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The Relational movement in Psychology

Over the past few decades, the fields of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis have witnessed an explosion of interest in what has come to be known as the "relational approach."  This approach is based on the idea that humans are profoundly influenced by their relationships.  Throughout our lives we develop patterns through which we interact with others--patterns of expressing (or not expressing) our emotions, getting our needs met, finding ways of connecting and getting acceptance and love.  These patterns develop through a process of (unconscious) learning to adapt to the relational system in which the individual develops.


The saying, "what saves you as a child, kills you as an adult," describes how the relational adaptations we all make early in life become problematic when we mature and move into adulthood.  The styles of relating that a child develops are necessary to cope within his family system.  However, when he grows up and moves away from home, he carries these old patterns with him.  Because they are designed to cope with the idiosyncracies of his family's imperfect relational system they don't necessarily serve him well in his independent adult life. Supressing his needs, avoiding feeling sadness, running away from conflict--these types of coping patterns that were required in his family of origin, result in great difficulties coping as an adult living outside of that family system. No longer aiding him in getting his needs met, they often serve to isolate him or prevent him from getting his needs met. Fulfilling, sustainable romantic relationships seem elusive; loneliness and suffering results.

...[W]e cognitively process events in a different and more meaningful way when we feel deeply.  This is how literature changes us, this is how religion changes us, this is how theater and music change us, this is how therapy changes us.  ...I have learned from my own experience that I only really help patients who move me, who force me to feel things I'd often rather not, and who force me to know things about myself that I don't always like.  And I try to do the same for them.

-Karen Maroda

The relational movement argues that these relational patterns are at the root of most people's struggles.  Unless the core relational patterns are identified, understood, and transformed, an individual's struggles will persist.  Another key trait of the Relational approach is its assumption that in order to help clients transform their relational patterns, the therapist must enter into a relationship with the patient and work intersubjectively within the emotional transactions (in the transference/countertransference) that take place in the therapeutic relationship.  Unless the client is allowed to dig down into his powerful emotional-relational currents, re-experience them, and play them out within the container of an attuned relationship, these patterns can never be fully transformed.


Because of this belief, the Relational therapist approaches treatment with fundamentally different assumptions than other therapists.  Countertransference is seen as an important source of information to be used in the treatment; therapist self-disclosure and sharing of emotional experience is seen as a powerful intervention to be carefully used; and the therapist's own needs, relational patterns and pathology are seen as important to include in understanding the dynamics of a case.  From the Relational perspective, the self of the therapist--her emotions, needs, responses, and intuitions--becomes the most important instrument in the treatment.  This approach to treatment not only allows a whole new level of depth of engagement, it also opens up a fascinating, complex, and exciting medium for the therapist to work in.


Unless the analyst affectively enters the patient's relational matrix

or, rather, discovers himself within it--

unless the analyst is in some sense charmed by the patient's entreaties,

shaped by the patients projections,

antagonized and frustrated by the patient's defenses--

the treatment is never fully engaged,

and a certain depth within the analytic experience is lost.

-S. Mitchell



Key thinkers:  Stephen A. Mitchell, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Kohut, Melanie Klein, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Karen Maroda, Martha Stark, Wilfred Bion, Lewis Aron, Jessica Benjamin, Nancy Chodorow, Irvin Yalom, and Martin Buber

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