Exploring the relevance of Relational Cultural Theory to forming a sustainable “studio”

Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) holds that human growth and development occurs in relationships. The cultural emphasis on a separate self, maturing or individuating,[1] devalues the efforts of people, especially women, who foster connectedness. RCT-informed therapy emphasizes self-in-relationship, even as it acknowledges that people disconnect strategically in response to dominance by the powerful.

To explore the relevance of RCT to forming a sustainable studio (see also here) we need: a) to translate the therapeutic principles and practices to situations and interactions in which being whole more than healing is the focus; and b) to explore the benefits and costs of putting support for studio participants’ separate projects (in their separate situations) ahead of building relationships among the group members.

Questions re: b—Is the studio a strategic separation in the sense that relationships in the primary places of our work don’t (yet) foster our growth and development as a whole? At the same time, is the studio an acknowledgement of the importance of relationship as we-selves pursue growth and development in our work and lives? Question re: a&b—Is the studio swinging the pendulum back a little to the self-in-relationship from RCT having to emphasize the importance of relationships because this had been devalued in US psychology?

RCT therapeutic group principles

(from p. 202ff of The Complexity of Connection)

“The basic paradox evident in group work is the simultaneous yearning for connection, on the one hand, and the need to maintain strategies for disconnection, on the other…

The goal of relational group work is to create a place where people experience a new possibility for connection, face inevitable disconnection, and strive for reconnection. This is the new and powerful experience that can occur…

Some clients like to think of a group as a relational laboratory where one examines old assumptions and experiences a new possibility of relationship, where vulnerability can be tolerated because of the experience of safety…

[C]onnection involves the development of the real here-and-now relationship in an authentic, mutually validating, and empathetic manner…

The power of experiencing one’s pain within a healing connection stems from the ability of an individual to resonate with another. [This] manifests itself in group work in two ways: the first is the ability of one member to simply resonate with another’s experience in the group and experience some vicarious relief because of that resonance. The member need not discuss the issue in the group, but the experience moves her that much closer to knowing and sharing her own truth without necessarily responding or articulating. The second way resonance manifests itself in the group involves the ability of members to resonate with each other’s issues and thereby recall or reconnect with their own issues…”

Translating these principles to a studio

All the above apply, but

  • The “real here-and-now relationship” is within a bounded container. Indeed, risks can be taken in the group on the basis of knowing that there is no expectation that the studio participants are involved with each other’s work and lives outside the container.
  • The “power of experiencing one’s pain within a healing connection” is broadened to the power of clarifying one’s aspirations within a wholeness-supporting connection.

RCT relationship therapy practices

(from p. 192 of The Complexity of Connection)CouplesGuidelinesfromThe_Complexity_of_Connection_Writings_from_the_Stone_Center_s_Jean_Baker_Miller (2)

Translating these practices to a studio

Each of these items could be relevant to working in a studio if we swing the pendulum back a little from RCT having to emphasize the importance of relationships to the self-in-relationship. For example, the strategies and tools, such as check-in and closing circle, help create clarity for each of us as well as mutuality, or, at least, recognition of each other’s paths and projects (#5). The studios are a form of connection, but also strategic separation (#1 and 2). The three enlarging movements in therapy (#3) invite us to characterize, say, the three enlarging movements in studio. Perhaps “serendipity and persistence” is one. In place of impasse and breakthrough (#4), and in place of struggle (#9), we work with continuity and transition, expecting this to be a lifelong process of “not simply continuing along previous lines.” Also we might notice the times when we find clarity and resolve in ourselves, and need less to rely on something greater than self and other (#10). And so on.

An alternative image to pendulum swinging is that, at any point, we can try to make sense of groupwork going on in a studio by holding that in tension with RCT as summarized above.


Elsewhere I have noted some tensions in my work:

Yet, to question foundations is to open up, most times, a gap between myself and others who are more comfortable holding on to the way things have been done.

Yet,it is interaction in suitable communities—such as, I hope, a studio—that expands perspectives and support, thus allowing more exploration of what’s hidden by us—and from us.

In exploring the relevance of RCT to forming a sustainable studio, I was very quickly questioning RCT foundations in the sense of trying to find a way to adjust it or expand its scope. Witness my questions on a&b at the start. I am even thinking that group therapy, and perhaps couples therapy, would improve if the therapist role was less focal. That is, drawing from a post I wrote about my ideal grief support group: Group meetings and interactions should help us “envisage that we are living in a web of connections and concern [in the world outside the group] that we can draw on as we move into the future” (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-LO). (This, in turn, draws from narrative therapy and community work, http://dulwichcentre.com.au/.)

To be continued…


Jordan, Judith V., Maureen Walker, and Linda M. Hartling (Eds). (2004). The Complexity of Connection: Writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. New York: Guildford Press.

[1] For example, from a promotional blurb for a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report on positive psychology: “Strengths are built-in capacities for certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Everyone has these capacities to one degree or another. Your particular pattern of strengths is part of what makes you unique.”

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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