When 36-year-old Tyrone started going to therapy last March, he didn’t expect to meet someone who “had this Halle Berry energy with a mix of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.” But there he was, sharing his deepest, darkest secrets and traumas with a therapist he was growing increasingly attracted to. “My mind would develop filthy thoughts about her sometimes during sessions,” he admits.
In August, he finally decided to shoot his shot and brought his therapist an Edible Arrangement and a gift card to Macy’s. At first she said thank you and told him it was kind, but after reading the note and taking a beat to collect her thoughts, his therapist told him that it was “unprofessional to date her clients.” “I felt so embarrassed, I guess I have mommy issues,” Tyrone tells me. (She kept the Edible Arrangement but declined the gift card, which he gave to a relative.)
As mortified as he was, therapists deal with these types of advances more than people realize. “One reason it comes up so often is that the process encourages clients to think about the therapist between sessions,” psychotherapist Tracy Pryce explains. Whenever you’re making a decision discussed in a session, or even doing homework like journaling, it’s only natural to picture your therapist. If you’re working on yourself diligently, you may end up imagining them in a lot of personal situations, including romantic and sexual ones. Consequently, a crush can be an awkward byproduct of a therapist doing their job well.
In fact, experiencing this is so common, therapists have a clinical term for when these wires get crossed — “transference,” which can occur when a person transfers underlying feelings they have about a parent onto a therapist, as well as with feelings otherwise meant for romantic partners. Or as Pryce puts it, clients’ “minds insert us into some pretty personal situations with them, and sexual transference can be a next step.”
As much as clients can feel brutally rebuffed, Pryce points out that it’s crucial to the therapeutic process to bring up such a crush, “otherwise it’s a big hang-up that keeps other work from happening and can block progress in therapy,” she says. More importantly, “it’s the therapist’s job to hold the boundary and make sure that while sexual attraction is explored through processing and discussion, it never moves past that stage.”
For her part, Pryce has responded to romantic advances in varying ways depending on the client, but the hard no is always the same. For instance, with one client, she accepted the compliments, said thank you, explained the ethical boundary “and worked with them to identify characteristics of the relationship that they were drawn to,” she explains. “It ended up being informative about needs that weren’t being met in their life and caused more reflection on the life they wanted to build.”
Still, not every clinician shares Pryce’s skills in delicately exploring these moments. Logan, who is now in his 30s, was first referred to a psychiatrist for his depression in his early 20s. “When I first saw her, I was confused, I didn’t know if I was seeing my shrink or a Victoria’s Secret model,” he recalls. “She was drop-dead gorgeous, smart and extremely kind at the same time.” After he canceled a few sessions in a row, he started to miss her, so he decided that meant there was a connection and decided to ask her out after a session one day. “She just politely declined,” Logan tells me. “It seemed like she was really used to it, to be honest.”
Unfortunately, Logan’s psychiatrist didn’t explain transference and how common crushes like this are, so he took the rejection hard. His depression worsened and he eventually needed to transfer to a different psychiatrist altogether. According to Pryce, this is precisely why it would be unethical for a therapist or psychiatrist to accept a client’s romantic advances under any circumstances. When someone seeks professional help, there’s an inescapable power dynamic that makes a romantic relationship an abuse of that power, regardless of whether or not they were transferred to another therapist or had a grace period.
“A therapist who engages in a sexual relationship with a client could create a lot of damage for that person — including creating mistrust and hesitancy in relationships moving forward and creating avoidance of therapy,” Pryce warns. Although both are harmful, for some people, “a life without therapy isn’t safe or fulfilling,” and crossing such a line could cause irreparable harm.
In the end, Tyrone’s therapist gently pointed out that it’s natural for him to desire anyone who makes him feel safe or special. “I was somewhat happy with her response, but I still felt embarrassed,” he says. And while his therapist was more than willing to continue treating him, after a few more sessions, Tyrone stopped going to therapy altogether. “I chose to end it. I was so embarrassed, and I don’t do so well with rejection,” he says.
Logan, on the other hand, continued to see a different psychiatrist, this time with a little more perspective. “One thing I wish I could’ve told myself when I started developing feelings for my psychiatrist was to focus on why I was really there in the first place,” he concludes. “The closeness, concern and care that they show was them basically doing their job.”