What is relational therapy?
Relational therapy is a type of talk therapy that draws on the psychodynamic therapeutic approach. Central to the relational therapy approach is the idea that we are shaped by our social world and relationships, and that having good relationships is essential for our wellbeing and self-esteem. From a relational perspective then, our experience of emotional distress is connected to relational issues.
Relational therapy explores how past experiences shape us and our patterns of relating to others. It aims to equip individuals with new and more helpful ways of interacting in the present. This, in turn, improves our relationships and connections with others, and so improves our emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Read on for more information about relational therapy, what it’s like, and tips for finding a therapist.
What can relational therapy help with?
The therapy is intended - through the lens of relationships - to help people who are experiencing distress for a wide range of reasons.
Problems with relationships are thought to be connected to the distress in some way. Some examples of relationships issues include:
- Conflict in your relationship with your partner, due to trust or communication issues
- Pushing away new people you meet, even though you’d like to be friends
- Feeling anxious whenever you interact with people at work
- Family or workplace relationship issues
Relational therapy can help with problematic relationship patterns of any kind, not just those affecting romantic partner relationships.
Does relational therapy work?
As relational therapy can be delivered in quite different ways, it is difficult to consistently research how effective it is.
That said, the existing research suggests that relational-based interventions can be effective treatments. For example, one study found that individuals with personality disorder diagnoses showed similar gains from participating in either brief relational therapy or cognitive behavior therapy (1).
Further research is required before any firm conclusions can be made about how effective relational therapy is.
How does relational therapy work?
Relational therapy draws on psychodynamics; the theory that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced by our unconscious and past experiences.
In relational therapy, the focus is on how our past relationship experiences are enacted in current relationships, leading us to relate to others in unhelpful ways, and resulting in unhappiness and disconnect. Understanding these earlier relationships and how they shaped us is important in helping us to understand why we feel bad about ourselves during present-day interactions.
This is important because relationship difficulties are considered to be a major cause of mental health challenges, such as:
Your therapist will help you to uncover these connections and patterns in your everyday interactions and as they arise in the therapeutic relationship. Together, you’ll identify and work through the patterns to reduce their effect on your current thoughts and behavior. You learn new and more helpful ways of interacting with others that help improve your connections and wellbeing.
There is a strong focus on the relationship between the therapist and the individual in relational therapy. Interactions with your therapist can reflect what is happening in relationships outside of therapy, and therefore provides a safe forum for trying out new ways of relating to others.
Length and frequency of relational therapy sessions
Unlike some other therapy types, relational therapy is an approach based on a theory, rather than a set protocol or series of techniques. As such, the frequency of sessions and length of therapy depends on individual circumstances.
Typically, relational therapy tends to be a longer-term style of therapy, perhaps with weekly sessions and ongoing for months. You and your therapist will decide together on the right time to finish therapy.
What happens in a typical relational therapy session
As relational therapy is theory-led and experiential, many aspects of therapy can vary widely.
Typically, however, relational therapy sessions are based on the ongoing process of interaction between the individual and the therapist. Through these interactions, repeating relational patterns become evident, based on the past experiences of both parties. The therapist is constantly monitoring interactions to notice how the individual is responding, intending to identify when the individual reacts and feels bad, or engages in an unhelpful behavior, for example.
During sessions, the therapist brings awareness to problematic patterns of interaction that arise between the individual and therapist. They might do this, for example, by saying something like, “What I experience right now is a feeling of you pulling away from me. What’s your experience?”.
The therapist helps investigate how the unhelpful pattern of interacting came about, and then works on new ways of interacting. You might look at unhelpful thinking patterns and work on developing new and more helpful ways of thinking, as you might do in cognitive behavior therapy.
You might practice and experiment with new behaviors and ways of interacting using the relationship with your therapist. The relationship with the therapist provides a new kind of relational experience from which to learn.
What to look for in a therapist for relational therapy
There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting a therapist, including:
Look for a therapist who has experience treating people with relationship issues and has completed training in relational therapy. Relational styles of therapy are referred to in various ways, including “relational therapy”, “relational-cultural therapy”, or “relational psychotherapy”.
Also, look for a therapist who demonstrates their commitment to the approach through membership of a relevant organization, such as The International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy.
Therapists often include this information in their biography on their website or online profile.
With so many different provider types available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed therapist. This ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. All therapists on Zencare have already been vetted.
The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. This is critical to the relational therapy approach, as you’re likely to work through cycles of rupture and repair in your relationship. As such, it’s important to work with someone you trust and feel understood by.
The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also allows you to ask about their training, experience, and what therapy will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding.
Find therapists specializing in relational therapy
Find therapists who specialize in relational therapy on Zencare. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!
Sources and references
- (1) Muran, C.J., “Evaluating an alliance-focused treatment for personality disorders”,
- Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy, “What is Relational Therapy?”, https://www.brightonandhovepsychotherapy.com/blog/what-is-relational-therapy/ Harley Therapy, “What is Relational Therapy and Can It Help You?”, https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/what-is-relational-therapy.htm
- Safran, J.D., & Muran, C.J., “Brief relational therapy and the resolution of ruptures in the therapeutic alliance”. PDF accessed online February 2020 at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268982632_Brief_relational_therapy_and_the_resolution_of_ruptures_in_the_therapeutic_alliance
- Safran, J.D., “Relational Psychotherapy” from the American Psychological Association Systems of Psychotherapy video series summary, at https://www.apa.org/pubs/videos/4310846?tab=2