Investigating an approach to the alliance based on interpersonal defense theory

Michael A. Westerman, J. Christopher Muran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Notwithstanding consistent findings of significant relationships between the alliance and outcome, questions remain to be answered about the relatively small magnitude of those correlations, the mechanisms underlying the association, and how to conceptualize the alliance construct. We conducted a preliminary study of an approach to the alliance based on interpersonal defense theory, which is an interpersonal reconceptualization of defense processes, to investigate the promise of this alternative approach as a way to address the outstanding issues. Method: We employed qualitative, theory-building case study methodology, closely examining alliance processes at four time points in the treatment of a case in terms of a case formulation based on interpersonal defense theory. Results: The results suggested that our approach made it possible to recognize key processes in the alliance and that it helps explain how the alliance influences outcome. Our analyses also provided a rich set of concrete illustrations of the alliance phenomena identified by the theory. Conclusions: The findings suggest that an approach to the alliance based on interpersonal defense theory holds promise. However, although the qualitative method we employed has advantages, it also has limitations. We offer suggestions about how future qualitative and quantitative investigations could build on this study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)620-641
Number of pages22
JournalPsychotherapy Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 3 2017


  • alliance
  • case formulation
  • coordination
  • interpersonal defenses
  • process research
  • qualitative methods
  • theory-building case study

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology

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