People often develop a close relationship with their therapist. The two of them have been sitting in a room talking about very personal subjects – often once a week for for at least several weeks. Does this make them friends? Some people certainly expect that it does, but the therapist usually does not see it that way.
Psychotherapy is a one-sided relationship. The client opens-up and the therapist doesn’t. This is necessary in order to focus on the client’s problems exclusively. How can trust develop in such a one-sided relationship? Since the therapist doesn’t reveal nearly as much as the client, the client has to trust that the conversations are truly confidential. Trust initially builds from this promise of confidentiality, and then grows as the therapist proves him or herself trustworthy.
Friendship, on the other hand, is inherently two-sided. In most relationships we open-up gradually as the other person also opens-up. As your friend I know many things about you and you know many things about me. We usually have shared experiences beyond sitting in a room talking.
Therapy can certainly be a “friendly” relationship, depending on the personalities involved and on the therapist’s theoretical orientation. Some therapists, particularly psychoanalytic therapists, believe that they should not reveal anything about themselves to their client. This allows the client to project their own ideas onto the therapist and facilitates the “transference” of ideas and feelings that they have for other people in their lives (such as their father or mother) onto the therapist.
Other therapists are much more willing to disclose some details of their own life. This is how I do therapy, but I respect and understand the valid reasons for others to do things differently. I don’t feel it necessary to be quite so secretive about my life; and I believe that people sometimes open-up more easily if they feel like they are talking to a real person. This approach might leave me at higher risk for people mistaking the relationship as a friendship. I do believe that it is possible to be professional and friendly at the same time, and this is the balance that I try to achieve.
Your therapist probably won’t be your friend because that would create a “dual relationship.” Dual relationships occur when people are in two very different types of relationships at the same time. Many dual relationships are unethical in therapy. It is unethical for a psychologist to treat a close friend or relative, for example. It is also unethical for a psychologist to have a sexual relationship with a client.
One of the difficulties with dual relationships is that a problem in one relationship (such as a friendship or sexual relationship) can then cause problems in the other relationship (the therapy relationship). If you are mad at me because I didn’t attend your party it will be hard for you to open-up in therapy. In addition to being dual relationships, sexual relationships with clients exploit the power inherent in the one-sided nature of the therapy relationship. Such relationships are unethical on several grounds.
Can a friendship develop after therapy? While not common, it can happen. Ethical guidelines sometimes even frown on this. Some therapists have married former-clients, but current ethical guidelines (such as APA’s Ethical Principles) often require several years to pass beforehand.
If you are currently in therapy, expect your therapist to be someone who is easy to talk to. If he or she is friendly, this may be an added bonus. Therapy is not the same as a friendship, however. By taking advantage of the personal and professional relationship that develops in therapy you will be better able to make the changes that you want to make in your life.