© This article was first published in Therapy Today, the journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). www.bacp.co.uk
I still remember the burning feeling of shame. The manager of the counselling service I worked for had called me into her office to tell me that I’d been seen on a dating app. She was clearly embarrassed, and I was mortified. I was also furious – did I not have a right to a personal life? I understood why it could be an issue – I was a therapist at a university and this threw up potential boundary complications. On the other hand, it felt grossly unfair, and even discriminatory, as I am gay. But it made me aware that this is an issue that single therapists struggle with but that is rarely talked about. Are therapists expected to forgo the normal human experience of dating in a digitised world? And even if it is OK, what difficulties might they encounter?
My work with clients often revolves around the turbulence of the dating world and the excitement, disappointment, hope and disillusionment it can engender. But for therapists, dating life is somewhat taboo: a hidden and lonely underworld on which very little is written or talked about openly – perhaps out of an assumption that we should all be in settled, harmonious relationships, given our role.
BACP’s recently released Guidance on the use of social media for members advises keeping in mind the impact of our online interactions on our reputation, our profession and others. Most therapists are aware that their online presence has to be thoughtfully presented, measures taken to withhold elements of their identity by using strict privacy settings, and careful thought given about what we post. We are constantly making judgment calls as we navigate a line between the personal and professional. But online dating is a whole other minefield.
Dating apps which use GPS location technology or algorithms to match you with others are now ubiquitous and have been with us for well over a decade, beginning with the launch of Grindr in 2009, a dating app aimed at gay men. Pre-COVID, these apps provided an easy way to interact with people in a fast-paced world. Introverts, those with social anxiety as well as those from the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups, benefited from the relative ease and safety of meeting like-minded people via their smartphones. During COVID lockdowns, dating apps have become even more of a lifeline for the isolated. Other apps followed suit, including Tinder, Hinge and, more recently, Bumble, a dating app that aims to empower women by allowing matches only once the woman has sent the first message.
According to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, the number of people aged 16 years and over who are single and have never married has increased in recent years to 35% of the population (16.7 million people) in 2018. The majority (90.5%) of those aged 16 to 29 years were single (never married or in a civil partnership) in 2019 [see References]. You don’t have to be young to be single but, statistically, you’re more likely to be actively seeking your life partner when you are under the age of 35. A recent post asked the question, ‘Is it OK to use dating apps when you’re a therapist?’ on the Facebook page of the Network for Younger Counsellors and Psychotherapists (NYCP). It received 19 replies, with comments that included, ‘I have battled with how to navigate an online presence’, ‘I’m not sure we should have to forgo online dating’ and ‘It poses quite the dilemma’.
Therapy by Stealth
Several of the therapists I spoke to said they had learned the hard way not to reveal their profession on dating sites lest it attract unwanted attention. Reported reactions ranged from a benign curiosity and the familiar jokes about ‘mind reading’ to outright rejection and prejudice. Then there is the issue of therapy by stealth – potential dates seeking therapeutic support once they know that they are speaking to a therapist. This has caused several therapists to adapt their profile and say that they work in ‘mental health’, and to be careful not to reveal their profession too soon.
The consensus was that it made dating more challenging – each person I interviewed attributed their current single status, at least in part, to the complex interplay between their personal and professional identities. Many therapists had come to the conclusion that it is safer to err on the side of caution and not date online, making their life simpler but also, it could be argued, statistically reducing their chances of meeting someone.
Perhaps the biggest fear of any therapist using a dating app is being seen or even worse, ‘matched’ to a client. I also had a situation where I realised that the person that a client of mine had begun to talk to online – and discuss in therapy – was someone I had previously dated. I felt my heart quicken and immediately began to run through in my head all the ways this could play out, while working hard to retain my calm and neutral professional stance. Another time, a former client messaged me on a dating app to say hello – it was embarrassing, and I deleted the app for a while.
There are myriad potential situations to consider. What if you have been dating someone for a while and you discover their ex-partner is a current client? What if a current client pretends to be someone else online to draw you into revealing more personal information about yourself? What if your dating profile is posted onto social media by a disgruntled client? The possibilities for ethical dilemmas are endless and other than supervision, where can we turn to for guidance?
