When Client Relationships Lean Romantic

Pulling Back When Therapy Stretches Ethical Boundaries

Mary Jo Barrett

Before it happened to me, I'd never heard even my closest colleagues talk about falling in love with a client. In our consultation group, the subject was once broached purely theoretically, and everyone became uncomfortably quiet. The message we gave each other was clear: whatever you do, don't talk about having a crush on a client.

Yet, I want to break our conspiracy of silence so that we can get help when we need it. And believe me, when it came to Scott, I did.

Scott was 34 years old when he was referred to my therapy center by the courts. He had nearly strangled a truck loader who'd made a major mistake at his metals manufacturing company, and in previous years, police had been called on three different occasions by girlfriends he'd struck in late-night arguments. Unmarried, childless, and an amateur jazz musician, he worked hard by day and hung out with famous and creative people at night. He was gorgeous, at least to my taste: tall, well-built and (like many men with a history of violence) charming, intelligent, and a champion at forming relationships.

Bemused, Bothered and Bewildered

In my initial work with Scott, I could see that he was uncomfortable to be in a relationship in which he was not totally in control---a familiar early stage of therapy, when clients and I are working out our power balance. Usually, I quickly get a feel for how to establish a collaborative relationship where I am, nevertheless, in charge. Not with Scott.

In session, he worked hard to please me and often told me what a fabulous therapist I was. I'd heard it all before, but this time, I didn't use a client's compliments as therapeutic material; I simply let them wash over me. He smiled. He left long messages on my voicemail, telling me funny stories, small successes, struggles and new behaviors that would make me proud. I was amused by his stories of life with the rich and famous. I loved participating vicariously in his exciting life, and I was flattered that he kept me emotionally present even when we were apart.

Instead of keeping him engaged in the process, I was working hard to keep him engaged in our relationship. I wondered if he was changing at work, treating his employees better and becoming a better human being. He had become my personal project.

This was not the Mary Jo I knew.

The worst part was the terrible isolation I felt. I pride myself on being clear during therapy and on top of my game. When I'm not, I usually go immediately for help to get me back on track. Not this time. For two months, embarrassed and ashamed, I struggled internally and alone. I didn't tell anyone, not even my husband, Dennis.

In Consultation

Once I began to talk openly about my feelings, I realized that danger existed only if I behaved unethically. As Jimmy Carter taught us, many of us have lust in our hearts. The danger lies in not understanding the lust and not taking responsibility for how we behave in response to it. I was clear on my marital and professional responsibilities. I wasn't about to act out my crush.

Nevertheless, I also realized that I had to bring my dirty secret out of the closet, understand it in context and commit to a plan of action.

And so, I finally brought up my Scott crush in my consultation group. We began to explore my feelings and some of the group pushed me hard to question whether I should terminate and refer him out. "What is he bringing up in you?" they asked. "What's getting stirred?" It soon became clear that Scott had arrived just in time to smack head-on into my own mid-life development crisis.

I felt like a middle-aged, boring mother getting through each day. With his jazz-playing, freedom, and fascinating friends, Scott reminded me of my own carefree younger days, when I'd first fallen in love with Dennis, who read everything I wrote, told me I was brilliant, and came to my speeches. We’d hiked and lifted weights together, went out for dinner and stayed up talking long into the night. There was no such thing as a school night. Scott had stirred up a longing for those days. He even looked like Dennis.

I told Dennis about what had been going on. We started working out together again and taking walks without the kids. We went away together and spent a wonderful weekend in New Orleans shortly before Mardi Gras, when Dennis flew in to meet me after I'd finished a training.

Over the course of the weeks, I stopped feeling like a deer frozen in the headlights. I began working with Scott with an easier mix of head and heart. And I stopped feeling like a schoolgirl on the day of Scott's sessions.

Scott finished therapy six months later without ever having known about my crush.

This blog is excerpted from “The Crush.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Ethics

Tags: ethical issues | boundaries | client relationship | ethical boundaries | Mary Jo Barrett | psychotherapist | psychotherapy | relationships | romantic relationships | therapist | therapy

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