What Is the therapeutic relationship?
The therapeutic relationship is the connection and relationship developed between the therapist and client over time. Without the therapeutic relationship there can be no effective or meaningful therapy. This applies to all forms of counselling and psychotherapy, and regardless of the theoretical orientation of your therapist or counsellor, the relationship developed between you will be considered of high importance.
A strong bond is crucial to the success of counselling and psychotherapy. It can be especially valuable to clients who may have struggled forming relationships in their past, and those who experienced traumatic events in their early years, leading them to find it difficult to form relationships in adulthood. Therapy allows clients the chance to explore their relational attachments, bonds and experiences through their relationship with their therapist, which is why this relationship is so important.
What makes the therapeutic relationship so different?
The therapeutic relationship is unique in that for many clients, it may be one of the first times they have formed an intimate connection with another person, where the feelings, thoughts or ideas have been allowed to be heard, understood and valued, and where they have not had to censor themselves.
Often is the case that those people engaging in therapy may be asked by friends, family members or partners questions such as ‘why, can’t you just talk to me about these things? Why do you need to see a therapist?’ This unique nature of the therapeutic relationship means that it is unlike those relationships we form and maintain in the real world. It is a relationship that is impartial, not based in the past or does not carry the judgements, feelings or dynamics that can be associated with our external relationships.
What are the characteristics of the therapeutic relationship?
The therapeutic relationship has many components and varies between each individual relationship. However there are some common themes and characteristics which I have listed below:
It is crucial that the therapist be a ‘real’ human being, meaning that they are able to freely and deeply be themselves, not an all-knowing expert. They must be a real person who can relate to another genuinely.
This is the therapists’ ability to recognise, identify and understand the situation their client is experiencing and to understand their feelings, ideas and motivations. This is the basis and foundation for a therapeutic relationship because it establishes a personal connection between the therapist and client, allowing the client to see their therapist hears them, values and understands their needs.
Trusting and a non-judgemental attitude
For a therapeutic relationship to develop, grow and flourish, it is crucial a client feels their therapist is trustworthy. For clients who find it difficult to open up or explore their feelings due to worrying that it is not safe for them to do so, it matters greatly that they can feel confident that their therapist will not judge them.
Care and warmth
When entering into a the consulting room for the first time, or even meeting a new therapist after a break from therapy, there can be a sense of fear, trepidation and nervousness. Therefore, it is crucial that a therapist provide an environment that feels warm, caring and safe, in order for the client to feel they are able to share their feelings, ideas and thoughts.
Insight and experience
The insight and experience of a therapist allows them to understand at more depth, things that may have been said to draw attention to language used, or a certain way that a client may be presenting within any given session. It is also important to note that experience and insight of a client is also hugely important. A therapist and client may be two very different people from different walks of life, but in this relationship evolves the ability to understand sharing experiences and to find new knowledge emerging. This joint learning and creative experience can make therapy so rewarding for both client and therapist. It is this mutual meeting and exchanging of experiences that increases the power of talking therapies.
How our external relationships enter the therapeutic space
I have written about the nature of the therapeutic relationship and how the interaction between the client and the therapist matters hugely, however, our external relationships also have a huge impact upon the therapeutic space. How we interact with others will inevitably enter the therapeutic space. Part of the role of the therapist or counsellor is to understand these relationships, to work with them when they appear. An example of this could be the way in which a client views their therapist, whether that is as a stern father figure, or a mother who withholds attention. These dynamics and interactions matter and how they play out within the therapeutic bond can allow a client to gain a deeper understanding of their relationships. Again, we see here how important the role of therapist is in giving a client an opportunity to explore their external world within the therapeutic space.
Why does the therapeutic relationship matter?
As stated above, without the therapeutic relationship there can be no therapy. Therefore, we know that this is a crucial part of therapy. In some ways you could say that the relationship is the therapy. How the client and therapist engage matters in defining the successes of therapy and counselling. This relationship is essential to establishing and promoting willingness for the client to share and engage within the therapeutic space. The relationship will hopefully allow the client to move toward more open behaviours and an increased level of self-awareness.
I have provided brief insight into the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship and of course, each therapeutic relationship will differ with its own set of feelings and ideas. What is clear however, is that the therapeutic relationship – how therapist and client interact is what matters most, and what makes the most difference to the effectiveness of therapy is realising that human interaction and relationships truly matter.