Relational Safety and Liberating Training Spaces: An Application with a Focus on Sexual Orientation Issues

By Hernández, Pilar; Rankin, Pressley, IV | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Relational Safety and Liberating Training Spaces: An Application with a Focus on Sexual Orientation Issues


Hernández, Pilar, Rankin, Pressley, IV, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


This article describes and discusses a teaching case of a clinical training situation involving a gay marriage and family therapy student working with a same-sex affectional couple. The conceptual pillars of this teaching case, relational safety and liberating spaces, are advanced as illustrations of how the student developed his voice in the training process. Pivotal moments in this process are discussed, as are implications for training and personal and professional growth.

The invisibility of sexual minorities' in marriage and family therapy (MFT), social work, and clinical and counseling psychology training has been well documented in the literature of many mental health professions (e.g., Anhalt, Morris, Scotti, & Cohen, 2003; Fassinger & Richie, 1997; Long, 1996, 1997; Pearson, 2003; Van Voorhis, 2002). These and other writings stress the importance of attending to the ways in which mental health professionals need to be trained to work with a population reckoned to constitute anywhere from 4% to 17% of the U.S. population (Gonsoriek & Weinrich, 1991).

In their exploratory study on how gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation matter in supervision, Gatmon et al. (2001) examined how cultural variables (gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation) were discussed in supervision, who initiated these discussions, and levels of satisfaction reported by students (whether or not these variables were discussed). In addition, Gatmon et al. studied whether the supervisory match on cultural variables related to the supervisory working alliance and intern satisfaction with supervision. In all, 289 predoctoral psychology interns completed the Working Alliance Inventory, a revised supervision questionnaire, and a demographic questionnaire.

The results indicated a low frequency of discussion of cultural variables in general during supervision. The researchers found that supervisors only infrequently initiated discussions about these diversity variables, especially sexual orientation. However, when these discussions did occur, supervisees reported an enhanced supervisory working alliance and increased satisfaction with supervision. The study authors also found that the cultural match between supervisor and supervisee was not important in itself, but that the presence and quality of discussion of difference and similarity were.

Recently, Inman (2005) studied the direct and indirect effects of marriage and family therapy (MFT) students' perceptions of their supervisors' multicultural competence in supervision (measuring supervisory working alliance, students' multicultural case conceptualization, and perceived supervision satisfaction) using the following instruments: the Supervisor Multicultural Competence Inventory, the Supervisory Working Alliance Inventory, the Supervision Satisfaction Questionnaire, a multicultural case conceptualization ability exercise, and a demographic form. In analyzing the responses of 147 MFT students who participated in her study, Inman confirmed that processing of cultural variables in supervision is significantly related to supervisees' perceptions of a strong working alliance and satisfaction with supervision. Furthermore, her study supported the relevance of including the working alliance within theoretical conceptualizations of multicultural competence.

Marriage and family therapy has long been an arena of struggle between progressive ideologies and conservative religious doctrines. One reflection of this struggle has been the opposition expressed in some quarters to the inclusion of sexual minority studies in training. Perhaps an even more striking illustration of this struggle is represented, on the one hand, by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) code of ethics prohibiting all forms of discrimination and, on the other hand, by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy training standards that prevent programs from developing competent clinicians to work with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) populations, as found in graduate school programs having religion-based mandates against sexual diversity. …

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