Relational Psychoanalytic Theory

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Instead of contending that mental health symptoms are a product of repressed sexual impulses or an aggresssive death drive (as proposed by classical Freudian psychoanalysts), relational psychoanalytic theory focuses on how a client's initial parent-child relationship serves as a blueprint for self and other-interactions and thereby, influences presenting treatment concerns. Unlike classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory (that tends to point the finger at the client's personal intrapsychic struggles or "resistance" as responsible for client-therapist ruptures and therapeutic stalemates), relational psychoanalytic theory conceptualizes psychotherapy as a co-constructed,  experiential, "two-person" process. Early attachment wounds are explored in the here-and-now, intersubjective context of the client-therapist relationship in order to provide in-vivo reconfiguration of past relational trauma. This approach is heavily based in developmental psychology such that one of the primary goals is to assist a client in accessing unarticulated (often preverbal), regressive self-states; in doing so, the client fosters greater flexibility in navigating the relationships between past, present, and future selves.


In my experience, many clients avoid exploration of past developmental wounds due to a fear of becoming absorbed by and therefore, stuck in the past. Avoidance creates a seemingly rigid boundary between the past and present, and functions to safeguard from dissolution or overwhelm related to previous relational injuries. Unfortunately, although the intent is to stifle (and ideally, rid) the pain of the past, avoidance actually supports the vitality and autonomy of prior trauma; what I mean by this is that avoidance locks past trauma away as something other than 'self.' In doing so, this now 'other' self-state has the freedom to intervene in one's life however it so sees fit; these avoided 'others' frequently manifest as "unexplainable" somatic symptoms (such as backaches, migraines, gastrointestinal issues, etc.), chronic irritability, terror or panic that feels inappropriate per the context, and so on. 


Thus, the intentional psychotherapeutic use of regression is to reduce the fear that fuels avoidance by loosening the boundary between past and present self-states. The client then gains the ability to fluidly move between self-states instead of fearing imprisonment in one particular era. According to relational psychoanalytic theory, such enactments are only possible in the context of a trusted, stable relationship, such as between a client and therapist. Similar to analyst, John Bowlby's, description of an attachment figure as both a "safe haven" and "secure base," the client-therapist relationship is considered 'safe but not too safe;' the client experiences the containment and authenticity of the alliance while simultaneously being encouraged to explore, question, and (often messily) develop mastery.


As psychoanalyst and expert within the field of traumatic dissociation, Philip Bromberg, summarizes, "...the patient allows the emergence of regressed states of experience along with the intense reenactment of early and sometimes primitive modes of thinking, feeling, and behaving...the deeper the regression that can be safely allowed by the patient, the richer the experience and the greater its reverberation on the total organization of the self. Psychoanalytic change is not simply a matter of a new piece of information being added to an otherwise intact and well-organized data bank. For the deepest analytic growth to occur, the new experience must require that the existing pattern of self-representation reorganize in order to make room for it."


Supported by extensive research, relational psychoanalytic theory also highlights the significance of neural synchrony, which refers to the mutually amplified synchronization of nervous systems. Each of us has likely witnessed a child accidentally falling while in the midst of play then instantly turning toward his/her caregiver while on the brink of having a to-be-determined emotional reaction. The parent that reacts in horror leads the child to similarly panic. On the other hand, the parent that calmly responds by hugging the child and confirming that all is well tends to result in the child quickly jumping up and returning to play. This is an example of parent-child neural synchrony: each member of the dyad reciprocally exchanges moment-to-moment, bodily-based, nonverbal, unconscious communications at the neural level. Relational psychoanalytic theory seeks to emulate this kind of communication with the intent of redefining how the client relates to his/her self-states and others.

Quoted material was derived from the following sources:

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Bromberg, P. (1998). Standing in the spaces: Essays on clinical process, trauma, and dissociation. New York, NY: Psychology Press.