Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Partners in the Spiritual Dance: Learning Clients' Steps While Minding All Our Toes

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Partners in the Spiritual Dance: Learning Clients' Steps While Minding All Our Toes

Article excerpt

We present four case illustrations highlighting the complex interplay of therapists' and clients' spirituality in therapy. Complexity, in these cases, results from (a) degrees of similarity and difference, both real and perceived, between clients' and therapists' spiritual beliefs and practices; (b) degrees of spiritual disclosure; (c) characteristics of the therapeutic relationship; and (d) geographic and cultural influences. Practicing therapists and therapist training programs can benefit from addressing how therapist and client spirituality intersect and influence therapy, how both similarity and difference present obstacles and opportunities, and how ambiguity and assumptions can contribute to misunderstandings. We believe that both the therapist's and the client's spiritualities are key influences in therapy that can contribute to the frustration, and the growth, of clients and therapists alike.

Interest in the role of spirituality in marriage and family therapy (MFT) practice has grown over the past 15 years, as evidenced by an increasing number of publications (Bailey, Pryce, & Walsh, 2002; Weaver et al., 2002). Many authors point out the importance of spirituality and religion to the American public (Bailey, 2002; Hodge, 2000; Wolfe & Stevens, 2001), noting that spiritual matters are therefore important, or even integral, to therapy (Aponte, 2002; Kimball & Knudson-Martin, 2002). As a result, articles and books have contrasted traditional, secular approaches to MFT training and practice with the prevalence of spiritual priorities among the majority of clients and therapists, pointing to the need for additional training to enable therapists to address spiritual issues competently (Dunn & Dawes, 1999; Haug, 1998; Helmeke & Bischof, 2002; Patterson, Hayworth, Turner, & Raskin, 2000). Despite this call for additional training, therapists may still struggle with the challenges associated with addressing spiritual issues in practice. Throughout this article, we use the term spirituality to broadly encompass client and therapists' religious and transcendent beliefs, experiences, and practices in the inclusive manner suggested by Aponte (2002).

This work builds on the literature by highlighting the complexities associated with managing the spiritual similarities, differences, expectations, and ambiguities that arise between clients and therapists. Using examples from our own clinical experiences, we explore the intersection of therapist and client spirituality, consider how similarities and differences create obstacles and opportunities in therapy, and reflect on how ambiguity and assumptions about spirituality can impact the treatment process. Consistent with the literature, we will present our discussion and recommendations organized around the themes of knowledge about particular spiritual traditions, therapist self-awareness, and exploring spirituality respectfully in therapy. We found that our clinical experiences contributed to each of these areas, and that they demonstrate how each of the areas work together to inform spiritually sensitive practice.

We believe that spiritual similarity and difference can occur along several dimensions. For example, a therapist and client may be similar in terms of a particular religion or belief system, but may differ significantly in their specific beliefs and practices, or in the centrality of spirituality to their daily lives. In addition, a person's spirituality may be vague in some areas, well defined in others, relatively constant in some respects, and in other respects in a state of flux. Westbrooks (2002) makes the point that people who come to therapy, in particular, may be experiencing spiritual crises and growth. Therefore, although sensitivity to diversity may (appropriately) motivate therapists to learn more about the spirituality of different cultural and religious groups (Bermudez & Bermudez, 2002; Dunn & Dawes, 1999), sensitivity also requires therapists to appreciate the highly personal ways spirituality is experienced, and to be willing to explore spiritual intricacies within themselves, and with their clients (Carlson, Erickson, & Seewald-Marquardt, 2002). …

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