- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fostering Healthy Coexistence Through a Relational Lens
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) brings relationships to the forefront of human psychology. It examines the complexity of human relationships, using concepts of connection and disconnection, as well as recognizing and exploring the social implications of psychological theory. The cultural aspect brings into focus the influence of larger culture and power differentials on the quality and nature of relationships and the subsequent effects on healthy coexistence. This essay will examine the relational lens that Relational-Cultural Theory brings forward in the field of psychology and the ways in which it informs and intersects with conflict transformation and peacebuilding.
"Connection and relationship with others is seen as essential to understanding the self and to its making and remaking."
Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) developed alongside the rising feminist movement in psychology in the 1970s. The development of the theory can be credited to the collaborative efforts of a group of women psychologists working at the Stone Center at Wellesley College including Jean Baker Miller, Judith V. Jordan, Janet Surrey, and Irene Stiver. The focus of the Stone Center's original work was on women. Amidst mounting pressure for women's equality, they explored women's experience living in oppressive, patriarchal systems, specifically in response to the United States context of the time.
The cultural aspect of RCT was an addendum to the originally conceived relational theory, suggesting that relationships cannot be isolated from the larger culture. One of RCT's core tenets is to name oppressive systems and give voice to marginalized populations, including both men and women. The psychologists of the Stone Center were driven by a desire to call attention to the influence of systemic power differentials on the disruption of connection at both the individual and societal level. The scope of relational theory, in this way, extends beyond personal, intimate relationships, to consider the overarching structures that shape wider relational patterns. An underlying goal of RCT lies in exploring how societal structures can better contribute to peaceful coexistence.
Relational theory takes as one of its assumptions the inherently social nature of human beings. Based on the belief that individuals are socially constituted by relationships, RCT seeks to understand the complexity behind relationship formation. The theory proposes that our relational nature drives us to "grow through and toward connection". Jean Baker Miller coined the term 'growth-fostering relationships' to represent relationships in which active participation by all parties leads to mutual development. These types of relationships contribute to healthy functioning and flourishing. Miller proposed that 'growth-fostering relationships' encompass five essential attributes, or the 'Five Good Things', as listed below:
- Sense of Zest or Energy
- Increased Sense of Worth
- Clarity: Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person in the relationship
- Productivity: Ability and motivation to take action both in the relationship and outside of it
- Desire for more Connection: In reaction to satisfaction of relational experience
RCT holds that "we grow toward an increased capacity for respect, having an impact on the other, and being open to being changed by the other" in developing these kinds of relationships. Growth-fostering relationships require mutuality, which describes the shared participatory process of relationships, rather than denoting sameness or equality between peoples.  It acknowledges the reality of diversity and inevitability of power differentials, while describing a path not only toward healthy coexistence, but also mutual empowerment.
The significance of this concept of mutuality lies in the conviction that its absence results in the development of psychological problems and contributes to the rise of violent conflict. RCT asserts that experiences of disconnection which disrupt or deny our inherently relational nature greatly contribute to a state of human suffering. Alternatively, experiences that support our drive toward connection lead to increased pro-social behavior. This idea of mutuality has many implications for conflict transformation, such as the vital need for healthy reconnection.
The development of neuroscience has helped support the common adage of RCT: personal is political. "Neuroscientific data is demonstrating that the brain grows in connection, that we come into the world ready to connect, and that disconnection creates real pain." For example, the Social Pain/Physical Pain Overlap Theory proposes that the experience of social pain, inherent in disconnection, and physical pain share similarities in their biological experience. This theory brings to light the real consequences of pain that social separation and rejection cause, and helps to support the RCT assumption that connection is not simply a desire, but a profound human need.
Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, has shown that the human brain is not a static organ, but actually changeable over the course of a lifetime. This discovery gives hope for the capacity of individuals and societies as a whole to change. Neuroplasticity has positive implications for already existing theories. For example, attachment theory describes the importance of a healthy and secure caregiver-infant relationship to the social and emotional development, including empathic capacity, of the infant. Although the harmful developmental effects remain in the absence of such a relationship, neuroplasticity suggests the possibility of healing the damage caused, and thus revitalizing empathic ability after this early development stage. The prospect of developing empathy later in life is crucial for RCT because it holds that mutual empathy is required for the existence of 'growth-fostering relationships'. Every person, then, has the capability of improving his or her empathic possibilities and, therefore, potential to experience healthy relationships.
