On the back of an article I read recently I’ve been thinking and pondering on the client/therapist relationship recently and the questions that can often arise around the possibilities of post-therapy friendship.
As a general rule for me it’s a warm ‘no’ and thats not because as a therapist I don’t care about clients past and present but for many reasons around ethics and boundaries it’s not usually productive for either party to believe that a friendship born out of therapy has an balanced or ‘symmetrical’ footing as it generally doesn’t.
The client has paid the therapist for their time and their skillset and even if a deep and nurturing bond is present this still presents itself very differently to a friendship that has grown and matured over a period of time, in a number of pubs, through years of university or within numerous social settings. It’s a different kind of help and support, both wonderful and valid but different.
There are types of therapy where the client will never ever know a jot of personal information about their therapists, these tend to be more clinical or potentially more psychodynamic forms of therapy. A client won’t know the therapists age, where they live, if they have children, if they are married or what their favourite sandwich filling is. This is so the therapist can provide a totally blank canvas for the client to project themselves onto. This type of therapy has it’s place and is of great support to a particular range of client groups.
As a humanist (person centred) therapist there can be a certain level of self-disclosure that forms part of the therapeutic process. Clients I work with generally know that I am a mother, a wife, a part time illustrator and that I live in North Leeds. You only need to have followed this page and seen my posts to have an idea about my sense of humour, my love of swearing, the fact I may have a gin and tonic on a Friday night in front of the tele…..but knowing this doesn’t mean there are grounds for friendship.
What I hope a client experiences within a client/therapist relationship is (the obvious one) confidentiality, warmth, respect and honesty. A professionally therapeutic relationship deepens when respect and honesty is present from client to therapist too. In fact these are some of the Core Conditions a therapeutic relationship requires. But it doesn’t mean that there is something there to build a friendship on because even though client and therapist are both human beings of equal standing we don’t actually have a symmetrical relationship. As a therapist I will know a great deal about a client and a client will only know the very basics of who I am, even with my slightly open social media ways of chatting.
Googling the title question has brought up so many blog posts, articles and points of view and the majority have one thing in common…..their binary/black & white thinking around the question of friendship and therapy. It does appear to be a fearful area of being a therapist and it’s almost discussed in hushed tones-“to friendship or not to friendship that is the question…oh most certainly not! Off with their heads!!”. But then I read one article and I had to smile as it appeared less fearful than some of them and really deeply honest. The author, an American therapist of some 40 years standing, discussed how actually, at some point in our careers, there will be someone who you will develop a friendship with. A real genuine friendship that works. She talks about “not dismissing that one day this may happen to any therapist”…And this got me thinking about my friendships..
*stands up* – “My name is Lori and I am friends with my supervisor/mentor”. There I said it.
It’s out there (even though to be fair it’s been out there for years). We are not bezzie friends but we are good friends. We are supportive, respectful, incredibly warm towards each other and we laugh a lot together. We post on each others Facebook walls and we know a great deal about each other and our mutual families. And the reason this works, and works so well, is that we are able to maintain a dual relationship with this inherent respect. When I book in to see her we are both able to don our therapist and client hats and ‘assume our positions’. We do this respectfully and naturally. We just fall into place as we need to. I don’t take her for granted and nor does she take me for granted. When I’m not her client within that boundaried and paid for hour I don’t expect her to be my therapist/supervisor. She is simply herself and I am myself. It works. We are ace together and it’s the most blessed of dual relationships.
Now I’ve been in private practice for nearly 7 years now and in that time I’ve worked with a fair few hundreds of clients (sorry bit vague as I don’t count) and I have….
*stands up again to confess* – 3 very good friends who were at one time clients….. Does this shock you?
These friends are genuine friendships who I am incredibly close to and are in my ‘inner circle’ of love, fun and all things merry. Two of these friendships developed not long after therapy finished whilst another one grew beautifully a few years post-therapy. I was thinking what do all 3 of these friends have in common and essentially, even though they are very different women, what they all have in common is that we already had grounds for friendship before they became clients. And this is for me, the VITAL component.
As in I knew them, not well, but I knew them and they knew me already, mainly via the power of social media and womanly chat forums. And they all said it was because they already knew me that they chose me as their therapist and then after therapy there was something there that we all recognised and agreed was friendship. These women are incredibly respectful and now we have put down our client and therapist hats for the last time they do not expect me to be ‘Therapist Lori’ again. I can just be me. (Where we are at now anyway is that I couldn’t be their therapist again as we are simply too close. I cannot be a therapist to close friends at all. I can ‘Listening Lori’ over a cuppa but I can’t be a therapist to friends). Any therapeutic relationship was mutually discussed and willingly sacrificed by them for the friendship but this ‘sacrifice’ has never become an issue. The therapy box is closed and parked in storage with a ribbon on the top. The friendship box is open, strong and filled with laughter, lunches, evenings out and rude social media memes.
But this is rare and I totally recognise that in the main the boundaried and time limited therapist and client relationship is just that in all it’s glory; limited by utterly appropriate ethical constraints. Therapists don’t offer friendship, we offer a lifeline in crisis or space to work through the stuff that your friends may never hear about. We may be friendly, warm, open and receptive but always strive to be objective and of course we operate, unlike friendships, within the boundaries of paid sessions, utter confidentiality and ethical contracts. Friendships are blunter, two sided, warmly subjective, gin soaked, sun burnt, laughter drenched, free of charge, not (and I say this with humour) as confidential as we think they are and are not contracted. Both require respect, boundaries and warmth to work and are both forms of fabulous support BUT are different and with good reason.
The problem with anticipating a friendship with a therapist is that, despite me admitting above that it has worked for me 3 times, that ultimately if anything ever happens to the friendship then a client would feel that they weren’t just losing a friend but also losing the therapist and therapeutic history they once had. This could be an extremely vulnerable position to experience and would take a degree of emotional intelligence, self-reflection and strength to manage whilst also remaining aware that the problem was the friendship and not the therapeutic relationship. And to be honest I would imagine that the therapist would kick themselves for being in that vulnerable position too because what was once a respectful therapeutic relationship with boundaries would potentially be replaced by a void that would be undefinable or conversely defined as a ethical mistake and a poorly judged human error on their part that requires time to learn from and reflect on whilst also having to manage the mutual loss of trust from the friendship, even a short lived one.
So therapy and friendships….it’s 99.5% a warm and respectful ‘no’ realistically with good reasons and utter respect in place for all parties concerned but… with recognition that humans are not binary and that strange, curious and beautiful things can happen every so often that can mean a dual or secondary relationship is mutually agreed upon.
I’ve attached a link to an article below that I felt was simple and not too ‘judgey’. Although I’m not keen on some of the language used (just cos I’m a psych-article nit picker) it does highlight the differences between therapy and friendship and why as a general rule it’s not a friendship worth pursuing.
#loveyourlife #friendship #therapy #neverthetwain