In one (relatively) short sentence: Relational therapy is going to therapy and participating in change with more than one relevant person in the room and the process.
It means that the people involved in the problem or affected by the problem attend therapy sessions together, work together in the sessions, and work together outside of therapy sessions on the things brought up during the sessions. Change is best and most quickly accomplished when ALL of the relevant people are engaged. You don’t have to bring everyone in the family if not everyone is involved or affected by the issue. If Grandpa lives in the next state over and is not really part of the child’s struggles in school, then he doesn’t have to come to therapy. If it turns out that he can have a positive impact on the outcome of therapy, bring him along after discussing it with the therapist.
Why is relational therapy important?
In short (again), Because you got into this together and you’re going to get out of it together. Your struggles are not one person's fault, even if it feels like it. When you get into an argument, both people are participating. When a child struggles in school it is because a parent or teacher is not aware of, or sensitive enough to, some issue the child is having. When a couple struggles with their sex life, it is about the interplay between both of them. Problems do not arise on their own, they happen because we are human beings in connection with other human beings.
We are social creatures; we live in families, neighborhoods, and villages. It is very rare for a person to go off by themselves and function well for their entire life. We rely on each other for food, water, and shelter; this created our reliance on others for personal needs as well. The vast majority of human existence is due to, in partnership with, and influenced by, other people. This is a wonderful thing because then we can use those connections to make our lives better.
In therapy, relationships are important because when all the players come together to solve something, they work in congruence, in synchrony. When people come to therapy as individuals, change happens in a slower, step-by-step fashion: one person makes a change then they go home and someone may see that change and then may decide to do something differently. When it happens all at once in session, change can be seen much earlier. Many people have heard a version of the following story: Wife goes to therapy but husband doesn’t think anything needs to change so they get nowhere. One person CAN create lasting change in a relationship if they stick to their guns and the other person notices and starts to change. However, it happens much more quickly if both people are in the room. You can also rely on each other when things get tough in and out of session. When a difficult emotion is brought up in session, your partner or family member can help stabilize you so the experience isn’t so terrifying. Having someone else in therapy also provides someone to hold you accountable outside of session. You can get and give feedback on how each one of you is doing and make even more progress.
Relational therapy even works for “individual” struggles like mourning the death of a close person. It may seem like it’s just the hurting person’s job to move forward on their own, when really, they probably need more support during that time. A significant person in their life can help them to practice the new skills discussed in therapy and give them someone they can be openly emotional with.
Relational therapy means having the people that matter to the problem involved in the therapy process. It creates change much faster and provides for more lasting change because everyone plays their part. Feel free to look up Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. John Gottman for more information.
See also: The Growth of Relational Therapy .pdf