The Development of Relational-Cultural Theory

Beginnings: Self-in-Relation

Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) has grown from the early work of Jean Baker Miller, M.D. who wrote the best-selling book Toward New Psychology of Women. Since the first edition was published in 1976, the book has sold over 200,000 copies, has been translated into 20 languages, and published in 12 countries. In her work, Dr. Miller explored the importance of dynamics of dominance and subordination in human relationships and began to reframe the psychology of women as a psychology centered in relationships.

RCT was then further developed collaboratively when Jean Baker Miller, M.D., Judith V. Jordan, Ph.D., Irene Stiver, Ph.D., and Janet Surrey, Ph.D. began meeting twice a month in 1977. This group, later named the Stone Center Theory Group, and then the Founding Scholars, was trying to break free from what they felt were the damaging effects for women of traditional therapy. By 1981 they were writing papers, presenting at conferences, and had found an institutional home at the Stone Center at Wellesley College where Jean Baker Miller served as the first director; they were literally coming into voice.

Women Finding Voice

The group continued to question the usefulness of psychology and therapeutic practices that elevate and celebrate the notion of a hyper-individuated separate self. The dominant (white, male, middle-class, heterosexual) culture valorizes power over others, overemphasizing internal traits, intrapsychic conflict, and strive for independence and success accomplished through competitive achievement, particularly in the culture of the 21st-century United States. To the extent that relationships are emphasized, they are viewed as primarily utilitarian, as aids to the achievement to separate self. They underemphasize the importance of connection, growth-fostering relationship and community, and often position a person’s need for interconnectedness as a sign of “weakness.”

From Woman’s Voice to Women’s Voices

As the work progressed, it brought phenomenological focus to the experience of women whose voices had been historically marginalized from the mainstream writing about women’s development. The inclusion of these voices was intended to challenge our assumptions of a power myth norm that would define “woman” as a white, economically privileged, able-bodied, and heterosexual female. Unchallenged, this norm becomes a standard against which all women’s experience is interpreted and evaluated. Therefore, the extent to which an individual woman conforms to this norm becomes almost by default the measure by which she is deemed worthy of notice or fit for connection. They began to understand the importance of connection as it also sought to move the model away from the biases of white, middle-class heterosexual experience, from woman’s voice to women’s voices: understanding the essentiality of connection across difference.

The effects of disconnection at a societal level, the ways that power differentials, forces of stratification, privilege, and marginalization can disconnect and disempower individuals and groups of people is paramount to understanding well-being on both an individual and societal level. The exercise of power over others (dominance), unilateral, influence, and/or coercive control is a prime deterrent to mutuality.

Mutuality involves profound mutual respect and mutual openness to change and responsiveness. It does not mean equality. As Jean Baker Miller once said, “In order for one person to grow in relationship, both people must grow.” This involves intersubjective, cognitive-emotional change; there is a certain, although different, vulnerability for both participants. Although we ultimately believe safety lies in building good, growth-fostering relationships and not in establishing separation from and power over others, building authentic connection is predicated on tolerating uncertainty, complexity, and the inevitable vulnerability involved in real change. It is far from easy or being perpetually “nice.”

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 becomes 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 who 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.”

 Finding Hope

As we move forward in the development of RCT, we ask: How can we create a radical new language of connection and fully appreciate the fundamental contribution of relationship to human development? How can we appreciate the power of “controlling images?” Described so powerfully by Patricia Hill Collins (1990), these images are often about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and are imposed by the dominant culture to disempower and marginalize subordinate groups. We seek to examine how cultural stratification along multiple social identities shapes developmental experiences and relational possibilities by exploring how experiences of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and gender effect the development of authenticity and mutual empathy in relationship. In the earliest days of our work we elucidated the relational consequences of interpersonal disconnection, describing it as a primary source of human suffering.

We acknowledge the thesis that a “power over” culture is itself an agent of disconnection that, left unchallenged, diminishes the relational capacities and confidence of all its members. For example, because unilateral power breeds fear, it also diminishes the relational capacities of those who hold power over others. When the purpose of a relationship is to protect the power differential (maintain the gap between those who hold privilege and those who do not), it is highly unlikely that authentic responsiveness can unfold. Indeed, authentic engagement and openness to mutual influence may be viewed as dangerous practices.

Neuroscience

The path of connection is filled with complexity, contradiction, and uncertainty. In the face of the unknowns and the humbling blindspots, we are dedicated to learning to being responsive. In a world that is increasingly disconnected, violent, and filled with fear, where community needs are obscured by individual greed and competition, we feel commitment to connection. And in turning to connection, we feel hope.

References

Broverman, I. K., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., Rosenkranz, P. S., & Vogel, S. (1970). Sex-role stereotypes and clinical judgments of mental health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 34(1), 1-7.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jordan, J. V. (Ed.). (1997). Women’s growth in diversity: More writings from the Stone Center. New York: Guilford Press.

Jordan, J. V., Kaplan, A. G., Miller, J. B., Stiver, I. P., & Surrey, J. L. (1991). Women’s growth in connection: Writings from the Stone Center. New York: Guilford Press.

Miller, J. B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.

Miller, J. B. (1987). Toward a new psychology of women (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Miller, J. B. & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Boston: Beacon Press.

Thomas, A. & Sillen, S. (1972). Racism and psychiatry. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

 

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