Can therapists be friends with their clients

So you’ve been in session several times now and you really click with your therapist. He/she is warm, sensitive, caring and empathic and everything you’ve ever wanted in a friend. During the weeks between sessions you start to fantasise about sharing a coffee, walking along the beach, going horse-riding, having dinner with them, going shopping with them or just generally shooting the breeze over a glass of wine or two.

This is not transference talking, this is the here and now of the therapeutic relationship. What is happening is in the present, not the past and you don’t quite understand it when your therapist tells you that a friendship is not a good idea and will never happen but still you persist because you feel connected and think you both have so much in common.

This is not a rare fantasy for clients. When it is well boundaried it can be a positive healing experience to explore the imagination of a friendship with all its fun and creativity, and this is great – as long as it never happens.

Here are five good reasons why it’s not a good idea to become friends with your therapist.

1. The extreme power differential.

He/she knows way more about you than the average person would be comfortable with and it’s a one way street, extremely tipped over in terms of disclosure. Therapy is not a mutual sharing of intimate secrets. I would be appalled if my therapist flapped her dirty laundry in my direction. I pay her to be the keeper of my secrets. If I were with her in public I would feel naked and vulnerable and I doubt I would ever feel equal to her which of course is the foundation of an egalitarian relationship.

2. Neediness, greediness and jealousy.

If, in the very unlikely possibility my therapist and I became equal friends, it would rapidly become unbalanced because I would become very possessive and jealous in a short space of time. I don’t think I could bear to see her talk intimately with anyone else. That is why it’s a fantastic idea to keep our relationship a business one with many boundaries on both sides. Envy and resentment do not work well in any friendship.

3. It’s not about the therapist.

Do you have friends who are warm and positive or do you have issues with people you have known for a long time? Perhaps your obsessive desire to be friends with your therapist stems back to your childhood and adolescence? Or else it has more to do with your current situation than you realise? Did you/do you have satisfying relationships at school, university, your leisure pursuits or your work environment? If you don’t perhaps this could be explored within therapy to open up to insight and enlightenment about yourself. If you do have satisfying relationships with people outside therapy then perhaps exploring deeper issues to do with your childhood and parents may be more appropriate.

Not knowing much about a caring, sensitive person you are in a therapeutic relationship with makes them far more desirable than that person at the local bridge club/tennis club/work situation who has revealed some of their flaws, warts or troubled relationships to you. It’s easy to envision the perfect friendship with the perfect person in a perfect world when you are sealed within the four walls of perfect undivided attention.

4. The ethics of post-therapy friendship.

It is universally unethical and heavily frowned upon to have a post-therapy relationship with a client in any capacity, be it friendship, financially or business based and especially if it is a sexual one. There is the potential for exploitation of the vulnerable. It says more about the therapist than the client when this happens. Most times it will end in disaster and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on the internet to attest for this.

5. The therapist doesn’t want to be friends with you.

This is perhaps stating the bleeding obvious. Most professional therapists have spent many years obtaining the qualifications to practice in the art of helping people – for a fee and it would be unethical for them to obtain their friendship needs from their current crop of clients. One can be struck off the register if one is deemed to have had an inappropriate relationship with a client. Luckily, most of the time they have their own friends they are happy and comfortable with. It is scary stuff for them to have a client who will not take no for an answer. My view is, if you are in a therapeutic relationship with a therapist and they offer you an invitation to join their bookclub, run straight through the door, jump in your car and whatever you do, never, ever EVER look back over your shoulder.