This article has been reviewed for accuracy by John Cottrell, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Medical Disclaimer: The information and recommendations on our site do not constitute a medical consultation. See a certified medical professional for diagnosis.
Everyone has heard of the popular notion that clients fall in love with their therapists. However, is it possible for therapists to get attached to their clients?
Therapists can get attached to their clients for several reasons. The therapist may experience transference if the client reminds them of someone. Countertransference is the most frequent issue; the client can draw unhealthy responses from the therapist by interacting with them in certain ways.
Whether you are a new therapist yourself or someone looking for therapy, this question often comes up, and for a good reason. This article will explain if therapists get attached to their clients and will describe how it happens. Let’s dive into it!
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How Does the Therapy Setting Affect the Client and Therapist?
Before we get into the details of this phenomenon, it is essential first to analyze the setting in which it happens. Therapy is a unique process, and it can play a big role in both participants’ emotions.
There are various modes of therapy, including behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and many more. Therapy can also be delivered online on platforms such as BlahTherapy. Certain kinds of therapy will be more emotional than others, which can affect both parties.
No matter what kind of therapy you are using, a therapeutic experience will feel similar in several ways. Therapy is one of the warmest, welcoming, and open environments in which you’ll ever be. The space is a judgment-free zone, and the purpose of therapy is to help you. There is no negative talk, no gossip, and no harsh words. Many counselors encourage the client to feel open and safe to talk about anything. These factors are the cornerstones of therapy.
Overall, therapy is a safe relationship between a therapist and a client built on trust, guidance, and understanding. Often (but not always), a counselor and client will tread through deep feelings to understand the root of the problem, which will guide the treatment and solutions.
As you can see, the experience can easily replicate an intimate and trusting relationship between two people. Due to these factors, a therapist can become emotionally attached to the client, bringing us to the next point.
What Is Transference?
Transference is when someone projects their feelings towards their parents or romantic partner, for example, onto another person. For instance, if someone sees a man who closely resembles their father, they can immediately feel open and warm towards that person if they had a good and loving relationship with their father.
Psychologists most often attribute transference to client/therapist relationships. Counselors use the term when clients project feelings they have of their mother, father, or another person, onto their therapist. Although, it is worth noting that a therapist can experience transference towards their client.
Three types of transference can happen in these kinds of relationships:
- Positive – Transference is not always a bad thing. Positive transference can help therapy if the client attributes feelings of trust and safety to their counselor.
- Negative – Negative transference is when the client feels a sense of anger or even rage toward the therapist.
- Sexualized – This kind of transference happens when either party is attracted to the other person. These feelings can include romantic feelings or sexual/sensual feelings.
What Is Countertransference?
Even though people use the term transference for many different situations, countertransference refers to how the therapist feels towards the client, not the other way around. Since the curriculum trains therapists to recognize and regulate emotions, countertransference does not happen a lot. However, even psychologists are human, so it is possible.
For example, suppose a client walks into the office with a dominating attitude and brown hair. If the counselor has an ex-husband with brown hair and a similar personality to the patient, the therapist may unconsciously harbor resentment. Fortunately, the therapist will often recognize countertransference and can deal with it right away to continue a healthy relationship with the client.
More commonly, therapists will experience countertransference as a response to their client’s transference. Maybe the client has a narcissistic personality disorder. Suppose the therapist has been listening to the client speak in a demeaning manner towards them for over four weeks. Eventually, the client’s attitude may affect the therapist and cause them to snap.
More often than not, countertransference will not greatly affect the therapy. Some psychologists use it to their advantage as a teaching opportunity.
Should a Therapist Become Attached to Their Client?
For therapy to go well, a therapist needs to be somewhat attached to the client. However, there are definite lines that should not be crossed. Let’s take a look at what a healthy therapist-client relationship is.
How Much Should Therapists Care About You?
A healthy relationship between a therapist and a client should be respectful, comforting, and trusting. However, it is the role of the therapist to stay objective. Your counselor needs to look at your thoughts and feelings and not let personal emotions distract them from analyzing what is going on. Nonetheless, therapists often feel a sense of healthy attachment towards their clients.
Generally, a good counselor, psychotherapist, or clinical psychologist will be genuinely rooting for you. They want to see you thrive and be able to live your life happily and healthy. When they have healthy and positive feelings towards you, they will do their best to determine the best treatment plan. If a therapist does not truly care about the client, then the therapeutic process will not be effective.
If you want a more in-depth answer to this question, consider checking out the video below. A therapist created the video, and she discusses how a therapist should feel towards their client and when attachment has gone too far:
When Should a Therapist End the Relationship?
Even though it is rare, there are times when a clinician needs to terminate the therapy relationship with their client. A psychologist will refer them to another colleague if this needs to happen. Let’s look at a few reasons.
- When the therapist can’t stop thinking about the client, this does not necessarily mean thinking of them romantically. Still, sometimes a therapist will constantly be worrying about them and wonder how they are doing.
- When the therapist starts to do more for a certain client than others. This event may happen if they worry more about a particular client for some reason. If the therapist goes overtime without pay or wants to text the client outside of appointments, this is not a healthy relationship.
- When the therapist is going through the same thing as the client. A more common reason that counselors refer clients is that sometimes the client is working through similar issues as the therapist. Therapists may need counseling too. If they experience the same symptoms and problems as their client, it will be difficult to separate emotions and look at the problem objectively.
If you are a new therapist yourself, you may be a bit overwhelmed by all of the issues that could arise because of attachment. Check out On Being a Therapist for some interesting thoughts. However, if you are a client simply wondering how therapy works, be sure to pick up I’m Working on It in Therapy. This book can help you get the most out of therapy.
Therapists can become attached to their clients for several reasons. They may experience transference if the client reminds them of a prominent figure in their life. Therapists may also experience countertransference depending on how the client interacts with them.
It is healthy and normal for a therapist to become attached to the client. They should truly care about the client’s feelings, well-being and want them to get better. However, a good therapist should refer the client to another professional if they grow too attached.
John Cottrell, Ph.D., is a yoga instructor and certified yoga therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He has been teaching yoga since 2000. John is originally from Oakland, California, earning his Master of Science and Ph.D. from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, California. His clinical practice led him to child and adolescent psychotherapy, drug and alcohol treatment, psychological and neuropsychological testing, and group/couples therapy. John continues his devotion to sharing health and well-being through his business, mbody. He offers private and group yoga classes, yoga therapy, workshops, retreats, written yoga articles, and a men’s yoga clothing line.