Therapy is Not a Dating Service

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Reader’s Question

I am a divorced man with a 16-year-old son. A few years ago he was having issues at his mom’s house and we (his mom, step-dad and I) agreed that a group home would be best. My son was in a group home for about five months. While he was in there, he received therapy to help deal with anger issues. He then moved back home to his mother’s house and there haven’t been any issues since then.

I have him every Friday and Saturday. I have a really close relationship with my son. I think what has really helped is that his mom, step-dad and I have really opened up the lines of communication, and we are all working together as a family.

One of the things that he needed to do after being released from the group home was to continue therapy. He was assigned a therapist from Social Services for 120 days. The therapist has met with all of us at his mother’s house, and she has met with my son and me at my house a few times.

His therapy is now almost completed, and I am really interested in asking the therapist out on a date. Would this be a violation of her code of conduct? I am willing to wait until after she is finished with my son’s therapy to ask her out.

Psychologist’s Reply

Please allow me to congratulate you and your co-parenting team (your son’s mother and stepfather) on being willing to put aside your differences long enough to do what is necessary to ensure your son’s happiness and well-being. That is truly quite impressive.

Without knowing what kind of licensure and certification your therapist holds, I cannot tell you if it would violate her code of conduct. However, most mental health professional codes of ethics prohibit dual relationships, especially romantic ones. A dual relationship is when there are multiple roles between a counselor and a patient. Examples of dual relationships are when the patient is also a student, friend, family member, lover, employee or business associate of the therapist. In your situation, even though the therapist is technically for your son, she also is working with the family, which includes you. So dating her would be a dual relationship.

While there are many reasons why dual relationships are frowned upon, I will go over only a few. One major reason for avoiding multiple relationships is that, in order to counsel effectively, the therapist must be objective. This is difficult to do if she interacts more intimately with her patient in other situations. Another reason not to have more than one role is that there exists a power differential within the therapeutic relationship. For example, as a psychologist, I know a lot about my patients, while they know very little about me. That gives me more power in the relationship.

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Yet a third reason, and the one that is very relevant to your situation, is that the therapeutic relationship exists even after therapy is completed. Your son probably has confided very personal information to his therapist, maybe even information about you that he would prefer remains confidential. If his therapist suddenly started dating his father, then he would — understandably so — start to question both her objectivity and his confidentiality. Your son might feel awkward at best and betrayed at worst. Not only will she have lost her objectivity as far as he and your family are concerned, but now he would be reminded of his confidences to her every time she is around. Moreover, if he needed to return to therapy, he wouldn’t be able to go to her any longer and would instead have to start all over with a completely new therapist.

Thus, in thinking about the best interests of your son, I strongly recommend against asking his therapist for a date. Even regardless of ethics, this is not a good idea. As I like to say: therapy is not a dating service.

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