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What do you do when you are attracted to your therapist?

Counterintuitive as it may seem, once you are aware of your non-platonic feelings towards your therapist, a good step is to open up to them

 A friendship or romance between a client and their can cause deep psychological harm because  of an inherent power imbalance in the relationship.
A friendship or romance between a client and their can cause deep psychological harm because of an inherent power imbalance in the relationship. (Pexels/Gustavo Fring)

The therapeutic relationship between a client and their therapist is unique. The client confides in the therapist, sharing their hopes, desires and fears with this individual in a private space. The intimacy of the relationship might sometimes lead clients to view their therapist in a romantic light, or at least develop a deep sense of admiration for them. While this is not unusual, the occurrence of such emotions sometimes distresses the client, leading to anxiety around therapy. Suddenly, the therapy space is imbued with a sense of confusion or shame — “I should not be feeling this way”. Sensations that are ultimately counter-productive to the therapeutic process. In order to avoid this potential rabbit hole, it is important to consider the following question: what do you do if you’re attracted to your therapist?

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First and foremost, you do not need to stop seeing your therapist. Instead, it would likely be beneficial to actually confide in them and explain what you are feeling. An experienced therapist has likely dealt with such situations during their career. In the ideal case, they would respond to your confession without judgement or shock, acknowledging your feelings, listening intently to the emotions you are experiencing, and creating a safe space for you to process some of the questions you might be asking, particularly “Why am I feeling this way?

The answer to this question could be multifaceted and complex. For instance, if your therapist is doing their job correctly, they are providing you, the client, with a space that you may not have in other realms of your life. The confidentiality, trust, honesty and thoughtfulness of the therapeutic relationship might indeed be special to you, particularly if other people in your life have not always been there in that way.

If so, it may be worth asking yourself (or allowing your therapist to ask you) some challenging questions: Are you unintentionally filling a void that exists in your life with your therapist? Are they providing you with a certain emotional stability or maturity that you crave and seek in other relationships but have not been able to find—be it a parental, friendly or romantic relationship? 

While these are uncomfortable questions that require a level of emotional honesty and vulnerability to answer, they are key to understanding where non-platonic feelings for your therapist may have arisen from. In particular, they push you, the client, to address what is called transference — when a client projects feelings that they have for someone else onto their therapist. The “someone else” may not be an actual person but rather, a desire for a type of relationship in its ideal form. For instance, a client might realise that they are attracted to how the therapist shows care to them because they were neglected by those in their life who were supposed to actually love them. 

In this example, once the client has processed their feelings for their therapist and made this revelation regarding neglect, they might then begin to address how neglect has led to certain defence mechanisms in them, the other patterns they fall into in relationships, and the subconscious ways in which such trauma continues to rear its head. Evidently, when a client bravely admits their feelings to their therapist, it could lead to much deeper therapeutic work pertaining to their interpersonal relationships, more generally. 

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While the client’s honesty to the therapist is critical, it is important for the client to enter into this conversation with an understanding that the therapist cannot and should not reciprocate such feelings. In fact, it would be highly unethical for the therapist to do so — a glaring red flag! 

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) ethical code of conduct critically states, “A psychologist refrains from entering into a multiple relationship if the multiple relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists.”

The APA addresses the issue of “multiple relationship” between a client and a therapist — relationships such as friendship or romance — because they could cause deep psychological harm to the client. This psychological harm occurs because of the inherent power imbalance in the client-therapist relationship. 

The therapist is considered the mental health expert and most often, the client is coming to the therapist for help. As such, a power dynamic is set up quite naturally. Within the therapeutic space, there is nothing untoward or unhealthy about this dynamic. Outside the therapeutic space, however, this power imbalance could be deeply detrimental to the client. Furthermore, if something went amiss in the romance or friendship, the therapeutic relationship would likely end as issues of mistrust or discomfort would likely crop up. As such, the client would not only lose their friend/partner, but also their therapist, the one person they might have confided in. 

Evidently, the therapeutic relationship is bounded for several reasons, and these boundaries allow for it to thrive. The therapist is a professional and their ability to hold space for a client’s vulnerabilities is something they are trained to do. Ultimately, it is the therapist who must gently remind the client of these boundaries, enforce them, and explain that the empathetic space they create for the client should not be mistaken for something more than it is.

Simultaneously, the client must recognise and honour the therapist’s professionalism as they draw these boundaries. It might be easy for ego to cloud a client’s judgement in this moment, but it is important to constantly be reminded that a therapist who does not uphold these boundaries is not acting ethically — even if their actions please the client in the moment. 

Malika Noor Mehta is a psychotherapist and mental health advocate who runs her own private practice in Mumbai.

Therapy Deconstructed is a monthly column that aims to demystify all aspects of therapy.

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