Dear Dr. Rob,
I know you said that dual relationships with your shrink are inappropriate, but what about after therapy is over? I email and sometimes have lunch with my former therapist and we consider ourselves good friends at this point. Have you ever done this with any of your clients?
Dr. John says I’m a “curmudgeonly, asocial tool who no one likes,” so I have to wonder if anyone would want to have any sort of post-professional relationship with me. He’s probably just bitter that his date with Dr. Allison went poorly and he’s taking it out on me, which is really not cool, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.
Let’s look at the rule as it relates to this question.
For Psychologists in the United States, personal relationships (whether they be sexual or platonic) after professional ones are frowned upon. The reason for this and all ethical codes is client protection. There is an inherent power differential between therapist and client. You, as the client, are revealing so much about yourself yet often learn very little about the person you’re talking to. It’s a very one-sided relationship by design. The thinking is that no matter how much your erstwhile therapist discloses to you as friends, he or she will always have that knowledge, that information that you might not have shared had you two not had a therapeutic relationship.
Technically, personal relationships can develop two years following the termination of the professional work together. Where the two-year rule came from I have no idea but you can start having lunch with your former shrink in September, 2010 if you stop working with her tomorrow. The American Psychological Association (APA), however, has an interesting take on this. It views this relationship as a “guilty until proven innocent” one. In other words, if the APA were to discover Sara’s innocent tryst they would assume that she is being exploited in some way unless the therapist could essentially prove that she was not. This assumption would probably lead to a suspension or even termination of her license.
Dr. John added his own distorted twist to this former therapist turned friend role. To paraphrase:
“If Sara’s therapist is a smart one, she knows that one phone call from Sara to the licensing board leads to trouble. One missed lunch, an unreturned text message or a stolen husband by Sara’s therapist gives that chick the ammunition to turn her over to the Shrink Feds. You couldn’t pay me enough to put myself in that spot with former clients, especially if she could become a scorned woman.”
Most mental health professionals would argue that there are exceptions to the rule about post-professional relationships. Ethics don’t exist in a vacuum. For example, during my graduate training one of the students was rumored to be dating a guy who was part of a psychological experiment she was conducting. I was told he was an undergraduate who was getting extra credit for his Psychology 101 class or something. Supposedly she was measuring variables like finger tapping speed in response to various stimuli in right-handed vs. left-handed people or some other beyond boring study that you have to do to graduate. The moment he signed the form to take part in this experiment, they had a professional relationship, even though it wasn’t treatment. Word is he was there for about fifteen minutes and she found out that he could tap his index finger a few hundred times per minute. He commented on her pretty skin, she said he had nice shoes, dinner followed and, two six-packs of Corona Light later, they were in the sack. Was this guy exploited? Doubtful. If the university had found out would she have been tossed out of graduate school? Definitely.
Personally, the biggest reason I avoid post-professional relationships isn’t because I may exploit someone. It’s also not because I’m an “asocial tool” or a paranoid freak like Dr. John. In fact, there are former clients that I would love to hang out with, good people who tell me amazing stories, who live incredible lives. After our professional relationship is over they’ll ask me to go out for a drink or a cup of coffee, completely platonic, and I always say no. Why? I immediately think, what if this person ever needs to come back to treatment? The relationship is completely changed if we become friends. It won’t ever be the same. This is especially true if the therapy worked out very well and the person truly benefited. What if he or she needs me again? It’s just not right to take that option away from that person. “Once a client, always a client” says Dr. Pete, one of many personal philosophies that help to ensure a social interaction-free existence for him.