I received this email from John:
A guy came into the office today for an initial appointment due to work problems. As we talked about his current situation, he mentioned that a positive in his life is his new girlfriend. Apparently he’s been with this woman for about three months. As he started to describe her (e.g., job, personality, looks) I realized she sounded an awful lot like XXXXXX!!!!!!!! And, sure enough, when I asked him what her name was, he said, “XXXXXX!!!!!!!!” My patient is dating my ex-girlfriend! I didn’t say anything to the guy and he’s already made a 2nd appointment. What do you think? I’d ask you not to put this on your dumb website but I’m sure that’s a waste of time.
Here is my reply:
Subject: Re: Fuck!
Hello Dear Friend,
Don’t worry, I promise I won’t put this on my dumb website. When did you and XXXXXX!!!!!!!! break-up, anyway? I’m really sorry to hear about this. She’s a great lady. And hot, too! I’ll bet that client of yours is probably on an amazing date with her right now, perhaps even in his apartment. He’s a lucky man.
Best Wishes Always,
John made a crucial error in keeping his mouth shut about his prior relationship with the client’s new love. Starting off therapeutic work with a fairly large lie of omission is definitely not the way to go. John simply got caught in the intersection of our work and life’s realities and turned into a deer in the headlights. I’m not sure if this was due to sheer surprise, jealousy at the fact that his ex-girlfriend has a new (and probably better-looking) lover, or something else altogether. But when you keep information like that to yourself you’re simply asking for trouble.
As I had strongly advocated, a shrink isn’t obligated to alter much of his life simply because a client may see him in a different role. However, this rule is for out-of-the office behavior. When working it’s the therapist’s responsibility to protect a client from a possible conflict of interest. Although the client didn’t come in specifically to talk about his relationship, the reality is that love interests almost invariably works their way into the conversation. If John keeps the information to himself there’s no way he can remain objective. If he confesses later on, the client has every right to feel betrayed to the point that the therapeutic relationship might be beyond repair. Either way John will have royally screwed up as a professional.
I called up John later that day and told him to man up and simply call the guy to give him the truth. He simply had to refer him to another therapist because of the dynamics involved. John agreed but dreaded making the confession, although I’m guessing the client will appreciate the honesty and accept a referral elsewhere. Some clients will insist on still being seen, believing that the therapist can still do the job despite the issue at hand. Why this is the case is not entirely clear, although many readers tell me that it’s simply very difficult to find a good shrink. Perhaps once someone believes a strong connection is present they are hesitant to give that up. But although I’m not a huge believer in protecting people from themselves, this is one of those times where that philosophy applies. So even if this guy sees John as the next Freud, he’s got to find someone else with whom to work.
Knowing John he’ll probably tell the client to avoid me as a therapist at all costs, but there’s not much I can do about that. He’s just jealous of my success. When you’ve blessed yourself with a wedding photographer’s drinking water and have had a child accuse you of being a terrorist people will envy you. It’s just a fact of life.