Of the seven therapists I have worked with over the years, I consider myself a friend to at least one of them. We met at an event outside of our sessions, we hugged, joked around and talked about our lives. She was still my therapist at that time.
When she moved her practice, forcing us to end our professional relationship, we decided to keep up. I promised to update her on my career and invite her to my wedding. We became Facebook friends to make it easier to stay in contact.
I’m not sure if she considers me a friend, and I’m not going to ask (that would be incredibly and unnecessarily awkward). Nonetheless, I think we are friends. I am also Facebook friends with my current therapist.
Until recently I didn’t know there was anything controversial about these aspects of my therapeutic relationships. I knew being friends with your therapists might carry risks such as losing objectivity, but I figured that was only for close friendships. Being Facebook friends and seeing each other every once in awhile seemed benign to me.
Then I reached out to various therapists and — in preparation for writing this article — interviewed them about the issue of clients and therapists being friends. The response was unanimous and clear: it is unethical or at least not a good idea for clients and therapists to be friends in any way, including Facebook. They also included friendships that developed before or after treatment ended.
Client-therapist friendships can be unethical, according to codes of ethics from many bodies that govern therapists, including the American Psychological Association [APA]. By becoming friends with a client, a therapist can risk disciplinary action from governing bodies or losing licensure. This usually only happens if the friendship goes sour and the client reports the therapist out of spite.
I thought these attitudes and ethical codes were a bit dogmatic. They didn’t account for the fact that the nature of a friendship varies between people. I, for example, am friends with some of my co-workers. Because we are mature and professional, the friendship doesn’t affect our working relationship.
I also know many people who are friends with their former therapists and haven’t experienced any negative consequences. Even renowned psychotherapists — people you would think would be the model of ethics — have been friends with their clients. Carl Rogers, the father of client-centered therapy, became friends with his client, Gloria, after including her in a documentary about approaches to psychotherapy.
Given the seemingly large number of harmless friendships between psychotherapists and clients, I thought it was unreasonable for the therapeutic community to label all of them taboo. I assumed a minority of immature people with poor boundaries were the catalysts for the ethics against client-therapist friendships. They had ruined it for people who were able to have friendships that did not interfere with treatment.
On the other hand, I understood why there was strong opposition to clients — even former clients — and therapists being friends. Being friends with a therapist risks contaminating the objectivity clients are paying for. The friendship could also cause new problems that affect therapy, especially if it is the kind of friendship where the people are spending a lot of time together.
There are good reasons for discouraging clients from being Facebook friends with their therapists, too.
“What if a client who struggles financially sees the therapist has taken a great vacation and feels envious or resentful?” said therapist Jill Whitney, listing one of many possible negative scenarios that might play out if a client and therapist are friends on Facebook. “What if the therapist’s cousin or friend posts something political or off-color and the client gets upset about it?”
After looking at the arguments therapists such as Whitney made, I realized it wasn’t the greatest decision for me to have become friends — or at least Facebook friends — with my therapists. It was arrogant of me to assume I had great control of my thoughts and emotions to the point where I could negate the risks.
I still think the therapeutic community makes client-therapist friendships sound like a much bigger deal than they are. Nonetheless, you should consider the risks they carry.