Therapy FAQ

Can You Be Friends With Your Therapist?

Picture this: You recently started your therapy session to delve into the depth of your thoughts and emotions. However, in every session, a unique bond develops; you enjoy talking to the therapist, and you may feel as though a friendship is developing. While this feeling may occur naturally, a robust connection with your therapist differs […]

By Alan Deibel, LCPC

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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Picture this: You recently started your therapy session to delve into the depth of your thoughts and emotions. However, in every session, a unique bond develops; you enjoy talking to the therapist, and you may feel as though a friendship is developing.

While this feeling may occur naturally, a robust connection with your therapist differs from a personal friendship. Understanding and respecting boundaries in therapy can help you continue focusing on your set goals. This article answers the question: Can you be friends with your therapist?

Understanding the Therapist-Client Relationship

A therapist-client relationship built on empathy, genuineness, and trust helps you  to achieve the best from a therapy session. Additionally, a healthy alliance with your therapist helps you to:

But how does this therapeutic alliance differ from friendship? According to Wanda Williams, a licensed clinical therapist at GrowTherapy, “The therapist-client relationship doesn’t have common qualities with personal friendships. While you should trust and feel comfortable and safe with your therapist, these feelings are not similar to what you would experience in other friendships.”

Therapeutic bonds are different from friendship because in friendships, you’ll often discuss and support each other’s personal life. However, in a therapeutic alliance, your therapist will solely focus on your concerns, even during self-disclosure.

Mental healthcare providers don't have an emotional stake in your situation. They will listen to your story and help you assess your problems without bias.

And unlike relationships with friends and family members, mental healthcare providers don’t have an emotional stake in your situation. Therefore, personal attachments will not influence them; they will listen to your story and help you assess your problems without bias.

The Importance of Boundaries in a Therapeutic Relationship

Therapy boundaries ensure a professional relationship between you and your therapist. They begin during the first sessions and continue throughout the counseling process. Further, setting boundaries clarifies what is respectful, acceptable, and comfortable in the therapeutic process. With therapeutic limits, you can explore your feelings, thoughts, and experiences without fear of harm or judgment.

Additionally, well-defined, professional borders in therapy prevent illegal and unethical relationships from forming. One of these relationships is a dual relationship, like a patient dating their therapist. Another is a conflict of interest, where a therapist may have too close of a personal connection to the client. For instance, if the therapist was seeing their spouse’s boss as a client. These situations can lead to uncomfortable scenarios and, for the most part, are not considered therapeutic. 

Transference and Countertransference

According to the National Institute of Health, transference refers to a patient’s reaction toward their cognitive, emotional, and physical experiences. These reactions relate to what clients expect from the therapist based on their experience with essential people.  

Transference involves projecting client feelings about someone in their life toward their therapist. For instance, a client dealing with a traumatic upbringing who never received adequate attention from a parent may turn to their therapist for acceptance and love, a feeling they did not get from their parent. An experienced therapist will recognize this.  

Countertransference occurs when the therapist has biased feelings toward their clients based on their own personal life. For instance, a counselor may feel pity that a client was physically neglected growing up, and think to themselves, “This poor guy went through so much.”  While countertransference is a normal feeling, an experienced therapist understands to maintain professional boundaries at all times. 

Transference and countertransference may sometimes affect treatment, especially if it causes withdrawal from therapy. However, if used well, it fosters the therapist-client relationship by identifying negative emotions that may occur in a therapy session.

Managing Transference

One of the ways you can deal with transference is by recognizing when it’s happening. 

Staying calm during therapy can also help to overcome transference. It’s natural to experience transference in a therapy session. The best thing is to express your feelings with your therapist. If it’s hard to bring these feelings out, stay calm and give yourself time.

Being practical also helps to deal with transference. Your therapist will help you recognize the difference between themselves and the cause of your feelings. The more the difference you note, the more you can eradicate your feelings.

Finally, it’s important you understand how helpful or harmful your feelings are. If you feel transference is derailing the effectiveness of therapy, finding a new therapist is an option. This may help if you are in goal-based treatments, for instance, cognitive behavioral therapy, as you can deal with your concerns without distractions.

