Set in Stone: Relational-Cultural Theory and its Ongoing Relevance for Gender Equality

The Central Paradox of Connection / Disconnection

According to the principles of Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT), the origin of most human anguish is disconnection. As humans, we need to relate to others for our all-round well-being. It’s just how we’re hardwired.  Acute manifestations of disconnection will elicit a loss of general joie de vivre followed by an array of negative emotions and, often, the onset of depression. As people become more disconnected, they tend to become more self-conscious and self-consumed/obsessed so that the ability to relate to others becomes compromised and pushes them further from the connection they inherently need. As more attempts to connect fail, confidence in what was previously a natural part of life also falters until we avoid trying to connect with others at all, even when we need it most.

From Relational Theory to Relational-Cultural Theory

In the late Seventies, a group of female scholars began to study the importance of connection not only for individuals but also for society, noting that where power and influence are exerted over others in a dominant fashion, mutuality or a sense of shared connection becomes compromised.  This disconnection then spills over into “accepted” stratification (a bias towards white, middle-class [generally male] heterosexuals). Marginalized groups, or those not in the “desirable” stratas, then become degraded while the views of the culturally dominant are lauded.  When this balance of power tips, it brings about corresponding negative effects on happiness levels in the marginalized. The glorification of separation and autonomy adversely affects the ability to participate and take interest in each other’s lives as the need for connections is perceived as a sign of weakness. The scholars realized that altruistic achievement of greatness for all is crucial for a healthy society and that relational culture enables multi-level connections in ways that that a culture driven by dominance can’t achieve.

A Handmaid’s Tale

Throughout history, women have been viewed as “inherently needy, overly emotional, and dependent.”[1]  This view disregarded that women’s relative powerlessness came from  the roles that were prescribed to them in a male dominated power structure. By keeping women busy in the home with domestic duties, there was less time for community and growth-fostering relationships that would allow the innate sense of connection many women need. One of the key principles of relational theory is that connection is particularly important for women and is central to their psychological wellbeing. Have you ever heard a man complain that all women talk about is their relationships (often meaning romantic partnerships or children)? That’s because throughout history, women have most often seen themselves through the lens of others and have been afforded a less developed sense of self than men, who are often encouraged to compete rather than collaborate. Women seek out relationships in order to satisfy their intrinsic need for connection. RCT regards the qualities of empathy and mutuality as key to adult connection and particularly to female relationships.

The Stone Center and the Importance of Jean Baker Miller

Focusing on psychological well-being, particularly that of women, the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies was founded in 1981 by Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues. Miller, a psychoanalyst, is at the forefront of women’s psychology, and the premise of her 1976 book, Toward A New Psychology of Women, not only challenges existing (mainly Freudian) schools of thought around the subject but also ushers in a whole new paradigm of women’s psychology. The Stone Center works closely with the Center for Research for Women (established by Wellesley College, MA) and together they undertake an array of multidisciplinary studies related to gender and gender equality.  Their focus is on relational therapy, whereas the majority of therapeutic activities hone in on the self.   They also require an engaged and empathetic practitioner, as opposed to a one who is detached, so that the client/patient can experience a sense of connection, empathy, and mutual understanding or “mutuality.”

This model, now known as Relational-Cultural Theory, has evolved over time to account for the influence of culture on development, particularly in the context of Western societies where individualism is promoted and repeatedly rewarded. Highly successful individuals have traditionally been perceived to have more qualities and rewards that are coveted by society: money, sex, possessions, etc. As we’ve seen with some very public unravelings of highly successful celebrities, particularly in the past decade, this adulation is hollow, and what these individuals desperately crave is deep, rewarding connection with other human beings they can trust. Cultures that favor the group and family connections over the isolated individual  result in people feeling more supported and yield higher levels of general happiness and satisfaction with their lot.[2]

Positive Connections

Meaningful, tangible connections, though by no means easy to acquire due to the lack of predictability of what it means to be human, give us a sense of purpose and make us feel valued. This is borne out by the fact that Millennials are the most “connected” generation in history but also the most unhappy because they often lack deep, face-to-face relationships and a corresponding sense of belonging in their lives.[3]  Relating is complex and requires an ability to manage differences and negotiate conflict, which can arise when the balance of power gets out of kilter. Relationships can be uncomfortable but also incredibly rewarding if we choose to learn and grow with them and to not only tolerate uncertainty but also to adapt to it and grow. This is true of all our relationships whether that be love, the child/parent relationship, or business relationships. The rules of mutual respect apply to all relationships, and when we choose understanding over judgment and mutuality over singularity, our connections are enhanced along with our general sense of well-being and purpose. Even if you don’t have family or a partner and are not currently employed, joining a group or club with like-minded people is a great place to start, because everyone deserves great connections in their lives.


If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email today.



[1] Miller & Stiver, 1997

[2] Cultural Diversity and Mental Health: Considerations for Policy and Practice – Narayan Gopalkrishnan, 2018

[3] iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood* and What That Means for the Rest of Us

Jean M. Twenge, PhD., 2017

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