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November 19, 2018 - Welcome Guest!

Advice » Personality

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Ethical issues I: Being friends with my therapist


I started going to family counseling about a year ago with my husband and my daughter. We needed help dealing with a daughter who was into drugs, cutting school, and finally taking off. After about 4 months, I started to go to the counselor myself.

So the question is: why is it taboo to be just friends with a therapist? We are both female, within 15 years of each other-I enjoy listening to her philosophy and feel I could learn a great deal from her...I know for a fact that she has gone through a similar situation that I have - and yes, I do realize that there is a bond between patient/therapist, but to a certain extent isn't it the relationship between the 2 that helps the patient? Being friends only means - maybe going to a movie, lunch ... just as I would do with any of my friends. I mean, you bare your deepest thoughts - things that sometimes you won't mention to yourself, but they have to remain neutral. I just don't understand, even though I have read up on the whole situation. They say that they talk to you differently than a "real" friend, but I know. I don't talk much differently than I do to my "real" friends.

40 year-old woman


Well, this is a great question and I will answer it. First, though, it might be important to look at why you're asking this question, now. (I'm assuming that when you began family therapy, you accepted the limits of the relationship more readily than you do now.) Perhaps something has changed (in your therapy or in your life). I could guess that, when you started treatment with other family members present in each session, therapy had a certain "feel" to it, and that "feel" has changed. The family's therapist has become your therapist. A change like this always brings about a change in the dynamics of therapy. If you really value your relationship with your therapist, and you really want to allow her to know you more intimately, you might discuss all of this with her. My guess is that you have underlying and perhaps, conflicted feelings about the way this change occurred.

You may, for instance, (consciously or unconsciously) resent being the remaining "patient" in therapy. (That would be an excellent reason to want to change a therapeutic relationship into a friendship, right? Doing therapy is hard work!) I don't know what it's been like for you to raise a daughter who's acting out with oppositional behavior, but I can guess that's been hard work, too, and that you've seen aspects of yourself in her. Maybe it's been hard for you to learn to set limits with her, or to learn to trust your husband to help you set limits with her. (I mention boundaries and limit-setting as possible problem areas for you as a parent, based on your daughter's behavior, but also on your desire to change the therapeutic frame.)

As you can see, examining the question gives more information about a situation than simply answering the question does. This is important to understand about therapy. Generally speaking, answering questions directly without exploring the meaning of the question is counter-productive to the treatment.

Now on to your question. You used the word "taboo" to describe a dual relationship (one in which the therapist plays two roles - in this case, therapist and friend). I'm guessing that your use of this word (and what it implies) is based on what you've heard, seen or read. Nevertheless, it may be telling that YOU used this word. You may have conflicted feelings about needing and wanting a close friendship with your therapist. (Is it OK with you that you need and want a reciprocal friendship with her?)

Just because a dual relationship is unethical for a therapist, doesn't mean that a patient's desire for one is. There are probably as many reasons that dual relationships are unethical for therapists as there are therapists. I can only give you my (strictly psychodynamic) thoughts on this. When the therapist discloses as little personal information as possible, then he or she functions as a "blank slate" for the client's projections. Whatever happens in therapy, then, can be clearly identified, acknowledged, and explored as the client's "stuff." A psychological economy is involved here. Less therapist = more client. So, basically, dual relationships (or anything that affects this equation - like a reciprocal friendship would) make therapy less effective, ineffective or perhaps, harmful.

If you and your therapist decide to pursue a friendship, your therapist will need to terminate the treatment, wait two years (in California), and then, re-establish contact with you. Ideally, the fact these guidelines are in place to protect you should make you feel safe and secure in your therapy. If you feel anything else (like anger, hurt or rejection), please discuss this with your therapist.

Take care

Margaret "Peg" Burr

This question was answered by Margaret "Peg" Burr . She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC34374) with a private practice in Santa Clarita (near Los Angeles). She performs psychodynamic psychotherapy with individual adult clients as well as couples, teens, and families. She also runs groups for adults and adolescents. Her specialty area is Object Relations Systems Theory. This branch of psychodynamic psychotherapy uses a client's interpersonal relationships as windows into his or her intrapsychic structure.

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