The Relational-Cultural Model of the Self

Growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity. Chronic disconnection, whether on an interpersonal or societal scale, is a primary source of human suffering.

“Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) posits that people grow through and toward relationships throughout the lifespan, and that culture powerfully impacts relationship.”

An explanation from the website:

Naming Relational and Cultural Power Structures

A critical step in the evolution of the model was recognizing the significance of cultural context to human development and the impact of culture on daily life. This awareness follows from increased acknowledgment that relationships do not exist as atomized units—separate and distinct from the larger culture. Indeed, relationships may both represent and reproduce the culture in which they are embedded. Accordingly, theories about human development must answer the question: What purpose and whose interests does the theory serve? The history of psychological theory is replete with evidence of complicity with cultural arrangements and power practices that divide people into groups of dominants and subordinates. One example of this complicity was the proliferation of psychiatric diagnoses in the 19th century ascribing certain “personality traits” to African slaves that supposedly made them susceptible to “rascality, episodes of running away and disregard for owner’s property” (Thomas & Sillen, 1972).

More recently, feminist theorists (Broverman, Broverman, Clarkson, Rosenkranz, & Vogel, 1970; Gilligan, 1982; Jordan et al., 1991; Miller, 1976, 1987; Miller & Stiver, 1997) have noted how the traditional theories of psychological maturity tended to overpathologize women as inherently needy, overly emotional, and dependent.

Rarely was there any attention to the social structures and power arrangements that circumscribed the relational roles designated for women in a gender-stratified culture. When “personality traits” are attributed to a subordinate group and pathologized, psychological theories help to justify and preserve the culture’s power stratifications. In sum, the shift from self-in-relation to RCT signifies an intentional focus on the social implications of theory development.

Through exploring connection and disconnection at both the individual and social levels, we begin to understand how the political become psychological/personal and vice versa. Connections form or fail to form within a web of other social and cultural relationships. As we more deeply understood the central role of culture and power differentials on relationships, we felt the model’s name needed to signal this.

Pursuing Social Justice

To place culture, alongside connection, at the center of the theory is to break a critical silence. First, it acknowledges that social and political values inform theories of human psychology, including those that valorize separation and autonomy.

Relational-Cultural Theory does not pretend to be value neutral. RCT recognizes that to feign value neutrality is to perpetuate the distortions of the stratified culture in rather predictable ways.

First, theory itself becomes exempt from social scrutiny and takes on an aura of truth.

Second, such hierarchical “power over” theories control how all members of the culture are defined and known.

Third, it does this by tending to degrade or pathologize the experiences of marginalized people.

Fourth, it tends to overvalue and privilege the perspectives of people who are culturally dominant. Miller (1976) and others have pointed out that as one gains dominance in a culture of stratified power, enabling supports and connections are rendered invisible. By placing culture at the center of the model, RCT strives to make visible the multi-layered connections that belie the myth of separation (Miller & Stiver, 1997).

In a culture that valorizes separation and autonomy, persons with cultural privilege can falsely appear more self-sufficient and so will be judged as healthier, more mature, more worthy of the privilege society affords. Those you enjoy less cultural privilege (whether by virtue or race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status) will more likely be viewed as deficient and needy. They are more likely to be subject to systemic disadvantage and culture shaming.

By bringing a phenomenological focus to cultural context, a more complete and accurate picture of human experience and possibility emerges. Without such a focus, the experiences of both the socially privileged and the socially disadvantaged are subject to distortion.

Who Defines “Reality?”

The illusion of separation and the mistaken belief in autonomy contribute to the denial of the basic human need to participate in the growth of others and to being open to be moved by others. And yet the power to move others, to find responsiveness, to effect change, to create movement together is a vital part of good connection. How power is defined and expressed is crucial. For instance there is the power to name, to shame, and to define another’s value or lack thereof, the power to distribute resources. If this power is expressed unilaterally, it reduces the strength and power of the other people or group of people who do not hold this power. As it is held onto and denied to others, it creates disconnection and disempowerment. Inequalities in power distribution occur in families, in therapy relationships, in work relationships. At a societal level, unequal distribution of power among groups—those largely defined as marginal by dominant center groups—is rampant and the source of pain and disconnection among the members of the marginalized people.

Necessity of Conflict in Mutual Relationships

The complexity of connection and of relationships arises from unequal power, from working with difference, or from trying to manage conflict creatively. RCT recognizes that all relationships are punctuated by disconnections, misunderstandings, and conflict. Connecting in a real, growthful way with others is not always harmonious or comfortable; we all experience fear, anger, and shame. We move away to protect ourselves, particularly if we are not met with empathic responsiveness or if we feel we do not matter to the other person. But when we renegotiate these inevitable disconnections, the relationship is enhanced and personal feelings of well-being, creativity, and clarity increase.

The path of connection is filled with disconnections, the vulnerability of seeking reconnection, and the tension around needing to move away, possibly to hide in protective inauthenticity. But we believe there is powerful force behind the movement toward connection, a yearning for connection, a desire to contribute to others, to serve something larger than “the self.”

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