Psychotherapy is an intimate process that involves a gradual building of trust between you and your therapist. Friendship isn’t part of it.
Going to therapy may mean that you frequently share your truths about life, experiences, and thoughts with your therapist.
Depending on the type of therapy you’ve selected, your therapist can then verbally validate your feelings, help you reassess a situation, and share insights that can have a powerful effect on the way you see yourself and the world.
This experience may lead you to feel you rely on your therapist and appreciate their input more each day. You may even develop feelings for them or see them as a friend. This is a natural part of the process.
But a solid connection with your psychotherapist isn’t the same as having a friendship with them. Understanding and respecting this boundary can help you continue meeting your therapy goals.
For many reasons, a therapist-patient relationship and a friendship are mutually exclusive. This doesn’t mean you can’t build a genuine bond with your therapist, though.
In fact, taking friendship off the table is essential for that to happen. Here’s why.
The therapist-patient relationship is unique
The relationship between a therapist and a patient is, by design, unlike any other.
Your therapist’s office (real or virtual) is a safe space where you can open up and explore challenges that you feel affect other aspects of your life.
This connection is also structured to help you develop coping strategies and tools to manage your emotions and reassess your thinking patterns.
Your bond with your therapist can also provide a safe way to explore how you navigate relationships in general.
Mental health professionals are trained to hold and contain your feelings, while largely setting aside their own. This is part of what makes the relationship so unique and therapeutic.
This is one of the reasons why it’s important to vet a therapist before establishing the relationship.
The therapeutic bond is inherently one-sided
Though this might sound like a negative thing, it’s actually what makes therapy work.
Your therapist is a professional whose time you are paying for. Your time together is entirely about your feelings and experiences. It’s your space.
Therapy is an opportunity for you to talk about anything you want, albeit with guidance from your therapist. There’s no expectation that your therapist will share any aspect of their personal and private life.
If you had a friend who talked only about themselves and never asked you any questions or showed interest in your life, you might start to question the friendship. But, psychotherapy is designed to be one-sided, giving you a safe place to open up without fear of judgment or worries about being selfish.
Boundaries are a crucial part of therapy
Modeling healthy boundaries can be one of the key ways a therapist helps you work on your challenges. This is especially important if you have people-pleasing tendencies, have trouble saying no, or feel overly responsible for other people’s feelings.
If you have difficulty setting boundaries in other areas of your life, therapy can help you learn how.
Your relationship with your therapist involves clear boundaries from the beginning. You’ll determine:
- how often you meet
- how long you meet
- how much you pay
- how much contact is permitted between sessions
In general, your therapist won’t disclose much about their life or emotional state.
Therapists have a professional code of ethics they must follow
All mental health professionals are bound by ethical guidelines, which are designed to protect them and their patients.
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Code of Conduct has a section regarding “multiple relationships.” This refers to a therapist serving dual roles in a patient’s life.
Such relationships are prohibited if they have the potential to:
- impair the therapist’s objectivity
- make the therapy less effective
- cause harm to the patient
The American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics also cautions therapists against extending the relationship beyond professional limits.
It does allow for some exceptions, though. For instance, attending a client’s wedding or graduation or visiting a client’s ill relative in the hospital are acceptable behaviors.
In these instances, the therapist is encouraged to make sure their judgment isn‘t impaired and no harm is done to their client.
A word on transference and countertransference
Both transference and countertransference are natural in a therapeutic relationship. In many cases, they enrich the process.
Transference occurs when a client projects feelings or wishes onto their therapist.
The feelings may be romantic or platonic and are often related to unresolved experiences in the patient’s past.
In some cases, transference can be helpful. It may shed light on unconscious processes that can be explored within therapy.
Countertransference is when this happens in reverse, and the therapist projects feelings onto the patient.
This can happen in response to transference, but it can also arise independently.
Therapists are trained to deal with countertransference and commonly address it through consultation with other therapists.
Turning a therapeutic relationship into friendship can impact your healing process and how you navigate your therapy sessions.
In general, a therapist will ensure that the boundaries of your relationship are clear. But if you feel confused about the nature of your bond, or if you’re feeling an intense desire to form a friendship, it’s a good idea to bring it up during a session.
It’s likely that your therapist is open to you expressing any feelings you have toward them, either positive or negative, as these can help highlight areas to work on.
Going by the ACA and APA codes, the same rules apply to former patients as to current ones.
Social interactions between therapists and patients are only allowed if they’re potentially beneficial to the patients.
It may seem harmless to strike up a friendship with your therapist after your sessions have ended, but there are several reasons why this may not be a good idea.
For one, it’s possible that you may want to resume therapy at some point. Many people go to therapy on and off throughout their lives, and if you’ve had a positive experience with a therapist before, it’s only natural for them to be your first call.
If you’ve formed a friendship in the meantime, resuming the therapeutic relationship won’t be possible.
More broadly, even when you‘re no longer paying them for their time, your history can make a friendship very complicated. They already have very personal information on you, while you might not know much about them.
Also, if at some point the friendship doesn‘t work out, you might end up questioning the advice and guidelines they provided when they were your therapist. This could impact your mental and emotional health.
It’s natural and not uncommon to feel close to your therapist and want to be friends with them.
However, building a personal relationship with them goes against most mental health counseling codes of ethics. It may also impact your therapeutic process and lessen therapy’s benefits.