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Relating theory

Relating is that which one person does to another, or to others, so it is a characteristic of an individual. Relating can apply as much to what happens in an instant as to what happens over the course of a lifetime; so offering someone a seat on a bus is as much relating as is being someone who goes through life needing to help people. A person can relate as much to internalised people and to people in the real world. I wrote in my book (Birtchnell, 1993/96a) that relating is so essential a part of our being that we never stop doing it, just as our hearts never stop beating.

Relating theory, previously called spatial theory, began to take shape in the late nineteen eighties. It grew out of considerations of the nature of psychological dependence (see Interests in the 70s and 80s). It's link with psychological dependence was apparent in an early form of it (Birtchnell, 1987). It grew during a period when I had frequent contact with John Bowlby, and another formative influence was my attempt to draw a clear distinction between it and attachment theory (see Birtchnell, 1997a). Bowlby died in 1990. As early as 1991, Professor Russell Gardner wrote, "Dr Birtchnell's spatial schema has considerable potential for analysing data on interpersonal relationships." It was Maurice Lorr (personal communication, 1987) who first brought to my attention its resemblance to interpersonal theory, a theory which he himself had helped to develop (Lorr & McNair, 1963). In two papers (Birtchnell, 1990 and Birtchnell, 1994) I outlined the differences between my own theory and interpersonal theory. Spatial theory, as it was then called, was first fully developed in my book, How Humans Relate: A New Interpersonal Theory, published first as a hardback (Birtchnell, 1993) and later as a paperback (Birtchnell, 1996a).


How Humans Relate


01. Relating: Some general principles
02. The two axes of relating
03. Further development of the two axes
04. Maturational processes within the two axes
05. Closeness
06. Distance
07. Upperness
08. Lowerness
09. The interpersonal octagon
10. The interpersonal circle
11. Conclusion


Of the theory, Professor A.T. Beck (Philadelphia) wrote (in the ASCAP Newsletter 1994), "I am convinced that John Birtchnell is on to something important in terms of his vertical and horizontal axes." Professor Paul Gilbert wrote, "He is to be congratulated for bringing together such a diverse literature and shedding new light on the complexities of human relating." (both quotations on the cover of the paperback). " Professor Russell Gardner (Texas) wrote, in the Foreword to the book, "Until now we have had no one comprehensive system for organizing and systematizing people's communicational attributes." Denis Trent (1994) in a review of the book, wrote "Birtchnell's theory is comprehensive and well thought out. Hidden within the content, however, is his ability to present a highly complex and well integrated theory in a clear and easily understandable style." Carolyn Reichelt (1994) wrote, "When John Birtchnell's spatial model of relating first appeared in the ASCAP Newsletter, I was somewhat dubious. I suffer from a bias against trying to jam the complexity of the human spirit into little compartments. But in this case, further essays had increasingly piqued my interest, so that when called and asked if I would like to review the book, I agreed. It seemed worthwhile to see if a full exposition of the theory would be persuasive enough to quell my remaining doubts. I'm glad I did, because I'd have missed an enjoyable and stimulating read if I'd refused. I recommend this book to anyone interested in human feelings and interactions; not just professionals, but any intelligent reader."

The essentials of relating theory:

  1. Relating occurs along two intersecting axes, a horizontal one, concerning a need for involvement with others (closeness) versus a need for separation (distance), and a vertical one, concerning a need to relate from above downwards (upperness) versus a need to relate from below upwards (lowerness).
  2. Each of the four positions (closeness, distance, upperness and lowerness) carries advantages for the individual.
  3. No position is either better or worse than any other.
  4. Each position is described as a state of relatedness, which carries its own particular satisfaction.
  5. Each position is considered to constitute a relating objective, with its own specific drive.
  6. The emotions convey to us whether we are on course in attaining and maintaining the states of relatedness.
  7. Whilst we are born with innate dispositions to the four states of relatedness, we need in the course of maturation, to develop competence in attaining and maintaining each of them.
  8. A person who is competent in all states of relatedness is called versatile.
  9. Competent relating is called positive, an relating that falls short of competence is called negative. One of the objectives of psychotherapy is the elimination of negative relating.
  10. There are four intermediate states that result from a blending of a horizontal state and a vertical state. These are called upper close, lower close, upper distant and lower distant. The four pure states (which are called neutral) and the four intermediate states are organised into a theoretical structure that is called the interpersonal octagon.

The differences between the interpersonal octagon and the interpersonal circle have been spelt out in a number of publications, including the book How Humans Relate: A New Interpersonal Theory (Birtchnell, 1993/96a). Perhaps the best summary is in Birtchnell & Shine, 2000.

Being related to

Just as we relate to people all of the time, we are being related to (by others) all of the time. We do not always know that we are being related to. A celebrity is unaware of all the feelings that all kinds of other people have towards her/him. All that applies to relating applies also to being related to. It can apply as much to what happens in an instant as to what happens over a life time. It can apply as much to internalised people as to people in the real world. People can be profoundly affected by the way that certain others relate to them. Relating and being related to are combined in the process of interrelating, and the CREOQ (see below), which measures interrelating, has separate measures of relating and being related to.

