The work of family therapists is often very intimate. They are witness to a different side of relationships, a side often hidden from the rest of the world. Sometimes they see where issues are resolved, and other times they see situations where they are not. Throughout this process, clients can sometimes become attached to the therapist in ways that could compromise the counseling situation. There are two main ways this takes place.
- Patient wanting a relationship with a therapist. The counseling relationship is deeply personal and private, and in this situation it is not uncommon for a patient to want a deeper relationship with a therapist based on this perceived closeness. In many situations, patients are able to share things with a therapist that they feel unable to tell anyone else. This intimacy can lead to a patient wanting more of a relationship with a therapist, outside of the counseling environment.
- Transference. This term refers to a situation where a patient essentially transfers the feelings they had for another person to the therapist they are counseling with. These displaced feelings can sometimes be manifested as romantic interests or physical attraction. It is unethical for a therapist to engage in any sort of a romantic relationship with a patient, and it is important for therapists to be sensitive to the possibility of transference.
Both of these touch on the idea of dual relationships. Dual relationships in counseling can be a particularly difficult situation for a therapist to encounter. The American Counseling Association decided that a relationship between a counselor and a client outside of the therapy session is not unethical if it is beneficial to the client. For obvious reasons, sexual or romantic relationships are strictly prohibited, as they have proven to be damaging to patients. Nonprofessional relationships outside of the counseling environment are permitted when they are beneficial to the client, but the therapist is required to show caution and foresight.
Whenever feelings are involved, things can get complicated. When a client develops feelings for a therapist, you should be mindful of the risk of a potential lawsuit. Having professional liability insurance for mental health counselors is the best way to guarantee that you’re protected in the event of a potential lawsuit.