Therapy Is Not a Place for Romance

How I Met Your Mother's Robin sitting with boyfriendIf Hollywood is an indicator of our most common fantasies, modern Americans want to sleep with their therapists. I am horrified that so many television shows and movies depict romantic relationships between therapists and clients as though they were perfectly normal! The truth is, romance within a therapeutic relationship is as far from normal, acceptable, healthy, and sane as you can possibly get.

The writers of How I Met Your Mother currently have the character Robin dating her previous therapist. The relationship has been rationalized through a series of cutesy excuses: “Well, we only had a handful of therapy sessions … it hardly counted!” and, “Well, if we have a session where the previous client now becomes the therapist, it will all balance out!” ICK!  In no way, shape, or form is dating a current or previous therapist healthy, ethical, or socially acceptable.

In California, there is a legal clause that states that a personal relationship between a previous therapist and client may be pursued two years after the termination of services. However, research tells us that the power imbalance remains strong, even after time has passed, and that romance in this situation is usually still emotionally damaging to the one who was the client. Hormones, brain chemistry, and emotional issues often inadvertently conspire to lead us toward unhealthy romantic choices, which is why therapists are clearly instructed that “Professional Therapy Never Includes Sex” (this is the name of a pamphlet that every single therapist-in-training in California receives on several occasions). Although specifics vary from state to state, 19 states have sexual exploitation laws forbidding therapists from engaging in sexual contact with clients.

Even though in the movie 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears to find care, comfort, and I-don’t-know-what-else in the arms of his intern therapist (I don’t know because I walked out of the movie), your therapist is neither your caretaker nor your best friend. Your therapist can help you develop the skills you need to go out and make friends and find someone to help you through the difficulties of life. But if your therapist tries to convince you that his or her role is to love and protect you, run away! That is NOT appropriate therapy! And if he or she makes any sexually suggestive advances (verbal or physical), you know you are not working with an ethical therapist.

Extensive worldwide research and anecdotal evidence dating back to the origins of formalized therapy indicate that romantic relationships between therapists and their clients, regardless of which role is the initiator, are criminally damaging to the client in the majority of situations. The client is typically left with extreme emotional disruption, feelings of emptiness, isolation and guilt, and a tragically impaired ability to trust.

Certainly the therapeutic relationship is a unique situation wherein two human beings share space in a room while playing particular roles that ask them to maintain strict discipline of their human instincts, but to share the greatest level of openness and honesty imaginable. When deconstructed, the therapeutic hour shows itself to be a very bizarre social construct that is quite challenging to enact in a productive and healthy way. When properly delivered, the benefits of appropriate psychotherapy can be powerfully life-changing. However, there are many ways to get off track throughout the process, which is why therapists need to be well-trained, licensed, ethically and emotionally stable, grounded in common sense, and masters of self-discipline and self-care.

The boundaries around the therapeutic relationship are essential to the success and integrity of our profession, and I find it inexcusable for our entertainment industry to treat the subject matter so lightly and irresponsibly. We know that the mass public derives their sense of “normal” and desirable from the information presented on the screens in front of them. If this were an isolated incident of poor judgment, I could write it off as such. But the theme has become so ubiquitous as to appear in highly rated productions reaching tens of millions impressionable minds worldwide.

I started enjoying the recently cancelled sitcom, Free Agents, until the female character’s therapist asked her out during a session and they started dating. What? After a few therapy sessions, in which he did nothing of therapeutic value, he declared her problem-free and decided to hit on her. My concern is that the writers of these shows may actually be typical, regular people who truly believe that relationships with therapists are normal. If this storyline is depicted in other regular people’s everyday media consumption, a very serious misconception about the purpose and practice of psychotherapy may occur.

Of course, romantic, sexual, and loving feelings can arise between two people who sit close together and speak of personal and intimate issues on a regular basis. A well-trained and ethical therapist will seek professional consultation if romantic or lustful feelings arise and will follow wise counsel as to the most ethical way to proceed. Often these feelings can be worked through and resolved without any negative effect on the therapy. If the feelings persist, the responsible and legitimate therapist will control his or her impulses and refer the client to another professional. With the help of an esteemed consultant, they can determine how best to implement the transition with the client.

The therapist portrayed by Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment struggled with sexual feelings toward a client in the first season of the series. I have not seen these episodes, but I know the series is highly revered and often seen by the general public as an accurate representation of therapy. It was very disheartening for me to hear that this character acted on his sexual impulses, even though he apparently understood the harm that physical intimacy could do to his client. I think these representations are misguided and ill-advised, as they imply that the psychotherapeutic setting is always imbued with sexual energy and tension.

