Our Time Is Up: Ending the Therapeutic Relationship

Professional women shaking handsYou entered therapy feeling broken, lonely, anxious, dissatisfied with your relationships and your career. Now you feel whole and healthy; your relationships have improved, and you’ve made some professional changes that have led to a more fulfilling career. You feel good about yourself. Life isn’t perfect, but you have come to accept these imperfections, and you feel equipped to handle life’s challenges when they come your way. Congratulations! The time, effort, and willingness to openly and honestly explore the most complex and painful areas of yourself and your life have paid off. Therapy worked. Now what? You have a standing weekly appointment with your therapist, and you have probably developed a strong therapeutic alliance with him or her. But lately you have noticed that you don’t feel a need to go to therapy and you struggle to find ways to fill the hour. These are some strong indicators that you are ready to leave therapy.

For most people, therapy is not forever. Very few people have reason to be in therapy for life. In fact, many of the people who make therapy a way of life are therapists. They have a personal and professional responsibility to maintain high levels of self-awareness. They must take precautions to ensure that their issues are not getting in the way of helping their clients, and that they are not letting their clients’ issues prevent them from living their own lives. Weekly therapy sessions can create the time, space, and support for therapists to do just that.

Certainly, there are some people who are not therapists who also come to view therapy as a way of life. These people are often deeply dedicated to self-growth, and therapy may provide the support they need as they pursue constantly evolving personal goals. However, the vast majority of people who come to therapy do so with the intent of getting help with something specific. Whether it is something as broad as wanting to feel better or something as narrow as making a decision about a career move, people usually bring a specific goal to therapy. For some, these goals can be achieved in a few short months, while for others, it can take years. But ultimately there is a resolution and they feel ready to end therapy. The question then is how to do it.

One of the things people find most useful about therapy is that there is nothing you can’t talk about in a session—including your relationship with your therapist. In fact, a growing body of research indicates that much of the positive change produced by therapy comes as a result of the therapeutic relationship. For example, if your relationships improved while you were in therapy, it is likely, in part, because you learned new ways of being in relationships by actively participating in your therapeutic relationship. So take the well-honed skill set that you developed in therapy and open a discussion with your therapist about ending the therapeutic relationship.

This will likely come as no surprise to your therapist. He or she knows what you came in to work on and knows that you have achieved your goal. Plus, this is a natural part of the process—all therapists in training learn about how to help clients work through this final stage, called termination. This is a prime opportunity to review the goals that brought you to therapy and to reflect on the growth that allowed you to accomplish them. This part of therapy is kind of like a graduation ceremony—it is an opportunity to step back, look at how far you have come, and revel in your success. And, as with graduations, it is an opportunity to ponder and plan for what comes next. Part of termination involves reinforcing the coping skills that evolve during therapy and reminding clients to continue to draw upon them in the future. Another important part of this process is to identify indicators that may signal the need to return to therapy in the future.

Finally, working through the process of termination with your therapist will allow you the opportunity to process the ending of a powerful and unique relationship. While this is a deeply genuine relationship, it is also one that exists within strictly prescribed boundaries—within the therapist’s office during appointment times. Of course, there may have been phone calls and additional meetings scheduled during times of crisis, but there isn’t a healthy way to continue the relationship you have formed with your therapist outside of therapy. Feelings of grief, loss, and anxiety about ending the therapeutic relationship often come up, and termination is designed to address these feelings. Like all aspects of therapy, this can be a difficult process, but seeing it through can be invaluable in helping you continue to develop and implement the kind of sophisticated relational skills that enable you to have deeper, more meaningful, and authentic relationships.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • beth

    beth

    November 28th, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    its never a good thing to get attached to something or someone who comes in to help you.yes,it is much easier to see the person as the saving force because they helped you overcome a crisis but that was a getting-better stage and now that the crisis is over,you should only be happy.therapy is there to help you tide over problems,there is no need to make that a way of your life.

    therapists do a great job.therapy can bring good techniques to the table but just like a medicine,only sufficient quantity is required there is no need to continue medication once you are not sick anymore.

  • melanie reed

    melanie reed

    November 28th, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    Making the decision that the time had come to move on was a very difficult challenge for me. My therapist had come to be like my rock in life, my support when I felt like there was no one else I could turn to.
    But it was time to move on, to see if I could manage things on my own.
    And thankfully, she gave me the grace and the tools to recognize that now I can. She helped me lay a strong foundation that I had never had before, and that feels so good to know that now is the time to rely on myself and my experience to be able to do the right thing.

  • Nigel.P

    Nigel.P

    November 28th, 2012 at 6:05 PM

    the graduation analogy is spot on…moving into a new stage in life,moving ahead and yet having a little sadness in you…having experienced both I must say it is similar and the solution to both is somewhat similar too…look at what you have gained,look ahead to the new stage and carry happy memories from what you are moving out of…!

