What is Counselling Part 2: A Relational Therapy?
Updated: Feb 25
In my previous blog (What is Counselling? ), I argued that:
Counselling is much more than a talking therapy, but a relational therapy.
Counselling’s big claim is that problems are woven in past and present relationships, and so can be unravelled in a relationship (and some problems perhaps can only be unravelled in a new kind of relationship).
That counselling is much more than applying tactics or techniques, which risk serving ulterior motives for the counsellor, and involves the respect and care of the whole person.
That different relationships are needed at different times in counselling, and all can be helpful or unhelpful to the client depending on whether they are met with care and respect.
We may be left with more questions at this point. What do you mean by a relationship? Do I need to get touchy-feely emotional? How will this help? Will the counsellor just sit there with an encouraging smile and occasionally repeat back what I’ve said? What will they actually do to help me?
In this blog, I hope to explain the main relationships that can be part of the counselling relationship and thus the therapeutic process (Clarkson, 1994). In doing so, I hope that I can answer these questions and point to how counselling has the potential to be deeply helpful. I should note first, however, that because the relationship is key between a client and a counsellor, clients should feel able to ‘try’ a few counsellors and see who they feel most able to work with.
The working relationship
This is the type of relationship you might have at work with a colleague, manager or client. It uses that part of us that has learned to think, problem-solve, request, negotiate, understand.
There are three big ways this relationship is important in counselling (Bordin, 1979). Firstly, when agreeing the terms of the work. This might be when and how you meet, the terms of confidentiality, and the fees. But, importantly, it also involves agreeing what to work on, what the goals of therapy are, and how you will go about working together towards these goals (e.g. will you focus on past or present, who does more of the talking, do you focus on feelings or strategies etc.). I believe it is vital for the client to be able to make the decisions (having discussed with the counsellor what they think and what they are able to do) as they are the owner of their lives and often know what they need at this point, at least at some level (Rogers, 1961). These decisions can be revisited over time, particularly when the counsellor and client review their work together to see how well it is working.
Secondly, the working relationship occurs whenever the client and counsellor agree for the relationship to resemble teacher-student or mentor-mentee relationships. For example, they may agree that ‘psycho-education’ would be helpful, where the counsellor may explain the science of the nervous system to help the client understand their feelings, or a ‘vicious cycle’ to help the client understand why they keep getting stuck in the same patterns. Similarly, whenever the aim is to ‘manage’ something, e.g. symptoms, overwhelming feelings, relationships, or work pressures, we are trying to implement strategies and this takes more of a mentor-mentee relationship.
These relationships are all extremely helpful. We may have experienced how learning something new can be empowering. Equally, we may have experienced a helpful mentoring relationship, perhaps at work, that we found gave us strategies to help us in our work and confidence. However, it is rare that we do not find (particularly in longer-term therapy) moments when something happens and we’re not quite relating to this working relationship anymore. Here, it’s like we’ve stepped through a hole and need another form of relationship. If we keep in the working relationship, we may find that our work becomes ineffective, even reinforcing the problems we are seeking to help.
The what’s-just-happened? relationship.
Have you ever tried to help someone and suddenly they become defensive or withdraw? Perhaps you have been in a teacher-student or mentor-mentee relationship and found that, for some reason, it wasn’t helpful anymore.
The problem we face in many relationships is that we bring with us all of our memories of previous relationships, and these colour the one we are in now. It often happens that something in the other person indicates to us that they are like such-and-such, or just the lack of information we have about someone means that we fill in the gaps with what we already have experienced. This is natural: our brains are wired to make meaning, to understand new things, and this is how they do it in relationships (Jacobs, 2010). Consequently, we can start to feel that the other person is like the controlling critical manager we had in our last job , or like our distant father or overbearing mother, or a friend who was untrustworthy or just wanted a laugh.
I have experienced this in a potent way with male counsellors. My first counsellor was a man and we tripped up in this relationship. Whilst I experienced him as warm and supportive, and received some extremely helpful encouragement that I have taken with me today, I struggled when he suggested techniques to try. I found this disempowering: I felt like I had to go along with it even if I wasn’t sure about it. Further, when I talked about deeper things, he seemed to talk a lot and not give me the space I wanted.
I understand now that what was happening was a replication of many other relationships I have had with older men: feeling disempowered and talking less, fearing being criticised or not being good enough, hiding myself and going along with things or putting the focus onto them and what they think or want. For whatever reason, these relational patterns and experiences were not met and worked through in our work together. Eventually, I stopped going and found a female counsellor.