Classes of negative relating

Classes of negative relating are forms of relating incompetence. Since people need to relate in order to attain desirable states of relatedness, even if they cannot relate competently to attain them they will relate incompetently to do so. The three main forms of negative relating are called avoidant, insecure and desperate. In avoidant relating, the person is so frightened of a particular state of relatedness that she clings desperately to the opposite state. Thus a person who is frightened of closeness clings to distance. Insecure relating means that the person tries to attain or maintain a particular state of relatedness but is constantly afraid s/he is going to lose it. Thus an insecurely upper person is constantly trying to put other people down so as not to be dislodged from her/his position of upperness. Desperate relating means that the person will do anything to get or keep a particular state of relatedness, irrespective of what it does to the other person. Thus a desperately close relater will impose her/his closeness upon another even if s/he is not welcome. A desperately lower person will plead and beg and feign helplessness in order to get others to relate downwards to her/him. The measures of relating ( see measures of relating section ) are predominantly measures of negative relating.



Figure 1. Positive (upper diagram) and negative (lower diagram) forms of relating. The pairs of initial letters are abbreviations for the full names of the octants given in the text. The diagrams first appeared in Birtchnell, J. The interpersonal octagon: An alternative to the interpersonal circle. Human Relations, 47, p. 518 and 524. Copyright The Tavistock Institute, 1994. Reproduced by permission.


The difference between relating and interrelating

Whereas relating is a characteristic of a person, interrelating is a characteristic of a pair of people (or sometimes of a number of people). When two people are interrelating each is both relating to and being related to by the other. Interrelating can be brief (as when a person makes a purchase in a shop) or can be extended over a period of time (as in a long term relationship). The CREOQ (see below) is a measure of interrelating.

Relating theory as the basis for the measurement of relating and interrelating

Relating theory was developed largely as a basis for the design of instruments for the measurement of relating; though once it had become established it became a useful aid for understanding a person's relating behaviour, as for instance in psychotherapy (see section on Relating in Psychotherapy).

A person's general relating tendencies can be measured by means of the Person's Relating to Others Questionnaire (PROQ) or various derivatives of it. Objectively, it can be measured by the checklist called Observation of Relating Behaviour (ORB).

All measures of interrelating are based upon a cluster of four questionnaires by which each of two people rate how s/he relates to the other and the other relates to her/him. The main measure of interrelating was designed for use with couples and is called the Couple's Relating to Each Other Questionnaire (CREOQ).

For further details of these measures see Birtchnell, 2001 and the section called Measures of Relating and Interrelating

Relating theory and personality disorders

Relating theory is useful in the classification of personality disorders (Birtchnell, 1996b, 1997b; Birtchnell & Shine, 2000) and also in their treatment (Birtchnell & Bourgherini, 2000).

Relating theory in psychotherapy, couple therapy and family therapy

Relating theory has particular application in the diagnosis of relating difficulties as they present in psychotherapy, couple therapy and family therapy and in the development of strategies for treating them (see sections on Measures of Relating and Interrelating - and Relating in Psychotherapy ).


Beck, A.T. (1994) Letters The ASCAP Newsletter, Volume 7 No 2, 4-5

Birtchnell, J. (1987) Attachment‑detachment, directiveness‑receptiveness: A system for classifying interpersonal attitudes and behaviour. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 60, 17‑27.

Birtchnell, J. (1990) Interpersonal theory: Criticism, modification and elaboration. Human Relations, 43, 1183-1201.

Birtchnell, J. (1993) How Humans Relate: A New Interpersonal Theory. A volume in the series Human Evolution, Behavior & Intelligence. Praeger: Westport, CT. Paperback version published by Psychology Press, Hove, UK, 1996a.

Birtchnell, J. (1994) The interpersonal octagon: An alternative to the interpersonal circle. Human Relations, 47, 511-529.

Birtchnell, J. (1996b) Detachment. In Costello, C.G. (Ed.) Personality Characteristics of the Personality Disordered. Wiley: New York.

Birtchnell, J. (1997a) Attachment in an interpersonal context. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 70, 265-279.

Birtchnell, J. (1997b) Personality set within an octagonal model of relating. In Plutchik, R. & Conte, H.R. (Eds.) Circumplex Models of Personality and Emotions. American Psychological Association Press: Washington, D.C.

Birtchnell, J. (2001) Relating therapy with individuals, couples and families. Journal of Family Therapy, 23, 63-84.

Birtchnell, J. & Bourgherini, G. (1999) Interpersonal theory and treatment of dependent personality disorder. Maffei, C. (Ed.) Treatment of Personality Disorders. Plenum Press: New York.

Birtchnell, J . & Shine, J. (2000) Personality disorders and the interpersonal octagon. British Journal of Medical psychology, 73, 433-448.

Gardner, R. (1991) Birtchnell-Gardner Exchange: X-Y plotting used in the spatial model. Across-Species Contrast Comparisons and Psychopathology Newsletter, 4, (12) 3-9.

Lorr, M. & McNair, D.M. (1963) An interpersonal behavior circle. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 68-75.

Reichelt, C. (1994) Book review in Across-Species Contrast Comparisons and Psychopathology (ASCAP) Newsletter, 7, (4) 8-10.

Trent, D. (1994) Special Review in British Journal of Medical Psychology, 67, 207-08.

Vaughan, S. & Fowler, D. (in press) Cognitive assessment of voices: A study of the interpersonal relationships between the voices that people hear and the voice-hearer. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, in press.