Flückiger, C., Del Re, A. C., Wlodasch, D., Horvath, A. O., Solomonov, N., & Wampold, B. E. (2020, March 26). Assessing the alliance–outcome association adjusted for patient characteristics and treatment processes: A meta-analytic summary of direct comparisons. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication.
The therapeutic alliance is probably the most researched concept in psychotherapy. The alliance refers to a collaborative agreement on the tasks of therapy (what patients and therapists do in therapy, like homework, or examine the past or relationship issues), a collaborative agreement on the goals of therapy (what the desired outcomes might be), and the relational bond between patient and therapist (liking and respect for one another). The most recent meta-analysis of the alliance included 296 studies. The meta-analysis showed a moderate and robust relationship between higher alliance and better patient outcomes regardless of type of therapy, who rated the alliance, or how it was rated. Nevertheless, some still think that the alliance is a byproduct of other factors like patient symptom severity (less symptomatic patients may report a better alliance with therapists) or adherence to treatment manuals (higher therapist adherence may lead to a better alliance). In other words, some argue that the alliance may not directly affect outcomes and may not be that important. In this meta-analysis, Fluckiger and colleagues examined 60 studies with over 6,000 patients that reported the alliance-outcome relationship, and also the effects of patient characteristics like symptom severity and adherence to treatment manuals. Overall, the therapeutic alliance was significantly related to patient outcomes, r = .304 (95% CI [.253, .354], p < .001, k = 53). When the authors of the primary studies controlled for patient characteristics like symptom severity, the adjusted alliance - outcome correlation remained significant, r = .286 (95% CI [.226, .344], p = .001, k = 35). When the authors of primary studies controlled for the effects of therapist adherence to a treatment manual, the adjusted alliance – outcome correlation still remained significant, r = .242 (95% CI [.179, .306], p = .001, k = 13). The slight reduction in the alliance-outcome correlation caused by the effects of patient symptom severity or therapist adherence to a manual was not significant.
Therapists’ capacity to develop a therapeutic alliance is a key factor to patients experiencing a good outcome from psychotherapy. This is true for many types of patients with differing levels of symptom severity, and also true regardless of type of therapy or level of therapist adherence to a treatment protocol. Developing shared treatment goals and agreeing on the tasks of therapy are important first steps. In addition, therapists and clients who like working together and share a sense of mutual respect are more likely to experience a successful therapy. Maintaining the alliance throughout therapy is also important. The alliance fluctuates across time indicating subtle or obvious ruptures or tensions that occur. Therapists’ skills at identifying and repairing alliance ruptures is critical to an ongoing collaborative relationship and to patients achieving the best possible outcomes.