The therapeutic relationship is quite a peculiar thing. A human being, a client, is asked to candidly and honestly explore the depths of their mind, with (emphasis on with and not by) another human being, a therapist. Yet at the end of the day, a bill must be paid and this intimate exchange is a regularly scheduled 30-50 minute block in a week. It’s not exactly the spontaneous heart to heart one would have with an old friend over drinks (or apple cider). It’s peculiar because it is an intimate relationship and yet a professional one at once!
Yet (at least arguably) it is this peculiarity that makes it work. It’s easy to think about what a friendship offers us: support, empathy, commitment, and unconditional acceptance. At the same time, we should also think about what a friendship actually is. Ideally, it should be an equal exchange between two people. I can be receiving all of the love and support from someone I call a friend, but if I’m not as committed to freely giving it back (freely as in free of coercion or co-dependence), then is it really a friendship? In a worst case scenario, it might even be considered use.
So why would anyone want to be friends with their therapist? Well, why not be friends with (in many cases) the only person that listens to your problems, provides almost unconditional acceptance, and is willing to go into deeper conversations than the deluge of daily small talk we engage in with people every day? A religious brother that worked at my college used to wonder, “When people walk by and ask you ‘How are you?’, how many of them would truly stop and find out how you really are?”
I’m going to be honest and say that when I was a student therapist, I have met clients with whom I think I would have liked to be friends with. They seemed like genuinely interesting and cool people. Yet I would have not (nor could I have not) engaged with them in this way because like I said before, a true friendship is a two-way exchange. If this had happened, a relationship forged to address the client’s needs would have crossed over into meeting my own needs. In an ironic way, we can say that therapists don’t “charge” (emotionally anyway) to offer whatever guidance or collaboration we can to help people through their struggles.
However, just because the therapist-client relationship has professional boundaries that look out for the client, it still doesn’t mean that it can’t still be incredibly meaningful in its own right. As a student therapist, even though I never directly told them, I learned and admired a lot of things about my clients. As a student in high school, I looked up to people in our guidance department and their influence on me when it came to entering the field.
The deeper questions to ask a client that wants to be friends with a therapist (and vice versa) is asking what the relationship is offering that they feel that they might not be able to get anywhere else. Maybe there is safety in receiving support and acceptance in a milieu specifically structured for it, or where one doesn’t have to give it back (or for the therapist, a milieu where one may already be on a pedestal). This may not happen so much out of selfishness from either the client or therapist, but because of a possible underlying belief that one doesn’t have much to offer back. However, the total opposite is most often true, and maybe this “peculiar relationship” would be the best place to find that out.