Why the Therapeutic Relationship is Different


Last week, I continued a series of posts about the therapy experience and the therapeutic relationship.  Last week, I talked about the experience of “good therapeutic fit,” and I promised more information about the therapeutic relationship.  The therapeutic relationship is very different from other relationships, and here are a few of the reasons why:

  • The therapy relationship is a caring and supportive relationship that is deliberately one-sided.  I don’t talk much, if at all, about my day-to-day life with my clients.  That’s not because I want to keep secrets from them, or because I want to “control” the relationship.  However, therapy is supposed to be one-sided.  You are paying to be in therapy, and that means that your hour is just for you.  I get support for my stress in other places. I want the session time to be about meeting your needs and helping you build your coping resources.
  • You are encouraged to focus “just on you” for the therapy session. Many of my clients are people who have other support in their lives.  They have friends, family, co-workers, romantic partners.  But they worry that they have “worn out” those who care for them.  You won’t do that in therapy.  If we need to talk about the same issue for multiple weeks in a row, we can do that.  I won’t get bored or frustrated with you.
  • Pain is acceptable in the therapy relationship. One of the reasons I have a job is that we have a hard time letting the people we love be in pain.  But feeling pain is an essential part of moving through the pain and not carrying it with you.  In the therapy relationship, there is space for anger and fear and sadness.  Your feelings won’t overwhelm me–and I buy my tissues by the case.
  • Challenge is encouraged in the therapy relationship.  I have written before about the fact that sometimes therapy asks you to take risks and make changes. Unlike other people in your life, my responsibility in the therapy relationship is to help you explore questions and choices that you might not otherwise explore.  Most people come to therapy because of pain, and my job is to help you make choices to cope with that pain.  Choices often lead to change, and change can feel very risky.
  • Therapy is intimate and separate–all at once. I know things about my clients that many of their close friends or family members may not know.  I walk with my clients through dark spaces in their hearts, minds and lives.  But we don’t follow one another on Facebook, or meet up for coffee.  That separateness is what makes therapy safe.  Being an outsider is what gives me the perspective to offer support and challenge.  People can tell me something and not worry that I’ll bring it up at the grocery store.

This is just a first look at the things that separate therapy from other relationships.  I may come back to this in a future post.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences highlighting the unique nature of the therapy relationship.


Image Credit: Photo “Puzzled Path” by Magnus A. via Flicker

6 thoughts on “Why the Therapeutic Relationship is Different

  1. Thank you for this article. I have been seeing a psychologist for over 3 years now and he has helped me so much! I am a different person – we have walked through a lot of pain and issues and I am trying to wind down now. Thank you for this article – it really clarifies what a relationship between a therapist and client should be!

    1. Sherry,

      I am so glad to hear that your relationship has been helpful. It sounds like you are getting close to your therapy “graduation”–which is an exciting moment for you and for your psychologist. One of the other reasons that the therapy relationship has the boundaries that it does is so that you can return to it down the line if you need to.

      Wishing you all the best,

  2. I like your point that the therapist can listen to your same issue week after week if necessary. I can identify with the feeling of not wanting to overburden my loved ones, and it has been helpful to have my therapist as a dedicated listening ear.

  3. I appreciate your article and agree how special and separate the relationship is. On the other hand sometimes I wonder the experience that the therapist has. Have they gone through similar situations, are they in a relationship and understand the different issues that arise, have they dealt with their own issues, have they had losses. I just believe that knowing some things about the therapist and their belief system is important. Or am I wrong, is therapy based on the same tools being used by the Therapist at the right time, depending on what the client is going through.

    1. April,

      It is a bit of a complicated question. You need to know enough about your therapist to know if you feel safe and comfortable in the relationship. When a therapist doesn’t tell you personal details, his/her history, etc, that is generally because we are trained to keep the focus of the relationship on you. Therapy is designed to be non-reciprocal, so that you are able to focus deeply on your concerns and your coping. It is not your responsibility to know if your therapist is having a difficult day, the focus should remain on you. That being said, if my own history includes information that would be therapeutically helpful for my client to know, I will sometimes share. The key issue is whether sharing is for the benefit of the client or the therapist. We have a responsibility to put our clients’ needs first. I hope that helps your understanding.


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