Mutual empathy is described as an "openness to being affected by and affecting another person." This relational process involves both emotional and rational aspects. The element of respect is seen to play a critical role in fostering mutual empathy. The four major components of empathy include:
- The capacity for emotional response
- The mental capacity to take the perspective of the other
- The ability to regulate emotions
- The level of awareness of self and others
Relational theorists emphasize the need for understanding that, just as disconnection is inevitable in relationships, experiencing empathic failure is unavoidable. Empathic failure, however, can lead to great reconnection if awareness, trust, and authenticity are present.  Having empathic understanding does not imply only having positive emotions, but rather committing to a fuller understanding of one's own and another's experience. The other is seen as a dynamic, whole being, rather than defined by a single attribute or action.
Various strategies have been increasingly employed in both therapeutic and conflict transformation efforts to teach and enhance empathy. Skills can be taught at the cognitive level such as active listening, paraphrasing, and appropriate articulation of feelings. Activities such as dramatization, role-playing, self-presentation, and imitative play can be employed to develop the affective experience of individuals in relation to others. There is also a growing exploration of the use of art in the cultivation of empathy between peoples.
Dance movement therapy (DMT) illustrates one example of an empathy-building intervention. DMT often uses mirroring activities, aiming to increase body awareness of self and other and contributing to the building of empathy through a non-verbal mode of interaction. David Harris, a DMT practitioner, has shown the possibilities of using this type of intervention in peacebuilding contexts through his innovative program with ex-child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Harris utilized DMT to rebuild empathic capacity in the ex-combatants to further their personal healing and aid in their overall reconciliation with the local community.
Another example of an intervention with a focus on building empathy is inter-group dialogue. Inter-group dialogue processes are used, increasingly with youth populations, to increase empathy for differences while bringing focus to group commonalities in order to increase connection and overall group unity. For example, Seeds of Peace is a non-profit organization that brings youth leaders from conflict areas together in camp intensives that promote dialogue and relationship-building to enhance future coexistence.
Empathy allows for more effective and sustained interactions between people and institutions. The enhancement of social empathy could greatly improve conflict transformation efforts for it provides the "ability to understand people by entering into their situations in ways that reveal inequalities and disparities and then to act to effect social change." Relational theorists also point to the potential of infusing a sense of empathy into policy-making and social programs, fostering a greater tolerance for differences and enhancing consideration of the 'other' in decision-making.
Relational theorists seek to challenge the separate-self paradigm embedded in political and social values, predominantly found in the West. This paradigm views individuals as autonomous and socially isolated beings. Autonomy, from a separate-self perspective, is equated with complete independence. Personal strength is congruent with self-sufficiency. Belief in inherent human selfishness and separateness leads to the acceptance of hyper-competitive behavior and an overemphasis on self-development.
RCT highlights the contention between this separate-self paradigm and its guiding assumption of our inherent relational nature. The theory considers the traditional development view that humans move from full dependence as infants to full independence in adulthood to be misconceived. Rather than moving toward total independence, RCT defines autonomy from a relational perspective, allowing for the simultaneous development of self and development in relation to others. It recognizes that even in adulthood, humans are shaped by relationships.
Relational theorists counter the common argument that the acknowledgement of human interdependency implies a sacrifice to individual agency. Jennifer Nedelsky, states, "I embrace the notion of the unique, infinite value of each individual, and the value of interiority, and the value of the ability of individuals to shape their own lives. But I reject the liberal variants of these values that fail to see the central role relation play in each of them." The demonization of interdependency within a separate-self paradigm is seen to greatly limit the healthy functioning of individuals and groups of people as they operate under systems propagating disconnection. The concept of relational autonomy allows for the simultaneous need for self and others. Autonomy, when conceived relationally, allows for the naming of non-mutual relationships and encourages the pursuit of transformation at both an individual and societal level.
RCT has highlighted the importance of theorists, across disciplines, remaining cognizant of how their development of ideas may, albeit unconsciously, substantiate and sustain normalized power differentials.
