What's Interpersonal Psychotherapy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a therapeutic modality that supports those struggling with mental health conditions and life challenges. Interpersonal psychotherapy is often used to improve the quality of relationships with others and help clients improve their social connections. The term "interpersonal" describes how individuals connect themselves with social environments and their close relationships, meaning interpersonal psychotherapy takes a therapeutic approach at understanding how individuals connect socially.

The inner workings of interpersonal psychotherapy

Interpersonal psychotherapy can help with managing mood disorders

Interpersonal counseling is most used to treat mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder. Interpersonal therapy is one of the most widely utilized forms of therapy for depression, alongside modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy. However, IPT can also be used for anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders. This form of therapy treats individual symptoms by teaching the client interpersonal skills, including social and intimate relationship skills. Interpersonal counseling may also address grief, isolation from others, unsettling transitions in life, and stress. The treatment is done in three phases, including the following. 

Phase one

Phase one of interpersonal counseling often involves the assessment of relationship patterns, past traumatic experiences, recurring themes in interactions with others, and the existence of depressive symptoms. Often, the first one to three sessions are used for the therapist to develop a concrete gathering of the client's history to develop a treatment plan. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

For phase one to be effective, clients may be asked to honestly open up about their experiences and be willing to discuss them. This process can be challenging if the individual has not had healthy relationships with others. However, choosing therapy can be a step within itself, and the therapist can help guide the client with questions and activities to help them feel more comfortable talking about themselves. 

Phase two

Phase two of interpersonal psychotherapy may involve implementing solutions for various challenges discovered in the previous phase. The nature of the suggested treatment solutions may be based on the client, their history, and their current struggles. For example, IPT for someone living with an eating disorder may look different than for someone experiencing depression. Each solution is often designed to help the client achieve an improved quality of life and ability to function in social settings while maintaining healthy relationships with others. 

When going through phase two, clients may benefit from understanding that solutions can take time and that learning a new skill may require practice. In addition, the interpersonal psychotherapist's solutions may not feel comfortable or easy. Clients can notice improvements and progress in their treatment by doing the work. Improving the quality of one's interpersonal relationships is not necessarily straightforward but can lead to long-term results.


Phase three

Phase three of interpersonal psychotherapy treatment may occur as the results of the phase two solutions become visible and understandable to the client and therapist. In this case, the aims of the treatment might change. Individuals struggling with interpersonal relationships may experience multiple areas holding them back. After one concern has been thoroughly addressed, the therapist can help the client move on to the next to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment. 

By phase three, clients undergoing interpersonal psychotherapy may feel more comfortable than during phases one and two. The results might start to manifest at this point in the treatment process, offering a sense of confidence to the client and showing them that they are making strides in their goals for therapy.  

What are the qualities of an effective interpersonal psychotherapist?

Interpersonal psychotherapy can be effective for many clients. However, the qualities of the provider may impact a client's experiences with the treatment. Below are several attributes that may be valuable to have in a provider. 

The ability to identify interpersonal challenges

Taking note of existing interpersonal challenges is the foundation of interpersonal psychotherapy. Being able to ask direct questions, understand relationship patterns, and help clients divulge information can be advantageous qualities for an interpersonal therapist. In addition, after challenges are identified, the therapist may help the client rank them from the highest priority to the lowest. Ranking allows the specialist to determine what skills and techniques to try first. 

The ability to understand communication styles 

When interpersonal psychotherapists work with a client, they often observe how the client communicates with them and may ask questions about their communication with partners, friends, and family. Communication styles can help the therapist tailor their strategies so the client can understand and relate to them. In addition, communication can be essential to many relationships, so learning new communication techniques can help clients improve relationships. 

Active listening skills 

The ability to actively listen can be an essential skill for any therapist. If the therapist listens to the client to respond and offer their insight without hearing what the client is saying or needs from them, they may miss out on non-verbal cues, core topics, or a client's desire to be validated. Clients may not only talk to a therapist to get advice but also to be heard and understood. A therapist using validating language like "I hear you" and "that must have been so difficult" can be relieving for many clients. Solutions can also be an aspect of therapy but may not be the only aspect. 

What can interpersonal psychotherapy support? 

Interpersonal relationships fill up a broad category. While interpersonal psychotherapy is designed to help clients form and keep healthy relationships, this type of treatment can also prove valuable in many areas of life. By exploring how interpersonal psychotherapy can make a difference, more clients can consider using the methods. 

Challenging life transitions

Interpersonal psychotherapy can help clients experiencing challenging life transitions, including divorce, the loss of a loved one, loss of employment, or family planning. Individuals undergoing these transitions may not require extensive or long-term treatment. However, interpersonal counseling can address how their relationship patterns, communication, and connections connect with these transitions and the techniques to cope with them.

Many individuals may isolate themselves upon experiencing a challenging or adverse event, which can act as a defense mechanism. However, it can have long-term impacts on relationships for many. Interpersonal psychotherapy can help clients maintain healthy relationships even when dealing with significant struggles.

Conflicts within interpersonal relationships

Therapists specializing in interpersonal psychotherapy often assist clients in a conflict between them and another individual or social group. Conflict can occur for many reasons, whether due to misunderstandings, unresolved challenges, mismatching communication or love styles, or growing apart from one another. These therapists take an individual approach to help clients understand their role in their relationship conflicts and how to set boundaries, de-escalate conflict, and keep themselves safe. 

Lack of fulfillment in existing interpersonal relationships

Interpersonal psychotherapists can play a role in helping individuals that feel trapped in unfulfilling relationships. When this issue is present, it may indicate that the person's needs in the relationship are not being met. Perhaps they feel overlooked, unappreciated, or uncared for. There may also be situations where the relationship is unhealthy, and getting out of it is the healthiest solution. 

In some situations, an individual's self-esteem, personal beliefs, or cognitive distortions may keep them in a relationship when they no longer love the person or want to stay. While such challenges are often addressed by cognitive behavioral therapists, There are many ways that an interpersonal therapist can help these individuals make healthier choices and create more nourishing connections. 

Any challenge 

Interpersonal psychotherapy is a form of treatment that has yielded favorable results for countless individuals. No matter who you are or what you may be going through, this therapy might benefit you if you want to learn healthier relationship patterns or connect with your interpersonal skills. While interpersonal psychotherapy is often used in the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders, you do not need to be diagnosed with this type of mental illness to see an interpersonal therapist. Interpersonal therapy can also be used for those living with eating disorders, PTSD, and other mental health challenges.
Interpersonal psychotherapy can help with managing mood disorders

Interpersonal psychotherapy options 

Interpersonal psychotherapy is a niche type of counseling that allows clients to delve into their interpersonal connections with therapeutic intervention. You can find an interpersonal therapist by searching online or contacting your primary care physician for a referral. Many online psychologist directories list therapists by specialty, as well. 

However, if you struggle to find this specialist in person, you may benefit from trying online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp. With online interpersonal counseling, you can attend phone, video, or live chat sessions from home and set your own schedule. In addition, online platforms can be significantly more cost-effective than in-person therapy. 

Studies have also found that online IPT can be as effective as in-person therapy. One study found that the participants of an e-IPT intervention reported reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression after partaking in the full treatment plan. In addition, the American Psychological Association endorses telehealth therapy as a practical option for many Americans. 


Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a form of therapy based around helping individuals understand the way their interpersonal experiences affect their mental health. With interpersonal counseling, clients can understand their relationship patterns, gain healthy relationship skills, and connect with themselves through their understanding of others. If you're interested in trying this treatment, reach out to a therapist in your area or online to get started.
Gain insight into the therapy process
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started