Relational psychotherapy is more of a principle than a theoretical position. The implication is that human beings suffer from an awful paradox – that existence is predicated upon relationship – initially the powerful relationship with the mother – and in ourselves and in our lives we are defined primarily through relationship. It is the damage and wounds of these relationships that contribute most towards our neurosis and anxiety, either through our desperation for connection and integration or our determination to separate and avoid. Ronald Fairbairn initially proposed the idea, in contrast to Freud’s idea that human beings were primarily motivated by relationship, not by pleasure, and from this principle the concept and approach of object relations was conceived.

John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 60s and 70s and provided revolutionary changes to the social care system in the UK based on the discovery of hard-wired behaviours related to the crucial development of primary trust from a caregiver which provides the foundation for thoughts, emotions and expectations in reference to the Other. Proximity and consistency were found to be crucial in helping children regulate their emotional states and without adequate care, such emotional states became consistently dysregulated and insecure attachment occurred. Insecure attachment relationships could potentially continue into adult relationships and can often be confused with introverted or extraverted states of being.

Insecure attachment

A secure attachment is considered to be based around a caregiver’s sensitivity to the child’s emotional needs, when a parent is attuned and responds effectively to their child when emotional states are experienced. When a parent is unable, either due to their own emotional deficiencies in development or external factors such as bereavement, addiction, health or other life circumstances come into it this is understood to have an impact on the child’s ability to create and maintain healthy emotional bonds. This is because they are unable to feel safe within themselves. There are considered to be three different types of insecure attachment.

  • Anxious Resistant / Ambivalent

The ambivalent attachment style is considered to be due to unpredictable caregiving. The child is angry and anxious when the parent leaves, and ambivalent on their return. It is believed that children in abusive relationships are more likely to develop this style and this will develop into problems with intimacy in adult relationships.

  • Anxious Avoidant / Dismissing

The dismissing avoidant type displays little emotion when the caregiver leaves or returns, but this is believed to be a cover for deep emotional distress for which the caregiver has previously been unable to soothe. This is because the child comes to believe that communication of their needs are irrelevant to the caregiver and the reaction is largely designed to prevent the deeper emotional trauma of having those needs rejected.

  • Disorganised / Disoriented

Infants displaying this attachment style display huge amounts of fear, aggression or dissociation on separation or reunion with the caregiver. Significant correlations were understood to be found with trauma to the parent or caregiver immediately prior, during or in the early stages of child rearing.