On more than one occasion, previous clients have asked if we could remain friends during or after our therapy sessions. While I could envision being friends with some of my previous clients if circumstances were different, I usually refrain from doing so and explain why I don’t encourage it.
As clients, it’s wonderful when your work with therapists has developed a strong sense of trust and safety over time. You have successfully been able to open up, gain more insight, and work through the primary issues for which you initially chose therapy. Perhaps you saw the evolution of talking about intimate details to a virtual stranger who then became what feels like a friendly confidant.
Good therapists with appropriate boundaries often do not view the evolution and closeness of the change in the therapeutic relationship with the potential for a friendship after therapy concludes, as some clients may. It is not that therapists wouldn’t like there to be a friendship in some instances. Nor does it mean they don’t care about or are indifferent toward their clients.
Therapists are usually not friends with their clients for two reasons:
- To maintain objectivity in the clients’ best interests
- To avoid conflicting dual relationships.
While some dual relationships are inevitable, ethically and legally therapists must evaluate and avoid dual relationships that harm or hinder the work with their clients. Therefore, other types of relationships that evolve during or after the therapeutic relationship are not normally encouraged. As an example scenario, let’s say you are hosting a dinner and wine tasting party at your home, and invite your therapist to meet your new significant other. Your therapist declines, and you feel angry. How will this affect your next session? Will it affect whether you decide to show up or not?
In another scenario, maybe you have successfully terminated your sessions, and somehow remained friends with your therapist. But what if another issue comes up for which you would like to resume therapy? The nature of the relationship would then be clouded and the boundaries unclear.
The therapeutic relationship is not a symmetrical relationship where there is mutual sharing on both sides. There is a natural imbalance. While a good therapist is a caring and empathetic person who you feel became a friend, he or she is also an authority figure to whom you are choosing to turn for professional help and support.
In friendships, there is normally a two-way dynamic in which both parties get to know each other and can mutually share vulnerable information about themselves over time. In the therapeutic relationship, the client primarily holds the role of sharing vulnerable information with the therapist. The therapist does not usually do so in turn, especially on the clients’ time. When personal issues come up for therapists, they will often seek consultation, supervision, and even their own therapy when needed.
The role of therapists is to serve their clients through listening, empathizing, mirroring, offering a different perspective, and assisting their clients gain more insight into their situations and their reactions. They help their clients with coping skills and equip them with tools to deal with their situations or relationships in a healthier manner. The therapist focuses attention on the primary issues a client is struggling with, rather than the other way around.
It is never the responsibility of the client to take care of the therapist or to solve an issue a therapist is struggling with in his or her personal life. This is one of the primary reasons developing a friendship with your therapist outside the appointed session time is not highly encouraged.
Most good therapists generally care about their clients tremendously and want to genuinely see them improve. In order to do so, they will keep the therapeutic boundaries clear and intact.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Gracie C. Lu, LCSW, therapist in Irvine, California
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