Although BACP currently has no specific advice on dating for therapists, the Ethical Framework (point 33c) [see References] advises us to ensure that ‘reasonable care is taken to separate and maintain a distinction between our personal and professional presence on social media where this could result in harmful dual relationships with clients’. BACP’s Guidance on the use of social media encourages therapists to ‘keep your professional and personal life as separate as possible’ and ‘maintain appropriate boundaries with clients’. While this may be relatively straightforward on general social media, where you can opt for the strictest privacy settings, as previously mentioned, and not ‘friend’ your clients, it’s less straightforward on dating apps. After all, the point of being on such an app is to reach as wide a range of potential matches as possible, to increase your chances of finding someone you click with. And it is widely known that the profiles that receive the biggest responses are those that include images that clearly show what you look like. Hiding your identity on a dating app can make it a pointless exercise.
Stephen Hitchcock, BACP’s Ethics Consultant, recommends going into an online environment ‘with your eyes open’, and being prepared for contact outside normal channels and how to deal with it [see References]. He also highlights the need to consider the potential impact on clients of any of your online words or images. As a general rule, anything that you would be uncomfortable having a client or potential client see might warrant reconsideration.
BACP member Cherie Morgan has been interested in the lives of single therapists and dating for some time and notes the lack of attention paid to the private lives of therapists in training, where single people, often younger (but not always), can feel marginalised. ‘Not only is dating rarely mentioned in training, I have never come across a CPD event on it, which has motivated me to create my own,’ she says. ‘I think therapists need a space where they can explore the impact of their profession on their intimate relationships and how to strike a balance between acting ethically and in the best interests of the profession and their own personal need for a connection and a meaningful relationship.’
Making It Work
Handled well, even the worst-case scenarios can prove useful, as I discovered when a client revealed he had seen my profile on a dating app. By bringing it into the room, it allowed us to examine assumptions about therapists being ideal humans with perfect relationships, and it ultimately made me more relatable. Following an exploration of a previously unspoken erotic transference, the client was able to be more vulnerable and honest, and this event represented a turning point in the therapy. Since this time, I have included a section on digital contact in my initial contracting with clients. I also discuss in the first session that, if an in-person or digital encounter happens outside the therapy room, the client should feel able to bring any thoughts and feelings around this to the next session. I also make it clear that I will only respond to the officially agreed method of contact, which is usually email. Not surprisingly, it has been helpful to discuss these issues in supervision.
The challenge of preserving therapist anonymity has been around long before online dating. Anyone who works in the area where they live has to navigate the possibility of bumping into clients in the supermarket or waiting for a train, and we are prepared to deal with this. The digital world arguably makes these encounters far more likely, but is there any difference, so long as we are prepared?
Creating the best conditions for clients to benefit from our work is a priority for most therapists. But we also have a right to a personal life, and as long as we are thoughtful about the potential impact on our clients, and are willing to work through any difficulties in sessions and in supervision, online dating should be as open to us as it is to the rest of the population. But until open dialogue about our personal lives within our community is encouraged, and right from the start, when we embark on training, we won’t get the support we need throughout our professional careers to navigate this ethical minefield effectively.
It’s clear that I have a personal investment in this topic. Very soon after that embarrassing encounter with my manager, I met my partner on a dating app. He’s now my husband. The relief at being able to delete dating apps was profound. But I’d like others in the profession, regardless of life stage, to feel safe, confident and authorised to find love in our evolving digital world.
1. BACP. Guidance on the use of social media. Lutterworth: BACP; 2021. www.bacp.co.uk/membership/membership-policies/social-media/
2. Morgan E. Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements, England and Wales: 2018. London: Office for National Statistics; 2019.
3. Sharfman A. Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements, England and Wales. London: Office for National Statistics; 2020.
5. BACP. Ethical framework for the counselling professions. Lutterworth: BACP; 2018.
6. Hitchcock S. Dilemmas: online working and social media etiquette. Therapy Today 2019: 30(10): 46–48.
Paul Christopher Mollitt is a group and individual psychotherapist who has worked in the NHS and higher education for 10 years, alongside private practice. He is a current doctoral student at the Metanoia Institute exploring politics in the consulting room, and lives in London with his husband.
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