Therapists will sometimes talk about “dual relationships” as a reason that they cannot work with a particular client, but what is a dual relationship and why is it a problem?
A dual relationship is when you have a relationship with someone within two or more contexts. For example, if your therapist was also your cousin, your next door neighbor or your client at work, you would have a dual relationship with them. A dual relationship can also occur within the professional domain. For instance, if a therapist was your individual support, working to help you overcome some challenge and support you, but was also asked to assess whether you or someone else should have custody of a child, this would also be a dual relationship because there would be two different purposes to their relationship with you.
Not all dual relationships are harmful. You and your therapist might go to the same gym, or perhaps your therapist occasionally has gone to the coffee shop at which you work. These types of dual relationships, of seeing one another in two different contexts, may not affect the work you do together and therefore may not be a problem. However, there are several reasons that therapists are often concerned about the way that a dual relationship could affect your therapeutic work together. One reason that therapy is different from other relationships is that the therapist is more objective than a friend or family member. By not knowing much about your therapist’s personal life, it can also free you up to be able to speak without concern about how what you say might affect the therapist – you don’t have to take their personal life into account and can be more open. Also, some dual relationships can create a power differential that could affect the therapy. For example, if you were a teacher and your therapist had a child in your class, the therapist might be uncomfortable giving you the kind of feedback they normally would if they were concerned it might affect your teaching relationship with their child. You also might feel uncomfortable sharing openly with your therapist if you feared it might affect their opinion of you as a teacher and thus affect your job in some way. Basically, having two different relationships with your therapist can at times result in conflicts of interest, and therefore dual relationships are typically avoided by therapists. In fact, the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics for Psychologists prohibits psychologists from engaging in harmful dual relationships.
These kinds of concerns are the reason that therapists will avoid engaging with you outside of their office. In most situations, they will decline invitations to your parties, and turn down your offers to provide your own occupational services to them. It is not because they wish to reject you or do not wish to spend time with you socially. In fact, I have often heard therapists say, “I wish I could be friends with this client – they are such a wonderful person.” However, the ethics code that therapists follow does not allow for these kinds of interactions and therapists therefore need to maintain strict professional boundaries.