Staff Voices: Features of Relational Psychology–A Q &A with Dr. Brent Slife

Staff Voices: Features of Relational Psychology–A Q &A with Dr. Brent Slife

The post-deployment period is sometimes a surprisingly difficult time for returning Service Members and their significant others. Couples and families may find themselves experiencing more conflict and emotional distance than they anticipated and this leaves them feeling surprised and unprepared.  After all, the deployment is over—shouldn’t reunion be the easiest part?  We know that Service Members benefit from positive relationships with significant others after deployment. And in my clinical work with Service Members, I have observed that good post-deployment adjustment is good for Service Member relationships. Given this reciprocity between Service Member functioning and quality of relationships in the post-deployment period, I wanted to provide information on the CDP blog about relationships, hoping that this would be helpful to Service Members and their families as well as mental health professionals who may be seeking information about this important transition period.

To speak directly to this issue, I sought out the expertise of a prominent Relational Psychologist, Dr. Brent Slife.  Dr. Slife is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University and his area of teaching and research expertise include Theoretical Psychology, Psychology and Spirituality, and Relational Psychology. He has identified 12 Features of Relational Psychology which he says form the foundation for his theory. For the purposes of this interview, Dr. Slife has selected 3 of the 12 Features of Relational Psychology to highlight within the context of the post-deployment period of the deployment cycle. Below is a brief description of these 3 features and Dr. Slife’s explanation of each one.  He first explains the feature in general terms and then answers a question about how each feature relates specifically to those experiencing or preparing for the post-deployment period.

Feature 1: Relationships, especially interpersonal ones, are the most crucial aspects of life and living. This is a basic premise of Relational Psychology--that being in meaningful relationship with others is the strongest psychological drive that humans experience. Dr. Slife contrasts this perspective with Individualism, which promotes an emphasis on the individual and suggests that happiness and fulfillment can be achieved through an individualistic pursuit of such. However, the Relational Psychologist would suggest that we as humans achieve “the good life” through our sense of community and belongingness with other people.

Question:Dr. Slife, it is common for a Service Member to miss the “deployed family” when he/she returns from a deployment. This may be expressed in homesickness for the deployed setting and/or a difficulty engaging with the family at home. Naturally, this can interfere with the reunion process, especially if the home family perceives that the Service Member is disengaged emotionally. How do you suggest Service Members and families navigate this dilemma?

Dr. Slife:“Half the battle is having the proper expectations.  If the family and Service Member expect some variation on heaven when the Service Member returns, then the expectations will likely not be met. Frustration, if not disappointment, will inevitably follow.  Such high hopes are probably natural as significant others await the promise of a loved one. Still, it is vital that everyone involved be realistic. It is probably reasonable to anticipate a “honeymoon period” in which it’s just good to be reconnected, but this period is inevitably followed by another period in which the Service Member is no longer the family “rock star,” but is instead incorporated into the family routine. Here, there will be a clear awkwardness of transition as the Service Member adjusts to completely different physical, cultural, emotional, and relational environments.

“The last of these environments—the relational environment—may require the most difficult adjustments because the Service Member has become accustomed in deployment to a unique “mission-centric” connectedness with comrades andperhaps with commanding officers. Moving from this singular focus of relationshipsto the day-to-day ofa significant other or a family is more difficult than it might first seem. Issues like emotional connection and affection are completely different in these two situations, with different sensitivities and even different relational skills. Although these sensitivities and skills are probably lying dormant, waiting to be reawakened with post-deployment relationships, it is unrealistic to expect these sensitivities and skills to reappear without considerable challenge and awkwardness.

“The Service Member may also expect relational “holes” that occurred during deployment (e.g., no romantic relationships) to be automatically “filled” in post-deployment. It is also not unusual, for example, for the deployed Service Member to idealizehis or her significant other or family, forgetting the normal difficulties and remembering only the more positive aspects of the relationships. For all these reasons, it is crucial to regularly discuss, monitor, and renegotiate the expectations of family members, including the Service Member. In other words, it is not enough just to have realistic expectations at the beginning of the post-deployment period; relationship expectations should be discussed weekly, if not more frequently. A simple but honest answer to the question “How are we doing?” can go a long way to revealing and preventing problems.”

Feature 2: Meaningful relationships are inherently messy and unavoidably involve a degree of conflict.This feature of Relational Psychology reminds us that “messiness” is a natural part of being in relationship with others. When you think of families and groups (small and large)of people working together toward a common goal, there is often inefficiency, difference of opinion, and “wasted” time that tends to frustrate us. However, if we adjust our expectations and allow for the complex interactions that occur when multiple people work together, we feel more positive about the process and the outcome. In fact, it may be these differences among people (i.e., the “messiness”) that contribute most to the richness of human interaction.

A somewhat more intense form of “messiness” inherent to relationships is conflict. When we consider the huge impact of differences among people and contexts, it’s not a surprise that we disagree at times when in relationships. However, we often lose sight of context and have unrealistic expectations of our relationships, both personal and professional. When these expectations are not met, we may experience disappointment, anger, and potentially a sense of unhappiness. The Relational Psychologist would teach us to experience productive messiness and conflict—and through this learn to have more closeness with others rather than more distance.

Question:Dr. Slife, while conflict is not unique to military families, post-deployment conflict is. This conflict may be due to various factors such as the resurfacing of old problems (problems in the relationship before the deployment are usually still there after the deployment);difficulty navigating roles and responsibilities (after all, during the deployment the Service Member was somewhat “out of the picture” with regard to home responsibilities); heightened irritability on the part of the Service Member about missing comrades in the deployed setting (“homesickness” for the people, the mission, etc), or other factors. Do you think that Feature 2 applies to relationships in the context of the post-deployment period given the demands of that situation? If so, how can the idea be helpful to Service Members and families in this situation?

