Relational psychoanalysis

Relational psychoanalysis

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Relational psychoanalysis is a school of psychoanalysis in the United States that emphasizes the role of real and imagined relationships with others in mental disorder and psychotherapy. 'Relational psychoanalysis is a relatively new and evolving school of psychoanalytic thought considered by its founders to represent a "paradigm shift" in psychoanalysis'.[1]

Relational psychoanalysis began in the 1980s as an attempt to integrate interpersonal psychoanalysis's emphasis on the detailed exploration of interpersonal interactions with British object relations theory's ideas about the psychological importance of internalized relationships with other people.[2] Relationalists argue that personality emerges from the matrix of early formative relationships with parents and other figures. Philosophically, relational psychoanalysis is closely allied with social constructionism.


  • Drives versus relationships 1
  • Techniques 2
  • Authors 3
  • Critique 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Drives versus relationships

An important difference between relational theory and traditional psychoanalytic thought is in its theory of motivation, which would 'assign primary importance to real interpersonal relations, rather than to instinctual drives'.[3] Freudian theory, with a few exceptions, proposes that human beings are motivated by sexual and aggressive drives. These drives are biologically rooted and innate. They are ultimately not shaped by experience.

Relationalists, on the other hand, argue that the primary motivation of the psyche is to be in relationships with others. As a consequence early relationships, usually with primary caregivers, shape one's expectations about the way in which one's needs are met. Therefore, desires and urges cannot be separated from the relational contexts in which they arise. This does not mean that motivation is determined by the environment (as in behaviorism), but that motivation is determined by the systemic interaction of a person and his or her relational world. Individuals attempt to re-create these early learned relationships in ongoing relationships that may have little or nothing to do with those early relationships. This re-creation of relational patterns serves to satisfy the individuals' needs in a way that conforms with what they learned as infants. This re-creation is called an enactment.


When treating patients, relational psychoanalysts stress a mixture of waiting, and authentic spontaneity. Some relationally oriented psychoanalysts eschew the traditional Freudian emphasis on interpretation and free association, instead emphazing the importance of creating a lively, genuine relationship with the patient. However, many others place a great deal of importance on the Winnicottian concept of "holding" and are far more restrained in their approach, generally giving weight to well formulated interpretations made at what seems to be the proper time. Overall, relational analysts feel that psychotherapy works best when the therapist focuses on establishing a healing relationship with the patient, in addition to focusing on facilitating insight. They believe that in doing so, therapists break patients out of the repetitive patterns of relating to others that they believe maintain psychopathology. Noteworthy too is 'the emphasis relational psychoanalysis places on the mutual construction of meaning in the analytic relationship'.[4]


Stephen A. Mitchell has been described as the "most influential relational psychoanalyst".[5] His 1983 book, co-written with Jay R. Greenberg and called Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory is considered to be the first major work of relational psychoanalysis. Prior work especially by Sabina Spielrein in the 1910s to 1930s is often cited, especially by Adrienne Harris and others who connect feminism with the field, but as part of the prior Freud/Jung/Spielrein tradition.

Other important relational authors include Neil Altman, Lewis Aron, Hugo Bleichmar, Philip Bromberg, Nancy Chodorow, Susan Coates, Rebecca Coleman Curtis, Jody Davies, Emmanuel Ghent, Adrienne Harris, Irwin Hirsch, Irwin Z. Hoffman, Karen Maroda, Stuart Pizer, Owen Renik, Ramón Riera, Daniel Schechter, Joyce Slowchower, Martha Stark, Donnel Stern, Robert Stolorow, Jeremy D. Safran and Jessica Benjamin - the latter pursuing the 'goal of creating a genuinely feminist and philosophically informed relational psychoanalysis'.[6] A significant historian and philosophical contributor is Philip Cushman., Patricia DeYoung


The objection has been made that 'Relational psychoanalysis is an American phenomenon, with a politically powerful and advantageous group of members advocating for conceptual and technical reform' from a professional psychologist group perspective: 'most identified relational analysts are psychologists, as are the founding professionals associated with initiating the relational movement'.[7]

Moreover, in its emphasis on the developmental importance of other people, 'relational theory is merely stating the obvious' - picking up on 'a point that Freud made explicit throughout his theoretical corpus, which becomes further emphasized more significantly by early object relations therapists through to contemporary self psychologists.'[7] Psychoanalyst and philosopher Jon Mills has offered a substantial critique of the relational movement.[8][9]

See also


  1. ^ Jerrold R. Brandell, Theory and Practice in Clinical Social Work (2010) p. 70
  2. ^ Patricia A. DeYoung, Relational Psychotherapies: A Primer (2003) p. 26
  3. ^ Brandell, p. 70
  4. ^ Patricia A. DeYoung, Relational Psychotherapies: A Primer (2003) p. 28
  5. ^ Brandell, p. 70
  6. ^ R. E. Groenhaut/M. Bower, Philosophy, Feminism, and Faith (2003) p. 270
  7. ^ a b Mills, Jon (Spring 2005). "A Critique of Relational Psychoanalysis" (PDF). Psychoanalytic Psychology: 156, 158. 
  8. ^ Mills, Jon (2012). Conundrums: A Critique of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.  
  9. ^ Mills, Jon, ed. (2005). Relational and Intersubjective Perspectives in Psychoanalysis A Critique. Aronson/Rowman & Littlefield.  

Further reading

  • Stephen A. Mitchell, (1988). Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis: An Integration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Stephen A. Mitchell, (1993). Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.
  • Stephen A. Mitchell, (1997). Influence and Autonomy in Psychoanalysis. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
  • Stephen A. Mitchell, (2000). Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
  • Stephen A. Mitchell and Aron, Lewis. (1999). Relational Psychoanalysis: The Emergence of a Tradition. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
  • Greenberg, J. & Mitchell, S.A. (1983). Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Aron, Lewis (1996). A Meeting of Minds. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
  • Curtis, R. C. & Hirsch. I. (2003). Relational Appraoches to Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. In Gurman, A. G. & Messer, S. B. Essential Psychotherapies. NY: Guilford.
  • Curtis, R. Coleman. (2008). Desire, Self, Mind and the Psychotherapies: Unifying Psychological Science and Psychoanlaysis. Lanham MD & NY: Jason Aronson
  • Cushman, Philip. (1996). Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A History of Psychotherapy . New York: Perseus Publishing.
  • Aron, L. and Harris, A. (2011), Relational Psychoanalysis IV: Expansion of Theory, Psychology Press
  • Aron, L. and Harris, A. (2011), Relational Psychoanalysis V: Evolution of Process, Psychology Press
  • Aron, L. and Lechich M., (2012). Relational psychoanalysis, in Textbook of Psychoanalysis, 2nd Edition. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Publishing, pp 211-224.

External links

  • International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy