I Want to Be My Client’s Friend

A Taboo Longing in the Therapy Room

Magazine Issue
March/April 2024
Photo by Thirdman/Pexels

An interior decorator in her early 60s, Sue Ellen wore bold jewelry and sparkly cowboy boots. She started off our sessions by waltzing through the door, plopping down unceremoniously into a chair, and sharing an insider scoop on an upcoming cultural event or an irreverent story about a public figure she knew. She’d begun seeing me soon after her son, Jake, had left for college because her anxiety was keeping her awake at night. She worried about him constantly. Was he attending his classes, drinking too much alcohol, dating the right people? She’d begun calling and texting him 20 times a day—which had understandably begun to strain their relationship. Despite all this, she’d retained her overall approach to life: have fun.

“So what’s your porn name?” she asked me one day after making herself comfortable in my office armchair, her boots poking out from under the hem of her skirt.

“My what?” I responded, not bothering to hide my skepticism about her question.

“Wait, don’t you know about porn names?” Her face assumed a look of mock surprise. “You put your middle name together with the name of the street you grew up on. Just play along with me here for a second, okay?”

“Uh, Lynn?” I volunteered and regretted it immediately. I’d considered getting my middle name removed from my birth certificate in my late teens. My mom had chosen it in honor of an aunt I’d grown to dislike.

“Lynn,” Sue Ellen repeated thoughtfully, as though my middle name was a sip of wine with elusive flavors. “Okay. And the street you lived on as a kid?”

“Eskridge Terrace?” I volunteered hesitantly. “Not very promising, I’m afraid.”

“Oh God no, Eskridge?! That doesn’t work.” She frowned. “But wait, Terrace—Lynn Terrace. That’s not bad at all. Mine’s the best, though. Abigail Mermaid. I grew up on Mermaid Lane in Philadelphia and my middle name’s Abigail. How perfect is that?”

Despite my reservations about this discussion, I found myself laughing. Her exuberance was contagious.

“Alright, so you’re joking about porn names at the start of our session today,” I said, once our laughter subsided. “Can we see what else might be here under the jokes?”

“Of course, we can,” she sighed. “I know. I’m probably avoiding something, right?”

Within a few minutes, she was sharing how she felt about her struggles as a single mom, and the doubts that had been torturing her lately about how well she’d prepared Jake for adulthood. Given her father’s emotional distance throughout her life, Sue Ellen harbored deep resentments toward men, which showed up in a variety of ways she often had a hard time recognizing. Yet however challenging our work got—particularly when it came to Sue Ellen forgiving her own parenting missteps with Jake—she was one of my favorite clients. Whenever I woke up and saw her initials on my calendar, any tension I felt in my body about the day ahead would melt away, and gratitude would rush in.

Something Odd

Over the course of the nine months Sue Ellen and I worked together, she learned to let Jake adjust on his own to his independence, dorm life, and new relationships. She kept her texts to him succinct: Thinking of you. Hope all’s well. The more space she gave him to figure things out, the more open he was to connecting with her. He’d even started calling her “just to say hi.” Sue Ellen felt less anxious. One day, she said, “It may be time to bring therapy to a close.”

“How are you feeling about the prospect of ending our work?” I asked.

“Good.” Sue Ellen paused. “It’s sad to end, but I’m proud of the changes I’ve made.”

I encouraged her to let herself feel it all—the goodness, the sadness, the pride. She reviewed her successes, we celebrated them, and then she focused on the ways she intended to continue growing and support herself in the future. At our final session, she said, “Can I ask for something that might sound odd?”

I responded, “Sure.” Inwardly, though, I braced myself. How odd? Did she want copies of the session notes I’d written about her? A lock of my hair? A selfie of us to post on social media?

“Can I get a hug?” she asked tentatively.

Half a dozen different responses flashed through my mind. What do you think hugging might do for you right now? Can you sense what’s motivating you to want to hug? Can we make room for the hard feelings, so we don’t bypass them? What does a hug represent at a moment like this, as we wrap up our work? What I ended up saying was, “Of course.”

I stood up and we hugged. Then, we both sat back down.

“I wish we could be friends.” Sue Ellen’s eyes were moist as she spoke, and I sensed my own eyes tearing up. I wanted to say, “I wish we could be friends, too,” but I simply nodded. She handed me her credit card. We chatted about her final receipt and how she could reach out to me in the future if she needed to. After she left, I stood in the doorway of my office listening to the sound of her boots hitting the carpet as she made her way down the hall. The elevator opened with a ding. Then she was gone.

A Taboo Longing

I wish we could be friends, too. Why hadn’t I been able to say those words to her—or to any client, even though I’ve wished this many times since I first started working as a therapist? Why did the simple expression of a heartfelt wish rooted in a meaningful shared history feel taboo?

Was I worried Sue Ellen might misunderstand me and my wish might be received as an open invitation to an unhealthy, dual relationship, which could interfere with the therapeutic progress she’d made, or worse, erode the safety and trust we’d nurtured in our work? Was I concerned I might be saddling her with my needs and harming her by expressing a self-serving desire, an unrealistic fantasy for a type of relationship that would probably never work out in real life, especially after interacting with one another from within a different set of relational parameters? Even though most ethical guidelines say that two years need to pass before psychotherapists can consider transitioning into being a client’s friend, I’ve only met one clinician over the course of my entire career who ended up developing a friendship with a former client, and that was a decade after they’d worked together. It’s a rare occurrence, at least among my colleagues.

No one has told me outright that it’s wrong to wish for friendship with clients, but as mental health providers, many of us absorb the message that it’s best to deny this wish—to suppress it, ignore it, and even pretend it doesn’t exist. I’ve always found it telling that there’s a far greater likelihood of a therapist’s saying, “I love my client” than “I want to be my client’s friend.” There seems to be a shared unspoken understanding among clinicians that the wish to be a client’s friend is a sign of intellectual laziness, emotional immaturity, poor work–life balance, or empathy fatigue. Presumably, this wish isn’t just embarrassingly childish: it could lead to serious harm, litigation, the revocation of your license, and professional disgrace.

And yet, how far is friendship really from that special type of trust, intimacy, and closeness with clients that we call, rather dryly, the therapeutic relationship? When our clients leave therapy, the therapeutic relationship ends, but the feelings of camaraderie and closeness embedded within it typically linger. Our job has never been to befriend our clients, but how could we not feel a relational loss when therapy with a beloved client ends?

In the days, weeks, and months that have passed since Sue Ellen left my office, I’ve wished I could reach out to her more times than I can count—more as a friend than a therapist. I’ve wanted to text her saying, “What’s new?” to leave a voice message asking, “Are things good with Jake?” I’ve wanted to admit, “I think about you a lot! It’s been too long.”

Instead, I’ve missed her privately and quietly, the way I’ve missed many of my clients whose lives became a mystery to me once our treatment ended. It’s made me sad, but I’ve also smiled remembering some of our sessions—especially when I’ve thought about Abigail Mermaid and Lynn Terrace. Maybe in some alternate universe these two women could’ve been great friends; they might’ve gone out dancing on weekends, met at the local coffee shop, and invited each other over for a fancy cocktail whenever their days felt extra tough.

It soothes me to envision this fantastical relationship. I see Abigail rapping the knocker loudly on a snowy porch, Lynn opening the door with her arms spread wide, and then, amid a cacophony of giggles, I hear phrases like, “I love your coat!” “So good to see you!” as their arms wrap around each other and they hug the way good friends do, with their whole hearts.

 

Photo by Thirdman/Pexels

Alicia Muñoz

Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nurture Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past 16 years, she’s provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.