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Managing Multiple Relationships in Counseling Practice

Managing Multiple Relationships in Counseling Practice

Dual or multiple relationships, either sexual or nonsexual, occur when LO12 counselors assume two (or more) roles simultaneously or sequentially with a client. This may involve assuming more than one professional role or combining professional and nonprofessional roles. The term multiple relationship is more often used than the term dual relationship because of the complexities involved in these relationships, but both terms appear in various professional codes of ethics, and the ACA (2014) uses the term nonprofessional relationships. In this section I use the broader term of multiple relationships to encompass both dual relationships and nonprofessional relationships.

When clinicians blend their professional relationship with another kind of relationship with a client, ethical concerns must be considered. Many forms of nonprofessional interactions or nonsexual multiple relationships pose a challenge to practitioners. Some examples of nonsexual dual or multiple relationships are combining the roles of teacher and therapist or of supervisor and therapist; bartering for goods or therapeutic services; borrowing money from a client; providing therapy to a friend, an employee, or a relative; engaging in a social relationship with a client; accepting an expensive gift from a client; or going into a business venture with a client. Some multiple relationships are clearly exploitative and do serious harm both to the client and to the professional. For example, becoming emotionally or sexually involved with a current client is clearly unethical, unprofessional, and illegal. Sexual involvement with a former client is unwise, can be exploitative, and is generally considered unethical.

Because nonsexual multiple relationships are necessarily complex and multidimensional, there are few simple and absolute answers to resolve them. It is not always possible to play a single role in your work as a counselor, nor is it always desirable. You may have to deal with managing multiple roles, regardless of the setting in which you work or the client population you serve. It is a wise practice to give careful thought to the complexities of multiple roles and relationships before embroiling yourself in ethically questionable situations.

Ethical reasoning and judgment come into play when ethics codes are applied to specific situations. The ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2014) makes it clear that counseling professionals must learn how to manage multiple roles and responsibilities in an ethical way. This entails dealing effectively with the power differential that is inherent in counseling relationships and training relationships, balancing boundary issues, addressing nonprofessional relationships, and striving to avoid using power in ways that might cause harm to clients, students, or supervisees (Herlihy & Corey, 2015b).

Although multiple relationships do carry inherent risks, it is a mistake to conclude that these relationships are always unethical and necessarily lead to harm and exploitation. Some of these relationships can be beneficial to clients if they are implemented thoughtfully and with integrity (Zur, 2007). An excellent resource on the ethical and clinical dimensions of multiple relationships is Boundaries in Psychotherapy: Ethical and Clinical Explorations (Zur, 2007).

Perspectives on Multiple Relationships

What makes multiple relationships so problematic? Herlihy and Corey LO13 (2015b) contend that some of the problematic aspects of engaging in multiple relationships are that they are pervasive; they can be difficult to recognize; they are unavoidable at times; they are potentially harmful, but not necessarily always harmful; they can be beneficial; and they are the subject of conflicting advice from various experts. A review of the literature reveals that dual and multiple relationships are hotly debated. Except for sexual intimacy with current clients, which is unequivocally unethical, there is not much consensus regarding the appropriate way to deal with multiple relationships.

Some of the codes of the professional organizations advise against forming multiple relationships, mainly because of the potential for misusing power, exploiting the client, and impairing objectivity. When multiple relationships exploit clients, or have significant potential to harm clients, they are unethical. The ethics codes do not mandate avoidance of all such relationships, however; nor do the codes imply that nonsexual multiple relationships are unethical. The current focus of ethics codes is to remain alert to the possibilities of harm to clients and to develop safeguard to protect clients. Although codes can provide some general guidelines, good judgment, the willingness to reflect on one’s practices, and being aware of one’s motivations are critical dimensions of an ethical practitioner. It bears repeating that multiple relationship issues cannot be resolved with ethics codes alone; counselors must think through all of the ethical and clinical dimensions involved in a wide range of boundary concerns.

A consensus of many writers is that multiple relationships are inevitable and unavoidable in some situations and that a global prohibition is not a realistic answer. Because interpersonal boundaries are not static but undergo redefinition over time, the challenge for practitioners is to learn how to manage boundary fluctuations and to deal effectively with overlapping roles (Herlihy & Corey, 2015b). One key to learning how to manage multiple relationships is to think of ways to minimize the risks involved.

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