complicated (eg. operators).

  • David

    Hi Alex! I wanted to implement the Patient/Doctor classes with each class' member functions defined in separate cpp files. Is the following code the best way to do this:





    • Hi David!

      * @Patient::getName and @Doctor::getName should be defined in source files and should return const references.
      * @Patient::Patient and @Doctor::Doctor should be defined in source files.
      * @Patient doesn't ever edit it's doctors, you could store const doctors.
      * @patient.hpp:20, @patient.cpp:10,18, @doctor.hpp:18, @doctor.cpp:12,20: Use uniform initizalization.
      * The name printing loops could be for-each loops, because you don't need to index.
      * @std::vector::size returns a @std::size_t, use that instead of unsigned long.
      * Both operator<<s: Use @std::vector::empty.

      • David

        Hi nascardriver! Thanks for all the great feedback. One question - if I define @Patient::Patient and @Doctor::Doctor in source files, how will the definitions "see" one another? Would I need to #include the source files?

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