In psychotherapy, a dual relationship occurs when a therapist has a second, significantly different relationship with his or her client in addition to the traditional client-therapist one. This may be a professional relationship, such as playing the part of both counselor and teacher. Or, it may be of a nonprofessional nature, as in the case of a therapist who is also a friend or intimate partner of the person seeking therapy.
Due to the complications that may arise in sexual and nonsexual situations, the existence of a dual relationship presents ethical considerations and potentially, legal issues. However, a dual relationship is not necessarily unethical; it may pave the way for a strengthened relationship bond or a beneficial exchange of goods and services.
The distinguishing factor between ethical and unethical relationships is the establishment of mutual trust and whether it is honored or misused.
Types of Dual Relationships
As a therapist, it is difficult to avoid some amount of dual role involvement in the lives of colleagues and loved ones. When your profession is built around helping people sort through their issues, many who are already close to you will seek out your insight and advice naturally. Similarly, business partnerships or opportunities in the field that involve current or former clients may also arise.
According to the Zur Institute, the following are common types of dual relationships:
- Social dual relationship—the therapist is also a friend
- Professional dual relationship—the therapist doubles as someone’s work colleague or collaborator
- Business dual relationship—the therapist is also involved with someone in a business capacity
- Communal dual relationship—both therapist and client are members of a small community will likely run into each other or be involved in the same activities outside of the office
- Institutional dual relationship—the therapist serves as counselor and other roles within a particular institution, such as a prison, hospital, or in the military
- Forensic dual relationship—the therapist is a counselor as well as a witness in legal trials or hearings involving his or her client
- Supervisory dual relationship—the therapist is also responsible for overseeing and supervising the client’s development as a professional therapist, as often occurs in educational settings
- Digital, online, or Internet dual relationship—the therapist is connected with the client on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn
- Sexual dual relationship—the therapist and client are engaged in a sexual relationship
Ethical Concerns with Dual Relationships
Some dual relationships are unavoidable or even mandated, as may be the case in an institutional one, but there are others that are voluntary. Such is the case when therapist and client attend the same church or shop at the same stores in a small community, or when the therapist and client are friends or business partners by choice.
The most controversial of the dual relationships with regard to ethical considerations are those of a sexual nature between client and therapist. These may even present legal issues in the long run.
On the surface, sexual dual relationships may appear to occur between two consenting adults. However, due to the nature of therapy, which involves the client sharing intimate thoughts and exploring raw emotional territory with the therapist—and therefore being in an especially vulnerable position—the client often ends up feeling victimized. This may exacerbate his or her mental health concerns by increasing depressive symptoms or suicidal ideation. Lawsuits, criminal complaints, and licensing board issues will likely ensue.
Boundary Setting in Nonsexual Dual Relationships
To be fully prepared to address the needs of a client in a nonsexual dual relationship situation, it is essential to educate oneself on the potential complexities and consequences that may arise. Take time to assess how the multiple relationships may affect the client’s ability to delve deep and face difficult issues. Will boundaries be crossed? Is the relationship truly beneficial for both therapist and client?
In some cases, the dual nature of the relationship may be beneficial from a clinical, experiential standpoint. For example, if the therapist and client are colleagues in the mental health field and interested in exploring certain techniques together, this may prove useful so long as guidelines and boundaries are established and agreed upon ahead of time.
- Herlihy, B., and Corey, G. (1992). Dual relationships in counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Association for Counseling and Development. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED340985.pdf
- Miller, J. (2014, January 30). Utah therapist admits to sexual relationship with teen client. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/57473599-78/peterson-police-abuse-girl.html.csp
- Zur, O. (2013). Dual relationships, multiple relationships & boundaries in psychotherapy, counseling & mental health. Retrieved from http://www.zurinstitute.com/dualrelationships.html
Last Updated: 08-6-2015
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Ofer ZurDecember 27th, 2014 at 1:59 PM
A recent summary chart of different types of multiple relationships (or dual relationships) is available at zurinstitute.com/DualRelationships2.pdf
GiaFebruary 13th, 2017 at 11:35 PM
I have known my therapist for 20 years, 10 years through church and then 10 years now as her patient. My probation officer just told me it is considered a boundary issue and I can no longer see my therapist of 10 years and must be getting an entirely new therapy with an outside agency. I have dissociative identity disorder and my therapist and I have established a mutual trusting and respectful relationship that do not cross any ethical boundaries. Does anyone have any feedback on this? I’m falling into a deep depression because I am being severed from my therapy and isolated away from my therapist of 10 years. I’m being re traumatized by a new therapist because I have to discuss issues that trigger my trauma and are tearing me apart. Please I would really appreciate someone’s feedback on this. Thank you very much.
