In effective counselling the counsellor and client form a bond through which they together carry out the common task of the therapy - that is to help the client heal and grow. This is known as the 'working alliance'.
This working alliance plays a vital role in the therapy. The ongoing communication between the client and counsellor gives momentum and power to the therapy. Wright and Davis (1994:27) described the working alliance like this ‘…in simple terms it refers to the personal qualities of the patient, personal qualities of the therapist, and the interactions between them’.
In his classic children’s book ‘Charlotte’s Web’, E.B.White (1963) tells the story of a friendship between a spider (Charlotte) and a pig (Wilbur), and how their relationship enabled them to save Wilbur’s life and protect Charlotte’s ‘children’. However, the story also provides a useful metaphor to how a strong working alliance can help the therapy.
Wilbur, the runt of the litter, suffered from low self-esteem, loneliness and fear of dying. Charlotte helped him to bear his pain and realise his potential. Charlotte and Wilbur enjoyed a close working alliance which brought out the best in each of them, and enabled Wilbur’s positive change and healing.
In addition to a solid working alliance, effective counselling needs:
In White’s tale (2003, 47-49) Charlotte gave Wilbur the containment he needed, symbolically represented by the barn in which Wilbur lived with Charlotte in her web at its threshold. When Wilbur cried to Charlotte about his fear of dying, Charlotte accepted and contained the feeling, before returning it to Wilbur in an authentic way, with empathy, and with the addition of hope.
Later Wilbur is able to reciprocate by containing Charlotte’s anxiety about her children, then literally containing her egg sac in his mouth and carrying it to safety.
Whilst a working alliance ends when the therapy ends, the relationship that it has nourished can continue beyond the course of therapy. The client can take their personal development, healing and self-knowledge with them, and their gratitude can help internalise the good from the therapist (a 'good object') (Howard, 2010, 134). They are better equipped to live well.
Charlotte and Wilbur (White, 1963) experienced an ending too. As Charlotte died, the heartbroken Wilbur returned to the barn with her eggs. Their working alliance had ended. Their goals to heal Wilbur’s low self-esteem and save his life had been achieved. Their tasks such as writing words like ‘SOME PIG’, ‘TERRIFIC’, ‘RADIANT’ and ‘HUMBLE’ in Charlotte’s web, and going to the fair, and saving Charlotte’s eggs, had been completed. Their bond of trust, empathy and affection was undoubtable.
Yet, despite their working alliance ending, their therapeutic relationship remained effective. The following spring, Charlotte’s eggs hatched and soon the young spiders floated away on the breeze (1963:166) ‘Wherever the wind takes us. High, low. Near, far. East, west. North, south. We take to the breeze, we go as we please.’
Like her egg sac in his mouth, the grateful Wilbur internalised part of Charlotte, and his many possibilities for the future were like the hundreds of her children taking to the warm breeze, all thanks to the power of the working alliance.
By David Abrehart
(c) Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
Horvath, AO, & Symonds, BD, (1991). Relation between working alliance and outcome in psychotherapy: A meta-analysis Journal of Counselling Psychology, Volume 38: 139-149.
Howard, S, (2010). Skills in Psychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy. London, Sage Publications: 134
White, EB, (1963). Charlotte’s Web. London. Puffin
Wright and Davis (1994), Cognitive and Behavioural Practice 1, 27, retrieved 25 November 2013 from http://web.comhem.se/u68426711/22/WrightDavis1994TherapeuticRelationshipCognitiveBehavioralTherapyPatientPerceptionsTherapistResponses.pdf
Perhaps the most important aspect of both Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Psychodynamic Counselling, is that they both strive to better understand the patient, and it is this deeper understanding, and the therapist and patient process of uncovering it, that paves the way to healing.