Boundaries and "dual relationships" in counselling

Boundaries are regularly discussed in counselling and psychotherapy (and in mental health and wellbeing more generally). In essence, boundaries are the limits or rules around the therapeutic relationship. They are designed to manage both client and therapist expectations regarding the therapeutic relationship, and provide consistency and security.


Clear boundaries should be discussed and mutually agreed upon early on in the counselling relationship. Some of these will be practical (such as timing, duration and frequency of sessions, the counsellor's cancellation policy, or what happens when you don't attend a session). Your counsellor should also clearly discuss boundaries relating to confidentiality, and when and how they might have to break confidentiality.


Boundaries around practical arrangements and the limits to confidentiality are fairly universal between counsellors. What is less often explicitly explored are the boundaries around what happens outside of the therapy room, and the potential of dual relationships.

What is a "dual relationship"?

If you and your counsellor have other relationships or interactions outside of the therapeutic space, these are known as dual relationships. For example, perhaps you know your counsellor in a personal capacity (a friend or family member), you have a business relationship with them (perhaps you're an accountant or an electrician for your counsellor), or you regularly encounter your counsellor through a shared hobby, club or group (perhaps you play the same sport or go to the same church).


Some dual relationships are explicitly off-limits - for example, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) Ethical Framework forbids counsellors from engaging in sexual relationships with their clients. But the boundaries around other types of dual relationships are less clear - the BACP simply states that dual relationships should be avoided "where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client". But what exactly does this mean? Can you work professionally with your counsellor in another capacity (for example, if they have a second job in teaching)? Can you talk to your counsellor socially (for example, if you attend the same community group)? What if you live in a small town, and you bump into your counsellor on the high street - can you say hello?


Establishing boundaries

One of the advantages of counselling in contrast to other relationships is that explicitly talking about boundaries is relatively normal. Much as we aren't surprised when our counsellor says "I'm afraid that's all we have time for today" (thus highlighting the time-boundaried nature of therapy), it may also feel quite normal to openly discuss the potential for blurred boundaries outside the therapy room.

Everyday encounters

Let's take the "small town" scenario as an example - often, counsellors who live in the area where they work (which includes a lot of private practitioners) will discuss this with you early on in the therapeutic relationship. If we bump into each other when in town, or walking the dog, or picking up our kids from school - what would you like to happen? Your therapist may have a preferred way to approach this, but ultimately should be guided by what you are comfortable with - would you prefer them to simply ignore you, or wait for you to say hello if you wish to?


Whatever you decide, both you and your therapist should respect this boundary, and your therapist should never discuss the content of your therapy outside of the therapeutic space (not only out of respect for your privacy and confidentiality but also to maintain the boundary of the therapeutic relationship). If you do happen to encounter each other "out in the wild" of everyday life, it may affect you in ways in which you didn't expect (whether positively or negatively) - and this can be worth re-visiting when you meet at your next session.


Personal connections

In a previous post, I mentioned the potential for "personal recommendations" when choosing a counsellor. Perhaps a friend of yours recommends someone they know who is a counsellor - should you engage their services? This will depend partly on your level of comfort (for example, if you want to talk about the friend in therapy - how comfortable will you be being open and honest about someone that you know that your therapist already knows?); and part of it will depend on the counsellor (for example, they may have a blanket rule about not seeing clients who have a connection to someone they already know, or they may address this on a case-by-case basis depending on their level of familiarity with the person). Whatever the case, your counsellor should be willing to discuss this with you, and revisit this discussion should the need arise (for example, if it becomes clear that the existing relationship becomes a barrier to therapeutic work). Under no circumstances should your therapist ever discuss your therapeutic work with the person who recommended them to you!


If the counsellor is someone you already know, I would strongly recommend not engaging them in a professional capacity (and very few counsellors would agree to work with people they already know). Not only is it challenging for a therapist to remain objective when working with someone they know socially (we are still human beings, and will have existing opinions or views about you if we're friends), but you may also find it harder to see your therapist as a therapist rather than a friend (especially if they challenge you, or if you are trying to be honest and vulnerable when all you can think about is the last time you went out clubbing together). And if you are able to be open, honest and vulnerable with them in a therapeutic relationship, it is likely to change your friendship in a way that you can't undo.

Professional dual relationships

Many private practitioners have other jobs outside of their therapeutic role. For example, I am also a freelance proofreader and an online teaching fellow. If your therapist also works in other settings where you might encounter them (either as a colleague, as a professional client, or even as a student or supervisee) - how do you feel about this? How might you feel if you have a professional disagreement with them, or they give you a bad grade? Is it likely to impact the trust or respect you have for them?


Most practitioners will have policies or procedures regarding the potential for professional dual relationships - for example, tutors who won't see their students as therapeutic clients, or therapists who won't work with their clients as counselling supervisees concurrently. But again, they should be open to discussing this with you (and, if appropriate, may be able to recommend alternate professionals for you to contact).


Social media

The issue of counsellors on social media is regularly discussed in counselling groups - should we have public profiles? Should we have separate personal vs professional accounts? Should we even put ourselves online at all?


The answers to those questions are ultimately down to individual practitioners - personally, I have personal locked accounts (open only to friends and family) and public, professional accounts. On my public accounts, I largely share content related to mental health and wellbeing, although I also share things related to my other roles (such as psychology and academia more generally).


Whilst those accounts are public, I never ask or recommend clients to follow me on any platform (I am largely followed by other professionals and practitioners!), and I never follow any clients, past or current. I've provided a full social media policy on my website to help potential clients understand my boundaries around online interactions.


If your therapist has a public-facing, open social media account(s), you may consider following them - but should you? Think about how this might impact your therapeutic relationship - what if your therapist posts something about a topic that you disagree with (for example if it's related to a current news story or an issue that affects you personally). How might that make you feel? What if you see them interacting online with someone that you know? Of course, these are things that you might want to talk about openly with them in therapy, but equally, it might make you feel less able to talk honestly with them.


Final thoughts

  • Counsellors should never engage in sexual or romantic relationships with their counsellors

  • Regardless of the nature of your relationship or any potential dual relationships, your counsellor should never discuss the content of your therapy with anyone (see this post for more information regarding confidentiality)

  • If you are unsure of your counsellor's policies regarding interactions outside the therapy room, you should feel able to discuss this with them

  • If your counsellor blurs any previously agreed boundaries around your counselling relationship and you don't feel able to discuss this with them directly, you may want to consider discussing this directly with their membership body (for example the BACP) for guidance

Did you enjoy this post? Did you find it helpful? Want to know something about counselling I haven't talked about yet? Please leave me a comment below, or email me at dr.astridcoxon@gmail.com
140 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All