It is not uncommon for clients to develop close relationships with their psychotherapists. After all, clients and therapists sit close together in one room discussing personal and sensitive subjects week after week. Not only this, but the rapport and trust developed between a client and therapist is considered to be one of the most important determinants of successful therapy. Does this mean a client and therapist should consider each other friends? While some people may certainly believe so, most therapists would strongly disagree.
Unlike most relationships, which are inherently two-sided, the psychotherapy relationship is a one-sided relationship that is different from any other relationship you may have, be it personal or professional in nature.
Most relationships are a give-and-take – we share more of ourselves as the other person does likewise. As a friend, you and I would likely have shared numerous experiences beyond just sitting in the same room talking each week and we’d be likely to know a lot about one another.
If you’ve been in therapy before, you’re probably aware that, in therapy, it is the client who shares their personal desires, feelings, concerns, and fears. The therapist does not. This is so both you and your therapist can focus exclusively on helping you overcome the issues that brought you to therapy in the first place.
Now, you may be wondering, if the trust and rapport built between a client and therapist is fundamental to therapy’s success, how is it possible to achieve this rapport and trust in such a one-sided relationship?
A client’s trust in their therapist is initially built on the therapist’s promise of client confidentiality. From there, the trust and rapport between a client and therapist grows as the therapist proves themselves capable of listening to, and understanding, the client and helping the client effect the change they seek.
All this is not to say that therapy shouldn’t be “friendly.” Although, how friendly will depend on you and your therapist’s personalities as well as on your therapist’s theoretical orientation.
Many therapists, especially those who employ psychoanalysis, believe they shouldn’t reveal anything about themselves to their clients. By not revealing anything, they present themselves as blank slates to their clients, which makes it easier for clients to project and “transfer” the thoughts, feelings, and ideas they have about other people in their lives (their spouses, siblings, parents, etc.) onto their therapist.
Other therapists will much more readily share their thoughts, feelings, and personal lives with their clients as they believe clients are more likely to express themselves openly if the therapist is perceived as being authentic or “real.” While this may leave the therapeutic relationship at greater risk of being confused for a friendship, many therapists believe it is important to achieve a balance between being professional yet friendly.
That having been said, you shouldn’t expect your therapist to be your friend, even once your therapy has officially ended, as this would create what is known as a “dual relationship.”
Dual relationships occur when two people simultaneously maintain two very different types of relationships. Some examples of a dual relationship in therapy would be a therapist treating a friend or relative or a therapist becoming sexually involved with a client. Most, if not all, dual relationships are considered unethical in therapy.
The main reason dual relationships are considered unethical in so far as therapy is concerned is that any problem in an external relationship can easily lead to problems in the therapeutic relationship. For example, if you’re upset with your therapist because they didn’t attend a party of yours you’re likely to be less willing to open up and honestly express yourself in therapy. Sexual relationships between therapists and clients are unethical for several reasons, not the least of which is that they allow a therapist to exploit the power inherent in the one-sided nature of the therapy relationship.
Your therapist should be someone you’re comfortable with and they should be easy to talk to. They may even be friendly. Just remember, no matter how well you get along with your therapist, the therapy relationship should never be equated with friendship. By acknowledging the strictly professional nature of the therapy relationship you’ll be better able to concentrate on resolving the issues that brought you to therapy and effecting the positive, lasting changes you’re looking to create.
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