Interpersonally oriented psychologists believe that the most important situations in life are interpersonal, relational, and involve other human beings. Exploring and recognizing how people have learned to adapt to (or have trouble coping with) problematic interactions with others forms much of the basis of interpersonal psychotherapy and relational psychoanalysis.
This viewpoint is rooted in ethological research, which has unequivocally determined that human primates are social, and the need for relational connection or attachment to primary sources of security has been an adaptation to life eons ago on the savannah. Groups of humans were more likely to survive than the lone hunter-gatherer. There was safety in numbers.
To maintain a meaningful emotional or relational connection to significant others, people develop characteristic ways to maximize wishes for and minimize fears about these attachments. Psychologists have been able to identify both a map of human interpersonal styles (known as the “interpersonal circumplex” and operationalized by a model named the “Structural Analysis of Social Behavior (SASB)” (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4, Book 5, Book 6) as well as point out numerous dynamic truisms that seem to apply between people.
- Everyone develops a characteristic interpersonal style to avoid, alleviate, or minimize anxiety (the emotionally painful sense of disconnection from a significant other).
- These styles are ordered in a two-dimensional (Cartesian, X and Y) space about two axes: interdependence; affiliation.
- Problems occur when individuals are “stuck” in an interpersonal style, relating to others rigidly rather than responding flexibly to relational demands in the moment.
- Problems occur, also, when individuals suddenly fluctuate from a friendly to hostile way of relating, a pattern which can mystify others who are left wondering, “what happened?”
- Interpersonal styles impose a self-reinforcing pull or condition of engagement on others that helps maintain that way of relating (e.g., friendly-dominance from one person pulls friendly-submission from the other, which reinforces the friendly-dominance conveyed by the other person in the relationship).
- People strive for both response freedom and relative consistency when interacting with others.
- When people relate to others with virtually the same style across situations (whether it is friendly or hostile, dominant or submissive), the recipient of these communications experiences a strong pull to behave in that complementary way that reinforces the other’s rigidity. Over time, people can experience their interactional degrees of freedom minimized by the pull of a rigidly and intensely expressed interpersonal style, which creates resentment within, and increases the likelihood of rejecting the other.
- When people relate to others in a predictably unpredictable way, seeming to fluctuate between hostility and friendliness, recipients of these communications inevitably get confused, befuddled, and often feel anger. They find themselves relating to these kinds of individuals by “walking on eggshells”, not able to reliably predict how these people will respond to them. Put another way, people do not want others to relate generally in extremes – either rigidly or with intense, apparently randomly fluctuating emotional expression. Rather, they prefer a gently flexible style, which allows both persons interactional freedom in a relationship.
The guiding objective of this approach is to help patients better identify their characteristic interpersonal patterns (and what triggers intense expression of it), block patterns that no longer work to avoid, minimize, or alleviate anxiety, mobilize a will to change, and then learn a new pattern, one designed to maximize genuine, heartfelt, secure relationships with significant others. Put another way, this way of working, interpersonal psychotherapy, intrinsically helps people begin to answer
The Prime Directive:
Why does it make sense that I am having these sets of problems with these people in these situations in my life, and what can I do to be more effective and satisfied in these relationships.