What Is Relational Therapy?

Woman explains something to her therapist

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What Is Relational Therapy?

Relational therapy, also considered relational-cultural therapy, is a type of psychotherapy that emphasizes the importance of relationships and their influence on an individual’s well-being. In relational therapy, the therapist encourages exploration of a person’s interaction with others and how these relationships impact their everyday life. 

Therapists use cognitive-behavioral interventions that are specifically directed towards the understanding of unhealthy thinking habits and behaviors linked to particular relationships.

These techniques can identify recurrent patterns of behavior that are present during interactions with others due to past or current relationships. This therapy is also viewed as a way to connect and understand one’s relationship with their therapist. In doing so, an individual will also feel comfortable discussing sensitive information related to past and current relationships.

Techniques of Relational Therapy

Relational therapy involves the incorporation of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy, along with relational interventions.

Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques

Patients may engage in cognitive-behavioral practices that focus on relationships. This involves learning skills that enable healthy thinking habits related to relationships. Therapists will help patients navigate their thinking patterns that may be associated with specific interactions with people.

Psychotherapy Methodologies

Psychotherapy allows the therapist to interpret the impact specific relationships have on the patient's life. Clients express their interactions with significant people in their lives, whether it be current or past experiences. During these discussions, therapists explain the importance relationships have on self-growth.

Relational Interventions

Interventions are centered on building and strengthening the client’s relationships with friends, family members, colleagues, and possibly the therapist as well. These interventions focus on relationships outside of therapy and consist of activities related to the effect that past relationships have on interactions within present relationships.

The patient may be asked to think of instances that involve a disagreement with a loved one. Together, the therapist and patient explore how this may connect to their childhood. 

Some interventions pertain to the patient’s relationship with the therapist. In these types of interventions, therapists might explore possible complacent behavior within therapy. An example of this is saying something just because the patient believes it’s what the therapist may want to hear as opposed to how they actually feel.

What Relational Therapy Can Help With

Relational therapy can offer benefits and support for those experiencing the below conditions and life concerns:

Benefits of Relational Therapy

Relational therapy can be beneficial to most people by offering expertise in identifying debilitating behavioral patterns that one tends to gravitate to in relationships.

It also tackles concerns and trauma that are related to specific relationships, granting healing benefits for individuals with a history of trauma and/or abuse.

This therapy also may offer guidance in how to handle conflict in a variety of social settings and situations, such as the workplace and family gatherings. This kind of therapy can help decipher healthy relationships from those that prohibit self-growth.

Relational therapy, additionally, promotes the development of relationship skills such as patience, self-confidence, and trust

This therapy may specifically offer benefits to those with different mental illnesses, such as personality disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

It is also beneficial to those coping with illness, specifically the interactions and relationships involved in managing health, such as the medical team and family members.

The therapist considers the person’s experiences and traits when discussing past relationships. This makes relational therapy beneficial to many people, especially those who have a hard time maintaining and building relationships.

Effectiveness

Relational therapy originates from relational-cultural theory, a concept from the 1970s that was theorized by psychologist Jean Baker, which stresses the role of relationships in a person’s life.

Jean Baker believed that building connections with others initiated individual growth greater than an emphasis on autonomy. 

There is currently not much scientific literature associated with relational therapy. Not many research studies have been conducted to test the reliability of this therapy but it does not mean it isn’t effective.

This therapy is centered on relational theories that have been explored for several decades. Relational therapy also incorporates concepts that are based on cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy, which are also supported by empirical scientific research. 

A particular research study did, however, use a Relational Work Scale (RWS) to explore patients’ progress in relational therapy. The scale considered the impact of relationship interventions, the timing of interventions, the therapist’s conversational process, and the therapist’s interaction with patients.

Relational therapy appeared to be effective by displaying high reliability in each section that was evaluated. More research must be done to understand which relational interventions and techniques work best for different people.

Things to Consider

Relational therapy has two different definitions that may be considered separate practices:

  1. Exploring relationships from the past and present
  2. Building a healthy relationship with your therapist

Although it is often seen as the strengthening of relationship-building skills and addressing issues involving relationships from the past, it can also be defined as building a relationship with one’s therapist.

It is important to be clear in what you hope to receive from relational therapy. One must, however, find a therapist that they feel comfortable sharing sensitive information with, so building a professional yet trustworthy relationship with your therapist is also an important factor in relational therapy either way. 

How to Get Started

If you're interested in giving relational therapy a shot, here's what you can do:

  • Acknowledge the need for relational therapy. It is up to you to take that first step in deciding to begin therapy. If you feel that you are ready to journey on this path, then you must determine if this specific therapy is the route you want to take. Relational therapy can offer benefits to many people.
  • Figure out which form of relational therapy you want to focus on. Make sure to distinguish which type of relational therapy you have in mind. Whether it be focusing more on relationships of your past and present, building a relationship with your therapist, or engagement in both forms.
  • Begin your search. Look for a therapist that specializes in relational therapy. If you already have a therapist, discuss incorporating relational interventions into your sessions. 
  • Prepare to discuss delicate subject matters. Relational therapy heavily involves discussing your past and current relationships, which can lead to conversations about trauma or personal information. Relational therapists usually try to create a comfortable environment by using certain activities and moving at a pace the patient is comfortable with.
  • Do your best. All you can do is give therapy your best efforts and approach it with an open mind. The conversations that you will engage in may be difficult at times but don’t give up. Building healthy relationships is very important for every person and we can all learn more skills and techniques on how to do so. 

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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