It wasn’t until years later I felt able to return to a male counsellor and face these issues. Perhaps I was in a different place, feeling strong enough to be able to work through these things. Perhaps, also, this counsellor was able to see them and catch them as they emerged, and work through them with me. Whichever the case, the relationship has helped me work through those self-defeating patterns and experiences that I have often found myself in when relating to other men.
So, this relationship that we step into has the potential to be extremely unhelpful for the work, as it reinforces unhelpful, constricting, or even painful ways of being in the world. Equally, it could be baffling for the client, if the counsellor is starting to relate to them in ways from their other relationships (which is why extensive training and therapy for a counsellor is needed to help them recognise what is there stuff they are bringing into the relationship).
Equally, it can be extremely helpful, if it is acknowledged and talked about in the relationship. It can help us understand how we fill in the gaps with other relationships we are involved in and why we then find them so difficult or self-defeating (Jacobs, 2010). It can also help us experience talking with someone about our relationship. We often find this a terrifying prospect; however, if we have the courage to initiate such a conversation, we often discover that, eventually, such a conversation can lead to new ways of relating or a new perspective. Finally, responding to a relationship that we’ve ended into can heal old wounds.
The healing relationship
When, in the course of a new relationship with a counsellor, we step into an old relationship, one where we were wounded in some way, there is an opportunity to find some healing for our wounds. If the counsellor can recognise what is happening, they can respond in ways we did not expect from our old interactions, ways that are different and that show us something different about ourselves or the world.
Often, there is something here about the counsellor’s empathy (Mearns & Thorne, 1988). In attachment research, this parallels the idea of accurate attunement and is a vital part of forming healthy attachment patterns that help us in many areas of our life (from relationships to exploring and creating and living meaningfully) (Holmes, 2001).
The counsellor trying to understand what it is like for us - and, hopefully, at times accurately getting us - can be extremely powerful as we may never have had someone valuing our inner life like this, accepting all that is going on, giving us words for how we might be feeling in a situation, and validating these.
For me, I found that my second counsellor healed some of my wounds by giving me space to talk and really valuing my experience. I then found my second male counsellor healing wounds I felt about being around other men and about being a man.
However, there are then times when relating to another person as a working adult or as someone wounded isn’t enough. We also need to be a person.
The human relationship
In this relationship, the counsellor and client are both people with their own wounds and their own messiness, facing the realities of life. And this is OK. There is an equality here that goes beyond working adults. It is an equality of being human creatures. It is here that questions of what we really value, what we really find meaningful, our death, our limits, our freedom and responsibility, can be truly asked. For no teacher, mentor, healer, parent, or any other role, truly has the answers to these. We can only approach them together.
It is also here that we may experience moments that go deeper than before. This could be described as moments of relational depth (Mearns & Cooper, 2017) or intimacy, where our souls seem to meet. This is the intimacy we long for in romantic relationships, yet often find missing, as we too easily and quickly slip and get stuck in the other forms of relating. These moments are often powerful for both the client and counsellor, as if our very spirits have been enlarged.
This relationship brings us to the here-and-now and the real person before us. Here the counsellor is experienced as a person with their own quirks, limits, frustrations, wounds and values. The relationship may come to resemble the best kind of friendship. We both know that we value this relationship and the other person. We both know that the other person is a mystery to us, full of surprises, and yet is known, trying to work in the messiness of life with varying levels of competency.
This is a great place to get to in therapy and usually signals that the end of our work is coming. For, acknowledging ourselves and others as humans, as people, is the end of our growth. I suspect it’s the root of what we long for. Of course, our situations may change and we may have to return to the other types of relationship as new situations need managing or other wounds are exposed. Of course, situations may arise later on where we need to return to some counselling. But once we have tasted being another person, whatever we go through, a part of us will know that we are a person still, that we too belong in the human race.
Bordin, E. S. (1979). The generalizability of the psychoanalytic concept of the working alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 16(3), 252-260.
Clarkson, P. (1994) The Therapeutic Relationship. London: Whurr Publishers.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a person: A psychotherapists view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.
Holmes, H. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. Hove: Routlege.
Jacobs, M. (2010) Psychodynamic Therapy in Action (2nd ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Mearns, D. & Cooper, C. (2017) Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Mearns, P., & Thorne, B. (1988). Person-Centred Counselling in Action (Counselling in Action series). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.