Relational Disorder

What is relational disorder?

A relational disorder is a social disorder characterized by a dysfunction in a personal relationship, whether it be a romantic relationship, friendship, or a relationship with a family member.

When a relational disorder occurs, there is an underlying issue which is unresolved and can range from a mild issue to a severe issue which prevents the two individuals from communicating.

Overview of relational disorder

Relational disorders are quite common and involve the dynamic in a relationship between two people. This relationship will have a certain amount of dysfunction for underlying reasons. There is not usually a surface cause; rather it can be a result of an underlying condition in one of the individuals in the relationship.

This dysfunction can be the inability for parents to effectively communicate with one of their children. It may be that a parent can have no issues relating to one child, but have a tumultuous relationship with another. A parent may show favoritism to one particular child and not the other. The subject of relational disorders has been around since the 1930s when intensive studies began being conducted involving personal relationships. One of the pioneers of the condition who conducted a considerable amount of research in the field was J.L. Moreno.

J.L. Morena was one of the people who pioneered group therapy and psychodrama. Over the course of time, it became known that there are two main types of relational disorders. One type being a romantic relationship, and the other being the parent-child relationship. It is important to note that a relational disorder does not exist in a single person in the relationship, but the root of the problem is actually the relationship itself.

The relationship between two individuals will exhibit particular psychological pathology which gives it characteristics of a personality. There are varying degrees of severity in relational disorders. Sometimes the disorder is so severe one party may undergo extreme abuse over the course of time.

Sometimes the abuse can lead to injury or even death. Treatment of deteriorating relationships is the key to preventing them from taking on elements of an extreme case. With the proper treatment, the outlook for people afflicted with a relational disorder is good if they choose to get the maximum benefit from the therapy.

Symptoms of relational disorder

One of the hallmark symptoms of a relational disorder is communication impairment. There is an inability to effectively communicate and resolve certain issues. In some cases, a relational disorder can become violent. There is a set of guidelines used to help professionals determine if indeed a relational disorder is present.

They exhibit specific symptoms which are similar in many other psychological disorders. They can vary in severity and endurance. Each case has its own specific issues and requires therapy and, in some cases, medication to get the situation under control.

Relational disorders are defined as a condition of extended pain and discomfort emotionally when referring to a relationship between two people. This definition outlines the dysfunction in the relationship and alludes to the symptoms of depression, anger, and feelings of alienation. Children especially will have intense feelings of emotional abandonment when a parent and child are having a severe lack of communication.

Sometimes the dynamic is so dysfunctional the child will have little say when expressing their ideas and emotions, which can become the cause of other emotional and social conditions.

Over the course of time, if the relational disorder is not effectively dealt with, it can lead to violence. The violence can escalate and become life threatening. We commonly see relational disorders lead to domestic violence calls. These calls can be for either a couple or for a parent abusing their child.

Parents who do not seek the appropriate treatment can end up causing abuse to their children. It is important to get the symptoms of relational disorders under control in order to prevent serious issues which can cause both physical and psychological harm. Some of the dynamics associated with a relational disorder between a parent and child include a lack of positive reinforcement when the child performs well. The parent refuses to acknowledge the child in a positive manner but will be quick to act aggressively if there is any form of resistance in their interactions. If the child questions the parent’s motives or actions, the parent reacts in an unusually aggressive, sometimes violent manner.

The dysfunction is not always isolated to the adult. In some cases, the child will react in a negative, aggressive manner towards the parent. The relationship can have negative aspects between either of the parties and leads to undesirable outcomes for both.

Some of the other hallmark symptoms of a relational disorder include neglect, dissatisfaction, and ridiculing. These negative behaviors progressively develop over the course of the relationship.

Causes of relational disorder

The causes of relational disorders can be wide and varied. They normally occur when one of the people in the relationship is experiencing difficulties either relating or communicating with the other. This can stem from an underlying psychological disorder, or an event which has caused division.

For instance, in a romantic relationship, if there was any time of infidelity, the communication may break down between romantic partners. In turn, the relationship becomes dysfunctional and leads to feelings of resentment, distrust, and anger.