AlisonFebruary 7th, 2018 at 3:09 PM
I agree with your probation officer. It’s about the issue of being in therapy. The therapist/client relationship is a power relationship. In other words, the client often views the therapist as the one with the most power. While therapists may not view that to be true, it just is. If a therapist says something with regard to the client making changes and the rapport has been built, the client would be more likely to take the therapist’s advice. The therapy relationship is supposed to be separate from other relationships. If you see one another in church, that is not a big deal, but if you see one another in church and other people see you and you have multiple conversations and share life with one another, that’s what you want to avoid. If the current new therapist is not working for you, I would encourage you to find one who does. In addition, it hurts my heart that your previous therapist did not try to end this sooner. I’m sorry you’re hurting, but your probation officer is correct. Even in DID, 10 years is too long. There comes a time when you terminate therapy. That’s healthy and the way we are trained. At some point after a few years of therapy, the therapist should have transferred you to a new therapist. It’s called a soft transfer. It’s when the therapist introduces the client to the new therapist in the last couple of sessions before the new therapist takes over the therapy process.
CVFebruary 27th, 2017 at 9:44 AM
Ethics question: If a School Psychologist and a School Principal in the same district have an affair (both are married with kids) should something be said and if yes to whom?
GiaFebruary 27th, 2017 at 11:55 AM
First should be reported to district administrator. Secondly, board of education.
CVFebruary 27th, 2017 at 1:41 PM
Thank you for responding.
NielJuly 5th, 2017 at 3:18 PM
The principal is not their client, and their affair isn’t your business. Don’t meddle.
GiaJuly 5th, 2017 at 6:34 PM
My reply had nothing to do with minding another person’s business. The fact that it’s a school and a principal basically sets the bar for everyone else’s Behavior. If the principal is going to cheat with the psychologist then everybody in leadership in that school will feel it is okay to have affairs behind husbands and wives backs. It’s disgusting and slutty. Just going to sit there about an individual’s personal code of ethics. Apparently the principal and the psychologist are battling with their own deep insecurities and their own sense of inadequacy so they have to step outside of their marriages to suffice their need for self-esteem and ego-stroking. So let’s say we don’t report it to the school district will the office of the professionals… Husbands and wives order know when their partners are slutting around with other sluts. I rest my case.
Ofer ZurFebruary 27th, 2017 at 2:53 PM
The idea that sex between two consenting adults (married or not) who, as far as I can tell, have not broken any law, code of ethics or violated any official regulations should be reported to “district administrator and board of education” seems like a classic example of what I have referred to many times that, we therapists, are own worst enemies when we act as the ‘moral police’. I have written on the topic of how we, therapists, at times, are our worst enemies in several places, including zurinstitute.com/subsequenttherapist_clinicalupdate.html . However, if they have broken any laws or violated establish regulations , then, one must consider whose responsibility it is to report it and to whom.
Mr ConfuseMarch 11th, 2017 at 10:35 AM
I’m all about, therapists helping and showing genue concern. My question is, is it wrong for the therapist and patient to exchange numbers when it’s regarding if patient can come in earlier then there assigned time? Even though at times there are exchanges of personal things, like how are you feeling? Or how is your day going? Or even exchanges of funny videos. The therapist and I have form a dual relationship, and there are boundaries in place. Which is fine, problem is now she doesn’t want to be texting because something happen at the job with another therapist and patient and now she is thinking she violated some protocol. Advice is needed, ever since she told me not to text her I feel sad ,because she led me to believe that she was Genuine and enjoyed our trust and the fact that she was helping me in some way. How can I go back after all we have shared with each other… See her once a week and pretend she cares when she really doesn’t and she is just seeing me as a number and problem to fix….. Advice welcome
coyMay 17th, 2017 at 8:02 AM
im being informed to transport male clients 50 miles to counseling services. i informed supervisor duty safety reason and ethics i will not take that change transporting. would you have something in writing.
LisaMay 1st, 2018 at 7:05 PM
A psychologist saw my son for two sessions . Then we decided he wasn’t a good fit . Is it unethical at that point for mom and psychologist to start a relationship?
