Dual Relationships

There’s an old argument in the counseling community regarding how to restrict dual relationships between therapists and clients — that is, any sort of relationship between the therapist and the client outside of the therapeutic context (like running into each other at Pagan events, shopping at the client’s store, having sex, etc.).   Certain activities (like sex) are universally condemned while others (like attending the same large event or going to a client’s wedding) attract a variety of opinions.

There are LOTS of good arguments why dual relationships are generally a bad idea.  Why this is important to Pagans is that periodically there are attempts to make the various professional society ethics codes more rigid so counselors can not knowingly have dual relationships.  This is a BIG PROBLEM if we want Pagan therapists to be able to see Pagan clients given the still small size of our communities.

Anyway, someone with alot of clout has been advocating the rigid position lately on a widely-read Yahoo Group for therapists and got my dander up.  Here’s my response, with some references for those interested in learning more towards the end.  I’ve edited it slightly since the whole discussion thread is not reproduced here so it makes more sense:


I tend to think the dual relationships ethics debate in counseling is not dissimilar to the abortion debate in our society.  You end up with good people on all sides of the debate, and after a while they can scream all the facts and arguments at each other they want – no one is going to change their minds.


I could point out that relationship boundaries between healers and their clients have varied widely throughout history as the various healing professions have sought the right balance between closeness as a healing tool versus distant and boundaries as a defense.   To my thinking, the wide variance of opinion on this topic amongst good quality counselors argues for some latitude in the ethics guidelines.  This, however, won’t persuade someone who believes there is an absolute right and wrong – an absolute professional standard – that must be upheld.  (Similarly, I tend to see abortion as a personal choice, but choice is no acceptable compromise to those who see it as murder.) 


Rural counselors who can’t avoid dual relationships have been pointed out as a reason for some latitude in the ACA ethics rules.  This can be extended to any small community – even nestled in the middle of a large city – when clients from that community believe that there is an advantage to seeing a counselor who is also a member.  I’m thinking specifically of religious communities.  There is some research showing that evangelical Christians and Jews often prefer or demand counselors who are of the same faith and worldview.  These groups are not so small, so dual relationships are not a common problem, but I suspect future research will show the same preferences amongst members of smaller religions as well.


So what are potential clients from smaller, little understood religions like Ifa, Umbanda, Santeria, Neo-Paganism, Wicca, Voudun, Asatru,  etc. supposed to do when they want a counselor?   These religions have unusual worldviews compared with mainstream Western culture.  They believe in spirits, magic, direct communication with the dead, and a whole host of other beliefs that they (rightly or wrongly) fear will get labeled as psychotic by counselors from a mainstream orientation.  Their religions tend to have only a few hundred to a few thousand members in any given metro area.  Religious gathering draw as few as 5-10 people to as “many” as 50 or 200 at large events.


A strong argument can be made that a disservice is done to clients if counselors from these alternative faith paths (or any small distinctive community) can’t see people from their own community for fear of an absolute ban on dual relationships.  Harm to such clients may include: 

a)      Never seeking counseling at all for fear counselors will misunderstand them,

b)      Inferior quality of counseling relationships if in fact mainstream counselors do have some trouble relating to them,

c)      Failure of knowledge about these small religions (and other subcultural groups) to reach mainstream counselors.  If counselors from small, distinctive communities can’t help their own community, they will be unable to develop expertise in what the unique concerns of that community are from a mental health standpoint.  They will then be unable to raise awareness of such and/or train the rest of the professional community.

There are many arguments (and research papers) regarding how to best handle the complex subject of dual relationships other than enacting tough, nearly absolute bans on them.  I believe the best known author in this area is Dr. Ofer Zur.  His website can be found at http://www.zurinstitute.com/dualrelationships.html Another (and rather rare) article on this topic, entitled “The ethics of a dual relationship, psychotherapist and Wiccan clergy” by Ellen C. Friedman can be found at http://unicorntrad.org/PDF/Wiccan_Clergy.pdf  It has references as well as a discussion of choice-making decision models on this topic.   Another version of it (as well as some materials on how counseling members of a small religion (Wicca) is different) can be found at http://www.draknet.com/proteus/counselbook.html Thanks,Michael

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