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Helena Hargaden: The emergence of the relational tradition within TA

Over the last couple of decades there has been a paradigm shift in many of the major psychotherapies from a focus upon the observing ego and cognitive insight as the primary means of psychological change to the importance of unconscious, affective and relational focus as a the primary means of psychological growth.

Within transactional analysis this has involved a conceptual shift away from trying to cure the client towards understanding that it is the relatedness between client and therapist which enables the client’s development.

Humanistic and Psychoanalytic influences upon the development of Relational TA

Before describing the paradigm shift within TA and the relational principles that have emerged, I want to acknowledge the influence of humanistic and psychoanalytic psychotherapy on the development of the relational ‘turn’ in psychotherapy.  

This starts with Carl Rogers. He describes six conditions for creating a qualitative therapeutic relationship – the so-called ‘core’ conditions being the offer by the therapist of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy. Although these qualities and ideas are often cited by most relational psychotherapists and psychoanalysts Rogers’ work is, maddeningly, often not often referenced. Congruence sounds simple, it means being straightforward, direct, real and true, often a quality to struggle for within ourselves rather than a simple notion of honesty. Unconditional positive regard chimes with TA ideas of I’m okay and You’re okay thus offering an experience of human mutuality and respect, whilst empathic understanding is a cognitive attempt to make sense of someone else’s experiences. Sometimes these ideas have been idealised and misunderstood, but, as a basic template to set the tone for interpersonal connection, they are useful ways of being and, more than that, also qualities to strive for in oneself, qualities that help to keep the psychotherapist in touch with their humility.

Humanistic psychotherapy has in recent years felt the influence of psychoanalysis. In the beginning, TA, Gestalt, person-centred, along with most humanistic therapies, tended to turn their back on the unconscious, anxious, as many of them were, to promote more equality between client and therapist, and reject the power structures inherent in the idea of the therapist’s ultimate authority to interpret the client’s meanings. Over the past two decades however many of the humanistic therapies have revisited the theories of the unconscious, particularly through the theory of transference and counter transference. From a humanistic perspective though, transference and counter transference are analysed within the interpersonal relationship, one in which the therapist is accountable for his thoughts feelings and actions with the client, and not considered just to be a part object in the client’s world.

In the spirit of humanism, and a climate of free thinking, humanistic psychotherapy has turned towards psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis as a way of breathing fresh life into our field. We have discovered like-minded people such as Ferenzi with his theories of mutuality, subjectivity and his use of self-disclosure, and Kohut, whose theories of empathy offer a conceptual bridge between psychoanalysis and humanistic psychotherapy. Fairbairn extended our understanding of introjection, internalisation and projection while Guntrip’s poetic descriptions and Winnicott’s use of play and transitional space have deep echoes in the humanistic psyche. Jungian analysis with its rich literature on symbolism, archetypes and theories of subjectivity has similar echoes and is deeply influential upon relational thought. And Klein, in particular, generated a rich understanding of how any depth of human relatedness must include negative as well as positive affective processes

Broadly speaking relational psychotherapy takes us beyond both psychoanalysis and humanistic approaches. It could be said to be a product of the relational dialectic between the two ‘forces’. It integrates the humanistic understanding of the interpersonal with the psychoanalytic rigorous attention to unconscious processes.

Relational TA - a description

Berne’s model of psychotherapy is very compelling and easy to understand with three stacked circles representing Parent Adult and Child in that order. The Parent ego state category is a representation of actual parents. Similarly the Child category represents every experience of the real child and the Adult category of ego states represents the rational ego which reasons and stays connected with here and now reality. For Berne, a client’s problem could literally be identified within one of these categories of ego states, and thereby traced back to its origin, identified, and rectified through a cognitive process of reasoning.  He saw the therapist as someone who could identify the wound, and take the splinter out of it, with a well timed intervention and incisive transaction. From his perspective the therapist was the master who could and should solve the problems of the client. (for more on Berne’s theory of ego states, see Stewart in this volume)

Relational transactional analysts, whilst continuing to think about the source of problems in terms of ego states, have a different perspective which has evolved over many years of post Bernian experience in their consulting rooms. For Berne it was about transactions, for relational transactional analysts it is about the relatedness between therapist and client. The first major principle of relational TA is the centrality of the relationship. For Berne, communication was an exchange deconstructed as a stimulus and a response which could be considered as a ‘one-way street’. For relational transactional analysts communication is bi-directional, a ‘two-way street’ thus involving the vulnerability of the therapist as well as the client.

Of course when both sets of Parent, Child and Adult are involved, things become more complex. The second important principle of relational TA is the use of counter transference, not merely as information, but as experience which is analysed and translated into interpersonal dialogue, opening up a deeper set of communications between therapist and client.