The values of separate self have been infused in theories of human psychology. Traditionally, theories of psychological development have further perpetuated harmful power stratifications by individualizing problems. RCT suggests that 'pathologizing' individuals due to weakness and helplessness diverts attention away from the overarching social conditions underwriting the development of psychological problems. The oppressive relationships institutionalized within a society have direct impact on the interpersonal relationships between its members.
RCT seeks to broaden psychological theory by moving beyond its focus on individual intervention, which has largely resulted in superficial treatments that ignore the root causes of disturbance. A shift to relational thinking allows for the deeper analysis of when and how individual psychological problems are reflective of larger socially destructive patterns. With this expanded awareness, models of therapy start to hold potential for societal transformation.
What if the ultimate goal for psychotherapy evolved into creating space for widespread participation in 'growth-fostering relationships'? RCT guides us to view treatment beyond the relief of individual symptoms, to the promotion of reconnection with others. Reconnection is made possible by transforming the social conditions causative of the individual pain and disconnection.
"The autonomy of all cannot be an autonomy of independence and control."
Relational theorists argue that the illusion of independent autonomy fosters an environment in which relationships characterized by domination and subordination can, and are even encouraged, to take place. The ever-present dominant-subordinate systems around the world, characterized by political and cultural inequalities, have a significant impact on overall human functioning and flourishing. The mechanisms used by dominant groups to marginalize others involve disconnection and disempowerment. The RCT concepts of condemned isolation and the central relational paradox highlight the complexities of these ongoing unjust relationships.
Condemned isolation describes the "experience of isolation and aloneness that leaves one feeling shut out of the human community. One feels alone, immobilized regarding reconnection, and at fault for this state." Shame and isolation are tools used by dominant groups to maintain an unchallenged, privileged status. The condemned experience leads to the internalization of dominant beliefs. Marginalized peoples adopt feelings of unworthiness, leading to further withdrawal from larger society and even each other. This cycle of imposed degradation and self-degradation serves the interests of the dominant group, and is often an under acknowledged process.
The central relational paradox of RCT further illuminates the engrained status of a subordinated individual or group of people as they adopt strategies of disconnection out of a need for self-protection.
Far from thriving in growth-fostering relationships, the subordinated existence consists of learning how to simply survive within an oppressive relationship. The engagement in inauthentic relationships for survival undermines any sense of autonomy. Those who have been suppressed lack the opportunities for developing skills that enable autonomy.
Opportunities for developing autonomy are given to those within the dominant group. The illusion of self-sufficiency ascribes their success to individual attributes, relegating those in the subordinate group to the prescribed identity of dependent, weak individuals. Ironically, much of the dependency is a consequence of the intentional stripping away of agency. Adopting a relational lens exposes the systemic inequalities that set up these fixed relational images. RCT describes relational images as the expectations and fears we have formed in our minds based on our past experiences in relationships:
Just as isolation and shame hold the subordinate in a lesser position, socialization leads to ambivalence, denial, and the unquestioned belief in meritocracy among those in the dominant group. This describes the presence of what RCT refers to as 'controlling images', in which the objectification of marginalized peoples becomes entrenched psychologically in both the dominant and subordinate groups.  This state of inequality between peoples gives rise to the existence of many intractable conflicts. Additionally, the persistent non-mutuality and disconnection experienced has a demoralizing intergenerational impact. The question that relational theorists might pose would be, given the prevalence of hierarchy in our human societies, how might relations be structured to make autonomy a collective experience shared by all?
Moving toward resistance and transformation requires overcoming the strategies of shame and isolation employed by oppressors. Resistance and transformation in oppressive systems requires sustained and strategic efforts to challenge the social norms and structures that degrade relational values. Below is a list of beginning strategies for resistance which suggest a means to escape shame and isolation and a path toward transformation:
- Naming the Problem and Noticing Who Makes the Rules
- Claiming Strength
- Developing Communities of Resilience and Courage
One of the most powerful ways to resist and transform disconnection is to name it. Increasing awareness of relational patterns and images empowers people to imagine alternate patterns and images that would better serve them. Complaining enables those in unjust relationships to denounce them and seek change. The third step involves communicating the shared benefits of moving toward a system that promotes relational values, which involves the shifting of attitudes. Finally, especially in cultures of persistent violence, having a community, or support system, is crucial for strengthening the resilience and courage that the process of resistance and transformation demands. One way to disable the dominant group's power advantage of isolation and shame is through community resistance. Enormous power can be drawn from concerted group action.
