What Is Interpersonal Therapy? What You Need to Know Before You Start Sessions

Photo: Getty Images/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Our relationships, platonic, romantic, and familial, all color the person that we are or end up becoming. But what if certain social dynamics and relationships unearth deep struggles that need healing? That's where interpersonal therapy might be valuable. Developed as a treatment for major depression by Gerald Klerman, PhD, and Myrna Weissman, PhD, this style of treatment zeroes in on how relationships and life events inform mood and vice-versa.

"Interpersonal psychotherapy, sometimes referred to as IPT, is a structured, relatively-short term model of therapy that is based on communication and attachment theories," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. "Often used to treat depression, IPT has also been proven effective with mental health issues, ranging from anxiety to substance abuse issues."

As Dr. Manly mentioned, this methodology generally utilizes concepts like attachment theory (which addresses how you form attachments to others and your abilities for intimacy), as well as interpersonal psychoanalysis (which examines what your interactions with others says about you). "In essence, IPT focuses on increasing an individual’s ability to address interpersonal life challenges such as conflict within romantic or peer relationships," she says.

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Who would benefit from interpersonal therapy

Obviously, different treatment structures work for different kinds of people, situations, and diagnoses. With interpersonal therapy, the patient usually is having some sort of mental health crisis that's caused or exacerbated by certain relationships in their life. "IPT tends to be most effective for those whose core concerns are the result of interpersonal challenges that lead to feelings of anxiety or depression," says Dr. Manly.

Now, what does that mean, and what could that look like? Well, someone who is depressed because they're having problems with their S.O.—maybe they were dumped or cheated on—could benefit from interpersonal therapy. Couples who are in the middle of a crisis could both benefit from interpersonal therapy as well. Likewise, if you're enduring complicated grief after losing a parent, that could be a case for IPT.

Likewise, someone who is a nervous wreck because of certain relationship dynamics at work would find coping mechanisms for their anxieties with IPT. Or someone with a drinking problem that's exacerbating by their relationship with an alcoholic parent could also benefit from this structure. There isn't just one scenario that this will work with; it's really about identifying an interpersonal cause tied to the mental health crisis at hand.

That being said, this bootcamp-style form of therapy isn't the best match for everyone. "IPT is generally unsuitable for those who have long-term issues such as severe PTSD, highly resistant depression, or schizophrenia given that long-term treatment coupled with medication may be most ideal," Dr Manly says.

And of course, when seeking out the right person or program for treatment, make sure to have a dialogue beforehand. "It’s important to screen psychotherapists via phone or with an introductory session to see if the 'fit' feels right," says Dr. Manly.

3 main stages of interpersonal psychotherapy

Generally speaking, interpersonal psychotherapy is clustered into three major phases, a beginning, middle, and end. Here's what to expect if you're considering it for yourself.

1. Stage One (sessions 1 to 3)

In the first phase of IPT, your therapist will do some groundwork to essentially diagnose the problem. Very often the patient will do a sort if "interpersonal inventory" of their social bonds. This might include a review of the patient's patterns in relationships, their capacity for intimacy, and an overview of their current relationships. Once a diagnosis is reached, the therapist will link the diagnosis with the interpersonal cause and work with the cause in question.

2. Stage Two (sessions 4 to 14)

The second phase of interpersonal therapy involves using different methods to treat the diagnosis at hand. The information received in the first phase informs how a person should handle their relationships. Strategies and coping methods are offered, and the therapist acts in a supportive role as the patient works to bring these methods into real life.

3. Stage Three (sessions 15 to 16)

In the final phase, the therapist essentially prepares the patient for the end of therapy. This is the time in which any lingering anxieties and concerns are addressed, and maintenance sessions are offered if the patient wants to continue treatment on a larger scale.

3 big benefits of interpersonal therapy

1. A shorter treatment time with quickened results

"IPT is beneficial for many reasons, including its short-term approach," says Dr. Manly. And because you're getting a really concentrated focus on your problems, you may see results quicker than if you were taking the scenic route through continued week-by-week therapy. "Relief from symptoms is generally expected early on in treatment with conclusion at, or before, the 20-session mark," she says.

2. A renewed sense of hope

Dr. Manly points out that the reason IPT focuses on interpersonal relationships is because conflict and hopelessness in relationships often leads to, or contributes to, depression (or other problems). Successful treatment—and even just the simple act of seeking help—can provide a fresh start and inner confidence.

3. A better skill set to deal with relationships and mental health triggers

"By focusing on building skills in the area of interpersonal relationships—and understanding the cause of the core issues—the client feels empowered to successfully address challenges; this, in itself, often improves overall mental health," Dr. Manly says.

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