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Unified Psychotherapy: An Introduction and Overview

A brief overview of the unified psychotherapy movement.

Posted Mar 05, 2018

Welcome to the Unified Psychotherapy (UP) blog! This is a space where leaders in the UP movement will offer insights and commentaries on developments pertaining to psychotherapy. In this opening post, we provide an overview of the movement, including how it was formed, where it fits in the landscape of psychotherapy, and our hopes for its future.

What is Unified Psychotherapy?

Currently, the vast array of psychotherapy interventions exist as a “cacophony” of different approaches that rest on different philosophical and theoretical assumptions and emphasize different domains of human functioning and adaptation. The leaders of the UP movement offer new perspectives in philosophy and psychological “metatheory” that allow researchers and practitioners to view the big picture and to navigate the current jungle of different approaches in a way that allows them to make music out of the noise and effectively coordinate diverse treatment options in a systematic and logical way.

In simplest terms, a metatheory is a theory of theory. “Meta” refers to that which is beyond, transcending, or more comprehensive. Thus, metatheories are theoretical frameworks of a more comprehensive order—at a higher level of abstraction—than traditional single theories. A key advantage of this higher level of abstraction is that, unlike single-system theories that necessarily disagree with or contradict other single-system theories on key points, metatheories operate from a conceptual space beyond the single-system theories such that relativism is transcended by conceptual frameworks that can unify the spectrum of psychotherapies. These approaches also allow utilizing of and capitalizing on, the strengths of both single-school approaches and integrative approaches.

How did the Unified Psychotherapy movement get started?

In a seminal 1980 article on identifying general therapeutic change principles, the integrative psychotherapist Marv Goldfried issued a call for an imaginary conference in which individuals of different backgrounds would dialogue about steps toward consensus in basic principles and processes of therapy. The participants in the unified psychotherapy movement attempted to realize this conference in two summits, held in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 2015 and 2017. At the first summit, a consensus was reached regarding the definition and goal of the unified psychotherapy movement (UPM). It was agreed that the UPM represents a new approach to the field of psychotherapy that seeks to enhance practitioners’ capacity to draw from the diversity of approaches, processes, techniques, and research findings by providing an evolving, comprehensive, and holistic framework. During the second Cape Cod summit in 2017, attention was paid to identifying the key areas of focus that constitute the core of the movement.

Where does Unified Psychotherapy fit in the larger field?

From the vantage point of the UP leadership, UP represents the next stage in the natural evolution of the field. Through the 1970s psychotherapy was dominated by single schools (e.g., behavioral, humanistic, psychodynamic) and proponents vigorously challenged those who adopted different orientations. Then a different attitude began to become prevalent among a significant proportion of scholars and practitioners, namely that of eclecticism and the possibility of a more cooperative stance between the schools. By the end of the 1980s, the formal movement systematically exploring psychotherapy integration had emerged, and four pathways to integration had been articulated (i.e., common factors, technical eclecticism, assimilative integration, and theoretical integration).

Recently, unification was recognized by the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration as representing the fifth approach. Unified approaches seek metatheoretical perspectives that afford scholars and practitioners holistic frameworks that allow for greater unification of the various orientations and approaches. Such unified psychotherapies represent a paradigmatic shift in the field’s understanding of all domains of human functioning, their interrelationships, how they impact health and psychopathology, and how to most effectively intervene (Magnavita, 2008).

What is the relationship between Unified Psychotherapy and the science of psychology?      

Scholars in the UP movement attempt to ground psychotherapy in the science of human psychology. Topic areas of interest include:

  • A) The nature of psychology as a field (its definition and subject matter);
  • B) Personality Theory and key domains of adaptation and functioning (e.g., Habits and Lifestyles; Emotions and Emotional Functioning; Relational Quality and Interpersonal Style; Defenses and Coping; Identity, Ego Functioning, and Beliefs and Values);
  • C) the Bio-genetic, Developmental, Interpersonal, and Socio-Cultural Contexts and Forces that influence human functioning;
  • D) Psychopathology (its nature and classification);
  • E) Well-being and models of optimal functioning;
  • F) Human Change Mechanisms and Processes, especially in the context of therapy; and
  • G) Core Moral and Humanistic Values.

How do unified psychotherapists approach psychotherapy? 