It is not uncommon for strong feelings to arise in a psychotherapy client. For many schools of thought, this is actually an important part of the therapeutic process. However, if the feelings become strong enough to breach the integrity of the therapy, they must be addressed. In the healthiest of situations, the client would admit these feelings to the therapist—the best therapeutic alliances are built on trust and acceptance, communicating to the client that no judgment or disgust will befall them in that room, under any circumstances. If a client shares the feelings he or she is having, the issue can be discussed openly and often can be resolved, bringing greater insight and personal power to the client. If the feelings cannot be redirected and resolved, it is best to help the client find a new therapist to continue the growth work in a nonsexualized setting.

Looking at current blog posts, I see many people justifying their seductions, romances, and friendships with their therapists. Most of these bloggers are writing at the beginning of their relationships and seem not to believe that they may not get a Hollywood ending. I am very concerned that media representations of our profession are casting a skewed and uninformed light on this very complex issue. The general public is clearly buying into the idea that dating their therapists may be legitimate.

Perhaps we therapists can take this challenge as an opportunity for greater enlightenment and education with our clients. It will keep us on our toes (even more) so that we may identify and address misplaced emotional feelings that arise in therapy. This aspect of the profession is difficult enough without added pressures from the mass media. However, our awareness of the issue can serve to reinforce our ethical stance and prepare us for any type of challenge that may walk through our consultation door.

© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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.

  • 20 comments
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  • Steph

    Steph

    November 4th, 2011 at 3:10 PM

    I have no desire to date someone who has analyzed me like this; I don’t think that most other former patients do either!

  • Ker

    Ker

    November 4th, 2011 at 8:27 PM

    You forgot Prince of Tides for boundary crossing – yikes.
    Sleeping with a client’s brother is as taboo as sleeping with the client in my opinion.

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    November 5th, 2011 at 5:08 AM

    If the therapist is hitting on me then I am out the door! Hopefully I have retained a little more sense than letting that happen!

  • Dexter

    Dexter

    November 6th, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    Where are the pros who need to be drawing the line over things like this? They are the ones who should be expected to know better and not allow things to progress any further than a professional relationship.
    Sometimes the patients in these situations are already confused about life. They do not need the added pressures of trying to navigate these kinds of feelings for their therapist.
    Somebody has to be the adult and I firmly feel that that is the responsibility of the therapist or counselor.

  • Georgia Watson

    Georgia Watson

    November 6th, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    While there are always those perverts who look to ‘hook-up’ whenever and with whoever they can, there are also some who could misunderstand the work of their therapist as romance. Its like walking into a doctor and getting treated. But then going back because you think there is something between the two of you because the doctor helped you through your suffering and healed you. Sounds ridiculous isn’t it?

    And the problem when it comes to therapists is that there is just so much that a client would share with the therapist that some people might feel compelled to think there could be something brewing…

  • brittany

    brittany

    November 6th, 2011 at 11:26 PM

    no doubt such a thing could lead to problems for the client because in the process of solving one problem,this could well be the beginning of a new one! another thing I would like to add is that not only in case of therapists but in most of the professions,there is no place for romance.it will only lead to the mixing of your professional and personal lives and will eventually cause problems in both.even office romances could be damaging,as I have seen with a lot of people.

  • dana

    dana

    November 7th, 2011 at 5:22 AM

    So can anyone ever see a situation where this may be ok? Like if you have not seen this counselor for a long time and then the two of you reconnect?

  • Louise Lopez

    Louise Lopez

    November 8th, 2011 at 4:03 PM

    The problem isn’t TV! Those shows are comedy and drama at best and we all understand that. Why would you be appalled at such a thing at all? It’s entertainment only. That’s like criticizing pornography because a nurse or French maid would never do that. Most of us know the difference between fantasy and reality.

  • Chuck V. Grimes

    Chuck V. Grimes

    November 8th, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    @Louise Lopez: I agree. I get exactly what you’re saying and I think the original poster is overreacting. I’ve done many jobs and none are as bad/as good as the media would have you believe. We make all kinds of assumptions because of TV portrayals. We have a skewed perception of reality but it’s easy to know most of the relationship scenarios in sitcoms are not the norm.

  • Fred Hamilton

    Fred Hamilton

    November 8th, 2011 at 11:23 PM

    I really doubt those laws could even be enforceable in any way unless a client decided to go after their therapist and gather evidence against them while being in the relationship.

