Counseling is a unique experience. It is vulnerable, raw, excruciating, and profound. The therapeutic relationship is unique and unlike any other relationship. The therapeutic relationship can be difficult to understand but it is one of most important factors that influences the outcome of therapy.
Because the therapeutic relationship is so unique, and perhaps mysterious, it is often misunderstood. My blogs are often a reflection of common conversations or questions that I have from clients, colleagues, and friends. This one is not different. A common question around the therapeutic relationship that I get from clients is “why can’t we be friends?”. I also have friends who ask “why can’t you be my counselor?”. I aim to clarify the guidelines around the boundaries I (and many other counselors) set regarding the therapeutic relationship and explain why these guidelines exist.
First off, it’s complicated.
Relationships are complicated. The therapeutic relationship is compassionate, empathetic, and focused on the needs of the client. In my opinion, the therapeutic relationship is also highly professional and intentional. I once had a trusted acquaintance from another helping profession express great surprise to learn that I was “more than a paid friend”. I tried not to be insulted but if I’m honest this hurt a bit. I’m paid for my many hours of training, consultation, expertise, and skill in intentional interventions. The care and love I have for my clients are free. I love my clients and because of this I take our relationship seriously and maintain boundaries to protect each of us.
So what are the rules, exactly? According the Texas State Board of Professional Counselors “non-therapeutic relationships with clients are prohibited”. When I have a non-therapeutic relationship with a client I have what can be referred to as a dual relationship, meaning I am in more than one role. For example: a counselor and friend, counselor and coach, counselor and customer. You get the idea. Once I am your counselor, this is the only role I can take according to my code of ethics. Now, the State of Texas does allow you to engage in a different role after a certain length of time once therapy has ended (2 years) but even this complicates things. What if you need to return to counseling? Engaging in a dual relationship results in serious consequences and potentially loss of license. It’s a big deal.
So why is it such a big deal?
Like I stated before the therapeutic relationship is unique. It offers intentional, compassionate, directed attention. During the time with my clients I am 100% focused on them. The relationship is one-sided, meaning our time together is about the client and only the client. I am responsible for supporting work toward the client’s goals based on my skills and training. I am responsible for creating and fostering safety. I am responsible for holding boundaries, pacing counseling, and validating the client’s experience. This is not the norm for non-therapeutic relationships and it is not sustainable outside of counseling. In a dual relationship, the client can become confused about what to expect from me and when. If the client is a friend and he or she expects the same directed attention during non-therapeutic interactions they may begin to resent me when I can’t fulfill the expectation. In the same way, if a client contacts me as a friend outside of the therapeutic relationship during my “free time”, I may begin to burn out, avoid them or resent them—ultimately damaging our relationship.
To expand further, in a therapeutic relationship I am neutral party. I do my best to maintain a non-judgmental presence and allow a safe space for the client to reach his or her own conclusions. What if we become friends and you decide you don’t like my personality? Maybe I have religious or political views you disagree with. Maybe you don’t like my lifestyle choices or you feel I may judge you for yours. I judge my friends and family a little more harshly than my clients. This is not something I am proud of and I won’t defend it, but my emotional boundaries are different and less rigid with those in my personal life. Distinguishing between roles not only helps the client, but it also helps me. I let my guard down with friends—sometimes in an unattractive, “she needs some accountability” sort of way.
It is about responsibility and safety
In a deeper sense, friendships involve shared responsibility and care for one another. In therapeutic relationships I expect the client to be responsible for themselves and their work, but I never expect them to be responsible for me. In fact, I will discourage the client from taking any responsibility for me and we will explore this if they express a desire to do so. If the client does begin to worry about me or my feelings it can interfere with counseling, distract us from the client’s work, and may create codependency.
Boundaries in therapy protect the client from the risk of emotional harm. Counseling is incredibly intimate. I get to know and see people in a way that is rare and risky. It is a privilege and not a role I take lightly. Because counseling is so intimate it is common for clients to crave more from their counselors. This is especially true in trauma counseling. If an individual has been abused or neglected, lacked safe relationships and supportive care, or been taken advantage of—they may fear they won’t find this kind of care anywhere else and express dependency on the counselor. If I respond to this dependency by becoming more available or agreeing to a relationship outside of counseling, I will sabotage the client’s growth and ultimately, we will arrive at resentment as I will not be able to reasonably meet the client’s unmet relational needs.
For some clients, engaging in a safe and intimate relationship may feel confusing. If a client has learned that “those who pay attention to me want something from me” they may begin to appease the counselor or assume the counselor wants more from them. This is a valuable opportunity to process the client’s relational experiences and provide a redemptive experience. If I am not aware of my boundaries or if I am not caring for myself appropriately, I may engage in a relationship that takes advantage of the client—whether I know it or not. This might be as “benign” as allowing them to express emotional care for me and listen to my concerns or as abusive as entering into a romantic relationship with the client. Again, clients will seek this out based on past relational experience (i.e. someone who shows me care must want my attention/my resources/my body). The therapeutic relationship provides a safe way to explore this but ONLY if I hold safe boundaries. I want the client to know that no topic is off limits and I will NOT take advantage of the trust you give me. I will never pursue a relationship that requires you to care for me. I will never pursue a relationship that takes something from you emotionally or physically. Period.
I said it earlier and I will say it again. I love my clients. You all rock. Sometimes I want to be your friend. But pursuing that puts us both at risk. And really, for the sake of honesty, I am a much better therapist that I am a friend at this point in my life—you probably think I have it all together and I would most likely disappoint you. I am completely human. But my completely imperfect and human self loves my job and I hope to do my job for a long time. My boundaries make this possible. This is a complicated subject so reach out if you have questions. In the meantime, take care of you.