In our book, The Talking Cure, we make frequent references to the importance of the relationship between therapist and client. But what is so special about this relationship and why does it matter so much to the outcome of therapy?
There are many reasons for going to therapy and a range of therapeutic models on offer. Some prioritise practical skills and strategies and others a more in-depth exploration of what is at the heart of our distress. Each approach is useful, depending on the problem and what you hope to achieve. Interestingly, however, research consistently shows that what matters most for a good outcome is the special relationship that is established between the therapist and client – more so than any specific technique. Clients themselves also rate the relationship as the single most important factor for progress through therapy.
Five key reasons why the relationship is so important in therapy
1. You need to feel safe enough to reveal your most vulnerable innermost feelings and fears without fear of judgement. It is very difficult to have this degree of safety unless you are in a robust relationship with a sensitive and caring person who you trust to accept, contain and soothe your feelings without having an agenda of their own.
2. A strong relationship with a therapist can allow for an experience like you might have had with good parents or attachment figures. This involves a compassionate, wise person who is focussed on you and your problems. You are not alone and don’t have to figure it all out by yourself. This has the effect of calming you enough to think more creatively.
3. One of the healing aspects of therapy is the sense of being understood deeply from the inside by the therapist. This helps you to better understand yourself and promotes a feeling of authenticity both with yourself and others. Feeling understood and supported soothes us and allows us to approach our difficulties with greater hope.
4. But effective therapy also requires reflection from the outside – the therapist needs to offer a different perspective on your problems as well as helping you to see how you might be contributing to them. Providing this feedback is delicate and unless you feel safe within the therapeutic relationship you may respond to it by becoming defensive, hurt or shamed.
5. In the kind of psychotherapy we describe in The Talking Cure, the relationship between the therapist and client is particularly important. This is because the relationship, as it plays out in the therapy room, is analysed as a template for what might be going wrong in other relationships in the client’s life. Furthermore, this approach believes that most problems are relational in origin. Even if what drives you to therapy is depression or anxiety, what underlies these symptoms is often relational, including an inability to connect, a fear that you are not good enough for others, an overzealous desire to avoid conflict, a tendency to fall in love with the wrong people, etc. The therapeutic relationship must be close enough for the therapist and client to observe together what happens in the relationship between them in order to consider how the client’s style of relating may be complicating their difficulties outside of the therapy. This sensitive process requires a high degree of trust and safety.
Thus, while there are many reasons to go to therapy, it is the strength of the therapeutic relationship itself that determines the success of the “talking cure”.
The Carousel would like to thank Dr Jacqui Winship for her article.
The Talking Cure: Normal People, their hidden struggles and the life-changing power of therapy by Professor Gillian Straker and Dr Jacqui Winship (Macmillan Australia), RRP $32.99 is available in all good bookstores now.
Dr Jacqui Winship has more than twenty years of experience as a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and supervisor. Jacqui works with adults, adolescents and couples and believes in the power of the therapy relationship to enable individuals and couples to grow, heal and thrive. She is based in Sydney.
Prof Gill Straker is a highly experienced clinical professor in the School of Psychology at Sydney University. She has published widely in the area of psychotherapy and psychology. She is a passionate believer in the transformative power of authentic relating and is firmly of the belief that we all are engaged in psychological struggles that we tend to hide, including from ourselves. Gill has a private therapy and supervision practice in Sydney.