As people move out of isolated self-protective strategies to engaging constructively as a collective group, it is of equal importance that the group maintains mindfulness in action. The goal of moving toward a power relationship marked by mutuality must remain central. In this way, the resisting group is not attempting to disempower the dominant group, but rather disempowering the non-relational values that undermine mutuality and agency. This mindfulness requires the practice of empathy and a willingness to reconnect even with those who have been a source of disconnection and disempowerment. Authentic change requires that all parties are eventually open to relational movement.
RCT suggests that relationships are not static, but actually very dynamic in nature. Healthy relationships naturally move along a continuum between connection and disconnection throughout their existence. Although humans desire connection, moments of disconnection cause fear and vulnerability when they are not named. An internal defense mechanism is often activated in order to protect oneself, which leads to even more disconnection. This fear creates a tension with our desire for reconnection. As relationships mature, each party can develop his or her awareness. With increased awareness, parties become more attentive and responsive to the movement of the relationship and the confidence in the relationship is improved. The moments of disconnection become less an experience of insecurity, but rather an opportunity to strengthen the relationship in working toward reconnection.
Understanding that disconnection is natural and inevitable corresponds with the idea shared among conflict theorists that conflict is not only inevitable, but also an opportunity for growth. The negative connotation often associated with conflict is largely due to the destructive consequences seen and experienced as a result of suppressed conflict. There is, however, a constructive way to 'wage good conflict'. "Disconnection and conflict should not be mistaken for failures in or roadblocks to reconciliation, but rather recognized as possible pathways for transforming misunderstanding to empathy and building bridges between strangers and enemies through collective relational struggle."
The ever-increasing globalization that marks our time in history brings with it great potential for change in relational awareness and dynamics, along with great danger in perpetuating inauthentic, non-mutual relationships. As our social relations extend further, the pool of people in which we interact becomes not only larger, but also increasingly diverse. The need for strategies of coexistence and mutual connection has become more essential to the well-being and ultimate growth of the human race. The role that disconnection plays in conflicts around the world, both within and across borders, must be brought to the forefront of awareness. Both relational theorists and peacebuilders alike espouse the primacy of relationships in humans' lives. Peacebuilding, at its core, aims to build sustainable, just relationships. As John Paul Lederach wrote:
It is within this space of moral imagination that the creation of a world in which the pursuit of development does not sacrifice human connectedness becomes possible. The reality of our global interdependency can only be denied at a cost that affects each and every one of us. We must adopt, what Evelyn Linder terms, a new global culture of 'connected individualism.' This implies a widespread attitudinal shift, which would require support mechanisms within societies to promote and enhance a new relational culture. Incorporating a relational view to policy-making, infusing the rise of a human rights culture with a relational lens, engaging in a relational approach to decision-making and the implementation of power structures, and inducing structural changes that reflect positively on interpersonal relations within a culture are all approaches that could provide this support.
Relational theorists assert that individual freedom implies a sense of responsibility that may too often be overlooked. Adopting a culture of 'connected individualism' would entail a coordinated, collective effort of people at all levels, of all backgrounds to participate in an increased moral responsibility. Peacebuilding requires steadfastness. The absence of immediately visible change should not thwart peacebuilding efforts, for patterns of thinking and behaving are deep-rooted. The intersection of RCT and peacebuilding principles and interventions provides a rich space for further exploration of research and concrete intervention strategies in moving forward.
Returning back to the adage, 'personal is political', it is imperative that the psychological realities of human existence no longer get relegated to the sidelines as a private matter. Relational theorists posit that denying our multidimensionality in public interactions ultimately impedes the presence of 'growth-fostering relationships'. Naming the pervasive inauthenticity and disconnection that saturates many social structures, and thus impacts personal lives, is the first step toward transformation. Let us imagine a way in which the centrality of relationships in our lives and the reality of global interdependence no longer serve as impediments, but as seeds for sustained growth and change toward peaceful coexistence.
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Use the following to cite this article:
McCauley, Melissa. "Relational-Cultural Theory: Fostering Healthy Coexistence Through a Relational Lens." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. March 2013 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/relational-cultural-theory>.