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Relationship forming

Hi guys and welcome to my latest blog post, in this post we take a brief look at how humans form relationships and how this can be used in one on one therapy, I hope you enjoy.

There are several theories about the role of relationships and how they are formed between humans be this in a couple or in larger groups. Originally it was considered that we entered relationships based on what we could gain from them; however this argument can be countered by saying that it is possible to observe relationships where there is great sacrifice and altruism involved. It can be argued that even in this situation there is still a gain on all sides but that is a grey area and still requires more research. Even so, the gains to both sides are so varied that it would be hard to compare one to the other.

Most living creatures form relationships of some kind; however humans are unique in how they consciously form complicated relationships with different individuals throughout their life. Thibaut and Kelley used social exchange theory to suggest a four stage model of how long-term relationship are formed and maintained.

Stage 1 Sampling:

Exploration of the costs and rewards of different relationships in different ways, either by trying out relationships or by observing others. For example, this applies to teenagers as they enter a period of high social activity.

Stage 2 Bargaining:

This takes place at the beginning of the relationship and involves giving and receiving rewards to see if the relationship will be profitable.

Stage 3 Commitment:

Reduction in bargaining and working towards attending to the relationship.

Stage 4 Institutionalisation:

Settling down with established norms and mutual expectations. By this stage, we know each other and understand how the other person will react to a certain situation or stimulus.

Also based on social exchange theory is the concept that we expect a relationship to be a balance or compromise, this is to say we expect to get out similar to what we put in. If this proves not to be the case this can cause great unhappiness because there is a sense that one party has been cheated, this often proves to be the cause of breakdowns in long-term relationships. This is what we call the disruptive justice hypothesis.

Work on the disruptive justice hypothesis led to the development of the Equity theory. This theory says that for a relationship to work it must be balanced. It is not to say that each party must get the same rewards but that the different rewards each party does get must be seen to be balanced from both sides. Below is a table of principles taken from this theory that explains and simplifies it:

Principle 1

People will try to maximise reward and minimise unpleasant experience in a relationship.

Principle 2

Rewards can be shared out in different ways and the people involved can agree on a fair system.

Principle 3

An inequitable relationship produces personal distress and will cause unhappiness if left unbalanced.

Principle 4

When we are in an inequitable relationship we will try to restore a state of equity. The greater the degree of inequity the more effort we will put into doing so.

It is important to remember that although the theories laid out above may well be correct and reflects a lot of situations, this may not be true for all and the therapist should adapt accordingly.

Apply theory to practice

As you can see above, there are two main theories to consider when working with a client, but how do we relate these theories into the counselling session? Well, we can start by considering what approaches would work to help understand the client’s relationship and discover where and what the problems may be. A good place to start would be with the person centred approach as this is an excellent way of beginning to understand and analyse a relationship. This approach may well be suitable for all of the work with a particular client but it is more than likely that techniques will need to be used from other approaches such has psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy and Kohut’s self –psychology. It is also worth mentioning here that towards the end of the process with particular clients, CBT may well be a tool to help them take the work that has been done and move it into their everyday lives. It is safe to say that every client will be different and the way they respond to therapy will also be very varied, each client will react differently to therapy and a combination of all approaches combined in different ways will most often be required to achieve the best possible outcome for our client.

There are stages to go through when working with a client with relationship issues, clearly this will differ for all clients and some may require more work on certain areas and possibly none in others but below is a summary of how these stages may pan out.

Stage 1:

Who is the relationship with? We must help the client to discover what emotional investment they have in the other person or persons.

Stage 2:

What is the purpose of the relationship for the client?

Stage 3:

What is the purpose of the relationship for the other person?

Stage 4:

What is the balance of the relationship?

Stage 5:

Where are the areas of difficulty?

Stage 6:

Is there a pattern in the relationship/type of relationship?

Stage 7:

How does the balance of equity need to be changed?

Stage 8:

Is this desirable or possible?

Stage 9:

Dealing with the feelings and emotions

Stage 10:

Conclusion and action. Here we need to consider the ending, all relationships will end one day be that though separation, relocation or even death but it is a certainty of life that it will end. Endings of any kind can be very painful and it is important to remember that the ending to a therapeutic relationship should be given a lot of attention as to not cause damage to the client.

Well guys that’s it for this post, let me know what you think, maybe you agree with me or maybe you think I’m completely wrong, either way I would love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time, all the best,


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