Friedlander, M. L., Escudero, V., Welmers-van de Poll, M. J., & Heatherington, L. (2018). Meta-analysis of the alliance–outcome relation in couple and family therapy. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 356-371.
In individual psychotherapy the therapist’s tasks include to develop an alliance with one patient. Goals and tasks of therapy need to be collaboratively negotiated, and therapists need to develop an emotional bond with the patient. The alliance also has to be nurtured continuously throughout treatment. This process is more complicated in couple and family therapy. Only in couple and family therapy (and in group therapy) does a therapist have to develop an alliance with multiple people simultaneously. The challenge is greater when family members are in conflict, or when the therapist’s alliance is stronger with one member than another. Such “split” alliances can be problematic especially when family members view their experiences of the therapist differently. To complicate things more, therapists have to be aware of the alliance within the family or couple system. That is, are the family members allied with each other – do they agree on therapy goals and tasks, and are they able to maintain an emotional connection to each other? In addition, just as therapeutic alliance ruptures can occur in individual therapy, so can they occur in couple and family therapy. An alliance rupture may occur when a there is a “split” alliance or when a patient responds to the therapist or other family members with confrontation or withdrawal behaviors. In this meta-analysis of therapeutic alliance in couple and family therapy, Friedlander and colleagues included 48 studies with a total of 2,568 families and 1,545 couples. The correlation between quality of the alliance and outcome was significant (r = .297, 95% CI [0.223, 0.351], p < .001), indicating that a stronger alliance was related to better outcomes. There was some evidence of publication bias suggesting that this estimate may be over-inflated, but even after adjusting for publication bias the correlation was still significant. The correlation between split alliances and outcome was also significant (r = .316, 95% CI [0.157, 0.458], p < .001), indicating that more split alliances contributed to poorer outcomes. The correlations were similar in strength both in couple and in family therapy, and the alliance was important in all therapeutic orientations. However, correlations were larger when the targeted child in the family was younger, and when families were seeking help and not mandated.
Like in individual therapy, the therapeutic alliance in couple and family therapy is important to improve the outcomes of patients. Regardless of therapeutic orientation, therapists must spend time and effort developing therapeutic alliances with each member of the system, and must try to maintain relatively equal alliances with each family member to avoid splits in the alliance. Therapists should be particularly aware of any confrontation and withdrawal behaviors towards the therapist or within the family or couple as these may indicate an alliance rupture. In such instances, therapists should emphasize shared goals and feelings, validate the common struggle among family members, and focus on the emotional bond with the disaffected patient. Each person’s alliance matters, and family member alliances are not interchangeable. Assessing the alliance with each member throughout therapy will identify potential problems and facilitate better outcomes.