Karpman’s elegant model of the drama triangle he shows how Victim Persecutor and Rescuer are identifiable roles which he illustrates on an inverted triangle with Victim at the bottom and Persecutor and Rescuer at the top. His idea is so simple, so clear, it makes it possible to locate roles that are immediately recognisable whilst showing common and frequently played relationship dynamics between these roles. Karpman, drawing on Berne, taught how these roles were substitutes for candidness and intimacy. The drama triangle mapped out the terrain of the type of relationship experiences which Berne referred to as games. Originally the method was to point out to the client what they were doing and how to stop it. In relational transactional analysis however Karpman’s triangle becomes more complex: the therapist has to think about the role she is playing or feels deeply drawn to play and to ask himself questions: Why do I feel like this? What is this about for me? Why do I feel sadistic?  Why am I connecting with my Victim feelings? What is the powerful desire to take care of the client really about? Questions have to be asked such as, what do these feelings really mean for us? What does this mean for this relationship we find ourselves in with this client? What may the feelings say about the client? We then have to wait for answers, contain our uncertainty, and recognize the inherent multi dimensions of relationship.

The third important principle of relational TA is that communication is multi layered, co-created with the potential for multiplicity of meanings: there is no one analytic truth or ‘right’ transaction.

These ideas are developed in “Transactional Analysis: A Relational Perspective” (Hargaden & Sills 2002). As it became clear the therapist had to change her philosophical attitude and move away from concrete thinking towards reflecting more symbolically on herself and upon her client, relational transactional analysts needed to learn to hold and contain thoughts and feelings, and not necessarily try and know the right interpretation, explanation or even make a verbal transaction. Drawing on case histories and developing the idea of tranferential domains, the authors focus on the significance of taking a symbolic attitude showing how the therapist needed to become more attuned not only to her client’s undercurrent emotional sense of being but also to her own untapped unthought experiences and feelings (Bollas, 1987) which emerged within the intensity of relatedness with the client.

The History of Relational Transactional Analysis

There is an account of this paradigm shift within TA outlined in the book “From Transactions
to Relations” edited by William F. Cornell and Helena Hargaden. The book draws together sixteen articles as well as a reference list of sixty additional articles all from the Transactional Analysis Journal. These articles embody a relational philosophy, theory and practice. One of the first articles in this book is by Carlo Moiso who wrote in 1985 that instead of the therapist explaining to the client what they were doing in the game, or making an interpretation about why the client was taking on a Victim role for example, the therapist should stay in the relationship with the client so he could find out more about the client’s internal experience and the potential meanings inherent in this discovery. In TA language this meant the therapist should ‘play the game”. ‘Playing the game’ allows for us to listen to the deepest unconscious levels of expression: “What is she really trying to say to me?”  “What am I really feeling with this client/patient?” What do these feelings mean for me? For her? For us?”

As these ideas developed it became clear the therapist had to change her philosophical attitude and move away from concrete thinking towards reflecting more symbolically on herself and upon her client. The relational transactional analyst began to learn to hold and contain her thoughts and feelings and not necessarily try and know the right interpretation, explanation or even make a verbal transaction.
This paradigm shift of course has consequences for the type of analytic work the therapist undertakes upon herself. It also has consequences for ethics. To undertake psychological work of such depth the analytic frame needs to be firm to protect both client and therapist from potentially catastrophic enactments such as sexual, financial and other experiences which would destroy the development of the client’s symbolic world and her psychological health.

This article was featured in the x issue of The Psychotherapist. The Psychotherapist, published three times a year, is a magazine for the benefit of UKCP members and aims to keep them informed of developments likely to impact on the profession.


Berne, E. (1961/1986) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, London: Souvenir Press. (First published 1961, New York:Grove Press).
Bollas, C. (1987) The Shadow of the Object, New York: Columbia University Press.
Cornell, W.F. & Hargaden, H. (eds) (2005) From Transactions to Relations.  Chadlington: Haddon Press.
Karpman, S. (1968) ‘Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis’ Transactional Analysis Bulletin: Selected Articles Vols 1-9 1976 San Francisco: TA Press pp. 51-6
Moiso, C. (1985) ‘Ego states and transference’, Transactional Analysis Journal 15(3):194-201.
Rogers, C.R. (1951) Client-Centred Therapy, London:Constable.


Helena Hargaden

Helena Hargaden (MSc., DPsych., Training and Supervisory Transactional Analyst) is a Psychotherapist, Writer, Coach and Supervisor. In collaboration with others she developed relational perspectives of TA and has  been widely published and translated into a number of other languages. She lives on the South Coast by the sea where she has a clinical practice, continues to develop clinical ideas, currently integrating Bhuddism and Jungian perspectives with relational TA, as well as writing fiction.

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