    How would you prove a sexual relationship? Stick a hidden camera in the bedroom? Record phone calls? My guess is that’s more illegal than a doctor sleeping with a patient. Unethical, yes, but illegal.

  • G. Thoms

    G. Thoms

    November 8th, 2011 at 11:30 PM

    Most therapists are already living with the weight of the world on their shoulders imho. One I know told me he is going to resign at the end of the year and seek therapy himself for depression. He gets very attached to some of his clients (not in a romantic way) and it depresses him more and more what they have suffered. I guess he’s just not cut out for that kind of work as it’s hard for him to distance himself from that.

  • Hypocrite

    Hypocrite

    January 29th, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    It’s always amazing to me when people write about and review things they haven’t seen, based on conjecture or assumptions. You walked out of 50/50 (which in and of itself makes you suspect, as it is an inspiring and important movie, as well as an entertaining one), and you never watched “In Treatment” (which portrays the crossing of boundaries as inappropriate and the consequences as very real). As for “How I Met Your Mother” and “Free Agents”, to use silly sitcoms as a harbinger for anything is ridiculous. Why anyone would read your column (unless they are as small-minded and hypocritical as you are) is beyond me.

  • Janet

    Janet

    June 8th, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    I agree completely with the author. Television has made it look normal and okay for therapists to date their patients. It seems to have become a weird trend over the past few years for TV characters to date their therapists. The fact that some of these shows are comedies doesn’t make this excusable. I’m disappointed that shows that I like, such as How I Met Your Mother, and New Christine, have made these kinds of relationships appear cute rather than dangerous.

  • Bree Kalb, LCSW

    Bree Kalb, LCSW

    September 20th, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    Thanks for writing this. I do think that movies and TV normalize behaviors and attitudes and influence attitudes. The depiction of gays and lesbians in media has had a positive influence. I have often wondered how all these depictions of boundary crossing therapy have affected the public’s impression of therapy.

  • alex

    alex

    February 7th, 2013 at 8:49 AM

    @Hypocrite, you’re overseeing the point of this article. For the general public, even ‘silly sitcoms’ serve as parameter to interpret everyday life.

    What’s worrisome is not that I refer general public solely as the uneducated little guy, but also to anyone who’s not specialized in psychology.

    Even intellectuals and opinion leaders can easily believe that there’s nothing wrong in going out with one’s therapist, and TV can surely add to that misunderstanding.

    On a different note, despite my appreciation of learning how dangerous romance in therapy can be, I still think dramas are just doing their part in inspiring and entertaining the audience.

    Sure, they can be wrong in their depiction, but it’s not up to them to educate. Gladly there are sources like this site from which we can learn appropriately.

  • Kathy A.

    Kathy A.

    July 20th, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    My best friends husband owns a private practice and developed an emotional and physical relationship with a client. First mistake was bartering services to offset a copayment. He’s married (now filing for divorce) with three young children. He has resumed seeing the client romantically three months after putting the relationship on hold to “find himself in his journey.”

  • zahra

    zahra

    September 2nd, 2016 at 5:12 AM

    I have a therapist. He says to me that he is my father and I am his daughter. I am 30 and he is 39. He says to me “your father is paranoid and you have bad relationship with him. Then emotional relationship with me is good for you”. He embrces me and kiss me.
    Isn’t it a safe relationship?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    September 2nd, 2016 at 8:30 AM

    Dear Zahra,

    Thank you for your question. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we would like to direct you to this page on 50 Warning Signs of Questionable Therapy and Counseling, which may be helpful to you.

    If you would like to consult with a different mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. 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. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Learning the Hard Way

    Learning the Hard Way

    September 18th, 2016 at 5:50 AM

    I never saw any shows or movies about therapist dating their clients. I thought I went into therapy feeling mostly OK and I thought I was progressing before therapy began. I was, in some ways fine. But after my theapist lied to me and hit on me I wasn’t fine anymore. I was a sensitive person. He was tryly not a person cut out to help the average person. I felt like crap when I was done with him. He played games. All he had to do is be a person who was there to help me and not himself. IF they care about you and are sincere fine. IF not walk away or run.

  • Anon

    Anon

    September 13th, 2017 at 11:16 AM

    From what I’ve heard and read, therapy is not always for the sensitive. Those who get hurt by little things need to help themselves first. An insightul college professor spoke about the advantages and disadvantages of therapy. Many therapists have not been properly trained to deal with sensitive people. My humbe opinion.

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