It is one of the strangest and most unnerving times in our history. We are at the peak of the coronavirus crisis: locked away in our homes, terrorised by a microscopic parasite that destroys lives indiscriminately.

We are watching as many of our most treasured social practices — going to work, eating at a restaurant, seeing friends — have been taken away. People are dying.

And yet, relationally, there is much that we might learn from the coronavirus crisis.

First, that we are all so much more connected than we thought. Practices at a wet food market in Wuhan bring London to a standstill; death rates in Italy determine social policies across Europe. We are not isolated, separate communities (however much BREXIT tried to make us be) but intimately tied together as communities and peoples around the world.

A sneeze in one country, literally, triggers a tornado of fear and grieving in another. Human interconnectedness, then, is not something we create, but something we are. It is our natural state: to live in this web of human relationships.

Second, that we need social connection. As people become more and more physically isolated, so they find new and innovative means of connecting with others. The evening ‘Zine’ has become popular: a Zoom webchat accompanied by a glass (or two) of wine.

A few night ago, I spoke to my eldest sister who I haven’t talked to, properly, for several years. I’ve learnt the name of my neighbour’s dog (‘Zorro’). We stand outside at 8pm each Thursday to the clang of cheering and banging pans to show appreciation for our NHS. The human being, pushed inwards, forces outwards: to new connections, new possibilities, new relationship and ways of relating.

Third, that, at heart, we are not destructive or antisocial beings, but deeply compassionate and caring. Faced with this threat, human beings — almost exclusively — have not turned against each other, but towards each other: with kindness, neighbourliness, and love. The heroism of health staff: working on the frontlines to battle the virus, all the time knowing their own vulnerability to infection.

In the UK, we have seen millions of people sign up as volunteers to help and care for others.

The concept of relational depth is intimately tied to each of these three premises. It starts from the assumption that, as human beings, our natural home is with each other. That we do not come into the world as separate, independent organism, but rather as nodes in a complex network of social and community relationships. Here, at the heart of our being, is love: a reaching out and tying in to the other. A need for the other. A being-togetherness that extends and transcends our individual identity.

Yet that deep human need for connectedness can be thwarted. We fall outside of relationships, of community, and become cut off from the love that is needed to feed our bones and our soul. We become, as the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber puts it, ‘individuals’ rather than ‘persons’. This is the state that many of our clients come to us in. Maybe not explicitly. And certainly not entirely.

But for lots of our clients — whether depressed, anxious, or hopeless — it is a cut-offness from others that is at the heart of their difficulties. That does not mean that they are alone and without others. It means that their heart is no longer able to reach out to the hearts of others. Their truth lies inside only. The bonds of human connectedness and embededness have become torn away.

Relational depth is a form of human engagement with the capacity to repair those bonds (see the most recent edition of Dave and my book, Working at relational depth in counselling and psychotherapy, Sage 2018). It is not something that counsellors and psychotherapists can, or should, strive for; but it is a state of relating that therapists can open themselves up to. And, in doing so, they can create a space in which clients can both reach out to others and reach in to their own deepest truths.

Relational depth is a being-with-self while being-with-others: it is a state in which someone, in their deepest, most authentic being, is in touch with another authentic being. It is, as the research shows, a profoundly healing experiences: and one that can touch clients’ lives for many years to come.

Healthcare systems across the developed world have moved towards the prioritisation of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and other psychological approaches that can be delivered in brief, easily measurable packages.

Certainly, these therapies can be of great value to many clients. Yet we must never forget the deep human connectedness that is at the heart of so much healing. There is another approach to mechanised and technique-centred interventions which is based on a relational reaching out to clients, and calling them back into connection and community.

During the current coronavirus crisis, it is certainly true that people are turning toward technology to address their difficulties (Zoom has never been so popular, and I love it dearly!), but these tools are only a means and not an end. No-one wants technology for technology’s sake: we use it to reach out, to connect, to be back in relationship with others.

Similarly, whilst technologies and manualised practices may be useful in psychotherapy, it is often—as the evidence shows—the relatedness running through them, between therapist and client, that is the true agent of healing and change.

Buber said that we cannot spend all our lives in ‘I-Thou’ relatedness to others; but if we have none of it at all, if we only live in the world of the ‘I-It’, we will suffer. Developing our capacity, as counsellors and psychotherapists, to relate at depth means that each of our clients, however isolated and cut off they are in their hearts, have the possibility of reaching back into connectedness: to be back, once again, in the loving holding of community.

Whatever skills, practices, and manualised practices we have acquired and can deliver, it is this offering of relational depth to our clients that may be of most therapeutic value.

Special thanks to Professor Cooper for allowing us to post his article here. To see Mick’s website and other blogs, head here