Three young adults run across field with hands linkedRelational psychotherapy, an approach that can help individuals recognize the role relationships play in the shaping of daily experiences, attempts to help people understand patterns appearing in the thoughts and feelings they have toward themselves.

Based on the idea that strong and fulfilling relationships with other individuals can help people maintain emotional well-being, this model may be beneficial to people seeking therapy for any number of reasons, but in particular to address long-term emotional distress, especially when distress occurs as a result of relational concerns.

History and Development

An integrative form of therapy, relational psychotherapy was born from a combination of several therapeutic theories and practices. Among these include self psychology, relational psychoanalysis, and feminist theories of psychotherapy. The work of Jean Baker Miller contributed a number of important ideas significant to the development of this approach. Other notable individuals who collaborated in the development of this approach include Janet Surrey, Judy Jordan, and Irene Stiver, who worked with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College. 

In the 1980s a shift occurred in the practice of therapy, in that it moved away from simply exploring inner experiences (intrasubjective) and toward greater understanding of the impact of relationships on individual experiences (intersubjective). Since then, relational psychotherapy has expanded, growing to become a widely used theoretical base for many other forms of therapy that focus on a person's relationships and the impact they can have on emotional and mental wellness. 

Core Principles of Relational Psychotherapy

Relational psychotherapy is founded on the concept of relationships with others being an essential aspect of emotional well-being. Individuals who find it difficult to maintain supportive and healthy relationships may experience a sense of disconnection in addition to feelings of diminished self-worth and general distress, and their sense of emotional well-being may negatively affected. 

The practice of relational psychotherapy adheres to the following principles: 

  • It is important for a person to maintain fulfilling and satisfying relationships with those around them in order to maintain emotional health.
  • Stress and emotional upheaval are often the result of past relational experiences, and these concerns may inhibit the present self from full expression.
  • The therapist administering relational psychotherapy provides an atmosphere of empathy and attentiveness in order to elicit full disclosure of the experiences and events affecting the person seeking treatment, as well as the effects they have had both relationally and socially.
  • The therapist and the person in therapy work together to forge a strong, collaborative, and secure relationship that can serve as a model for future relationships the person wishes to develop. Other relationships can be measured against this supportive one to determine if they are constructive or destructive.

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How Does Relational Psychotherapy Work?

In general, relational psychotherapy sessions emphasize the development of relational awareness. To achieve this, the therapist and the person in therapy must typically gain an understanding of the individual's strategies for disconnection. or the styles of interpersonal interaction that are used to push others away. Once they are identified, the therapist and individual can explore the potential reasons behind the use of these strategies. Transformation begins to occur when the therapist and individual build new relational images using the therapist-person in therapy relationship as a model for a secure and healthy relationship.

The primary goal of relational psychotherapy is to help those seeking help better understand how they operate in relation to others and how their relating patters can have an impact on mental and emotional well-being. Therapists can also help individuals better understand and take into consideration the effects of differences in power or equality as well as the impact of social issues such as class, race, gender, and culture.

Training and Certification

Relational psychotherapy trainings are offered through many therapist training programs and mental health centers. The American Psychological Association, for example, offers continuing education that focuses on relational psychotherapy. Other organizations offering training in the approach include the Toronto Institute for Relational Psychotherapy, which provides a comprehensive program in the use of relational psychotherapy, and the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, which conducts research and offers workshops and professional trainings. When certain experiences, relationships, and/or beliefs are affecting a person's ability to draw satisfaction and fulfillment from life, therapy can often help the person achieve insight and address the situation or relationship. 

How Can Relational Psychotherapy Help?

Relational theory, which holds that the sense of connection healthy relationships provide is an essential aspect of human well-being, suggests that when this connection is absent, mental and emotional concerns can result. The primary goal of this therapy is to address these concerns and help those seeking treatment to become better able to develop supportive, lasting relationships. Mutual empathy and authenticity, as expressed through the therapeutic relationship, can help facilitate this goal. 

When certain experiences, relationships, and/or beliefs are affecting a person's ability to draw satisfaction and fulfillment from life, therapy can often help the person achieve insight and address the situation or relationship. 

This approach largely helps individuals address the effects of relational challenges, such as family issues and intimate relationship difficulties, new life situations, or school and workplace issues. Relational psychotherapy may also be beneficial for those who find emotional regulation challenging, and it has also been shown to be helpful in the treatment of relational difficulties experienced with anxiety, stress, or depression. 

Concerns and Limitations

While relational psychotherapy may be beneficial in the treatment of a range of concerns, this approach may not be recommended for individuals who have avoidant personality traits.

Further, the development of standardized training for students may be challenging, as this approach is largely based on theory rather than the use of specific techniques.

While a good professional relationship between the therapist and the person in treatment is an essential component of all forms of therapy, relational therapy emphasizes the therapist-person relationship as one that is supportive and collaborative. Thus, therapists who have been trained to be take a more neutral approach or to take on an expert role may have some difficulty in utilizing relational psychotherapy, as it places particular importance on the therapist’s responses and collaboration. 


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