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?
Can My Therapist Also Be My Friend?
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.