Norcross, J.C., Zimmerman, B.E., Greenberg, R.P., & Swift, J.K. (2017). Do all therapists say that when saying goodbye? A study of commonalities in termination behaviors. Psychotherapy, 54, 66-75.
One of the things common to all psychotherapy relationships is that they come to an end. The endings may be premature or planned. They may be well managed or poorly managed. In this article by Norcross and colleagues, the authors ask: what do expert therapists typically do when there is a planned termination with a client? A planned termination is “an intentional process that occurs over time when a client has achieved most of the goals of treatment, and/or when psychotherapy must end for other reasons”. By contrast, premature termination occurs when the client ends treatment unilaterally. In successful cases the client and therapist typically predetermine the end date and have time to work toward the ending. Different theoretical orientations write about different aspects of termination. For example, from a psychodynamic perspective, therapists focus on clients’ old and new methods of coping, feelings related to the impending loss of the relationship, review gains, and work to equalize the relationship. From an experiential perspective, therapists might recognize that clients continue to change after therapy, help clients work through feelings of loss and separation of the therapeutic relationship, and consolidate new meanings. Cognitive-behavioral therapists might help clients to maintain gains made in therapy, review new skills, and prevent relapse. Do therapists who practice these and other theoretical approaches differ in terms of how they manage termination in psychotherapy? Norcross and colleagues surveyed 65 nominated experts representing six theoretical orientations of psychotherapy (psychodynamic, humanistic, CBT, interpersonal, multicultural, and integrative). Each orientation was represented by at least 10 expert therapists. The survey included 80 items related to termination that were drawn from books, chapters, and treatment manuals. The experts indicated the frequency with which they engaged in each behavior or the task related to termination. Therapist behaviors or tasks that received very strong consensus (>90% of therapists reporting “frequently” or “almost always” doing these) included: supporting the client’s progress, helping to consolidate gains made in therapy, following ethical practice (e.g., avoiding abandonment), attributing gains to the client’s effort, talking about what helped or went well, and collaborating with the client to set a date and pace of termination. Strong consensus (80% to 90% of therapists reported frequently doing these) behaviors or tasks included: focus on processing feelings around termination, having the client practice new skills, normalizing the probability of relapse, and prompting the client to think of a future without therapy. Of the 80 Items, 27 did not reach consensus among the therapists (i.e., only 21% to 59% of therapists agreed on these items). Out of the 80 items, only 8 (10% of items) showed significant differences between theoretical orientations (e.g., compared to other orientations, CBT therapists tended to do more of: preparing clients for relapse, and systematically assessing client outcomes near termination).
This survey of 65 experts of varying psychotherapy orientations highlighted a wide range of commonalities in terms of how they managed termination with clients. While there was some uniqueness among orientations, most therapists tended to: process feelings about termination and the relationship with clients, discuss future functioning and coping, helped clients to use new skills, framed the client’s personal development as ongoing beyond therapy, prepared explicitly for termination, and reflected on the client’s gains.