QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
Concerning Women

Please remember, this column is designed to help the consumer seeking behavioral-health information, and not intended to be any form of psychotherapy or a replacement for professional, individualized services. Opinions expressed in the column are those of the columnist and do not represent the position of other SelfhelpMagazine.com staff.

Question

Would it be ethical to become social friends with my therapist? She and I have many things in common, are about the same age, and have similar family lives and outside interests. I would like us to become friends.

I don't know if this is normally done.

Answer

The question of ethics in this situation resides with your therapist. Professional codes of ethics typically prohibit therapists from engaging in "dual relationships," i.e. having any sort of personal or business relationship with their clients, whereby the therapist could gain primary benefit. Some of the codes of ethics have undergone some rewording in this regard, since in smaller locales it's impractical to expect a therapist to avoid all relationships with clients and former clients other than the client/therapist relationship. For example, I live in a small village and regularly do business with clients and former clients, and also encounter clients and former clients in community activities.

The issue is more one of the risk of exploitation of a client, or former client. In your case the risk would be that of emotional exploitation. The therapist/client relationship is one in which the focus is primarily, if not always, on the client's feelings and needs. Ideally, the therapist's feelings and needs do not enter the picture except insofar as they pertain to the progress of the therapeutic process. This is an area that therapists are trained, and have an ethical obligation, to attend to closely. While there may be a genuine, deep emotional intimacy between a client and therapist, the purpose it is supposed to serve is the client's well-being--not the therapist's.

The emotional intimacy that develops between some clients and therapists can lead to wanting to broaden the relationship--that's a normal response to a valued relationship. But there are dangers inherent in trying to make a transition from client/therapist to friends. For those who try it, in any case it's unethical to do so prior to terminating the client/therapist relationship. If your therapist were willing to try to make the transition, you would first have to be certain you would be willing to not have her ever again as your therapist. And down the line, you would both likely find it very difficult at times to not fall back into client/therapist mode, with the other one resenting it when that happens. Though both clients and therapists have been hurt by such failures, it's usually the former client who experiences the greater betrayal and hurt. And even if your therapist agrees to try to become friends, she would still be opening herself to a professional ethics complaint generated by a colleague.

I suggest you talk with your therapist about your wanting to become friends. If her answer is "No," then rest assured that her reason is not out of lack of genuine caring for you, but is rather based precisely on her caring for you. If her answer is "Yes," make sure you terminate the client/therapist relationship first, and then be very clear with each other as to what the boundaries of this new relationship will be.

3/12/98

Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D., is a private practice psychologist who lives in Plainfield, Vermont--a transplanted Southerner who still can't say "cows" the way real Vermonters do. She has spent the last twelve years working mostly with children, adolescents, and adults recovering from sexual abuse and domestic violence.

 

 

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