Empirical Support Of Relationalcultural Theory

Data from empirical research increasingly supports the power of connection to protect and to heal. The literature on resilience shows that a connection with one adult (parent or teacher) is the single best protection against high-risk behaviors of drinking, violence, depression, and suicide in adolescents (Resnick et al., 1997). Students who felt connected were less likely to use cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs; less likely to engage in early sexual activity, violence, or become pregnant; and less likely to experience emotional distress. These studies do not point to personality traits or diagnostic categories as the best predictors of outcome; they clearly and strongly point to the centrality of connection.

In addition to empirical findings, the relational-cultural model is based on values; we cannot, nor do we necessarily want to, claim, so-called objectivity and freedom from these values. We urge instead awareness of values and biases and their possible impact on observations. RCT values growth-fostering connection, social justice, and appreciation of the power of sociopolitical forces to shape peoples lives; we also acknowledge the importance of community and a model of psychology built on relationship rather than separation. A relational psychology calls for a change of paradigm from one of primary separation to one of primary relat-edness, and it seeks to resist the destructive forces of separation and objectifica-tion for all people. It seems to me that, in clinical work, humility and an attitude of openness to learning serves us best. The same is true in our model building. It is essential to acknowledge as best we can our biases.

In our theory building as well as in our clinical practices, we need to be responsive to the messages we receive from patients, colleagues, supporters, and critics. Only when we remain interested and open to feedback following mistakes can we provide the possibility of empathic repair with our patients. We do not pretend to possess perfect knowledge; rather than pursuing some ideal of absolute attunement, we need to commit to working on our errors, blind spots, and lack of clarity with others. If the personality diagnoses help a therapist be really present, nondefensive, and curious in the difficult moments, they may serve as benign signposts. If, however, they become sources of objectification or distancing and distortion, they make real connection and healing less likely. Furthermore, if they obfuscate the larger social imbalances and injustices that are creating suffering for large groups of people, their usefulness is seriously compromised. Perhaps we need to keep asking the hard questions: How do the personality disorder diagnoses help? How do they hurt? Is there a better way to assess the human conditions that we seek to illuminate with these diagnoses? And most importantly, how can we further our understanding of how to alleviate human suffering to create personal and social change so that all human beings may live more resilient, satisfying, and connected lives?

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