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Way Too Personal

A Hug-Free Zone? continued...

But, in the meantime, the issue is stirring up controversy within the ranks of psychologists. The threat of lawsuits, the already strong language in the APA code, and the general litigiousness of society have prompted many therapists to erect barriers between themselves and their patients when it comes to any physical contact. No more hugs for a sobbing patient. No encouraging pats on the back. Even friendly chitchat outside office walls is shunned.

"I used to not have any social contact with former patients for two years, but now I don't do it at all," says Lack. "It's just too controversial."

The Case for Dual Relationships

But Ofer Zur, Ph.D., a private-practice therapist in Sonoma, CA, is leading a fight to support "dual relationships" -- patient-therapist bonds that never turn sexual but are nonetheless close and nurturing. "Most of our clients suffer from detached and cold parents," he says. "So how can we fathom that detached, cold therapists might be able to heal those wounds?"

He contends that sympathetic hugs very rarely lead to sexual advances, and small-town living has convinced him that you can play on the same softball team with a patient outside the office.

"I believe it's time for patients to file lawsuits against therapists who act in an indecent, uncaring, or inhumane way when they do not hug a grieving mother or anyone else who is in pain," he says.

Caution Prevails

But Zur is in the minority. The trend is toward more detachment from therapists, he and Lack agree. How this may affect the therapeutic process will take years to discover.

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