It’s only natural. You’ve met with your therapist once a week for a year or more. You’ve shared some of your deepest concerns and worries. You’ve shared your triumphs and celebrations. She (or he, but I’ll stick to female pronouns here) has supported you, rooted for you, listened to and soothed your pain. You may run into her at the grocery store or find yourself only a few seats away on the bleachers of your kids’ soccer game.
It’s only natural to see such a person as a friend. It makes sense that you might want to normalize the relationship by asking to go for a coffee or have lunch; to invite her to a family wedding or at least to, please, share more information about her life with you.
Why can’t you turn the relationship with your therapist into a friendship?
Actually, there are really good reasons why your therapist can’t be your friend and, at the same time, still be your therapist. The therapeutic relationship is different by design. It’s an important difference in that professional boundaries are in place and should remain that way.
The Importance of Clear, Defined Boundaries
A boundary in counseling is much like a boundary on a piece of land. It’s a line that both people recognize and honor. It’s a line that says where the relationship begins and ends. It sets the therapist apart from other people in your life.
There is no set standard for the particulars of boundaries. Different models for therapy and different disciplines have different ideas about what the boundary closes in and closes out. Different therapists operate according to their training and their own ideas of what it means to “bind” the relationship. It’s why some therapists offer you tea and others don’t; why some therapists end sessions with a hug and others don’t even shake hands; why some will stop and chat in the aisle of the grocery store and others aren’t approachable; why some therapists will allow going over time during a client’s crisis and others feel it’s important to keep a strict end time.
But regardless of the specifics, therapists generally agree that defined boundaries provide safety for both the client and the therapist by clearly establishing a structure for the relationship that is consistent, reliable and predictable. The intent is to ensure that what happens in session is for the client’s benefit, not the therapists. Every discussion topic and interaction is as deliberate as possible and intended to move the client to his or her therapeutic goals.
Your therapist is responsible for making boundaries clear at the outset of your work together. Basics like when and where you will meet, fees, consequences for you not showing up for an appointment, and expectations for in office vs. out of office contact should be spelled out clearly. He or she should carefully explain the rules of confidentiality so there can be no misunderstanding about who has access to information from your sessions and what would trigger notification of authorities.
What About Hugs?
Hugs and affectionate physical contact are generally not okay. There was confusion about this during the 1970s and ’80s. In an attempt to break out of the rigidity of classical Freudian analysis, some schools of therapy advocated that the therapist should be “human” and provide safe hugs.
Current research has determined that hugs or other displays of affection between therapist and client cloud the meaning of the relationship. Sometimes, if ritualized, this can be okay. But if the client is uncomfortable or the therapist isn’t professional about it, it can lead to confusion of roles.
The therapist needs to be clear that he or she will never accept gifts or special favors from you. You are paying for his or her time and expertise. There is no need to provide any other compensation.
By maintaining professionalism, the therapist keeps your relationship clear. There is much less danger that you will misunderstand concern for your safety for personal, even romantic, interest. It lets you explore your feelings, even possible romantic or sexual feelings, without fear that the therapist will cross the line. Sometimes this is crucial to healing, especially if your issues include dealing with past abuse.
Crossing the Professional Boundary
Yes, sometimes therapists bend their own rules. A therapist may insist that all therapy happen in the office, for example, but decide to take a walk around the block with an antsy teenager who just can’t sit comfortably with an adult. Or he might go outside with an agoraphobic client as part of a desensitization process. Another therapist might make an exception when someone is in a hospital or homebound due to injury. Still another might not generally accept invitations to go to a client’s milestone events (wedding, funeral, graduation) but may make a careful decision to break that rule when it would be helpful to the client.
The important factor in making a decision to cross a boundary is the mutual judgment that it is clearly for the client’s benefit. The meaning of the crossing needs to be carefully discussed in session.
Violating the Boundary
Crossing a boundary to serve the client is different from violating a boundary to serve the therapist’s needs. If a therapist exploits his or her power over the client to gratify his own sexual, financial or ego needs, it’s a violation of the boundary.
Dating a client, calling and accepting calls that are primarily social in nature, or using the client’s time to vent about the therapist’s issues isn’t OK. Responding to a client’s requests, even insistence, that they meet informally or socially is a more subtle yet important violation. It confuses the relationship and makes it difficult for the client to trust or to do this or her therapeutic work. Crossing is sometimes advisable. Violating is inexcusable.
Clients’ Responsibilities in Keeping Boundaries
It’s important for all of us to recognize that people can be friendly and supportive but not be a friend. People who grow up in boundary-less families don’t learn that people have different roles in our lives. Frequently they attribute more meaning to a relationship than the other person intends. They mistake friendliness for friendship. They are vulnerable to repeated hurt because they experience rejection when the other person doesn’t see the relationship as they do. The therapeutic relationship can provide practice in sharing a goal without extending the relationship to sharing a life.
Be selfish. You are there for (and paying for) reaching your personal goals, not to make a new friend. For therapy to be effective, the focus needs to be on you. Friendship requires give and take. Therapy does not.
Yes, your therapist should be kind, compassionate and understanding. But she should not be using your hour to deal with her own feelings, issues, successes and failures. Stay focused. Your therapy session should only be used to help relieve your symptoms and to help you learn how to manage your life in new ways that are more effective.
Be honest. The only material a therapist has to work with is what you present. If you keep information from your therapist, you limit the amount of help you can get.
Don’t cross or violate the boundaries yourself. If you feel like you want more from the relationship, do your best to talk it out, not act it out. Positive, even romantic, feelings toward the therapist are normal and expected. Especially if you haven’t had enough (or any) experience being on the receiving end of a warm, supportive relationship, it’s natural to start to fantasize about having something more. But this is material for your work together, not something to act on. If you do act on it in any way, talk about it. This will keep both you and your therapist safe.
Gifts aren’t appropriate. The therapeutic relationship is not a friendship. It’s a professional relationship. You pay for services. The therapist is doing a job for you for which she or he is paid. It’s okay to give a note or card at the end of treatment if you feel you must say more than goodbye.