A Unified Psychotherapist uses their knowledge in the context of therapy to foster psychological adjustment and more optimal psychological functioning for individuals in need of psychological care. To do this, a UP engages in a comprehensive assessment that examines key domains of psychological adaptation (e.g., habits and lifestyles; emotions and emotional functioning; relationships and interpersonal styles; defenses and coping; and identity), places those domains in bio-physiological, learning and developmental, and social and cultural contexts to delineate a clear case formulation of the person and the problem in a way that leads to a treatment plan, which is developed—in collaboration with the client, taking into consideration their values, level of functioning, and stage of change—from a menu of bona fide interventions that might be appropriate. Such interventions can be taken from a number of perspectives and are chosen based on the conceptual understanding of the case, the client’s values and stage of change, and on the expertise and training of the therapist. Through a process of awareness, acceptance, and active change efforts, a unified psychotherapist works with the client to meet appropriate goals, which are set relative to prognosis based on the conceptualization. Progress toward those goals and the quality of the relationship is monitored. If successful, the focus turns to maintenance and ultimately, when appropriate, termination. 

Who are the Leaders of the UPM (and the authors of this blog)?

Drs. Jack Anchin and Jeffrey Magnavita are pioneers in the field. They have authored many articles on unified psychotherapy and recently the book Unifying Psychotherapy: Principles, Methods, and Evidence from Clinical Science. These individuals also founded The Journal of Unified Psychotherapy and Clinical Science. Dr. Anchin is a clinical associate professor (core faculty) in Medaille College’s doctoral program in clinical psychology and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo/SUNY. Jeffrey Magnavita is the leading figure in the Unified Psychotherapy Project and Psychotherapedia (launched with the help of Steve Sobleman).

Dr. Kenneth Critchfield specializes in Interpersonal Reconstructive Therapy, a method of unified psychotherapy that places special emphasis on relational patterns, developmental history, and attachment. While the method can be used with many different populations, it has primarily been used to bring about change with “complex cases” involving chronic or severe psychopathology and personality disorder. He is Director of the Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology at James Madison University, a program devoted to training individuals to be unified health service psychologists.

Dr. Jeff Harris is the originator of Multitheoretical Psychotherapy and is author of the book Integrative Multitheoretical Psychotherapy. Dr. Harris is an associate professor of psychology at Texas Woman’s University, where he teaches students how to operate from a multi-theoretical perspective.

Dr. Gregg Henriques is a professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University in the Combine-Integrated Doctoral Program. He has developed a novel approach to unifying the science of psychology, which he argues can be used to provide the framework for the assimilation and integration of the major paradigms in psychotherapy. He is author of the blog Theory of Knowledge on Psychology today and the book A New Unified Theory of Psychology.

Dr. Barbara Ingram is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is author of Clinical case formulations: Matching the integrative treatment plan to the client. In addition to teaching a systematic framework for organizing case formulations, she developed a list of “core clinical hypotheses” that provide the bridge between assessment and selection of best-fitting intervention strategies.

Dr. Andre Marquis is one of the founding members of the Integral Institute and has authored several works exploring why Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory provides a valuable meta-theoretical framework for understanding psychopathology and psychotherapy. Dr. Marquis is an associate professor at the University of Rochester where he is using, teaching and researching an integral approach to psychotherapy.

Kristin A. R. Osborn, LMHC founded the Certified APT™-Training Program and is a lecturer (part-time) in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and is the Director of HMS Psychotherapy Research Program. Her passion is teaching clinicians how to integrate research in their clinical training and she developed several research skills to study the interplay between clinician an therapist and they are featured in her book, Paraverbal Communication in Psychotherapy: Beyond the Words, Rowman & Littlefield (2016). 

What is the Unified Psychotherapy vision for the future of psychotherapy?

We are envisioning a shift in how the field of psychotherapy is conceptualized. Currently, many students are taught about the various schools of thought separately and then given the option to practice from one or another or are left up to their own devices to generate an eclectic blend. We foresee a time when individuals are provided a meta-theoretical overview that allows practitioners a way to understand where the various paradigms are in relation to one another and how they might be interwoven to inform practitioners in a more coherent way. This has enormous implications for training, research and practice, and this blog will be devoted to exploring many of these issues.

What can you do to get involved?

  1. Read up on the movement by familiarizing yourself with the works listed below;
  2. Contact Dr. Gregg Henriques at henriqgx@jmu.edu if you have questions or Dr. Jeff Harris at JHarris18@mail.twu.edu if you want to join the Unified Psychotherapy listserv;
  3. Like this blog, share it, and let someone know about the movement;
  4. Ask your professors or other senior therapists if they have heard of the unified psychotherapy movement and what they think of it. Share with us your thoughts, comments, and suggestions.

Additional Materials:

  • Some books on the unified approach:
  • Unifying Psychotherapy by Jeffrey Magnavita and Jack Anchin
  • Integrative Multitheoretical Psychotherapy by Jeff Harris
  • A New Unified Theory of Psychology by Gregg Henriques
  • Integral Psychotherapy: A Unifying Approach by Andre Marquis
  • Clinical Case Formulation  by Barbara Ingram

Visit the Unified Psychotherapy Project Homepage

Register and explore The Journal of Unified Psychotherapy and Clinical Science