The GoodTherapy.org TeamMay 2nd, 2018 at 6:45 AM
Thank you for your comment. GoodTherapy.org is not a licensing or regulatory board, and is not able to file complaints or investigate ethical concerns. If you have ethical concerns regarding a therapist who has treated you, we encourage you to contact your state’s licensing board. If you need help contacting the board, please let me know what state you are in and I would be happy to try to direct you to the proper channel.
If you have any questions about this or anything else, please don’t hesitate to give us a call. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 2.
The GoodTherapy.org Team
HeatherMay 3rd, 2018 at 5:30 PM
My client is an artist and I recently fell in love with a piece of original artwork in his home. He has offered to sell me this piece of work, but this would obviously constitute a dual relationship, but I’m in a very rural area and am counseling a separate individual that I attended church with a few years back. So in the scheme of things, buying a piece of art doesn’t seem like it would really be so harmful, but I want to make sure I’m ethical. Any opinions?
JoeSeptember 7th, 2018 at 8:41 PM
My wife and I are separated. We began seeing a couple for marriage counseling. My wife and her friend have been good friends for 15 years. The husband and I became friends after they got married a few years ago but not overly close. The counseling seems to be very subjective and I have since been advised that they should not have taken my wife and I on as clients due to the length and nature of my wife’s friendship with the counselor. Should we seek different counselors or am I reading something into this that isn’t there?We seem to be getting very inconsistent counsel between the two of us. For quick example, they told me that separation would be devastating to our marriage and then later advised my wife to kick me out of the house, clean out our bank accounts and file for legal separation. Thank you for any input.
The GoodTherapy.org TeamSeptember 8th, 2018 at 9:31 AM
I am sorry to hear you have had a concerning experience with a therapist. GoodTherapy is not a licensing or regulatory board and is not able to file complaints or investigate ethical concerns. If you have ethical concerns regarding a therapist who has treated you, we encourage you to file a formal complaint with your state’s licensing board. If you need help contacting the board, please let me know what state you are in and I would be happy to try to direct you to the proper channel.
AlisonSeptember 8th, 2018 at 11:34 AM
Hi Joe, no, we are trained not to ever counsel friends or family for that very reason. We can’t remain objective. I’m sorry you’re in this predicament. Good Therapy gave good advice above.
JoanneDecember 5th, 2018 at 7:20 AM
My partner had a client who he has done counselling for about 8 years.
That therapy ended about 3 years ago and she is now coming to some social meetings where we are as well.
She is behaving like the best friend of my partner. There were instances of them exchanging gifts, him helping her in her business providing some appliances, they would also both share personal details about what goes on in their lives and they talk a lot.
This is looks like dual relationship. It feels for me that there is a kind of emotional intimacy between them.
I am finding this hurtful to our relationship and it feels very uncomfortable to witness this, sometimes feels inappropriate. Myself and my partner end up arguing a lot about it and it causes us a lot of pain.
Is it possible that dual relationship with former client can affect personal relationships of a therapist and what would be advised in that situation?
AlisonDecember 5th, 2018 at 12:06 PM
Maybe discuss with him the issues of boundaries. I recommend the book, Boundaries, by Cloud and Townsend. Even if he’d never counseled the person, the boundaries are the issue. You wouldn’t want him to have this relationship with any other woman because it’s a one-on-one relationship excluding you just as I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to have this kind of relationship with any man excluding him. Ultimately, he has to make the decision to choose health, but I will say this regarding him having counseled her in the past. It is the responsibility of the counselor to protect the client, so he should remember the unhealthiness that led the client to receive counseling from him for 8 yrs anyway and he should step back and release her, even if that means leaving the social groups. But again, he has to make that choice and if he doesn’t, then, you’re going to have to decide if you want to continue being in a relationship with him.
Ofer ZurDecember 5th, 2018 at 1:39 PM
think that you and your partner need to do some hearty work about the relationships. Of course, have good friend outside the main relationships can be healthy and enriching. We cannot be everything for each other. Some intimate relationships with other people can, in fact, strengthen the primary relationships. The fact that that your partner friend used to be her client means that they are engaged in what we call ‘sequential multiple relationships’. In general non-sexual and non-exploitative sequential multiple relationships are not necessary unethical or below the standard of care.
If you want to read more on multiple relationships you can go to zurinstitute.com/dualrelationships.html#key
I hope this is helpful.
Ofer Zur, Ph.D.
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