3 Basic Traits of the Therapeutic Relationship


All of these traits must be fully-developed for a therapeutic relationship to be present; however, safety is the foundational trait. Without safety, the other two traits — faith and hope — are useless. In other words, safety can stand by itself. Safety can exist in the therapist-client relationship without the other two being present.

Safety — the freedom to say anything you want without the fear of condemnation or invalidation. That means a lot. It means that if you share your deepest, darkest secrets, your therapist supports and validates your opinions and experiences surrounding that secret.

For example, in 2004, I told one therapist that I was going “to win the Nobel Prize.” Pretty lofty ambitions. Downright grandiose for someone who had just finished a 14-month stint in a nursing home for the mentally ill. Her reply: “Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.” I was fishing for a more black and white answer: a yes or a no. Her answer befuddled me. I wanted black and white, and she gave me every shade of gray. And, I’m glad she did, because it set the stage for the remainder of our work and allowed us to build on the foundation of safety.

Note: Notice I didn’t include the term, “repercussions,” in this definition of safety. If you tell a therapist that you are suicidal and homicidal, she is bound by law to have you committed to a mental health facility where you will be treated for your symptoms. So, while safety includes support and validation, it doesn’t always include a lack of repercussions.

Safety is the foundational trait of the therapeutic relationship. It is the only trait that can stand on its own.



Faith —  giving the client the space and confidence to grow. Again, back to my therapist at the time and to my winning the Nobel Prize. One of the overriding themes of our work (2003-2011) was my coming to terms with ambivalence/uncertainty. I desperately wanted a yes or no answer to my assertion. I don’t know if she was conscious of what she was doing, whether her response was reflexive, or a combination of the two; however, what she did in that moment was to show confidence in my abilities to learn something that is very hard for szers to learn. And, as our work progressed, not only did her confidence in me develop further, so did the space she gave me to grow. One of her signature mottos was: “The best words are those unspoken.” This therapist had faith in me and showed it by giving me the space and confidence to grow. Eventually, I would discard the need to win the Nobel Prize and that relieved me of a great deal of pressure.

For more on ambivalence, check out Bleuler’s A’s which is located on the red ribbon near the top of this page. [Once there, you will have to scroll down a bit to find it.]



Hope — the ability to see a bright tomorrow today. A therapist who inspires hope has two sub-traits going for her: steadfastness and realistic optimism. My therapist was there for me every time I wanted/needed her, even through times when I resisted our sessions by discontinuing them. In other words, a few times, when the going got really tough and I needed a break, I stopped going to therapy — temporarily. The point is she knew that I was having hard times with the material we were covering in therapy. She also knew why I was not coming, and I suspect that she knew I would return when I was ready and that she would be available for me when I returned. I would be shocked if she wasn’t aware of this. Regardless, she was steadfast.

Building on her steadfastness, she was always optimistic about my long-term success.



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