Relational Disorder

The new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V) challenges the idea that mental illness only affects the individual by recognizing that relational disorder is a psychological disorder.

What is a Relational Disorder?

A relational disorder occurs between at least two people and involves a pathological problem in the way that they relate to each other. The problem of the relationship is not caused by any one person in the relationship. Rather, the problem is with the relationship itself.

Even though a relationship does not have a mind, a relationship can still exhibit psychological characteristics. In many cases, these characteristics may exist in the relationship, but do not exist in the individuals who make up the relationship. Thus, a relational disorder is looked upon in the same manner as an individual psychological disorder that presents with behavioral and emotional symptoms. These pathological symptoms disrupt the lives of the people involved in the relationship and can lead to the destruction of the relationship.

The DSM-V has defined a relational disorder as “persistent and painful patterns of feelings, behavior, and perceptions involving two or more partners in an important personal relationship.” It is very important to stress that, in a relational disorder, the relationship itself is the problem and not the people involved. Jacob Moreno, psycho-sociologist asserts that it is possible for two psychologically-healthy individuals to have an unhealthy relationship just as it is possible for two psychologically-unhealthy people to have a healthy, constructive relationship.

Currently, relational disorders are broken down into marital and parent-child relational problems. However, a relational disorder can occur to any type of relationship as long as the relationship is important to the people involved in it.

Symptoms of a Relational Disorder:

Symptoms of a relational disorder vary depending on the type of relationship in question. However, symptoms can include:

  • Violent Behaviors
  • Ridiculing
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Neglect

How is Relational Disorder Diagnosed?

For relational disorder to be diagnosed, a trained therapist has to assess each person in the relationship. If all participants in the relationship are healthy and not suffering from an underlying psychological problem, then the relationship itself may be the problem. A therapist will examine various dynamics of the relationship to see whether it is actually “sick.” For example, if a relationship between parents and only one of their children is unhealthy, then the therapist may conclude that that specific relationship is unhealthy. However, if the relationships between parents and all their children are unhealthy, then the issue may be with the parents – not the relationship.

How Common is Relational Disorder?

Relational disorder is still a new condition under the DSM-V. No studies are available to indicate how common the condition is, however, marriage and family therapy is widely practiced worldwide, which suggests the commonality of relational disorder.

How is Relational Disorder Treated?

Relational disorder is treated solely with therapy, such as family or marital counseling. Healthy individuals are not at risk of being prescribed medications because their relationship has problems. During therapy, a professional counselor or therapist will analyze the relationship dynamics, each person’s role in the relationship and identify problem areas. Then, the therapist will suggest ways to change the dynamics of the relationship.

The Significance of Relational Disorder:

One of the most significant causes of mental health disorders is unhealthy relationships. Furthermore, most of the individuals seeking help for psychological problems confirm that they do not have stable, supportive relationships (such as family and friends that they can depend on for support). By identifying a relational disorder, a therapist may be able to help you and all the people involved in the relationship avoid future mental health problems. Counseling for relational disorder may also help prevent immediate threats such as: divorce, spousal abuse and/or child abuse.


American Psychiatric Association. (2001). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, D.C.

Denton, W. H. (2007). Issues for DSM-V: relational diagnosis: An essential component of biopsychosocial assessment.” American Journal of Psychiatry.

Peterson, K. S. (n.d). Troublesome friendship or a relational disorder? USA Today.


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