Attracted to Your Psychiatrist — The Elephant in the Room

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Reader’s Question

I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for about four years, since the time my husband and I separated. He has been very helpful to me (along with my female therapist) and supportive. Although he never said so outright, I got the impression, just by things he indirectly said, that he was divorced. Of course I didn’t want to cross boundaries, and never asked him.

After a while, he said I seemed ready to begin dating, as he felt I needed more in my life than the daily demands of work, family and school — something to look forward to. He suggested I sign up for an online dating site. I took his advice.

About two months later I checked the site for matches, and there was his profile in my inbox. He was a new member and had just signed up. I clicked on his profile impulsively and read it. (I had had a couple of glasses of wine, so I was not using my best judgment.) He is handsome and in the same “demographic” as me: young kids, same age range, etc. With all this, I now feel incredibly awkward. I’ve seen him since then, and neither of us has mentioned anything, but I feel like there is a pink elephant in the room. His demeanor hasn’t changed, so my assumption is that he wasn’t really surprised, but I still feel awkward and also guilty for invading his privacy, as I now know pretty intimate things about him. But seeing how he was the one who encouraged me to sign up for the site, and then himself joined the same site soon after, do I really have anything to feel bad about?

I would like to discuss it with him just to work through the other feelings that have been stirred up in me (attraction), but am hesitant. I’m sure he knows I’ve seen him (the site lists people who look at your profile), and I’m guessing that he must have predicted this might happen prior to signing up. Being that it’s such an unusual situation, do you think it is worth bringing up, or is it best to just let it go? He is very kind and professional and I’m sure won’t be mad, but I just don’t know what to say. He won’t bring it up, so I imagine it is up to me.

Psychologist’s Reply

While technology is great, it sure can bring up a whole host of problems, especially for those of us working in fields that depend upon confidentiality and boundaries. With all the new ways to connect with people virtually, the ethical codes cannot keep up. So this seems to be a gray area.

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I agree that you do not have anything to feel bad about. Therapy can often be a very intimate medium, so it is understandable that you were curious enough to click on your psychiatrist’s profile. Given that he put his information on a profile that is sure to be seen by numerous people (at least, that is probably his hope), you did not invade his privacy. You now know intimate details that he is comfortable with a lot of people knowing, so I think you’re okay there too.

Your psychiatrist may have realized it was possible that you might see each other’s profiles, but it’s also likely that he was just as surprised as you when the computer linked you two together. Either way, he’s probably taking his cue from you about whether it’s best to ignore the situation or discuss it together.

Therapist-patient attraction is a tricky topic, but I believe that talking about it can be helpful. First, all too often people shy away from having the difficult dialogues because of the fear of what will happen. If you believe that he is ‘safe,’ then he is an ideal person to try out these conversational skills. Second, if there is indeed an elephant in the room, then therapy will come to a screeching halt until it is addressed. Finally, the difficult dialogues are important to have because they frequently can offer profound insights. You might discover what qualities he has that you would like in a new partner, or figure out how to deal with attraction that can never be realized, or learn from him how to set gentle but firm boundaries.

The only warning I will give is for you to consider ahead of time what you will do if he also expresses interest in you. Surveys of mental health professionals show that roughly 30% of us have intimate relationships (usually of the sexual variety) with our patients. It is widely frowned upon, but people still do it. I strongly discourage therapist-patient personal relationships because of the inherent power imbalance, because of the fact that the dynamics you enjoy now would be impossible to sustain in the real world, and because these affairs can be extremely damaging. Hopefully your psychiatrist has strong enough professional ethics and boundaries that he would not ask you out but, just in case he doesn’t, think about what you would say.

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