A Loving Therapeutic Relationship

By Rob Giannamore

A therapist cannot control the outcome of their clients sessions.

Therapeutic rapport is the most important element of a therapeutic relationship; the therapist must cultivate an attitude of acceptance regardless of who is presented that day. Without this, you will never establish trust, and the work cannot go on.

“Welcome, my name is Rob, and I will be working with you today” is an example of establishing this from the get-go. One might even say: “Before we get started, I want to let you know that I love you, but I don’t care.” Let me explain, in Buddhist thought, it is believed that we suffer because we cling. If this writer clings to the outcome of a session or the plight of the client and does not consider the agency that the client has exhibited in their life prior, then no work will get done. In this therapeutic relationship, it is established that regardless of the choices made by the client, they will always be welcomed back the next week. The limiter, then, is that this writer can only care about the person in a limited, uncontrolling way. For kids, especially teenagers, it is emphasized that this love is different: a love that is open to the possibilities for the client’s life.

We are creatures attached to our clan and when we lose that attachment, many negative behaviors can be created as we long to re-secure that attachment. Have you ever been told by your minister, well-meaning Sunday school teacher, or even a parent that God is “emotionless,” “controlling,” or “knows all the plans?” How about the classic, “all things happen for a reason,” or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Mental health and trauma don’t work like that. Sometimes things do happen for a reason, that reason being that humans make really poor decisions and treat each other in really negative ways. A God who is seen as withholding God’s love with a sense of condition has alienated a whole generation of young people who have been parented and preached from an authoritarian model.

There is a now famous video of a mom playing with her baby. In the video, the mom and baby are sharing in interactions, both reciprocating each other’s expressions. About mid-video, the mom turns away from the baby and turns back with a flat face. The baby plays along for a second but soon begins to make bids for attention, reaching out and squeaking and ultimately beginning to cry and fuss. This takes place in a matter of seconds. We are creatures with great sensitivity to the love and attention of the caregiver, so that in a matter of minutes, our demeanor can change. If this love is withheld for a lengthy period of time, we internalize that something is wrong with us, producing anger or frustration that is often projected onto others.

Seventy-one years ago, a theorist named John Bowlby turned our world upside down by showing how constant loving care by a mother figure impacts parenting. We are learning now that the old style of authoritarian parenting (“I am the parent, you are the child”) does not work for the growth and independence a child needs for healthy development. Should it not be considered that our views of God are similarly hazardous to our spiritual health? I feel it should be.

God loves you, but God also allows you to think about what is going on. God does not want endless suffering; God does not create your endless suffering, or those long nights where you can’t sleep thinking about all the awful things that could happen to you. This writer often tells his clients that it is not their job to love their parents, it is their job to love you. If you love your parents, it is because they established a solid bond with you and allowed you to express your humanity in the fullest manner possible. This writer would challenge that our relationship with God is the same way. It is not our job to love God. If we love God, it is because God loved us first. With no strings attached, no shoulds, no coercion.

There is a story in the bible that illustrates this. In this story, Jesus one day is in a village, and he is looking for some water at a well. He approaches a woman, a Samaritan woman—someone society casted as an outcast—and asks her for a drink of water. Jesus then goes on to point out to this woman that she has had five husbands, and the man she is with now is not her husband. Despite some of her less than positive behaviors (contextually), Jesus sends her forth, suggesting that Jesus is a loving and accepting God.

Person-Centered Therapy is an approach to therapy founded by Carl Rogers in the 1940’s and focuses on a non-authoritative approach, allowing clients to have agency in sessions such that, in the process, they discover their own solutions. As this writer is a trained minister and a trained clinician, it is often important at the beginning of the relationship to establish if there is any spiritual/religious trauma. Oftentimes, there is, and often in the form of authoritarian parenting but also disengaged parenting or absent parenting, as well. In assessing the clients’ religious experiences, the majority report an authoritarian God dictating their religious upbringing.

Person-centered therapy and person-centered faith allows one to begin to see the loving movement of the parent and God through surrogacy in the session. Often, a client will present with a report of some calamity between the current session and the last… self-esteem and self-worth being pretty low. If God talk has been established in the first few sessions, the conversation is brought back to love, asking the client to consider what they want to do about the current situation and how a loving, patient God would respond. This writer then models the surrogate parent by asking open ended questions, affirming statements, reflective statements, and summarizing statements with no judgment towards the client. Too often, this writer has been asked why this notion of God is not talked about in church.

Communities can begin to encourage the need for exploring an uncontrolling God by looking at their statistics. In 10-15 years, maybe up to 65% (or more) of their congregants will no longer be sitting in the pews. If this writer had a seat in church for every time an interested listener asks why the idea of an uncontrolling God is not taught in church and that they would come and hear this message, this writer would have a fairly large congregation. We are in the midst of an evolution in consciousness. Our youngest millennials and Gen Z’ers are hungry for relationships. Our current congregations that adhere to biblical literalist, authoritarian interpretations have lost their relevance in an age where young people can find meaning elsewhere. The time is now.

Rob Giannamore is married to his college sweetheart; they have four children together. Rob is an endurance athlete, and holds a black belt in American Krav Maga. He received his Master of Divinity from Methodist Theological School in Ohio and a Master’s of Science in Mental Health Counseling from Cappella University. You can find his blog at shalemconsulting.com

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love