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Mar 17

Relational Therapy – What Does it Mean?

People are social beings. Relational therapy is born out of the concept that we all have relationships that can be tended to, and that we can become skilled at nurturing and repairing them.

Having Satisfying Relationships

Sometimes the pain of a breakup can stay with us for a long time. It can affect us in ways we cannot conceive of when we first break up with a partner. Other times, the patterns that we have learned in other relationships can prevent us from finding true emotional intimacy in our present relationships. Often these beliefs about ourselves, about our relationships, and who we are in relationship, lie outside of our cognitive awareness. Building awareness regarding these underlying beliefs, is one of the hallmarks of relational therapy.

Origins of Relational Therapy

In large part, relational therapy grew out of the early work of Jean Baker Miller in the 1970’s and 80’s. At that time, Miller was working and thinking about women, power, and privilege and how these played out in both dominant and subordinate roles in relationships. She believed that isolation was one of the most damaging of all human experiences. Thinking about relational interactions led her to relational therapy.

There was a movement at that time in psychotherapy, away from pure introspection and insight, toward understanding how a person functions in relationships and how those relationships and interactions help form and inform the individual. This movement toward more integration between the interpsychic and the intrapsychic continues to inform much of therapy today.

Relational therapy is also closely related to object relations, attachment therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and experiential therapies of all sorts.

Underpinnings of Relational Psychotherapy

The theory holds that it is important to have fulfilling and satisfying relationships with others. These relationships and how we interact in them can provide and sustain emotional health if the relationships are satisfying. If they are problematic, these relationships can lead to stress, emotional pain and trauma. This can prevent a person from living in a full and authentic way.

Relationships are something like mirrors. In relationships, we can see ourselves as the world sees us. This clearer lens helps us gain a clear sense of self both of ourselves and of ourselves in relationship.

How the Therapeutic Relationship Can Help

In therapy in general, a strong therapeutic bond is crucial to a good therapeutic outcome. In relational therapy, the need for a strong therapeutic bond between the therapist and the client is even more important. Together, the client and therapist work to develop a strong collaborative relationship. The relationship must feel safe and secure in order for the client to feel safe in discussing sensitive personal feelings and experiences of self and of relationships. To that end, in relational therapy, the therapist works to provide a strong sense of empathy with the client such that the client feels heard, understood, and valued during the course of therapy.

The goal of therapy is to gain a clearer sense of self, to develop, nurture and sustain emotionally satisfying relationships and to alleviate emotional pain and stress along with accompanying symptoms of depression, anxiety and other states of emotional pain.

In relational therapy, the primary tool used to achieve these goals is the therapeutic bond between the therapist and the client. The client and therapist seek to understand what is going on in the relationship between the therapist and the client during therapy. The dynamics and patterns of these interactions are explored and discussed in addition to exploring and discussing the client’s relationships outside therapy.

Therapy provides a microcosm of the client’s world and relationships. Patterns that are present for the client in the outside world will also often make their way into the client’s relationship with the therapist. The relational therapist is skilled at exploring this area that lies in therapy between the client and the therapist. The work takes place as the client and therapist explore the relational meaning of what occurs for the client both in the client’s relationship with the therapist and in the client’s relationships with others.

All relationships ebb and flow. In some ways, that ebb and flow can be seen as rupture and repair. Small tears occur in the fabric of the relationship and one or the other party in the relationship then makes a move toward a repair.

Learning that small ruptures do not need to end a relationship is critical in learning how to have and maintain satisfying relationships. In large part, for adult relationships, this means learning and practicing skills that enable the client to make repairs. This in turn, increases one’s relationship skill and confidence level. These small ruptures and repairs happen in all relationships, including the therapeutic relationship. Learning to work through these ruptures and repairs in a safe therapeutic environment is one of the major components of relational therapy. If we can do it safely in therapy, we can do it with our outside relationships as well.

In relational therapy we can learn about when we push people away and when we seek connection. Gaining relational awareness is one of the primary goals of relational therapy. Every person must gain an awareness of their individual needs and strategies for seeking connection and disconnection. Seeking to better understand what lies underneath a client’s strategies for disconnection may help that client find ways to meet underlying needs without disconnecting in relationship.

Other skills can be gained and used within the context of relational therapy. For example, a therapist and client can work toward deepening emotional experiences, exploring defenses to connection, changing maladaptive thought patterns and cognitive distortions, and negotiating through tensions and upheavals in relationships. All of these make themselves known in relationship at various times, and all must be managed.


Relational therapy is particularly well suited to clients with relationship issues, but it is also used to help clients who suffer from anxiety, depression, stress, low self-esteem, eating disorders. It can be used to help with family issues, intimate relationships, and school and workplace issues.

Life can be complicated, messy, and rarely progresses in a straight line.  PeoplePsych is a Chicago-based psychotherapy group that treats adults seeking profound change in their lives.  We provide services that affirm the dignity, worth, and value of all individuals. We strive to create a safe non-judgemental space for clients to explore the issues that bring them. To connect with one of our therapists, please contact our Clinical Coordinator at (312) 252-5252 or

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