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What Is Relational Psychotherapy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Relational psychotherapy approaches treatment from the perspective that relationships play a core role in how patients think and behave. Early formative experiences can shape a patient’s future interpersonal interactions, many of which aim to establish some kind of relationship. This might be a friendship, a business partnership, or another kind of connection. Understanding the roots of how the patient views and interacts with relationships can help patients and therapists work on specific issues, like unhappiness in a marriage or trouble handling conflict at work.

Counselors who take this approach can incorporate concepts from a number of branches of psychology. They believe that early experiences with relationships are important to evaluate in therapy. These can include connections with parents, teachers, and friends, all of whom may have modeled relationships for the patient. If parents were distant, for example, the child may grow up to be a distant adult who has trouble with close relationships and emotional intimacy.

Specific relationships may be particularly important in the patient’s history, even if they didn’t occur in childhood. Relational psychotherapy can provide an opportunity to explore these in a safe environment where the patient feels comfortable. The interactions between therapist and patient can also become part of the treatment, as they may shed light on how the patient views connections with other people. As is common in psychotherapy, some transference can occur, where the patient may project emotions onto the therapist and this can provide an opportunity to work through specific issues.

As therapy progresses, the client can take experiences and lessons from sessions into the world and use them in interactions with other people. These may include coping tools and techniques as well as suggestions for addressing specific issues in relationships. Someone in relational psychotherapy might, for example, use the sessions to develop better boundaries with a coworker who is being intrusive or inappropriate, or to deepen the connections in a marriage to determine if it’s possible to stay together.

The goals of relational psychotherapy can depend on the client and the situation. In an initial session, therapist and client may talk informally about what led the patient to seek treatment and what kinds of outcomes might be desired. This information can be used to develop goals for therapy, which may help determine how many sessions are appropriate, and how long the relational psychotherapy should continue. It can also be open-ended, proceeding as long as the patient finds it productive.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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