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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 motivation emerges out of relationships. According to relational theory, my motivations are partly structured by my interactions with others. 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 her environment.
When treating patients, relational psychoanalysts stress being authentic and spontaneous. Most disagree with the traditional Freudian emphasis on interpretation and free association, instead emphazing the importance of creating a lively, genuine relationship with the patient. Relational analysts feel that psychotherapy works best when the therapist focuses on establishing a healing relationship with the patient, rather than 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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