Why Your Therapist Won’t Have Coffee With You


Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC

A client once came into session, told me she had started selling Avon products, and asked if I’d be interested in purchasing anything. Another told me that even though she was ending therapy, she’d love to go to lunch sometime. A third, an auto mechanic, told me that if I ever had car troubles, he’d be happy to do my repairs at cost.

These are examples of “dual role relationships,” and while all were tempting offers, I turned them down.

In order to explain why this is the case, it’s important to address the question of what makes therapy different from other relationships. When talking about the “specialness” of the therapeutic relationship, I talk about two things:

Confidentiality

This means that whatever you share in session stays in the room. When I’m explaining this to new clients, I often jest that this means “I won’t tell your mother what you say in here, I don’t talk to my friends and family about it, and I don’t take out a billboard over the 101 Freeway that says “Guess what
Ella told me in therapy today?!” And with some very specific exceptions (situations where I’m legally mandated to keep the client or someone they know safe), it’s like Vegas: What happens in therapy stays in therapy.

It’s also more than just the content of therapy that’s private: It’s the fact of therapy. What this means is that if someone calls me and says, “hey, I’m Ella’s husband, and I want to tell you about a fight we just had,” my response will be, “I can neither confirm nor deny that Ella is my client, but if you believe she is, you can ask her to sign a release the next time I see her and I’d be happy to talk to you once I have that.” This might seem a little bit overzealous, but it’s for the client’s protection – I don’t know how Ella feels about her husband knowing she’s seeing me for therapy. She might feel embarrassed about seeing a therapist, or she might feel unsafe in her relationship.

You might be wondering what this has to do with your therapist socializing with you or frequenting your business. Well, simply put, it compromises your confidentiality. And more than that, it compromises your feeling of security in your confidentiality. If I’m your therapist and I come to your housewarming party, you might look across the room, see me talking to your cousin Joan, and think “oh gosh, last week I was talking about how cousin Joan is so successful that it makes me feel like a failure by comparison… what on earth are they talking about??” Or if you’re a hairdresser and I come to your salon, you might wonder what I’m gabbing about while I gossip with the person washing my hair.

But even above and beyond the messiness of maintaining confidentiality in these circumstances, there’s an even more compelling reason to avoid these situations.

The Therapeutic Bubble

This is a phrase I coined to describe the other thing that makes therapy special and conducive to growth, and it means, in short, that I am your therapist and you are my client, and that’s the only relationship we have.

Let’s say you’re trying to make a major life decision, such as whether to leave your toxic but stable relationship. A friend will be deeply invested in you leaving – because they want to see you happy, yes, but also because it can be very emotional to be friends with someone in this situation. A therapist, on the other hand, will guide you through weighing the pros and cons, draw connections and patterns, and help you to come to your own decision. My only investment in my clients is to help them figure out what they feel is best for them, and this can be liberating for therapist and client alike.

As for business relationships, let’s say you’re a contractor, and your therapist hires you to remodel a room in their house. Let’s say you do your best work but the therapist absolutely hates the result. The result of this is that the therapist feels angry, and the next time the client comes into therapy, all the therapist can think about is how upset they are about the contracting job. They can’t focus on the client, and they certainly don’t feel very compelled or inspired to be therapeutic.

There’s something pristine about a relationship where my only role in your life is to help you figure out yours. Dual role relationships burst the therapeutic bubble and compromise that.

Jennie Steinberg, a psychotherapist in private practice in Downtown LA, thrives on helping clients on their identity journeys! Visit her website for more blog articles and practice information at http://www.jenniesteinberg.com.