Ulvenes, P. G., Berggraf, L., Hoffart, A., Stiles, T. C., Svartberg, M., McCullough, L., & Wampold, B. E. (2012). Different processes for different therapies: Therapist actions, therapeutic bond, and outcome. Psychotherapy, 49(3), 291-302.
One of the few truisms of psychotherapy is that the therapeutic alliance is important to treatment outcomes. But does the alliance work similarly in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and in Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)? Therapeutic alliance is defined by three elements: the bond between client and therapist, agreement on tasks, and agreement on goals. Compared to PDT therapists, CBT therapists tend to focus more on cognitions and focus less on emotions, and so the bond may be less important in CBT than agreement on tasks and goals. Will the bond between client and therapist be differentially affected by the differing focus on emotions between CBT and PDT? A study by Ulvenes and colleagues (2012) looked at this question. This study is a follow up study of a randomized controlled trial comparing CBT to PDT for the treatment of cluster C personality traits (i.e. individuals who have trouble in experiencing and expressing emotions, and in developing close relationships). Fifty clients were randomized to either CBT or PDT, therapy was short term, and therapists were experienced and competent in delivering their therapy. In the previous study the authors reported that CBT and PDT were both equally effective in treating clients with cluster C personality disorder. In the current study, the authors found that therapist avoidance of affect was associated with developing a greater bond with patients in both CBT and PDT. That is, Cluster C patients liked their therapists better if the therapists avoided talking about the clients’ feelings. However, focusing on affect in PDT was also associated with positive outcome. In other words, therapists who avoided talking about emotions in PDT helped the patient like the therapist better, but this was counterproductive for good outcome. PDT therapists had to manage to create a bond despite their focus on affect in order to achieve good outcomes. On the other hand, focusing on affect in CBT was associated with poorer outcome. That is, therapists who avoided affect in CBT, which is consistent with the treatment model, had clients who experienced both a better bond and better outcomes. Therapeutic alliance is important for all therapies, but may operate quite differently depending on how much the therapy focuses on affect (PDT) or on cognitions (CBT).
PDT therapists working with cluster C patients have to negotiate a complex task of maintaining a bond despite the treatment model’s focus on emotions in order to achieve good outcomes. CBT therapists will do well to be consistent with the treatment model and focus primarily on cognitions to help with the bond and promote good outcomes. CBT therapists in particular may need to develop a strong bond before agreeing on tasks and goals, which are also keys to a therapeutic alliance.
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