Eubanks, C. F., Muran, J. C., & Safran, J. D. (2018). Alliance rupture repair: A meta-analysis. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 508-519.
It is difficult to over-state the importance of developing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance in order for patients to experience a good outcome from psychotherapy. The alliance is the collaborative agreement between therapist and patient on the tasks and goals of therapy, and the emotional bond between therapist and patient. A previous meta-analysis found a moderate but highly reliable association between a good alliance and patient outcomes. The alliance is a trans theoretical construct – that is, it is important to all types of therapy regardless of theoretical orientation. Sometimes deteriorations in the alliance occur manifested by a disagreement on the goals, a lack of collaboration on the tasks, or a strain in the relational bond. Other terms for this phenomenon include weakenings, misattunements, challenges, resistances, enactments, and impasses. Such deteriorations can vary from minor tensions to major ruptures in the relationship. Tensions and ruptures in the alliance are common occurrences in therapy with some studies showing 50% of therapy cases experience at least a minor tension within the first six sessions of therapy. There are two main types of alliance tensions/ruptures. (1) Withdrawal tensions/ruptures occur when the patient moves away from the therapist, such as when the patient changes the subject, goes silent, and cancels appointments. These tensions/ruptures are more subtle and harder for therapists to detect. (2) Confrontation tensions/ruptures occur when the patient moves against the therapist, such as when the patient expresses dissatisfaction with or pressures or tries to control the therapist. These tensions/ruptures are more obvious, but also difficult for therapists to manage because of the feelings they evoke. In this meta-analysis, Eubanks and colleagues reviewed 11 studies representing 1,314 patients. They found that the association between rupture repair episodes and patient outcomes was on average moderately large r = .29, d = .62, 95% CI [.10, .47], p = .003.
The research on alliance tensions/ruptures and repairs is still new but points to some important therapist practices that could improve patient outcomes. Therapists must be attuned to indications of tensions and ruptures in the therapeutic relationship. Therapists immediately need to attend to confrontation tensions/ruptures, in which patients express dissatisfaction or hostility. Similarly, therapists must address more subtle withdrawal tensions/ruptures, in which patients go silent, evade, or appease. Therapists can acknowledge the tension/rupture directly and nondefensively by inviting patients to explore their experience of the rupture. If necessary, therapists might change the tasks or goals of the therapy to better match the patient’s concerns. Therapists should empathize with a patient’s negative feelings about the therapy, and validate the patient for bringing up their concerns. If appropriate, therapists should take responsibility for their part in the tension/rupture and not blame the patient. Also, if the tension/rupture is a repetition of an interpersonal pattern for the patient (e.g., the patient tends to withdraw in relationships), then the therapist might consider carefully exploring the tension/rupture as it occurs in the therapy with the understanding that it is a repetitive pattern. Mainly, therapists need to anticipate that tensions and ruptures will occur in therapy, that they can be destabilizing for the therapist and therapeutic relationship, and so therapists need to recognize and know how to explore their own and their patient’s negative feelings.
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