Struggling with the Intimate-Yet-One-Way Therapy Relationship

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Reader’s Question

I’ve been with my therapist for 16 years and have become a changed person with her help. Due to her daughter being in a widely covered incident, I got to know details about her family. She knows that I try to find out whatever I can about her private life through the Internet and occasionally look up her family on Facebook. She hates me doing it and compares it to child abuse or rape. I think she has privacy issues. Apart from that, I feel good when I find out something about her or her family; I don’t feel guilty about it as she imagines I should. Who has the greater problem?

Psychologist’s Reply

When I teach a course on counseling, we discuss how important it is to consider what the counselor includes in his or her office (e.g., family photos). Typically, clients are hungry for some bits of knowledge about their therapists, and perhaps that’s logical since therapists quickly learn intimate details of their clients’ lives. Such one-way relationships are not the norm; we usually share intimate details about our lives with friends and family, who also share such details about themselves. The intimacy is reciprocal.

The one-way relationship between therapist and client is defined that way for good reasons. Not only is the client paying for the service/time, but the client needs to be able to feel free to express anything without fear of being judged. The more the client knows about the therapist, the more likely the client is to filter what he or she says (and does) in therapy because of assumptions about what is acceptable to the therapist. Also, knowing too much about the therapist may undermine his or her authority with the client, as it then becomes easier for the client to discount the therapist’s credibility, as it becomes known that the therapist is imperfect.

Because of the intimate-yet-one-way nature of the client-therapist relationship, it is common for the client to develop what therapists refer to as “transference.” The therapist becomes a lightning rod for the projection of client feelings from past relationships or unresolved issues. Transference might include feelings the client had toward parents or other authority figures, or fantasies of unconditional romantic love and acceptance. Often, examining the transference itself is a valuable part of therapy, as those feelings reveal underlying issues in the client’s life. Such transference might explain the motivation and sense of reward behind your investigative endeavors regarding your therapist’s private life. Knowing more about your therapist’s private life helps level the intimacy playing field a bit, and may feed underlying fantasies of a more ‘normal’ (non-therapy) relationship.

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I suspect that the analogy your therapist made to child abuse or rape was to drive home the point that, if she has asked you not to pry into her private life, and you continue to do so, you are violating her personal boundaries. Yes, the information you uncover is in the public domain, but as someone with whom you’ve forged a 16-year-long relationship, there are the more important issues of trust and respect. It isn’t that either of you has the bigger problem — these are common issues in therapy — but they deserve consideration. Whether and how these issues are resolved may help determine whether they end up undermining or strengthening your working relationship.

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