You’ll likely discuss things you discuss with a few other people when you’re behind the hallowed doors of the therapist’s office. Many people opt to seek therapy at times of immense loneliness, isolation, or depression. It’s no wonder, then, that you might consider your therapist an excellent choice for friendship. After all, he or she already knows your innermost thoughts and likes you in spite of your flaws. It’s normal to feel close to your therapist, and there’s nothing wrong with you for considering him or her to be a friend. But do you really want to be friends with someone you pay to hang out with? A friendship with your therapist is fraught with difficulties, and your therapist’s ethical duties prohibit her from becoming your friend.
Therapist Ethics: The Basics
In the therapy community, a friendship with your therapist is called a dual relationship. This is because such a relationship requires your therapist to act as a professional mental health provider and a friend – filling two roles. Every state has slightly different ethical mandates for its therapists, and the rules about being friends with a client vary slightly. One thing is true in every state, though: therapists are specifically prohibited from engaging in dual relationships.
But why is this? It’s easy to feel like you and your therapist share a unique connection. Of course, it is your therapist’s job to make you feel comfortable, so that connection you feel might not be so unique! More importantly, though, friendships with clients create serious ethical dilemmas for therapists. These include:
- It’s unethical to pay someone to hang out with you. If you become friends with your therapist and continue going to therapy, she essentially becomes a paid friend. You deserve a friend who spends time with you for free.
- When therapists become friends with their clients, it’s nearly impossible for them to be objective.
- Therapists who get close to their clients may become romantically attached to them. Romantic relationships with therapists are verboten in the psychology community and are even crimes in some states.
- A therapist who becomes your friend becomes a part of your emotional world. This means she could be conceivably offering you therapy on a world in which she is a participant – a serious ethical breach.
Why a Friendship Isn’t Good for You
Before you begin telling yourself that your relationship with your therapist is unique or planning your first coffee house outing, step back for a moment and consider why you’re interested in becoming your therapist’s friend. Many therapy clients are lonely, so the attention you receive from your therapist might be a refreshing alternative to chronic isolation. In other cases, therapy clients see achieving friendship with their therapists as a signal of their own uniqueness; the friendship is a goal to be achieved, and has little to do with the actual relationship.
So why is it that friendship with a therapist is such a bad idea? Licensing boards, scientific studies, and most therapists agree that such a friendship can be profoundly damaging. Here are some reasons why:
- Your relationship with your therapist can be an escape that prevents you from developing healthier friendships.
- Developing a friendship with someone whom you once paid to counsel you can be damaging to your self-esteem.
- You’ll no longer be allowed to continue treatment with your therapist, and that means you may no longer be getting the mental health care you need and deserve. If your therapist does continue treatment, she’s taking advantage of you.
- Your therapist will have “insider” information about your life that – if she wanted to – she could use to manipulate you or the people you love.
- Your friendship with your therapist will be an unequal one. Your therapist will know things about you that you do not know about him, and this gives your therapist significant power over you.
- If you get to know your therapist and his or her vulnerabilities, it may be more difficult for you to accept your therapist’s insight into your life, and this can undermine your mental health.
- If you consistently find yourself trying to pursue friendships with therapists, it could signal that you have self-esteem issues or a chronic desire to please authority figures.
Discussing Friendship Challenges With Your Therapist
If you find you’re interested in becoming friends with your therapist, talk about the issue with him or her. A good therapist will draw clear boundaries and explain to you why dual relationships are unhealthy. Your therapist can also help you explore why it is that you’re interested in pursuing a friendship with your mental health professional. Oftentimes such a desire is a direct product if the issues you’re exploring in therapy. By opening up to your therapist about your desire for friendship, you gain a powerful opportunity to evaluate your therapist’s ability to draw boundaries, in addition to an opportunity to explore your innermost desires.
Good therapy can help you overcome a variety of issues, but it should never end with a date or lunch together. Instead, your therapist should help you work to find your own friends. We all deserve companionship, and no one deserves to have to rely on a paid friend. The right therapeutic approach can help you make your own healthy friendships while exploring obstacles to such relationships. You might think a relationship with your therapist is a dream come true, but you deserve healthy relationships that don’t require you to write a check at the end of every meeting.