Therapy is great. So are therapists!

But being friends with a therapist is a very different kind of relationship than being the patient of one, and I believe the differences highlight something important about all relationships.

They Specialize In People

One of the foundations of our current world is specialization. It’s more efficient to have a bunch of people, all of whom are very good at one thing in particular, trade with each other, than to have everyone know a little bit of everything and provide for themselves.

Our whole economy is built on specialization.

And there are a multitude of possible specializations - different kinds of software, plumbing, carpentry, construction, rectal surgery, animal husbandry, hospitality, sewage management, theoretical astrophysics, golfing, designing microchips, flying, etc.

Some of these specialties pertain to interacting with people. Teachers, salespeople, managers, and so on generally develop a suite of skills for dealing with other human beings.

Therapists (including social workers, clinical psychologists, and so on) are somewhat unique in that they specialize in emotionally supporting people. While the other specialties involving people involve getting people to do things (learn, buy something, work, etc.), a therapist’s job involves making someone healthier.

This is not, in my experience, a specialty (or an associated set of skills) with an off switch.

What Makes A Healthy Relationship?

Relationships Are Reciprocal

Healthy relationships can be generally characterized as reciprocal or mutual. All the people involved get something out of the relationship. There’s a balance to it - a give and a take.

(Which is not to say that all healthy relationships are 50% give and 50% take; every relationship is unique. The important thing is that everyone in the relationship is getting what they need out of it.)

In fact, one of the most direct signs of an unhealthy relationship is if it’s one-sided. While a healthy relationship can tip back and forth over time - sometimes one person will need more support, and that’s fine - if long periods of time go by and one person continually takes more than they give, that’s a red flag.

But Not With Therapists

Of course, emotionally speaking, the therapist-patient relationship isn’t reciprocal or mutual in the slightest, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. The emotional work a therapist does for a patient isn’t paid back in reciprocated emotional work; it’s paid back in actual money.

And that works great, for a patient.

When you’re a friend, on the other hand, well…

The thing to understand about therapists - at least all the therapists I’ve met and the friends I have who are therapists - is that the set of skills and way of relating to people that characterize therapy aren’t a jacket they take off at the door. And unlike, say, being a beet farmer, that set of skills is directly relevant to their interactions with their friends.

Therapists don’t stop being good listeners or emotional supporters just because they’ve stopped seeing patients for the day. At least not the ones I know.

Which means that it’s really easy to be friends with a therapist, get emotionally supported by them in a way that their patients pay for, and then fail to pay them back appropriately.

Beware The Attractor State

In relationships that don’t involve therapists, the give and take is usually supposed to be unconscious. People ask for the emotional support that they need, or get into the rhythm of offering it when it’s obvious their friend needs it.

The issue that therapists have is that the set of skills they’ve cultivated - that they deploy in all their relationships - are designed for a one-sided relationship.

All those habits and patterns a professional learns well enough to execute without thinking about - for a therapist, those patterns involve offering emotional support without requesting it.

Which makes it very, very easy to wind up with a one-sided relationship with a therapist, where the therapist does all of this emotional work to support the non-therapist, and the work isn’t reciprocated. In other words, the attractor state - the natural state of a relationship with a therapist, absent intentional intervention - is unhealthily one-sided.

Thus, the non-therapist in the relationship should take care to intentionally reciprocate with the therapist, keeping the relationship mutual and healthy.

Conclusion

I had several unhealthy relationships in high school.

At the time, I didn’t know how to characterize them (although I often thought that I was playing the part of someone else’s therapist, which was a clue). I used to think of people who (emotionally speaking) took and took and took as black holes: endless voids which no amount of support or emotional energy could satisfy.

Of course, I was also failing to communicate and stand up for my own needs at the time - but it was high school, and no one knew what they were doing, least of all me.

I’ve learned, partly through those experiences, that relationships require balance. They require reciprocity and mutuality. And that isn’t always a natural result. Sometimes, one or all people in the relationship need to make a conscious effort to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met.

I noticed this pattern occurring in my friendship with several therapists: that they give and give, because that’s what they do all day normally, and that it was up to me to make sure that I was supporting them in a reciprocal way.

And I thought it was worth sharing.

 

TL;DR: I highly recommend being friends with a therapist. I have personally gotten a great deal out of those friendships. That being said, in a relationship with a therapist, as in all relationships, care should be taken to ensure the relationship is mutual and reciprocal, and everyone is getting what they need out of it.

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:35 AM

The therapists I've been friends with mostly take off their therapist hat at the door. These are somewhat older therapists, maybe older than the ones you know; I wonder if they learn to do this over time in an effort to have better/more normal friendships.

Very possible.

I do suspect, though, that your friends at least have an internal process of analysis going even if they're not working. (I could of course be wrong.)

I would just say that it’s normal for many relationships to be asymmetric: mentor/mentee, parent/child, master/apprentice.

These don’t need to involve money. Investing your time on helping other human being to grow might be rewarding experience as of itself.

Quite true, and I considered being more specific about the kinds of relationships I was talking about.

For the sake of brevity I omitted such relationships.

What I did try to emphasize was that a relationship doesn't have to be equal to be reciprocal. So long as each party is getting what they need out of it, it usually counts. In a parent/child relationship, for instance, the parent is/should be getting something valuable out of the relationship, even though that something isn't reciprocity or emotional support.

As you say, the reward might be seeing your junior/student/child grow up and succeed.

Those are examples of clear superior/subordinate relations though, not friendships.

I agree. But also, they often transform into friendship over time.

The subset of old 'mentor/mentee, parent/child, master/apprentice' relationships that have transformed into friendships after the passage of many years, is much much smaller than the total number of such relationships being formed on a daily basis in society. I doubt it's even 1 in 3.

Well, these relationships have a very important characteristic which is that the younger catches up with the older quite quickly and often overcomes him/her. The asymmetry is often quite a temporary matter.

I would say that most visible is this on parent/child relationship. As the child reaches adulthood, he/she becomes more and more equal with the parent. I would claim that around 30 they are pretty much equals. And the relationships (at least from what I observed) become very symmetrical: parent brings up his/her problems as often as child. As the parent becomes older, the roles often reverse a lot. It’s the child that needs to help the aging parent to navigate the world.

Lastly, you mention 1/3 as somehow being a low factor. I don’t know what the true factor is but I would consider 1/3 to be quite a good ROI ;-)

Perfect timing.. I had run into my therapist at a mutual event and had panicked.. Was wondering why? and how do I deal with similar situation in the future.. (it's very likely to happen again, as we have quite a bit in common and are in the same city).

Your therapist isn't supposed to be your friend outside of therapy, so it's a bit awkward for them, too. They're supposed to just say hi without acknowledging the therapist relationship (in case you don't want to), then move on. I don't think there are very strict rules on this, but there are definitely rules about not taking advantage of that privileged relationship, so they generally steer well clear of friendships with active clients to safeguard their license and reputation.

Well said.