ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study was to describe mental health service recipients' experience of the therapeutic relationship. The research question was ‘what is therapeutic about the therapeutic relationship?’ This study was a secondary analysis of qualitative interviews conducted with persons with mental illness as part of a study of the experience of being understood. This secondary analysis used data from 20 interviews with community-dwelling adults with mental illness, who were asked to talk about the experience of being understood by a health-care provider. Data were analysed using an existential phenomenological approach. Individuals experienced therapeutic relationships against a backdrop of challenges, including mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and homelessness. They had therapeutic relationships with nurses (psychiatric/mental health nurses and dialysis nurses), physicians (psychiatrists and general practitioners), psychologists, social workers, and counsellors. Experiences of the therapeutic relationship were expressed in three figural themes, titled using participants' own words: ‘relate to me’, ‘know me as a person’, and ‘get to the solution’. The ways in which these participants described therapeutic relationships challenge some long-held beliefs, such as the use of touch, self-disclosure, and blunt feedback. A therapeutic relationship for persons with mental illness requires in-depth personal knowledge, which is acquired only with time, understanding, and skill. Knowing the whole person, rather than knowing the person only as a service recipient, is key for practising nurses and nurse educators interested in enhancing the therapeutic potential of relationships.