Existential Psychology

Complicated Therapeutic Relationship

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The paradox of the professional therapeutic relationship is that in order for it to be effective there has to be emotional intimacy. But this creates role confusion and justified concerns from clients about how to define the relationship.

You can’t shy away from this problem or overlook it as not very important. Actually it would probably be more of a problem if it didn’t pop up at some point because it’s a valid concern that most clients share on one level or another. The fact that it doesn’t come up could connote a lack of trust or a lack of honesty in the relationship, a relationship whose main goal should be the search for truth and whose means to this goal must be honesty in all things.

In addition to the role confusion created by the fact that a professional therapeutic relationship has to be quite personal to work, transference is usually flying around like crazy. Transference is the phenomenon where you start to be perceived as some important figure in the client’s life and attributes are projected onto you that represent this important figure more than they represent you.

The best way to confront the issue is with gentle honesty, reiterating that the relationship is professional, it’s a laboratory to help a client improve life and relationships but it’s not meant to be a fill in for life and relationships, and that concerns about how to define the relationship are completely justified because the therapist is playing the dual role of objective professional and trusted confidant.

All of this is great stuff if you treat it as grist for the mill, if you are both open and honest about what is going on between you and then analyze it psychologically. Things can quickly spin out of control though if you don’t find a way to address issues in the relationship itself, issues like the role confusion we have been talking about here, because if you don’t tension, anxiety, and even hostility will start to simmer below the surface and will end up interfering with the therapeutic endeavor.