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Relational psychoanalysis began in the 1980's as an attempt to integrate interpersonal psychoanalysis's emphasis on the detailed exploration of interpersonal interactions with British object relations theory's sophisticated ideas about the psychological importance of internalized relationships with other people. Relationalists argue that personality emerges out of the matrix of early formative relationships with parents and other figures. Philosophically, relational psychoanalysis is closely allied with social constructionism.
An important difference between relational theory and traditional psychoanalytic thought is its theory of motivation. 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 recreate these early learned relationships in ongoing relationships that may have little or nothing to do with those early relationships. This recreation of relational patterns serves to satisfy the individual's needs in a way that conforms with what they learned as an infant. This recreation 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 forumlated 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.
The best-known relational psychoanalytic authors are Stephen A. Mitchell and Jay R. Greenberg, whose book Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory is considered to be the first major work of relational psychoanalysis.
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