Relational Therapy

What Is Relational Therapy?

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 social factors, such as race, class, culture, and gender, and examines the power struggles and other issues that develop as a result of these factors, as well as how they relate to the relationships in a person’s life.

When It's Used

People who are experiencing distress from their family, intimate, professional, or social relationships may benefit from relational therapy. This includes those who are experiencing mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or stress, that are causing relationship issues and those who suffer from low self-esteem, eating disorders, and poor body image.

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 about relationships, to build a strong relationship with the therapist, and to use both those new ideas and the therapeutic relationship as a model to create healthier, longer-lasting relationships with others.

How It works

Relational therapy stems from relational-cultural theory and the work of Jean Baker Miller in the 1970s and ‘80s, that looked at human connection and the ways culture influences relationships. Miller’s work centered on women, privilege, and 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 issues, 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-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 issues within the context of the therapeutic relationship and the client’s relationships outside of therapy.

What to Look for in a Relational Therapist

Look for a licensed, experienced mental health professional with specific training in relational cultural theory or relational therapy. 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 issues. A relational therapist should be a warm, empathetic, understanding, and nonjudgmental person, because the success of relational therapy is highly dependent on the client’s ability to form a personal relationship with the therapist.

Sources

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.