The concept of professional boundaries raises several questions. What exactly is a professional boundary and why is it necessary? In the context of Counseling psychology, what boundaries are most important? After all, in a profession such as counseling there must be lines drawn between personal and professional life, just as there must be lines drawn between oneself and the client. The trick to maintaining such a delicate boundary without overstepping the line, or over-compensating for the need to separate one’s personal and professional life, is to set up realistic guidelines for personal and professional relationships.
First and foremost, what is a professional boundary and why is it necessary. Many professions demand professional boundaries from their employees. Take for example some workplaces that forbid sexual relationships between their employees; or forbid sexual relationships between employee and client. How about restaurants and retail shops that forbid managers to maintain social relationships with employees under them? Each of these boundaries is meant to prevent problems, such as unfair treatment, law suits, exploitation, etc, within the company and with business. It is for this reason that professional boundaries are essential in the workplace.
Similarly, counselors must watch their relationships and how they manage their clients in order to avoid problems such as ineffective counseling, favoritism, exploitation, mental harm, and the like. One of the most controversial subjects a counselor ever has to deal with is the dual relationship. A dual relationship is when the counselor and client engage in a personal relationship; that is, a relationship that is non-professional in nature. Some examples are therapists that become friends with their clients and see them in social situations, therapists who accept family members or partners of the clients they are already seeing, therapists who seek business relationships with clients, therapists who engage in sexual behavior with their clients, and other such non-professional relationships.
According to the APA, and a consensus among psychologists and psychiatrists, any relationship between the therapist and client that causes harm is unethical and thus prohibited in the workplace. While this prohibits the counselor from carrying on a sexual relationship with the client, it raises of the question of whether or not personal relationships that are not of a sexual nature are unethical or not. The American Counselor’s Association (2005) states “Counselor-client nonprofessional relationships with clients, former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members should be avoided, except when the interaction is potentially beneficial to the client” (A.5.c.). The ACA goes on to state that the responsibility for nonprofessional interactions with clients is in the counselor’s hand, and that good judgment should be used when deciding on such situations. It should also be noted that the APA (2002) states “Multiple relationships that would not reasonably be expected to cause impairment of risk of exploitation or harm are not unethical” (3.05.a.). However, they further caution against any relationship that will impair objectivity, competence, and effectiveness on the part of the counselor.
While these guidelines set down by the APA and ACA hardly answer every question a counselor might have on the subject matter of whether to engage in a personal relationship with a client, they do set the stage. Ultimately, professional boundaries need to be set by each and every psychologist. For example, one psychologist might decide that no matter what, no dual relationships are allowed. Another may decide that each and every case is special, and that in some cases dual relationships are allowed in the form of counseling friends, family, or romantic partners, but nothing else. Another may choose to take each case, and each type of ethical dual relationship, and decide on their appropriateness as it comes up. Whatever one’s stance is, it should be decided early on in order to avoid the risk of making decisions based on personal desires, wants, or needs. At this point, clearly, the psychologist has already jeopardized the client-counselor relationship. Of course, there will be instances in which cases will not fall under the pre-set guidelines, but at least there is something to work with.
Furthermore, Corey and Corey (2007) note that is important to set down guidelines for dual relationship interactions. “If the potential dual relationship is unavoidable, helpers would do well to (1) secure informed consent of clients, (2) seek consultation, (3) document and monitor their practices, (4)obtain supervision” (pg. 289-290). It is also important to make a risk-benefit analysis when deciding on dual relationships that are avoidable. In both cases, the psychologist has set up contingency plans. If it is avoidable, and is avoided, no action is necessary. If the relationship is undertaken, the aforementioned steps should be taken. This reduces the risk of harm to the counseling process and to the client, which thus makes the dual relationship ethical by both APA and ACA standards.
The most important thing to remember when entering into any helping field, is that professional boundaries are necessary. Ethical standards set by governing agencies aren’t always enough to regulate one’s actions and guide one into a safe, beneficial, and effective decision. In counseling, the client is of the utmost importance, and it is important to remember that the counselor must keep their well-being in mind at all times. Objectivity must never be lost, and there must never be a conflict of interest between client and psychologist.
American Counseling Association. (2005). “ACA Code of Ethics.” Alexandria VA: Author.
Corey & Corey. (2007). “Becoming a Helper, 5th Ed.” Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.