Wilson & Merwin, 2005

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APA Citation: 

Wilson, K. G., & Merwin, R. (2005). Therapeutic Relationship. In M. Hersen (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Behavior Modification and Behavior Therapy with Adult Clinical Applications (pp. 586-590). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Publication Topic: 
ACT: Conceptual
Behavior Analysis: Conceptual
Publication Type: 
therapeutic relationship, therapeutic alliance, working alliance

This article contains a contemporary behavioral view of the role of the therapeutic relationship in treatment. Psychodynamic and client-centered psychotherapies have a long history of recognizing the importance of the therapeutic relationship. However, this is not the case for behavior therapy. Behaviorism emerged in the 1950s from dissatisfaction with traditional approaches to psychotherapy. Behavior therapists sought to apply techniques derived directly from learning theory and from learning laboratories. It was widely accepted by behaviorists that the application of the established principles of learning was all that was necessary to facilitate change. A number of factors are likely responsible for this omission: 1) in the laboratory, the relationship between scientist and experimental subject was not relevant, so the translation from lab to clinic did not focus on relationship, 2) specifying the therapeutic relationship objectively is quite difficult, and, 3) early behavior therapists may have wished to disassociate from less scientific psychotherapeutic approaches and their foci. For these and other reasons, early proponents of behavior therapy de-emphasized the therapeutic relationship.

The emergence of attention to the therapeutic relationship in behavior therapy can be seen in the writings of individual pioneers of the behavior therapy movement. Joseph Wolpe, for example, gave virtually no attention to the therapeutic relationship in his writings from the early 1950’s. By the late 1960’s, he can be found suggesting that a non-judgmental attitude facilitates information gathering and should continue throughout treatment. By the 1980’s, Wolpe contended that a therapeutic relationship characterized by warmth and positive regard is a customary component of behavior therapy.

Current psychotherapy books and treatment manuals include sections on the therapeutic relationship in behavior therapy and address interpersonal considerations more frequently than was common in the past. Furthermore, some contemporary behavior therapies give special attention to the therapeutic relationship, incorporating it as a major component of treatment (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Dialectical Behavior Therapy; Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy).

This encyclopedia entry was written as a somewhat generic entry on the place of therapeutic relationship in contemporary behavior therapy. Although it was not written specifically as an ACT or FAP piece, I do not think it contains anything inconsistent with these approaches. I believe that it is a reasonable orienting document for behavior therapists interested in the therapeutic relationship or for non-behaviorally oriented therapists interested in a contemporary behavioral view of therapeutic relationship.
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