Dr. Slife:“Feature 2 is relevant in all relationships and in various contexts. Service Members should begin by realizing that messiness and conflict are inherent in relationships. They are not signs of a bad relationship, but are indications of a normal, and even a good,relationship. When couples and families tell me that they are free of all conflict, I worry. The key is not whether families experience messiness and conflict; the key is how couples and families handle these opportunities. I say “opportunities” herebecause if they are handled correctly,they can bring a kind of peace that says “We don’t have to fear conflicts in this family.”Central to this peace is preventing or reducing escalation which may be the most problematic aspect of conflict. Escalation occurs when the conflict moves from mere disagreement to “all out war,” with the potential for both verbal and physical abuse.

“To prevent conflict escalation and perhaps even make conflict productive, here are two important tools to use:

1) Time-out: Recognizing that you are escalating—that you are getting madder or more frustrated—is pivotal, because this recognition allows you to call a “time-out,” a very important deterrent to escalation. Similar to a coach calling a time-out to calm and focus athletes, any member of the family can recognize that things are getting out of hand and signal for a time-out. This tool works wonders for the family for the same reasons as it does the coach; members of the family can calm down and realize what’s important, avoiding unproductive tangents and sidetracks. Just remember that the one who calls the time-out must specify when the discussion is to begin again; you should never allow the issue to be swept under the rug indefinitely, only to be resurrected in a future conflict.

2) Listening skills: The absolute best way to handle conflict is through listening skills. I’ve saved many marital couples untold numbers of counseling dollars just by having them practice these skills in times of conflict, and they frequently prevent escalation. They consist simply of carefully summarizing what the other person has said and then saying, “Did I get that right?” When the other person replies that you did “get it right,” then you can say something new, which leads to them to summarize your statement, and so on. As simple as this may sound, it is absolute magic when practiced during conflicts.”

Feature 3: Fear of rejection—the fear that we do not belong, are not acceptable, or do not have meaningful relations—is the greatest of all the fears and anxieties. According to the Relational Psychologist, relationship is our most powerful drive, and a sense of community is paramount to a sense of individualism. Therefore, it makes sense that fear of rejection (i.e., loss of relationship) is our biggest fear. As a result, many clients in therapy are experiencing problems that arise out of this fear of rejection. For example, some people avoid closeness due to fear of rejection; others may reject before they can be rejected. Even when clients have sought help for psychological symptoms that may be interfering with their otherwise healthy relationships, the goal of the Relational Psychologist is to conceptualize the problems in the context of their relationships and help the client restore their sense of community with others.

Q: I have certainly seen Service Members return from deployment fearing that they will not be accepted by their partners or spouses due to things that may have happened during deployment. Particularly those who engage in combat may have done or not done things that they fear will make them unacceptable to their significant others. Often, this fear results in avoidance of relationships and significant others. How would you use Feature 3 to help these individuals move toward their relationships instead of away?

Dr. Slife: “First, I think it is pivotal that Service Members understand that fears of rejection are not bad or abnormal or somehow signify weakness. All of us—repeat, all of us—are fearful and anxious about not being accepted or not really belonging to a valued social group or community. I say this because I’m aware of the messages of self-sufficiency that many Service Members can receive. They may mistakenly consider their anxieties about rejection as their own inadequacies, especially if they perceive others (who are skillful at hiding their rejection fears) as more self-sufficient.

With that said, I don’t want to minimize the uniqueness of deployment and post-deployment. As you say, Service Members may have done or not done things that might make them feel less acceptable to others. Or, they may assume that others aren’t able to understand these experiences. Unfortunately, these feelings and assumptions can serve to distance the Service Members from their loved ones, without their loved ones understanding what is going on. Even if the Service Member is attempting to protect their significant others from these experiences, the net effect will sometimes be an interpersonal distancing that can hurt the relationship.

In these cases, there simply is no substitute for sharing some of these experiences with loved ones. I understand that such sharing can be emotional and perhaps even torturous, but Service Members need to bring their loved ones “inside their world,” at least to some degree. They may not have to share the details of their actions or their experiences; it may be enough just to share that they are tormented or bothered by certain actions. Here, professionals can often help Service Members to find a way of presenting the experiencesthat allows some sharing while maintaining important boundaries that should not or do not need to be crossed.”

The 3 Features of Relational Psychology above are just a sample of Dr. Slife’s Theory of Relational Psychology—I encourage you to read more about the Relational Approach to therapy and consider its relevance to Service Members. As we know, Service Members and people close to them are sometimes caught off guard by the adjustment difficulties inherent to thepost-deployment period of the deployment cycle. Supportive relationships are an important part of this transitional period, and Relational Psychology has much to offer Service Members, family members, and mental health professionals in terms of understanding the importance of relationships and how to prioritize them in the contexts of our lives. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring some of Dr. Slife’s theoretical perspectives to the CDP blog. For further reading in the area of Relational Psychology, please consider the following list of readings. And to visit Dr. Slife’s website, please go to

De Young, P. (2003).  Relational psychotherapy:  A primer.  New York:  Brunner-Routledge.

Nolan, P.  (2012).  Therapist and client:  A relational approach to psychotherapy.  Oxford, UK:  John Wiley and Sons.

Slife, B.D., & Wiggins, B.  (2009). Taking relationship seriously in psychotherapy:  Radical relationality.  Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 39 (1), 17-24.

Dr. Regina Shillinglaw is one of the CDP’s Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologists. She is located at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio