What is Interpersonal Therapy?

Published on: 07 Jan 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
woman in white shirt sitting on couch speaking to another woman

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a type of talk therapy (also known as psychotherapy) that helps relieve symptoms by focusing on interpersonal functioning and relationships. Rather than looking at events, trauma, and developmental issues from your past, interpersonal psychotherapy focuses on current relationships and issues you’re experiencing. 

There are some fundamental basics of IPT, including:

  • A focused timeframe (typically 12 to 16 weeks)
  • Addressing relationships you currently have
  • Focusing on communication and interpersonal relationships
  • A goal of improving social support and interpersonal functioning
  • Can be in either a group therapy setting or in one-on-one private sessions

If you’ve been wondering what type of therapy might work best for you, it’s worth exploring how interpersonal therapy works, what the different types are, conditions that can be successfully treated or addressed with it, and the benefits this specialized type of therapy can offer. 

Read on to learn everything you need to know about interpersonal therapy, so you can find out if online therapy might be right for you.

How Does Interpersonal Therapy Work?

Interpersonal therapy was originally developed to treat major depression in a very structured setting. Though it was initially intended for adults, modifications have since been made so it can be applied as a useful form of therapy for both adolescents and elderly people as well.

A study done to ascertain efficacy of antidepressants found that IPT as a form of therapy can be quite effective, especially when combined with medication to treat depression. 

“One of the important ways that we understand ourselves is to observe how we interact with people. Our interactions reveal to us where we need to heal.”

Talkspace Therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

IPT is based on a fundamental concept that symptoms can be the result of issues you’re facing in your everyday life or in everyday relationships with people in your life. There are four areas that IPT focuses on:

  • Major life changes — the birth of a child or death of a loved one, job loss, or anything else that might have a significant impact on how you feel about yourself and the world around you
  • Serious conflict in relationships that cause you distress or affect your ability to function
  • Difficulty either beginning or maintaining relationships
  • Grief or loss

What are the phases of interpersonal therapy?

IPT is structured, which means there are definitive phases that’ll be used throughout the course of your therapy. There are three separate phases a therapist will help you go through. For example, your interpersonal therapy structure might look something like the following: 

Phase 1: Sessions 1 – 3

The initial phase of IPT consists of a therapist garnering as much information from you as possible so they can decide how to best-focus the remainder of your therapy. Together, you and your IPT therapist will essentially create a list of all the relationships in your life. Each relationship on  your list, known as an interpersonal inventory, will then be grouped into one of the four areas IPT treatment focuses on.

Phase 2: Sessions for 4 – 14

During the middle sessions of IPT, you’ll spend time working on and enhancing areas of your life you want to see improvement in. Your IPT therapist will be there to support you and will work with you as you try to create solutions to each of your problems. Then, in between sessions, you’ll do work on your own to further your progress.

Phase 3: Sessions 15 – 16

Finally, the last couple sessions of IPT will be spent helping you navigate any grief or loss you may be experiencing. You’ll revisit the issues you originally identified and assess how much progress you’ve made dealing with each one.

Types of Interpersonal Therapy

There are two basic forms of interpersonal therapy that you might consider.
 

  • Metacognitive interpersonal therapy (MIT) is an integrative approach that might be effective in helping if you have emotional inhibitions related to a personality disorder. If you find that you withdraw or can’t express your emotions, or you have what’s known as avoidance, MIT might be beneficial. It can help reduce symptoms of depression while improving a fundamental ability to effectively identify and deal with emotions you experience.
  • Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) — also known as psychodynamic interpersonal therapy or mentalization-based therapy — can help you understand your own emotions and thoughts more clearly. DIT can also help you begin to understand how other people think and feel. 

What is Interpersonal Therapy Good For?

IPT was at one time used as a short-term treatment option to address major depression. Although as we briefly discussed earlier, it’s now been found effective in treating multiple other conditions as well. 

Conditions treated

Many mental health conditions can be treated effectively using IPT. Some of them can include:

Issues addressed

IPT can help you improve important relationships in your life. This is in large part due to the very fact that it starts with taking inventory of all the current interpersonal relationships you have. 

Through IPT, you can address issues of:

  • Grief
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Major life changes
  • Role disputes you have with significant people in your life
  • Role transitions where you’re struggling to navigate new expectations and demands
  • Interpersonal deficits that make it increasingly more difficult for you to establish and keep positive relationships

Benefits of Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal therapy can offer several benefits. Despite it once being used only to treat depression, it’s now lauded for its ability to help significantly improve relationships you’re struggling with.

“When my son was younger, I gave him a Parent Report Card to fill out. This checklist provided me feedback about our relationship. It gave both of us an opportunity to look at areas that he was not able to articulate.”

Talkspace Therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

IPT helps you delve into any relationships currently impacting or affecting your life, so you can work on building long-lasting, positive interactions. It can make you more comfortable in social settings, and by improving how you bond with others, it might help relieve depressive symptoms of depression that stem from unhealthy relationships.

“Learning how our experiences affect the way we interact with people can be life changing. Practicing the tools can improve your relationships and wellbeing.”

Talkspace Therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

It’s important to again point out that IPT doesn’t look at how past experiences might be creating conflict in your life. Instead, your time in therapy will be spent focusing on the relationships you have now. Through doing this, you can create a healthier place and mindset in your life, so you can better-focus on the important relationships you have.

Sources:

1. Frank E, Grochocinski VJ, Spanier CA, et al. Interpersonal psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. J Clin Psychiatry. 2000;61(1):51-57. doi:10.4088/jcp.v61n0112.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10695647/. Accessed November 30, 2021.  

2. Gordon-King K, Schweitzer R, Dimaggio G. Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy for Personality Disorders Featuring Emotional Inhibition. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 2018;206(4):263-269. doi:10.1097/nmd.0000000000000789. https://doi.org/10.1097/nmd.0000000000000789. Accessed November 30, 2021.  

3. Fonagy P, Lemma A, Target M et al. Dynamic interpersonal therapy for moderate to severe depression: a pilot randomized controlled and feasibility trial. Psychol Med. 2019;50(6):1010-1019. doi:10.1017/s0033291719000928. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/abs/dynamic-interpersonal-therapy-for-moderate-to-severe-depression-a-pilot-randomized-controlled-and-feasibility-trial/C0071A5F050F6D1F05A09172504A1851. Accessed November 30, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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