Can You Be Friends With Your Therapist?

Young woman in therapy

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Clients often develop a close relationship with therapists. After all, during therapy sessions they sit in a room discussing very personal subjects, but can you be friends with your therapist? While you might feel friendly toward your therapist, it is important to understand that you should not be friends or think of your therapist as your friend.

This article discusses whether therapists and clients can be friends and the characteristics of the therapeutic relationship. It also covers some of the factors that can affect the relationship between a therapist and clients.

Why Your Therapist Can't Be Your Friend

Your therapist should not be a close friend because that would create what's called a dual relationship, something that is unethical in therapy.

What Is Dual Relationship?

Dual relationships occur when people are in two very different types of relationships at the same time. For example, it is unethical for a therapist to treat a close friend or relative. It is also unethical for a therapist 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 a sexual relationship, can then cause problems in the therapy relationship. If you are mad at your therapist because they didn't attend your party, it will be hard for you to open up in therapy.

In addition to being a dual relationship, sexual relationships with clients exploit the power inherent in the one-sided nature of the therapy relationship. Such relationships are unethical on several grounds.

Understanding the Therapist-Client Relationship

Psychotherapy is by necessity an imbalanced relationship. You, the client, open up, and the therapist generally doesn't. This is necessary in order to focus on your problems exclusively. How can trust develop in such a one-sided relationship?

Since the therapist doesn't reveal nearly as much, you will hopefully come to view the therapist as a safe, caring listener who is devoted to helping you figure out your problems, not her own.

Over the course of therapy, a therapist works with you to develop what is known as a therapeutic alliance. This alliance is defined as how a therapist and client interact with one another. It is a type of bond where both people agree to work toward agreed-upon goals in order to produce a positive change.

Characteristics of this therapeutic alliance include:

  • Empathy
  • Genuineness
  • Insight
  • Lack of judgment
  • Trust

Research suggests that the therapeutic alliance plays an important role in treatment outcomes. In fact, having a good relationship with your therapist can matter more than the type of treatment that is being utilized.

Recap

If you are currently in therapy, expect your therapist to be someone who is easy to talk to. Your relationship with them should be warm, trusting, and empathetic. While you can be friendly, you should not be friends.

What Makes the Therapeutic Relationship Different

Friendship, on the other hand, is inherently two-sided. In most relationships, people open up gradually as the other person also opens up. As friends, they come to know the details of each other's lives and share experiences beyond sitting in a therapist's office.

The therapeutic relationship does share some of the same qualities as friendship. You should be able to trust and feel comfortable with your therapist, but that doesn't mean that these feelings are the same thing you would experience in a friendship.

Therapy can certainly be a friendly relationship, depending on the personalities involved and the therapist's theoretical orientation.

Transference and Countertransference

Historically, certain psychoanalytically oriented therapists took pains not to reveal any aspect of themselves to their patients. They believed that this would influence the patient's reactions in an unhelpful manner known as transference.

Most contemporary psychoanalysts and therapists, however, recognize that they are always revealing aspects of themselves. The therapist's goal is not to hide their personality but to foster the kind of relationship that allows for the fullest discussion and exploration of all the reactions that take place between the therapist and patient.

This may involve the use of a process known as transference, which involves a client projecting their feelings onto the therapist.

What Is Transference?

Transference is a phenomenon where feelings that a person has about other people in their life, such as their parents or partner, are unconsciously applied to the current situation. This might include feelings of affection, anger, or other emotions.

Sometimes transference can be a barrier to treatment, particularly if it causes a person to withdraw. When used in a positive way, however, it allows you to develop a positive therapeutic alliance and explore negative feelings that might arise over the course of therapy.

Therapists also work to stay aware of how their own feelings and internal conflicts might be projected onto a client, a phenomenon known as counter-transference.

Can You Be Friends With a Former Therapist?

While not common, a friendship can develop when you've finished therapy. There are no official rules or ethical guidelines from either the American Psychological Associated or American Psychiatric Association regarding friendships with former clients.

Becoming friends with your former therapist is a gray area that presents a number of challenges. While this isn't expressively forbidden by professional regulatory boards, there are ethical concerns that you should consider. 

This includes the idea that the transference aspects of the relationship and the power imbalance formed in therapy never fully disappear. You should also consider whether or not you might want to return to therapy again in the future. If you decide to recommence therapy and you've become friends with your former therapist, it may mean seeking out a different therapist for future treatment.

Recap

Being friends with a former therapist isn't forbidden, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Such a friendship may also make it difficult if you decide you want to go back to therapy again in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Your relationship with your therapist should be marked by warmth, support, and a good rapport. If they are friendly, this may be an added bonus. But remember that therapy is not the same as a friendship. By taking advantage of the personal and professional relationship that develops in therapy, you will be better able to make the changes that you strive for in your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it normal to feel attached to your therapist?

    Feeling attached to your therapist is sometimes the result of transference, where feelings you have are projected onto your therapist. It is also normal to have an affinity for your therapist, but it is important to recognize that such feelings of attachment are not the same thing as friendship.

  • Can you be friends with your therapist on social media?

    Ethical guidelines don't specifically forbid being friends with clients on social media, and it may be fine to follow your therapist's business-related social media accounts on different platforms. However, therapists becoming friends with clients on personal social media accounts is generally discouraged by the American Psychological Association.

  • How do therapists avoid treating their friends like clients?

    While some therapists find that it is easy to create boundaries between work and their social life, others may find themselves responding to friends in the same way they would their therapy clients. To avoid this, therapists may need to consciously work to avoid taking on a counselor role with their friends and family. Creating boundaries and staying neutral are strategies that can be helpful.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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