  • SIERRA

    SIERRA

    November 29th, 2012 at 12:55 AM

    Being in therapy for work related stress was a new experience to me.After months of work I was finally feeling a lot better and that is when my therapist and I decided that therapy was not needed anymore.While I wouldn’t say it was terribly difficult to let go,I did feel a little weird about leaving therapy.The fact that it provided me with an outlet where I could say whatever I wanted to and let out all of my thoughts was great.I was provided with help and a constant reassurance and that was something I knew I was going to miss.

    But like all good things,it had to come to an end.A few notes exchanged about better coping once therapy was over and then the sessions ended.I am now better able to handle my work stress and am happy to have been through therapy.

    Yes it can be difficult to stop therapy but that is a phase too, a phase on the path to total recovery and therapy.Embrace it and with a few steps you can feel like you have COMPLETED your recovery too.

  • chandy

    chandy

    November 29th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    That’s an awesome way to look at it Nigel P.
    It might feel scary, as any new life stage will, but you have to go into it knowing that you are ready to take on the world!

  • Scottie

    Scottie

    November 29th, 2012 at 8:43 AM

    Oh, man, I had just the opposite problem! My therapist said she couldn’t really justify seeing my anymore to my insurance. If I needed her again, I could come back. But, we really had worked on everything I needed to work on at that time. I was so bummed. I really looked forward to seeing my therapist and missed the time that we spent together.

  • Hewett

    Hewett

    November 29th, 2012 at 12:50 PM

    Taken a fall? Got a helping hand? The wound has healed and now you can walk again without the support. Don’t make the temporary support a walking stick, but heal your wounds and walk independently. Your fall didn’t make you incapable of it. The help is temporary, you need to walk your life path all alone!

  • Oliver

    Oliver

    November 29th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    Coping with the end of therapy could include talking to close friends,maybe having a few telephonic sessions with the therapist and even hobbies that help sustain the overcoming. I have never been to therapy myself but I can imagine how a pillar of support going away might feel.But just like you cannot stay in the hospital forever you cannot stay in therapy forever.And at some point it has to end.In fact that should be embraced because it means you have progressed well an do not need it any longer.Celebrate the end of therapy for you have overcome your problems that brought you to therapy in the first place.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    November 29th, 2012 at 10:40 PM

    Scottie, it sounds like due to some insurance constraints you might not have had the opportunity to really process the ending of your work with your therapist. If you are feeling like you would like to do so, try getting in touch and asking for another session or two to process this. While termination, may not have been addressed, I’m glad to hear you were able to resolve the other issues that brought you to seek therapy.

    Thank you, all, for a great discussion and congratulations on all of the hard work you have put into your successful therapy experiences!

  • fidel edwards

    fidel edwards

    November 30th, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    think of it this way-you have worked so hard to overcome the reasons you entered therapy for.now are you willing to diminish your rewards because you find comfort in therapy?I guess not.coping techniques to therapy coming to an end are out there.adopt them and you should be good to go.

  • K

    K

    December 1st, 2012 at 7:33 AM

    Maybe you all can help me with a problem. I have been in therapy for two years with an amazing counselor. I truly feel that he brought me back from the edge many times. I am graduating college and moving out of the area in two weeks, so our relationship is ending. What tools would you suggest to help me get through this period? Every time I just hear the word termination I want to cry. Also, I’d like to get him a thank-you/parting gift. He’s leaving the university as well, to pursue private practice. What is appropriate? Thank you!

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    December 3rd, 2012 at 9:34 PM

    @K, It sounds like you developed a really strong therapeutic alliance with your therapist and benefited greatly from your work with him. It is natural to be struggling with a sense of loss as you wrap up your work together. Talk to him about this. In addition to processing the close of your relationship, make sure to spend some time reviewing the most effective coping techniques you honed and changes you made in therapy – this will help in moving forward. As for gift giving, strictly speaking it is unethical for therapists to accept gifts from clients. That said a thank you card or a handmade token (i.e., a batch of homemade cookies) is generally not inappropriate. Congratulations on your upcoming graduation and good luck with your next steps!

  • Jean Fairgrieve

    Jean Fairgrieve

    May 12th, 2013 at 9:15 PM

    I will soon “graduate” from therapy for C-PTSD at age 74. I have spent three years in ego state therapy to prepare for EMDR, and with e.s.t. I have managed to bring my PTSD symptoms into remission. Now my therapist and I are working with EMDR, and it’s enabled me to deal with the basic issues of childhood neglect and being an unwanted child. We still will defuse the trauma energy surrounding my childhood abuse and the violence in my marriage, but my hardest work is behind me. My therapist is a wonderful person, and I will miss her in my life, but I have plans for my future and must move on. I don’t have much future left, so I must make the most of my time. My therapist has helped me reclaim my life, and now I want to live it. The best thank you I can give my therapist is to make the most of the rest of my life!

  • Ananda

    Ananda

    December 18th, 2013 at 6:02 PM

    What are the power issues in terminating therapy? Who holds the power therapist or client.

