There are times when the psychologist or counselor has a multiple relationship that can actually cause harm to the psychologist. Most discussions about unethical multiple relationships generally focus on the client but these types of relationships can be just as harmful to the psychologist as the client.

Probably the most prevalent and most damaging secondary relationship to both the client and the psychologist is a sexual relationship and/or an emotional one. In the most obvious way, the American Psychological Association has stated that a sexual relationship with a current client is absolutely unethical. This also covers a potential client with whom a psychologist had a past sexual history with. Dual sexual relationships between a psychologist and their client is abusive and can include, not only the physical, sexual acts, such as kissing or intercourse, but can also include the other expressions of unethical sexual behaviors, such as sexual body language or seductiveness. Within this definition, the psychologist is to avoid behaviors that can potentially cause harm – sexual contact with a client can cause harm.

An emotional relationship with a client can also be unethical, especially if certain boundaries have been crossed. For example, if there is a lot of self-disclosure on the part of the psychologist, an emotional bond can be created causing a multiple or dual relationship. An emotional relationship can also be seen as a type of affair, where both the psychologist and the client divulge information about each other in such a manner that it builds an extremely emotional tie between the two people, more like close friends than like psychologist and client.

Let us say, for argument sake, that a psychologist does enter into a multiple or dual relationship with a client; a relationship that is either sexual, emotional or both. There’s a risk of harm, not only for the client, but also for the psychologist, especially if one or both parties are married or involved with other people. Even though psychologists are bound by the APA’s Code of Ethics (which explicitly forbids these types of affairs with clients), and even though our society has a strong abhorrence towards extra-marital sexual and/or emotional relationships, we are still plagued with these affairs. A national study had found that more than 1 in 10 wives had had an affair, and almost one-quarter of men had had an extra-marital affair. These are staggering numbers.

Even though the psychologist is the professional in a dual relationship with a client, they are still human beings with the same emotional baggage that everyone has. Having an unethical multiple relationship with a client can cause so much anxiety and stress, especially since the psychologist not only has to hid the affair from their spouse, but because there are ethical (and sometimes legal) implications, the psychologist has to hid the extra relationship from, well, everyone. If a colleague found out about this unethical relationship, it is that colleague’s duty to report the misbehavior. As a matter of fact, in the State of California anyone can report misbehavior on the part of a psychologist, so a neighbor or the receptionist at the office could all report it.

Beyond just the professional side of an unethical relationship with a client is the emotional roller coaster that extra-marital affairs can create for anyone. Those people who are in a troubled marriage are more susceptible to having an affair, but there is a startling amount of solid marriages in which one (or both) parts of the couple can get swept away in the novelty of an affair. Sexual and emotional infidelity can tear at any marriage, and can cause a psychologist to falter in their counseling jobs, especially if they are dealing with other clients who are having infidelity issues. As a psychologist, you could feel like a hypocrite trying to counsel couples who are dealing with this issue. It can impair a psychologist’s ability to perform their job duties as a ‘helper’ when they are harmfully behaving in an unethical manner.

Professor Mercy