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


  1. Dawn Pugh said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    Hi Michael,
    I am a psychotherapist operating within the United Kingdom. I came across your debate on ‘dual relationships’ and would like to offer my opinion;
    Good therapist should always work from their own strong ethical base and boundaries should be discussed at the on-set of therapy.
    I really cannot see the correlation between this subject and the subject of abortion. May-be I am missing something.
    Dawn Pugh

  2. Michael_Reeder said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    Hi Dawn — Your observations are right on the money — that “therapist[s] should always work from their own strong ethical base and boundaries should be discussed at the on-set of therapy.” Thank you.

    The correlation between this dual relationships debate and abortion is perhaps weak and more a correlation between the emotions aroused and the behavior I’m observing than a logical correlation. It also may be hard to know what the heck I’m talking about given that I pulled that out of context from an ongoing therapist debate on another listserv. The correlation I see is that about half the therapists in the debate believe in a rigid, absolute right and wrong approach to dual relationships in which there are rules that apply 100% of the time no matter the circumstances. The other half believe in strong personal ethics and that some allowance for circumstances and the needs of the client play a role. The result is a war in which the rigid crowd try to codify professional ethics codes in ways that straightjacket therapists into having no room for professional judgement. Then everyone gets mad, stops listening to each other, and the battle lines are drawn (sort of like the abortion debate).


  3. moriah conquering wind said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    “Never seeking counseling at all for fear counselors will misunderstand them…”

    oh hell Michael that bes not requiring any dual relationship restrictions to manifest. you have studied some Christian thought so it poses this question, have you never heard the phrase “He came unto His own, but His own received Him not”?

  4. Michael_Reeder said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

    Moriah — Yup, one can certainly be misunderstood in one’s own community. I do think one is more likely to be understood in one’s own community however than outside of it. — Michael

  5. Jamie Sumner said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    This is a great topic and I’m really glad we’re talking about it.

    One question I think we should consider is the dual (tri?) relationship of clergy/counselor/community member. Therapists know there is a difference between pastoral counseling or ministry and psychotherapy. I’m very active in my coven, so what’s the line when I’m a priestess and someone approaches me for counseling? Covens in particular often do character building, but it seems like I’d have a professional advantage and that in many ways my covenmates are getting free therapy. I’m wondering if we ought to (ugh! that word!) have clearer boundaries between the three, but I’m not sure how we can outline them in a way that allows Pagan counselors to also be spiritual mentors in the community. I generally know what I am at a particular moment, but I’m not sure my community does. Thoughts?

  6. admin said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    Jamie — I have no definite answers — but here is how I might handle this. If I am both a professional counselor and a Wiccan High Priest then I would not be able to do much counseling with my coveners that crosses into “professional counseling”. What the heck is “professional counseling”? What I suggest in my clergy ethics class is that Pagan clergy consider a personal rule of three times then refer. So I might see coveners for three times or so as clergy for quick, short-term stuff. If it becomes evident that longer term counseling is needed I would refer them out. This is of course awkward if there are no other Pagan therapists in the area but I suspect we can find open-minded enough therapists to refer to. I also tell clergy to ALWAYS keep a spiritual theme to the counseling and to counsel from a spiritual model — especially if they are doing ongoing counseling.

    So if someone is in my coven, they can see me once or twice — or maybe ongoing for clearly spiritual stuff — but I refer them out otherwise and stay away from ongoing treatment of mental illness.

    As for group discussions, group guided journeys, and the like — yup, I might be better at it and my coveners might get slightly better “group therapy” than they would from other HP and HPS leaders.

    — Michael

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