ActiveRecord Associations & You

I love abstraction. It’s great to compartmentalize complexity and keep your application modular. SQL is not that. Relying on SQL strings in your code ties your implementation directly to the type, structure, and even the version of your database. ActiveRecord (the ORM behind Rails) is great for letting us focus on our application and not worry so much about the database particulars.

However, understanding relational databases can really help improve the quality and speed of your application. Being able to compose an ERD of your system and understand how to normalize a database will lead to better system design.

ActiveRecord Associations

Let’s look at the different ActiveRecord relations and point out what is going on in the database. I am going to assume you know how to create migrations to add attributes to a model and focus on the associations.

belongs_to, has_one

These are pretty straightforward and are 2 sides of the same relationship. The table of the belongs_to model contains a column with the foreign key of the has_one model. ActiveRecord expects only one belongs_to model to match up to the has_one. The has_one model should be the one that semantically makes more sense to own the other. For instance, it makes more sense for a profile to belong_to a user, rather than the other way around.

Before 4.1, there was a peformance benefit from specifiying that the has_one and belongs_to were related, but now rails guesses the inverse based on hueristics. If you are on a version previous to 4.1 or your relationship uses a different class name, or other options, you may want to specify the inverse_of attribute. This will reduce the number of database calls since ActiveRecord will not go to the database if the object has already been loaded from another association.

belongs_to, has_many

The same as above, except the has_many model is expected to have 0 - Infinity of the belongs_to model. For instance, a group might be able to have many members, but a user can only belong to one group.

has_one :through

This is a way to relate two models through a third model. If a user has_one profile, and a profile has_one avatar, we can access the user’s avatar directly without having to load the entire profile.

has_many :through

Similar to has_one :through, this allows us to connect two models through a third model. A user might have many uploaded avatars they can choose from that are associated to the user through the profile.

In some instances it will make sense to create a new connecting model to represent the relationship. For instance a membership might make sense to be its own model that can have methods and be queried more easily using activerecord.


This is used when you want a many-to-many relationship but you don’t actually need to interact with the relationship itself. You might have a user with a simple reference to groups they join. Under the hood this is actually just another version of has_many :through, but the connector is a join table instead of a “real” model. We don’t create a separate class to represent it.

Originally posted on the MHS Blog

Ross Hunter

Computer Philosopher
Grand Rapids, MI