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Relational therapy, sometimes referred to as relational-cultural therapy, is a therapeutic approach based on the idea that mutually satisfying relationships with others are necessary for one’s emotional well-being. This type of psychotherapy takes into account the ways in which social and familial factors relate to the relationships in a person’s life.

When It's Used

People who are experiencing distress from their relationships—whether family, romantic, professional, or social—may benefit from relational therapy. This includes those who are experiencing relationship problems from disorders or difficulties such as:

• Other mood disorders
• Eating disorders
• Addictions
• Low self-esteem
• Poor body image
Chronic pain or other illness
Personality disorders

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What to Expect

In relational therapy, you learn to identify how you may be pushing people away rather than attracting them and also come to understand how these behaviors are related to past experiences. The goal is to develop new ideas and thinking patterns about relationships, build a strong relationship with the therapist, and use both the new ideas and the therapeutic relationship as a model to create healthier, longer-lasting relationships with the people around you.

Relational therapy aims to build an individual’s sense of self and agency, as well as patience with and trust in others. The individual will learn about boundaries, compromise, and healthy balance in relationships. Better and stronger relationships are a foundation for a fulfilling life and overall well-being; this modality can help promote stability and security in an individual’s life. While there isn’t a wealth of research on this modality, it does not mean it cannot be helpful.

How It Works

Relational therapy stems from relational-cultural theory and the work of Jean Baker Miller in the 1970s and 1980s, which looked at human connection and the manner in which culture influences relationships. Miller was the founding director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, part of the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at the Wellesley Centers for Women. The center has focused on the well-being of women, children, and families.

Miller’s work centered on women, privilege, power, and the dominant and subordinate roles played out in relationships. At that time, there was a movement in the field of psychotherapy away from pure introspection and toward an exploration of the dynamics of human relationships and their effects on individuals. More focus was given to emotional difficulties, stress, and power differentials from past relationships and how they can interfere with true personal expression and the ability to form solid relationships in the present.

Relational therapy integrates cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is goal-oriented, focuses on faulty thinking, and promotes self-awareness and healthy behaviors. These principles are applied to your daily interactions with others. It also uses principles of other therapies like psychoanalytic and psychodynamic. According to Miller and colleagues, exceptional interpersonal connection constitutes growth-fostering relationships that are high in empathy and mutuality.

The relational-cultural theory focuses therapists and counselors on the cultures and contexts that affect relationships so they can work effectively with more diverse clients. The therapist addresses these difficulties within the context of the therapeutic relationship and the client’s relationships outside of therapy.

What to Look for in a Relational Therapist

It’s a good idea to screen your potential therapist either in person or over video or phone. During this initial introduction, ask the therapist:

• How they may help with your particular concerns
• If they have dealt with this type of problem before
• What their process entails
• What their treatment timeline looks like

Look for a licensed, experienced mental health professional with training in relational therapy or relational-cultural theory. This professional can be a counselor, social worker, psychologist, marriage and family therapist, among others. Health providers can receive training and certification for this type of therapy. The Stone Center Counseling Service at Wellesley College does administer training programs in advanced clinical practice.

In addition to finding someone with the appropriate educational background, experience, and relational approach, look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable discussing personal matters. A relational therapist should be a warm, empathetic, understanding, and nonjudgmental individual, because the success of relational therapy is highly dependent on the client’s ability to form a successful therapeutic relationship with the therapist. Note that not all types of therapy are covered by insurance, so call your carrier for information.

Jean Baker Miller Training Institute website. 2017. Wellesley Centers for Women. Wellesley College.        
Hall KG, Barden S, Conley A. A relational-cultural framework: Emphasizing relational dynamics and multicultural skill development. The Professional Counselor
Frey L. Relational-cultural therapy: Theory, research, and application to counseling competencies. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 2013;44(3):177-185.
Last updated: 07/11/2022