Does Race Affect Working Alliance?

Working Alliance (WA) describes the relationship between a client and therapist and the underlying bond formed during the therapeutic process.  The majority of researchers believe that a strong WA is essential to a positive treatment outcome. Ethnic and racial differences between clients and therapists can impair the working alliance and therefore influence the outcome as well. “Members of racial/ethnic minority groups may experience greater challenges in establishing a trusting therapeutic relationship due to perceived or actual cultural differences or cultural biases,” said Sherry Muterspaugh Walling of the Department of Psychology at Fresno Pacific University.

Because half of the therapists in the United States are Caucasian or of European decent, Walling believes this presents an obstacle, especially for men seeking treatment for violent crimes. “White therapists working with clients who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups may symbolize past experiences of mistreatment or discrimination or experiences of racism within the criminal justice system,” said Walling, lead author of a recent study that evaluated WA in interracial client-therapist settings. “The current study seeks to address this important research need by examining therapist and client reports of working alliance (WA) by client race/ethnicity across four time points during a 16-week cognitive– behavioral treatment program for male perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV).”

The participants included 107 male offenders, half of whom were Caucasian. The other half was Hispanic, American Indian, Asian American or African American. Walling discovered that the Caucasian clients who met with white therapists experienced an increase in WA over the 16 weeks. However, the minority participants did not. “The interaction between client race/ethnicity and WA was also a significant predictor of treatment outcome at 6-month follow-up,” said Walling. “The current findings point to the importance of race/ethnicity in the development of the therapist– client relationship.” She added, “Further exploration into the mechanisms underlying these differences is essential to enhance the effectiveness and quality of treatment programs for partner-violent men.”

Walling, S. M., Suvak, M. K., Howard, J. M., Taft, C. T., & Murphy, C. M. (2011, December 19). Race/Ethnicity as a Predictor of Change in Working Alliance During Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Intimate Partner Violence Perpetrators. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025751

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  • Deanne

    January 11th, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    Why should race even make any kind of difference?
    If you can relate to someone then you can relate to them, no matter the color of their skin.

  • Juan

    January 12th, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    Obviously Deanne you are a white female and have never faced the same kinds of problems or discrimination that someone of color has experienced. Like with anyone if an offender does not feel like they can relate to the therapist then they are not going to get anywhhere with their treatment. It is very difficult for someone who has not lived this to get it, but they want someone that they feel could have literally walked in their shoes and they are going to eventually want to learn how they were able to rise above it all. Don’t you even see how they could just be searching for a mentor or a role model, someone who looks like them and talks like them and can help them out of the dire straits theat they could find themselves in at the moment?

  • abby

    January 12th, 2012 at 11:27 PM

    wow!now race haunts even counseling!

    I hate when somebody or differentiates between people due to their race but there is not much that can be done when things happen isnt it?wrong! This lack of connection between the therapist and the client is all due to the decades and centuries of racism and race-related ideas that have existed.

    Do you really think this working alliance would be at the same dismal level for minorities had there been no real focus on race and related issues, if everybody was called an American, and if people did not have prejudices? Things would definitely be much better and this mental block would never have existed, thereby enabling even people other racial backgrounds to have the same levels of WA as Caucasians.

  • Angela

    January 13th, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    Being a counselor, I see this everyday. There are differences; it is a part of the fabric of our country. There are still rules/laws in effect to that matter.

    Would it be nice if the color/race of the client/counselor relationship didn’t matter at all? Yes. Does it affect the WA? It can. When one has benefited in any way from the tilt, you tend not to understand the other person’s perspective. Statements like, “just get over it”, “move on all ready”, “it’s your own fault”, are said, not understanding that you are just compounding the facts.

    I have a mixed base of clients, dealing with each person as needed. I look at the heart, not the color. For we are all the color of God.

  • KZ

    January 15th, 2012 at 5:57 AM

    we can say all we want to that race is not an issue
    but it is and i think we all kno it
    we can try to ignore it but it comes back
    it is a fact of life that is always going to be there

  • aibridges

    January 18th, 2012 at 8:08 PM

    I think it’s a combination of factors – based on the individuals’ histories – if you grew up (and hung out intimately, not superficially) primarily around certain culture(s), you will more readily connect with them.

    For instance, I grew up AND hung out with white females growing up, so it wasn’t a big deal for me to go to a white female counselor in her 30’s and come out to her; actually it may have been easier since I saw her as an objective ear to my LGB woes with the African American community and Christian church.

    However, when she wasn’t in during an emergency situation and I met with an older (I was barely 20) white gentlemen. I definitely shut down – too many “perceived differences” – felt he needed to earn my trust before I opened up. It’s just our country’s race dynamics at play.

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