Stages of a Therapeutic Relationship

A therapeutic alliance is dynamic and often involves ruptures and repairs. The typical stages of establishing a robust client-therapist relationship include the following:

Orientation Stage

In this stage, a therapist seeks to acquire crucial information that impacts the treatment process. For instance, they will want to know your values, beliefs, priorities and if you have any unique needs. In addition, this phase includes setting the rules, roles and limitations, and a suitable mode of communication.

Rapport is built by showing acceptance and a non-judgmental attitude. Therapists also use palliative methods to ensure patients are relaxed enough to express their thoughts and feelings.  

Working Stage

During this stage, therapists apply their active listening skills. They ask why you seek help to establish what is important to you. Additionally, they use your responses to create a treatment plan and implement it for short-term and long-term goals.

A therapist also helps clients develop coping skills and independence to change their behavior to an adaptive and appropriate one.

Termination/Resolution Stage

A therapist terminates the client relationship when the goals are achieved, or the client is transferred or discharged.

During this stage, clients and therapists consider each other as independent and autonomous. Here, regression and transference have been solved; the patient has graduated to develop their life independently. 

The Role of Therapists in Strengthening Therapeutic Relationships

Understanding the role of a therapist can help you know your limits and set realistic expectations. Therapists have a vital role in establishing and maintaining an excellent therapeutic alliance. 

Some of the ways psychotherapists establish and maintain therapeutic relationships with their patients include the following:

Your therapist understands that you may be vulnerable due to the issues you are experiencing. As a result, they should not shut down your ideas or dismiss your values. Instead, they should ensure you feel accepted and interested.

Exploring Expectations

Knowing what to expect from a therapy session helps to observe the set boundaries and maintain a healthy therapist-client relationship. Additionally, setting realistic expectations within the given timeframe and resources prevents frustrations and disappointments in a treatment session.

Being curious and flexible can also help you to create reasonable expectations. Therapy may involve various things that you don’t expect. So, believe that whatever comes up with the treatment is the best thing to explore. In addition, acknowledging your progress, whether big or small, will help you focus on the treatment journey rather than the destination.

Why Your Therapist Can’t Be Your Friend

Williams says, “A therapist may face disciplinary actions from their governing bodies or even have their licenses terminated if they become friends with their clients. This may occur if the personal relationship with clients doesn’t end well, and the patient deliberately reports them.”

Ethical Considerations

Dual relationships of any type may affect a counselor’s decision during therapy. Mental health professionals are guided by ethical guidelines that ensure the relationship with their clients is professional.

For instance, the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics prohibits psychologists from entering into multiple relationships that would:

The American Counseling Association’s code of conduct also bars counselors from entering non-professional relations with their clients. It also prohibits them from entering into a relationship — whether in-person or electronic — that would harm the client.

Addressing Potential Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest may compromise the objectivity of a therapy session. Furthermore, APA’s ethical code bars psychologists from taking professional roles when there are interests that could lessen their effectiveness and competence.

Conflicts of interest may be in the form of:

Dual relationships: When a therapist engages in a relationship with their clients beyond their professional context. For instance, if you are family members, friends, or are having a romantic relationship. Dual relationships often impede therapy’s objectivity, compromise judgment, and lead to potential harm to the client.

Clear, professional boundaries can help prevent dual relationships during and after therapy. However, if these secondary relationships are unavoidable, therapists should seek consultation and supervision. In addition, they should control the situation ethically while limiting the potential harm to their patients.

Other forms of conflicts of interest that may arise in therapy include the following:

The National Association of Social Workers provides that practitioners should inform their clients of any potential conflicts of interest and resolve it while protecting the client’s interests. Providers should therefore end the relationship with their clients to protect their interests while providing adequate referrals.

Find a Therapist Today

While feeling drawn to your therapist is natural, being friends with them — during and after therapy — can affect overall objectivity. A solid therapeutic alliance and understanding of your therapist’s role can help you remain in the treatment and enjoy maximum benefits.

Additionally, understanding the ethical codes that bind you and the counselor and addressing any conflicts of interest can help achieve optimal results for a therapy session.

Grow Therapy is home to many therapists who are excellent at building rapport with their clients and providing leading therapeutic intervention. With Grow Therapy’s search tool, you’re able to find a therapist who is in your area, accepts your insurance, and specializes in your area of need. Try our search tool today. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Alan Deibel, LCPC

Alan Deibel is a licensed clinical professional counselor with over 12 years of experience who specializes in ADHD, addiction, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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