Multiple relationships: Just how many is too many?

Last night in our ethics class we took up the issue of multiple or dual relationships. For those of you who haven’t heard of either term, it refers to the situation where a counselor is not only a person’s counselor but they also have another relationship with the client as well: counselor and pastor, counselor and friend, counselor and business partner, counselor and friend of a child, and the like.

Every professional ethics code (secular or not) raises concerns about dual relationships given their potential for causing harm to the client. The AACC code recognizes that dual relationships are a given in Christian communities and something not to be banned outright. But even this code suggests that forming a dual relationship is a breakdown of professional relationships.

Over the years, I would estimate that 2/3 of the students in my program come thinking that dual relationships are good, even optimal and that those who would outright refuse more influenced by old psychotherapy models. So, part of my class is to talk about the benefits and liabilities of dual relationships. There are success stories and horror stories. But what is the value behind limiting these kinds of counseling relationships? It is to, “Do no harm,” to work for the client’s best interest and not one’s own.

Here’s what I asked my students last night. In an area filled with counselors, why would you think YOU ought to engage in a dual relationship? I want to push them to consider their reasons. Is it people pleasing? Is it to feel valued? Is it arrogance that no one else can help?

I am not against dual relationships and have engaged in some superficial one’s myself. But I do think we ought not engage in them without having forced ourselves to consider that maybe the reasons we do so are not really for our client’s best interests.

What do you think?

Of course, the answer to my title question is this: Even one unexplored dual relationship (exploring reasons why, options not to, possible dangers, informed consent, etc.) is too many.


Filed under AACC, ethics

3 responses to “Multiple relationships: Just how many is too many?

  1. Dr. Kevin Huggins was formerly the Chair of the counseling program at the grad school I attended, and we learned our basic counseling model from a book he’d authored entitled “Friendship Counseling.” I liked the model because it was less authoritarian than it was “walk beside the counselee” and seemed appropriate for the kind of counseling a Christian helper might offer in a church setting, in which dual relationships may not be avoided. When Dr. Jeff Black took over the Chair’s duties (himself being a counseling pastor at his church), we brought up the ACA’s stringent position on this issue and asked how we as Christians were to respond. His answer was classic Jeff Black: “Who’s the ACA?” I heard echos of Paul, when he asked the Corinthians why they were allowing secular courts to rule on matters that they as a church had the maturity and prerogative to decide upon. On the other hand, having worked with more difficult cases in child and adolescent therapy, oftentimes a stronger position afforded by a singular kind of counselor/counselee relationship was necessary in order to more positively influence a troubled child to move toward change…the “I care immensely for you, but I’m not your buddy” relationship. I can see elements of both sides of the argument in my past experiences…it certainly takes the guidance of the Holy Spirit to decide where to set the dial on the relationship (between the extremes of singular and multiple), which is something the ACA did not have the benefit of when they took the safe route and went for the extreme position on the dial!

  2. D. Stevenson

    “Who is the ACA?” An organization that just might have something to contribute even though “secular.” We pull from the secular in other areas of knowledge. Perhaps the better question would have been, “Why” does the ACA take this stance? As I recall off the top of my head, the APA does not 100% ban dual relationships.

    You can find thought-provoking articles on these sites about dual relationships

  3. Many years ago, I saw a christian counselor who was very blurry on the boundaries and relationship. At the time, I enjoyed feeling “special,” but soon, the relationship felt more about her than me, which was confusing since I was paying her.

    Looking back, this “counseling” did more damage than good.

    I would run fast from any counselor who suggested any kind of dual relationship. Just my two cents, from the other side of the couch…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.