Relational therapists view the here-and-now therapeutic relationship as a collaborative partnership rather than as an expert-driven intervention. It starts with nurturing client’s trust in the relationship, and aims to offer nourishing support, reparative emotional processing and regulation.
Therapy is also often deemed relational when the roots of clients’ identity and emotional vulnerability are seen to lie in their relational-social history and wider cultural context, rather than in their individual pathology. When working with clients, relational therapists remain reflexively aware of the impact of intersectionality and seek to minimize the impact of oppressive power dynamics.
A key assumption of relational therapy is that humans have a natural drive to be in relationships. Thus, when relationships prove unfulfilling or toxic, this generates considerable distress. Within the safe space provided by a positive therapeutic relationship, client and therapist together explore the client’s relational needs and processes, towards their developing more enriching relationships.
The unique character of each therapeutic relationship means that therapists tend to tailor their approach to the needs of each individual client. However, four tenets are seen as central to all relational psychotherapy:
- The therapeutic relationship is viewed as a collaborative partnership between therapist and client.
- The therapist is a safe, steady, holding, containing presence who is willing to be-with the client in their process, moment-to-moment.
- The therapist engages holistically with the client’s embodied and social being via their own embodied and social being.
- The therapeutic relationship acts as a microcosm of the client’s social world, and on that basis offers an opportunity to raise awareness of relational processes.
The precise nature of relational work varies across different theoretical approaches and according to whether the therapist is working with individuals, couples, or groups (including families). Some therapists offer “light-touch relationality” while others engage more “relationally committed” versions. If the space for in-depth relational processing is not available, relational therapists will seek to check in regularly with clients about their expectations and experiences of therapy. This maintains the therapeutic alliance and promotes continuing mutual collaboration.
The view that intrasubjective, intersubjective and social elements are intertwined and always relevant is shared by all relational psychological approaches. However, relational psychotherapists vary in their theoretical orientation and interventions. Champions of competing modalities prioritize different elements.
Mirroring wider psychotherapeutic debates, relational psychotherapists differ regarding the degree to which they favour evidence-based competencies versus creative artistry. Cognitive behavioral advocates tend to prioritize promoting behaviors that can be scientifically observed and validated. Others, including psychoanalytic and some humanistically-inclined therapists, are drawn towards engaging more intuitive, symbolic and interpretive processes that cannot be readily observed and measured.
Relational therapists also disagree on the nature of the relationship they seek to build with clients. Some emphasize developmental aspects and attachment (past attachments and attachment with the therapist). This is the case with many integrative, humanistic, psychodynamic and body therapies, which focus on using the transferential and counter-transferential relationship to attune to the client, raise client awareness and offer relational repair. Alternatively, the focus may be more on ensuring an authentic, empathetic, collaborative partnership with the client, as in humanistic, cognitive behavioral approaches and pluralistic practice.
Despite differences in practice, all relational psychotherapy approaches adhere to a firm relational stance. Indeed, relational therapists often have more in common with each other despite embracing different approaches than with their more traditionally-minded colleagues, including a shared perspective regarding therapy that is not relational. It might be assumed, for instance, that an attachment-based therapist is by definition relational. However, if this therapist overlooks their own role in the relational dynamics and/or does not appreciate the impact of their client’s wider social-cultural background, then they are probably not a relational psychotherapist. If a solution-focused therapist concentrates on teaching skills, rather than collaboration and recognizing the significance of cultural context, then they are not being relational. When a humanistic practitioner becomes unduly focused on a client’s individual feelings without regard to their cultural context, then their therapy cannot be considered relational.