Appropriateness of becoming friends with your therapist (after therapy)
October 20, 2014 6:43 AM   Subscribe

Is it (ever) (at all) appropriate to stay in touch with a therapist -- as friends -- after therapy itself ends?

I've just found out that my therapist that I've been intermittently seeing for the past four or so years is retiring early. She has helped me profoundly, and my work with her basically means I have a life better than I could have ever previously imagined. I realise that part of being an excellent therapist is building rapport with patients, and "being their friend" in certain ways. I think that she and I get on beyond this, however, or at least could do, away from the necessary dynamics of therapeutic relationships. For example, in the "wind-down" bits of some sessions, we've bantered and swapped opinions and even make-up tips.

I was thinking I could say something along the lines of "it'd be nice to stay in touch -- if you felt it appropriate -- as people who get on, not engaged in a therapeutic relationship". But this also seems a bit skeevy to me or potentially ethically grey, and I need some outside guidance!
posted by thetarium to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Most therapists won't as it's not a good idea.

Here's a great article written by a therapist explaining why she won't, even though under other circumstances, she totally would.

The thing to keep in mind is that, up to this point, it's been an imbalanced relationship. You share more than they share back. It can be friendly, but it's not a friendship.

So I'm afraid you'll have to just wish her well on your way out the door. If you see her on the street, it's fine to say hi, but you're not going to hang out.
posted by inturnaround at 6:59 AM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a therapist. Generally, your therapist still consider themselves your therapist even after therapy is over, because there's always the possibility you might want to restart therapy. If you and she became friends, in most situations she wouldn't be available to you at any time in the future as a therapist. So that's one thing she will likely be keeping in mind and that you should probably keep in mind. (Good therapists are hard to find. I wouldn't rule one out lightly.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that therapy is an inherently unbalanced relationship; it's not the equal exchange of a good friendship but should be entirely focused on you. Therapists usually have a fair amount of training in "self-disclosure" (what we tell clients about ourselves) to make sure that it's helpful and doesn't shift focus away from the client's issues. This is not (and should not) be the case in a friendship. So it's probably a larger shift in the relationship to become friends than it might seem to the client. (Through various circumstances, I've ended up in a social network that includes a client I had seen two years previous to the social connection. I saw him professionally for only a few months, at this point it was five years ago, and I still feel very "therapist-brained" with him in social settings, because I really want to make sure that he's comfortable with my presence.)

None of which means it's impossible to become friends with your former therapist, but it's tricky. Some therapists just try to have a blanket policy that it's not going to happen, others might be more flexible.

All that said, I love getting occasional updates from former clients about how they're doing. As a client, too, I've emailed my own past therapists with referral questions and all of them have asked very sincere and enthusiastic, "How are you doing???" questions. So that would be a middle ground. "Would it be ok to stay in touch?" would be a totally normal question, and she can take the lead a bit from there about her own professional boundaries.
posted by jaguar at 7:04 AM on October 20, 2014 [16 favorites]

Oh, sorry, I forgot you said she was retiring. People do come out of retirement, though, too, so she may still want to keep that professional boundary.
posted by jaguar at 7:06 AM on October 20, 2014

You are really going to get a wide range of opinions on this. Most of them will be "no that is not appropriate." But my family has a social relationship with Natalie the Family Therapist, who has seen members of my family for like 20 years at this point.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:17 AM on October 20, 2014

Best answer: Let her go. She has plenty of friends who she does not know everything about. Let her enjoy them. You will find other people as great as she is, who you can bond with in a more equal setting.
posted by myselfasme at 7:25 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'd make the offer. I can't see any way she'd take offense, and even if she ultimately tells you "I can't do it", she'll almost certainly get a warm fuzzy from it.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:36 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make the offer in a notecard. I personally think this is unethical for the therapist to accept (and though not a therapist, I come from a family of PsyD, MFT and psychologists) and most of my family would agree. However I know of at least one family member who has become friends with at least one former client, so it can happen.

(notecard so they're not put on the spot and can elect to gracefully ignore it or not respond)
posted by arnicae at 7:43 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd be afraid it would seem like I was asking her to continue working, but for free.
posted by ctmf at 8:33 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

The codes of ethics for the various therpeutic professions strongly discourage dual relationships with clients because of the risk of it being harmful to the client. As good as your rapport with your therapist is, she knows a lot of intimate information about you while you know relatively very little about her, bantering and makeup tips aside. This makes the transition to a friendship of equals much more difficult than you're picturing.

I agree that she would most likely love to get updates from you down the road, so I would start there if I was you and not push for friendship- if it happens, it happens.
posted by fox problems at 9:58 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Obviously it will be up to her, and we can't know what her rules are, but personally, I don't think it would be in any way sleeve to say "I'd love if we could keep in touch after you retire." and let her take it from there.
posted by catatethebird at 10:40 AM on October 20, 2014

Seconding fox problems. Friendships with former therapy clients are usually discouraged for the same reasons romantic relationships are prohibited for two years after therapy terminates; when you were a client, you decided what information to disclose to your therapist using a different mental calculus than you would in deciding whether to tell that same information to a friend. If you were to begin a friendship, the former therapist would still have that sensitive information, but it would not be protected by the laws and ethical codes surrounding mental health care. It's really unfortunate to consider, but that information could be exploited if the relationship were to sour, or in a less malicious scenario, could still be used in a hurtful way if perhaps the former therapist were slightly less conscientious about their friends' sensitive information than they were about their clients'.
posted by MrBobinski at 6:07 PM on October 20, 2014

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