Can My Therapist Also Be…

A good listener. Reliable. Smart. Interested in your well-being. Empathic. Helpful. These are traits that we all value in a friend. These are also things that describe an effective therapist. It’s no wonder, then, that so many people wish that they could be friends with their therapist. Many people find the kind of support in the therapeutic relationship that they wish they could get from friends and family. In fact, problems in those relationships are often what drive people into therapy in the first place.

But no matter how positive your relationship with your therapist is, it can’t evolve into friendship, at least while you are in therapy with them. And if your therapist tries to develop a friendship with you outside of therapy, it could be a sign of therapist abuse. Read on to learn more about why therapists shouldn’t be friends with their clients, and when a friendship between a former client and a therapist might be acceptable.

Maintaining Boundaries in Therapy

Friendship is supposed to be a two-way street. Friends are supposed to help each other, support each other, and share personal details with each other. Your therapist might feel like an appealing friend because they do all those things for you. But your therapist is able to help you precisely because the therapeutic relationship is not a two-way street: your therapist is able to help you because they maintain objectivity. They listen to your feelings and problems, but they don’t discuss their own. When you go into therapy, you don’t have to worry about meeting your therapist’s needs; it’s their job to focus on yours.

There are certain boundaries therapists observe that allow them to maintain the objectivity needed to help their clients. These boundaries are sometimes referred to as “the frame:”

  • Do not have physical contact with clients
  • Do not have friendships or relationships with clients outside of therapy
  • Do not give clients practical advice
  • Do not treat family members or friends of clients
  • Maintain neutrality and objectivity toward the client; this involves avoiding excessive thinking or worrying about them outside of therapy

At best, violating these boundaries means that therapy will not be effective. At worst, it could lead to sexual abuse or other behavior that causes serious injury to a client. This is not to say that a pat on the shoulder or weighing in on whether a client should change their hairstyle will necessarily lead to catastrophe for the client. But often, very small breaches clear the way for larger ones.

Even if you think your therapist would be a perfect friend, and that you would be a good friend to them in turn, your friendship needs to remain strictly professional to be effective—and it’s your therapist’s responsibility to enforce that boundary. It is natural, even expected, for a client or patient in therapy to develop strong, possibly romantic, feelings for a therapist. A therapist who fails to observe appropriate boundaries may be guilty of medical malpractice if a patient suffers harm as a result.

Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association prohibit “dual relationships” (such as being both therapist and friend) with current clients or patients.

Can I Be Friends With My Therapist After Therapy is Finished?

If your therapy is successful, it will naturally conclude at some point. Once you are no longer in the therapeutic relationship, is it possible to be friends with your former therapist? Maybe—but that depends on what you mean by friendship.

If you and your therapist are comfortable with it, it may be fine for you to remain in contact with your therapist after therapy has ended, say by sending an occasional email update about how you are doing. The American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association don’t explicitly state that friendships with former clients or patients are unethical. Even so, they’re probably not a good idea for a number of reasons. (And sexual relationships between former therapists and patients are never okay.)

One reason is that there is the potential for exploitation. In order for therapy to be effective, you had to be very open and vulnerable with your therapist, revealing a lot of personal information. At the same time, your therapist should have disclosed little about their personal life to you. Accordingly, there is a power differential between you that should not exist in a friendship.

What about being connected on social media? That’s a way to stay in touch without the awkwardness or power imbalance that could exist in an in-person relationship. Having a Facebook friendship with your former therapist may seem harmless, but again, it’s probably not ideal. And if your former therapist is pressuring you to become friends on any level after therapy is over and you’re uncomfortable, that’s a sign that the therapist is prioritizing their needs over yours—the opposite of what they should be doing.

The bottom line is that the therapeutic relationship exists to improve your mental health and give you coping mechanisms. Any behavior by your therapist that impedes that, including becoming friends, must be avoided.

If you believe your therapist is acting or has acted in a way that is harmful to you, contact The Fraser Law Firm P.C. to discuss your options.