Thank you to everyone who responded to our Clinician's Quandary. Here are some of the top responses!
Quandary: I’ve been a therapist for almost 15 years and am newly single. Taking the advice of friends, I joined a few online dating apps. (The last time I was single, we didn’t even have cell phones!) To my horror, I’ve seen several clients come up in these apps, so I’m sure they’ve seen me. I desperately want to start dating, but this puts in me a very awkward position with these clients. What’s the best way to handle all this?
1) Plan for the New Normal
As tech behemoths like Google and Facebook increasingly profit from our ever-growing trove of personal data, it's becomingly increasingly challenging for therapists to safeguard their public persona and private lives. Unfortunately, much of our private info is also public. Dating is no different. With dating apps being the norm, our personal and professional lives are likely to mingle.
Fortunately, we can be proactive in minimizing this possibility and any subsequent damage. Comb through your web browser’s privacy settings and do Google and YouTube searches for yourself. As far as dating apps are concerned, OkCupid offers its users the option to “go incognito.” You can also change your profile picture or use a pseudonym on dating apps. Or you can adjust location settings to make sure the people who see your profile aren’t in the same neighborhoods as your clients.
If, after taking these precautions, a client still saw me on a dating app and mentioned it in treatment, I’d make sure to have appropriate responses planned, such as, “Yes, I date every now and then, but I’m hoping to keep that as separate from my work as possible to avoid dual-relationships and protect our therapeutic relationship.”
A proficient therapist knows how to navigate this tricky conversation with authenticity and redirect it to therapy without being evasive or deceitful. If you're on numerous apps with a larger reach, you might even consider mentioning in your professional disclosure statement that although you may be using these apps, it's vital to keep this issue separate from your work for your clients’ well-being. You might find clients not only appreciate your genuineness, but also your insider knowledge about navigating the fickle dating-app world.
Jason Linder, MA, LMFT
San Diego, CA
2) Ask Yourself: Does It Really Matter?
The first thing I’d do in this position is check in with myself, asking questions like, What about my clients knowing that I'm looking for a partner makes me feel awkward? What meaning am I attaching to clients knowing my personal relationship needs? Will they judge me, or am I just being self-critical? Am I conjuring up fantasies about what my clients will think if they spot me on a dating app?
If a client did happen to mention he or she saw me on a dating app, I'd be honest and say something like, “Yeah, my friends suggested online dating. I did feel awkward thinking about what might happen if a client saw me on the app. I'm glad you brought this up.” I might also ask them if there was a reason they brought this up, or if they now experience our therapeutic relationship differently because I’m using a dating app.
If I still found myself unable to deal with the awkwardness after this conversation, I would seek out peer supervision.
3) Know Your Boundaries
While I understand the desire to resume dating, it does not seem appropriate to be on public dating sites, disclosing personal information and enabling clients to be involved in any way in your personal life. The fact they might see you on the app and review your personal information is concerning. Social media sites should be private, and clients should not be allowed to follow us or vice versa.
It’s definitely more difficult nowadays to keep these parts of our life private, but perhaps there are dating sites geared more toward medical professionals who want to keep their personal information private from clients. If not, it seems like it would be a good idea to start one!
Rochester Hills, MI
4) Some Boundary Crossings are Inevitable
In the digital age, some boundary crossings are inevitable. In essence, we’re all living in the same “small town” that makes overlapping roles, common spaces, and shared intimacies more and more likely as time goes on.
It sounds like the therapist dealing with this quandary may be older and newly single after having been in a relationship for many years. In other words, this person is going through a period of transition: and therein lies a great opportunity. If it were me, I’d first get clear with myself about what I’m looking for in a relationship, what I’m hoping for at this stage in my life, and then come up with a productive and honorable way forward.
It’s very possible I might encounter clients dealing with these same issues. If I was to choose to self-disclose about my own dating experience, it could serve as a teaching moment for a client and strengthen the therapeutic alliance. When we put ourselves in a position to start making good choices, we help our clients make good choices as well. Not a bad day’s work!
5) It’s an Opportunity for Therapeutic Growth
I see this as an opportunity for the therapist to show their humanness. In this therapist’s position, while I might be terrified of having a client identify me as a single person wanting to date, I could also use this to jumpstart in-session discussions if a client was to bring it up. The trick is determining the right amount of self-disclosure. This conversation could potentially bring up some interesting and deep psychodynamic material, as well as create a sense of connection if the client realizes that experiences like singledom and dating are widely shared.
There’s something to be said for sessions where our clients suddenly realize that we therapists don't have our lives perfectly together. We struggle as all humans do. We have goals and desires. We experience victories, losses, and everything in between.
Santa Barbara, CA
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