Interpersonal therapy

Written by Katherine Nicholls

Katherine Nicholls

Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated May 2014 | Next review due October 2016

Having relationships, whether family-based, platonic or romantic, is part and parcel of what makes us human. For the most part, these relationships enrich our lives and offer vital social interaction. Relationships are however incredibly complex by nature - and the way we deal with them can have a significant impact on our mental well-being.

Interpersonal therapy primarily focuses on the way our relationships affect us and also how other mental health difficulties can affect our relationships. Helping with a variety of concerns, the therapy has been recommended for depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

On this page we will explore the role of interpersonal therapy in more depth, including what to expect in therapy, the various techniques used and areas this therapy can help with.

What is interpersonal therapy?

Also referred to as IPT therapy, interpersonal therapy is a structured, time-limited therapy that typically works intensely on established interpersonal issues. The underlying belief of interpersonal therapy is that psychological symptoms (such as depression) are often a response to difficulties we have interacting with others. The resulting symptoms can then also affect the quality of these interactions, causing a cycle. The thought process behind the therapy is that once a person is capable of interacting more effectively with those around them, the psychological symptoms can improve.

The time-limited or 'brief' aspect of IPT therapy means that this type of therapy will always have an end date (around 12-16 sessions is considered the norm) and will focus on just a couple of key issues. For this reason, this therapy is best suited to those with identifiable problems.

What to expect from interpersonal therapy

The first few sessions of interpersonal therapy are typically used as a means of assessment - allowing the therapist to gain a better understanding of what is concerning you and what you hope to gain from the therapy. Together with your therapist you will then have the opportunity to identify any interpersonal issues you want to address and rank them in order of importance. It will then be a case of working through the key issues raised.

The next few sessions will look to address these concerns in order to understand them better, learn how to make adjustments and apply these adjustments outside of your therapy sessions. To help this process your therapist will offer support in a number of ways, including the following:

  • clarification of your issues
  • communication analysis
  • supportive listening.

In contrast to other more open-ended, introspective therapies, IPT therapy looks to focus entirely at the identified issues. This ensures optimum results in minimal time.

Towards the end of your therapy sessions, you and your therapist may choose to discuss termination issues brought up by the impending termination of your therapy. This is also an ideal time to hone and apply the skills you've learnt to ensure you can cope efficiently once your therapy is over.

Interpersonal therapy techniques

All therapy sessions will differ according to the individual circumstances, however there are certain techniques that can be especially useful with interpersonal therapy. These include:

  • Identification of your emotions - For some of us, accurately identifying the emotion we're feeling can be difficult. An interpersonal therapist will look to help you identify emotions from an unbiased perspective.
  • Expression of emotion - This involves helping you to express your emotions in a more healthy way.
  • Dealing with issues from the past - Sometimes relationships you had in the past can affect the way you interact in the present. Part of your therapy may involve looking into your past to see if any patterns have formed.

Areas IPT therapy can help with

As we have discussed, interpersonal therapy deals primarily with the way we interact with others around us. The types of concerns normally addressed within IPT therapy fall into the following categories:

Interpersonal disputes

Such disputes can occur in a variety of settings, including family, social, marital, school or work place disputes. Normally they arise from differing expectations of a certain situation. If these types of conflicts cause significant distress, they are worth addressing within therapy.

Role transitions

This refers to a change in circumstance, whether this is due to job change at work, a change in relationship status or a life event that requires you to adapt. These changes can be experienced as losses, leading to depression or anxiety.


When someone close to you passes away, feelings of grief and loss are entirely natural. If the grief is delayed, or considered to last beyond the 'normal' time for bereavement, it may be something you wish to discuss during therapy.

Interpersonal deficits

This category involves relationships that you feel weaken you in some way, or relationships that you don't have. This could relate to a poor relationship with a sibling or a lack of friends you feel you can trust. IPT therapy can help you identify these deficits and offer ways of resolving them.

Interpersonal therapy for depression

Recommended by the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) interpersonal therapy is considered especially useful for those with depression. Studies suggest that a course of interpersonal therapy can be at least as effective as short-term treatment with antidepressants.

Originally interpersonal therapy was developed to help adults with depression, but it has also been shown to be effective in treating depression in adolescents and children. As depression is typically a recurring condition, those affected are advised to supplement their interpersonal therapy with an ongoing form of maintenance. This means that alongside your interpersonal therapy sessions, you may be invited to ongoing monthly sessions to reinforce adjustments learnt in IPT therapy.

Dynamic interpersonal therapy

Dynamic interpersonal therapy (or DIT for short) is a type of interpersonal therapy. Similarly to interpersonal therapy, DIT is a time-limited, structured therapy with a focus on interpersonal relationships. The difference with DIT is that it looks at the connection between the difficulties you are facing now with events from your past.

This therapy looks to reveal any core patterns that may have begun in childhood and are continuing to affect your relationships today. Your therapist will encourage you to reflect on the way you think and feel about past relationships/experiences and help you to adjust the way you deal with current difficulties effectively.

Find out more on our dynamic interpersonal therapy page.

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