Way Too Personal
Secrets, dreams, fears, fantasies -- all are shared with the professionals
we hire to guide us toward optimal mental health. It's no surprise that
patients often become attracted to their therapists.
But woe to the shrink who allows this attraction to develop into a sexual
relationship. In its Code of Conduct, the American Psychological Association
(APA) forbids sexual relationships during therapy and for two years after
therapy ends. Violating this code can bring expulsion from the APA, a revoked
license, and a nasty lawsuit.
Every year, about 17 therapists are expelled or asked to resign from the APA
due to sexual misconduct, according to the organization, which began keeping
track of the numbers in 1993.
Now, the APA is considering changing its Code of Conduct to forbid
post-therapy sexual relationships forever. This means that if a woman runs into
her former therapist 10 years later, for example, and the two begin a sexual
relationship, the therapist could risk his entire career.
Once Vulnerable, Always Vulnerable
Why such a hard-line attitude? "Because of the possibility of the
patient being harmed," says Rhea Farberman, spokeswoman for the APA. People
often arrive at therapy with many concerns, sometimes focusing on sexuality
issues and distress about how they were parented, says Farberman. ''These
vulnerabilities can remain for a lifetime, and a sexual relationship with a
therapist could compound their problems," she adds.
|When Is Close Too Close?|
|Despite the current controversy, reputable therapists may offer hugs and
other physical comforting, and as long as the relationship stays professional,
"The perception of the person being hugged is more important than the
hug itself," says the APA's Farberman. If you're not comfortable with the
touch or the words, they are inappropriate.
First, tell the therapist how you feel. "If it moves to a clearer sexual
advance, stop seeing him or her immediately," says Farberman. "If you
want to, file a complaint with the state licensing board and/or the APA Ethics
Board in Washington, D.C." For more information, go to www.apa.org.
Furthermore, says San Francisco psychotherapist Dorothea Lack, Ph.D., the
process called transference almost always occurs during intensive therapy. This
happens when the patient transfers onto the therapist the feelings he or she
had for an earlier authority figure, typically a parent. "Transference
lingers for life," she says, which is why a sexual relationship can never
be equal, even years after therapy has ended. (Transference is not common,
however, in short-term counseling, such as the two to six visits typically
provided by managed-care programs.)
A Hug-Free Zone?
Since it's part of an in-depth review of the Code of Conduct, the APA's code
on sexual relationships won't change for two to three years, if at all. Members
are expected to comment on the proposed change by the end of this year. The
final decision will be made by the APA Council of Representatives, which
includes its board of directors and state and regional representatives.