  • glhr

    glhr

    July 12th, 2014 at 7:46 AM

    My therapist has said she is family to me at times and wants to continue a friendship after we stop. is this normal? thanks

  • Heidi

    Heidi

    July 30th, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    No, it is not normal and is considered to be unethical. Most ethical guidelines of any association/college will state this. There is good reason for not to continue a relationship after therapy. The relationship you had is intimate but you did all the sharing so there is inherent imbalance in that way. I do not recommend a relationship with your therapist after therapy.

  • Shea

    Shea

    July 1st, 2018 at 8:54 PM

    A therapist should never allow that kind of relationship to continue. The code of ethics strongly states that outside relationships are not permitted. Honestly they become a conflict of interest. A counselor is bound by confidentiality whereas a friend is not. Overtime those role with interchange and confidentiality can be compromised. Avoid becoming friends with your therapist.

  • sjones

    sjones

    January 6th, 2017 at 8:00 PM

    that is not healthy or normal. it is a violation of your boundaries.this is a person to stay away from

  • Moira C,J

    Moira C,J

    August 12th, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    In response to glhr in #15 above: I agree with Heidi in #16 above. While it is understandably tempting to engage in a “real life” relationship after termination of therapy, especially when you have done good and sometimes long-term work and grown fond of a client, it is not a good idea given the imbalance of power inherent in the relationship. Termination preparation work can help both the therapist and the client walk through saying goodbye in a way that is helpful and honors the work you have done together while keeping the boundaries clear and ethical.

  • bak23

    bak23

    September 21st, 2016 at 10:46 AM

    Good article. Confirmed my needs as I am terminating my therapy after 10 plus years. I suspect my therapist isn’t as good at termination as I am. I told her 6 mos ago of my plan and she has repeatedly “forgotten”. The last session I brought up the termination and she said she didn’t realize it? I was a bit dumbfounded. I actually think she has been checked out since June and I feel lost. I do not feel I am getting the support I need around ending and starting to feel resentful and angry. We are supposed to have 2 sessions left (according to me)- I know I should bring it up but I am so resistant and stubborn (almost like when i began therapy). Any ideas?

  • LifeSong

    LifeSong

    September 29th, 2016 at 6:16 AM

    Hello bak23 😊
    Can you say to her, what you just said to us?
    A gift that the time with my therapist has given me is the courage to face difficulties in life with compassion, both for the person/people involved and myself… I’ve learned how to ‘move through’ the inherent discomfort proactively. I have been helped with this by a therapist who does not ‘get mad’ as I slowly ‘dared’ to share perceived hurts/misunderstandings with him.
    After more than 7 years of seeing my therapist for too many complex happenings and loss, I am now stronger. We have started talking about “leaving the nest”…a much kinder thought than ‘termination’!
    A very dear friend, also a therapist, once told me that ending therapy was “very hard for us too.”…so I am addressing this component of “graduation” (another wonderful word!) with my therapist as we go. I want this to be a good ending for both of us.
    “GN” is a man of integrity and has carried the ethical standards his profession into each hour of our time together. This provided a “safe harbor” for me to finally trust him completely…another gift.
    As an ICU RN, I understand the needed boundaries and setting aside of emotion to facilitate healing. I grew very close to my patients and their families as they struggled back to health. I wanted to see my patients heal and hear that they went home. I missed caring for them. And every once in a while we’d have the pleasure of reconnecting as they walked onto our unit to say hi. 😊
    The process of saying goodbye to this very healing relationship has been very painful…reminiscent to saying needed goodbyes to loved ones. I am trying to say everything that I need… to understand and to express gratitude for this time of learning and healing with him. I am going slowly and I am going completely.
    I wish you all, both clients and therapists, the best as you navigate together through endings. Imagine how the bird feels as her little ones perch on the edge of the high swaying nest… And then, after watching them flounder on the ground, the joy as they soar through the air. LifeSong

  • Hazeleyes

    Hazeleyes

    November 7th, 2016 at 5:33 PM

    I’ve been thinking of ending therapy for a little while now but I’m nervous about bringing it up. This therapist has helped me a lot and I have come a long way but feel it might be time to move forward. I found the last session (or so?) wasn’t as helpful as others have been and I’m starting to resent her homework suggestions. They actually don’t really seem all that therapeutic anymore. I am all for therapy homework if it is therapeutic. Do I send her an e-mail to give her warning and then have the next session be the last or what? I’m afraid that she’ll try to convince me to continue. I just really feel that my time with this person is coming to an end and I think maybe I have been having a hard time accepting that myself until the last session. Help! (I wouldn’t be fully surprised if she is thinking the same thing, though she has never brought up ending therapy.)

  • sjones

    sjones

    January 6th, 2017 at 8:05 PM

    we the clients are the boss. we pay them.while being in therapy we begin to use new tools and we carry them with us after therapy.

  • gsl

    gsl

    December 15th, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    I have been in therapy for a little over a year and have developed a strong bond with my therapist. Although I initially made gains, my insecurities seem to be sabotaging the very work we have done together. At times, I feel he is no longer helping despite his kindness in not making me feel abandoned. I bring up termination and how difficult it is for me for many sessions now. I’m not sure to stay or leave and feel very awkward to face him again. Any advice would be appreciated. I am feeling almost distraught.

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