What are interpersonal relationships?
Our relationships with those around us are essential to who we are, how we understand the world and form our ideas and belief systems. Interpersonal relationships can refer to romantic and familial bonds, but also to our relationships with friends, colleagues, and people we meet at social events. Essentially, our interpersonal skills dictate how we relate to everyone we cross paths with.
Interpersonal relationships are dynamic, fluid evolving systems. They require maintenance and nurturing, and often involve many complicated emotions from both sides. People with close interpersonal relationships will most likely benefit from a sense of confidence, security, belonging, reduced stress and reduced chances of depression and anxiety. They may also have a better chance of succeeding both personally and professionally.
A person with interpersonal difficulties will have difficulty relating to and bonding with other people, and/or they might find that they struggle with particular relationship types (such as the parent-child relationship, male-female platonic relationship or professional, collegial or employer-employee relationship). As our relationships can be such an important tool to help manage emotional and mental health they are very important, so if you are struggling with interpersonal relationship difficulties you may be more likely to be vulnerable to emotional and psychological challenges.
Who might experience interpersonal relationship difficulties?
Anyone might struggle with interpersonal relationship difficulties; certainly most of us will have felt anxious, shy or anti-social at some point in our lives. Relationship difficulties are common, perfectly normal and part of every daily living.
However, for some relationships can present a particular challenge. People with certain mental health issues for example are more likely to have highly inhibitive interpersonal relationship problems, different from everyday social awkwardness and it is fairly common for people with personality disorders to struggle with building and maintaining their relationships. Personality disorders can influence the way people think, feel and behave and therefore building bonds with others can be more difficult than for people without this condition.
It is also very common for those who have been unsuccessful in relationships in the past to shy away from future relationships through fear of repeating the same pattern of meeting, forming close personal bonds, and then having to suffer the pain of what they perceive as the inevitable relationship breakdown.
Interpersonal relationships can also be challenging for those with anxiety - particularly social anxiety -, depression, autism, people with low self-esteem, and those who have experienced some sort of trauma, neglect or abuse.
What are the signs that I am struggling with interpersonal relationship difficulties?
Anger: you may find that you become angry more easily. You may become frustrated as you struggle to find a way to communicate with others. This can be intensely damaging to relationships and to you.
Withdrawal: you may not feel inclined to socialise with friends, family, colleagues or loved ones.
Lack of confidence and a sense of alienation: Feeling as though you are not good enough to be in a relationship or that you are somehow different to other people.
Difficulty communicating: you may struggle to express yourself, both verbally and non-verbally, you may feel that you are often misunderstood or feel frustrated that you seem to say the wrong things.
Difficulty listening: you may find it difficult to properly listen to another’s needs resulting in relationship conflicts and feelings of distance from others.
Lack of negotiation skills: you may lack the ability to negotiate with others to find a mutually agreeable outcome.
Isolation: you may feel isolated and experience feelings of loneliness. How we interact with others and build interpersonal relationships is integral to our being able to feel accepted, attached and as though we belong. If you struggle with interpersonal relationship difficulties, you may feel that there is a void in your life.
How can counselling or therapy help with interpersonal relationship difficulties?
Interpersonal relationship difficulties are a very common reason that people seek help from a therapist or counsellor. While many forms of therapy can help address the issues that arise from having interpersonal relationship difficulties, interpersonal therapy is the type of therapy most focused on the issue.
Interpersonal therapy often supports the idea that difficulty interacting with others can cause us to become lonely, depressed and/or anxious, and that in turn, the symptoms of these mental health issues makes it more difficult for us to communicate with others. Your therapist will help you identify and clarify your difficulties, help you understand how you currently communicate with people and how this can be improved, and will act as a supportive, non-judgemental listener.
While interpersonal therapy is most helpful for those with identifiable, presenting issues within their relationships, this therapy may also look deeper into your past, most likely your childhood, to see if there is any evidence of patterns having been formed then.
Relational therapy is another effective tool to support interpersonal relationship problems. A relational therapist emphasises the importance of the client-therapist relationship as a model for relationships outside of therapy. Working with a relational therapist, you will gain a better understanding of how you want and need your relationships to be.
Last updated 29 February 2016