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.
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
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.
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.