The causes can also sometimes stem from trauma or negative experiences one of the individuals has experienced previously. If a romantic relationship is experiencing these issues, it may stem from trust issues or even trauma from a past relationship which the person had not dealt with appropriately. In other cases, it can be caused by a strained relationship between a parent and child resulting from issues such as lifestyle preferences, conditioning, lack of parental skills, behavioral disorders within the child, and other causes which impede the normal course of communication. The parent may be dealing with marital issues which then overflow to their relationship with their children.

Once relational disorder occurs, it can spill over into another relationship within the family unit. Siblings often have a textbook example of relational disorder symptoms that are a direct result of the dysfunction between the parent and child. If the parent favors one child and not the other, it can become obvious to the child in question and cause them to experience feelings of resentment towards the sibling treated with favor. When this occurs, it can throw off the whole family dynamic.

In extreme cases we see that a child has been confined or imprisoned by the parent and the siblings are aware of the abuse, yet fail to report it. The dysfunction becomes a normal occurrence within the family unit. Some of these extreme cases can have fatal consequences to the child and can cause lifelong mental illness for the other children living in the home during the abuse.

Treatment of relational disorder

The treatment for relational disorders can vary from person to person. The mental health professional or therapist will first want to evaluate both parties to determine the root of the cause. If there is an underlying mental illness which is not yet treated, it will become one of the main focuses until it can be well controlled in order to proceed with treatment for the relational disorder.

The treatment course for the relational dysfunction itself usually consists of interactions with the person based upon the course of therapy. No medication is used to treat the relational disorder. Medication is only used to treat any other underlying mental illness or psychological condition which can inhibit the progress of therapy. One of the most common forms of therapy used for such a condition is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This intensive type of treatment is designed to get the maximum results while directly addressing the root of the problem.

If the relational disorder isn’t controlled and addressed in the appropriate manner, it can cause the relationship itself to dissolve permanently, whether it be between two individuals in a committed romantic relationship or the relationship between a parent and child.

Prevention or relational disorder

There is no real specified way in which to prevent a relational disorder. The key to prevention may lie in the individuals treating any type of mental illness or underlying condition which may pose a threat to the existing relationship. For instance, if one of the people in a romantic relationship had experienced violence or some type of abuse, it would be key for them to seek ongoing therapy and communicate openly about their experiences with their partner.

Open lines of communication allow individuals to better understand each other’s thoughts and feelings. If there seem to be serious issues cropping up, it is a good idea to seek therapy before there is a deterioration in the relationship.

When it comes to a parent-child relationship, the parent should be the one to accept a course of treatment which may be necessary. If the parent refuses to acknowledge the dysfunction, the child may find assistance from an outside source to mediate, which can lead to further relationship damage. Children feel encouraged to talk with trusted adults, such as other family members or their school counselor if they feel they are taking part in a relational disorder.

It is important to note, however, that the person should immediately seek help if the relationship has become violent in any way to prevent life-threatening injuries. In some instances, it is a medical professional who discovers the abuse when they examine the child for an injury they have sought medical attention for or discovered at a routine visit to the doctor. Teachers and mentors may even report cases where they feel there is abuse occurring in the home of the child.

Individuals who deal with children on a frequent basis usually require training to look for the signs of abuse and are required to report any instances of abuse they observe such as bruises and broken bones which do not have an immediate explanation or which occur frequently.

Relational disorders are fairly common and can show symptoms common with domestic violence and abuse. The cause of the disorder can vary but will eventually lead to a breakdown in communication between the two parties which may cause a dissolution of the relationship over the course of time.

The condition can be exacerbated by an underlying psychological condition, but the condition itself is the primary cause of the dysfunction in the relationship. The disorder may appear in either a romantic or parent-child relationship and requires treatment through therapy.

If a person is aware they are experiencing a relational disorder, they should immediately seek treatment from a mental health professional so they can deal with the symptoms and prevent the situation from deteriorating over the course of time.

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Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2017
Last Updated:
September 12, 2017