Dual Relationships and Ethics

This is a revised version of an essay that I have previously written.

As members of a profession that takes clients we frequently run into one of the pitfalls of other such professions: having more than one kind of relationship concurrent with, prior to, or subsequent to our professional relationship as spirit workers, occultists, or clergy. This relationship may be professional (e.g., someone comes to you for a soul retrieval who also happens to be your dentist), social, or financial in nature.

Many helping professions–from counselors and psychotherapists to clergy to doctors–have struggled with professional and emotional boundaries as they relate to dual relationships. As spirit workers our difficulties are not that different from counselors or psychotherapists, as we deal with many of the same forces in our client’s lives.

Even so, we are faced with a variety of problems that make certain classes of dual relationships nearly unavoidable, and as spirit workers we operate in a realm with relatively undeveloped codes of professional ethics. Ellen C. Friedman, writing on the topic of the ethics of dual relationships and Wiccan clergy, states:

The lack of professional training for Wiccan clergy and the adolescent development of Wiccan ethics is a considerable problem. Wicca is a young religion and has yet to develop in these areas to the extent found in older religions.

In truth these problems are not unique to Wicca, and we could substitute Neopagan for Wiccan and be very accurate for most of the available trads and clergy out there. This is not to demean those who are out there and who are operating relatively in the dark, and there are some great programs, such as Cherry Hill Seminary out there, but there are very few good, comprehensive analysis of dual relationships in a pastoral setting.

I personally believe that it would serve us well to follow a similar code of ethics to that employed by counselors, psychotherapists, and pastoral counselors, or at least to use their practice as a starting point.

Dual Relationships Defined

The American Counseling Association’s (ACA) 2005 Code of Ethics gives a great deal of guidance around relationships with clients, but–in a departure from previous versions of the guide–does not actually use the term dual relationships. This wasn’t because the concept is no longer important, but rather because the term itself was problematic. To quote Dr. Rocco Cottone, who was on the ACA Ethical Code Revision Task Force:

When you sit down and analyze the concept of dual relationships, you will find that it relates to three different types of relationships: sexual/romantic relationships, nonprofessional relationships and professional role change. The first category, sexual and romantic relationships with current clients, is banned by the code of ethics because we have evidence of the damage that results. The second type of relationship, nonprofessional relationships, encompasses those activities where you might have contact or active involvement with a client outside of the counseling context. The third type of relationship that the old dual relationship term encompassed is a professional role change. An example is when you shift from individual counseling to couples counseling. Moving from one type of counseling to another with one client can be really confusing and ethically compromising.

So, in the end, moving away from the concept of dual relationships was really about the analysis of what the dual relationship term meant and the confusion it caused because of multiple meanings. The new ethics code addresses all three types of roles and relationships with clients.

Despite the split into three separate categories, there lacks an effective term–other than dual relationship–that covers all three under some other heading, and the term is still in common use among other therapeutic organizations. For example, the American Association of Pastoral Counselor’s Code of Ethics echoes previous versions of the ACA’s ethics codes, and states outright:

We recognize the trust placed in and unique power of the therapeutic relationship. While acknowledging the complexity of some pastoral relationships, we avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of clients. We avoid those dual relationships with clients (e.g., business or close personal relationships) which could impair our professional judgement, compromise the integrity of the treatment, and/or use the relationship for our own gain.

Due to the widespread nature and lack of a better term, I will continue to use the term in this blog to refer to all three categories mentioned by Rocco Cottone, without attaching any specific stigma to properly conducted dual relationships. These may, in fact, be beneficial or even necessary and this should be recognized where appropriate to do so. I will also break them down into separate categories where appropriate, so that each may be better addressed separately.

Separation and Boundaries in Pagan Society

One of the challenges that face modern day spirit workers is that it is difficult–if not impossible–to maintain strict separation from our clients. First, it is not uncommon for our client-base to come from within our chosen families, and for the groups that we teach or work for to be our close friends as well.

Some shamans live on the outskirts of the society they are part of for various spiritual or practical reasons, which can help provide this separation. For those of us who are not in that position, however, this poses quite a problem.

Friedman, speaking of Wiccan psychotherapists, says that:

Wiccan clergy psychotherapists appear particularly vulnerable to ethical dilemmas caused by dual relationships. Complications unique to Wicca include the intimacy required of its clergy within the ritual context and within their covens. Covens serve not only as congregation, but also as seminaries and in some instances as family of choice.

She then goes on to offer four alternatives: Avoid clients within the community, practice low-power relationships, negotiate each relationship on a case-by-case basis, and use established best-practices that involve consultations with others.

For spirit workers the first two options are clearly untenable since we tend to serve the communities that we are part of, and while we can occasionally do low-powered work for clients some of what we do (e.g., soul retrieval, serving as a medium to the gods) is much deeper and requires relations that are closer to that of a therapist.

What I suggest is that we approach things with a hybrid of the last two. This means:

  • Adopting our own ethics guidelines and best practices from those of other helping organizations, such as the ACA.

  • Document our agreements and the dual relationships that we have.

  • Consider how our dual relationships might be unintentionally exploitive or otherwise harmful to our clients.

  • Openly discuss–and negotiate–our boundaries with our clients, both from their perspective and ours, documenting the results.

  • Use lower powered but still professional relationships where appropriate–keeping with all of the above points–and not being afraid to refer people to others when we feel that our position compromises our relationship in some way.


This is merely scratching the surface. I am going to go more into each of the three types of dual relationship (social, sexual/romantic, and professional) and the challenges and guidelines for each of them in the upcoming posts. Feedback or suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Further Reading

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One Response to Dual Relationships and Ethics

  1. Ofer Zur says:

    To expend on the topic of the above article/blog, here is a chart that maps out in details the many different types of multiple or dual relationships in counseling: http://www.zurinstitute.com/DualRelationships2.pdf

    An article, titled “Not All Dual Relationships are Created Equal” that details 26 (!) type of multiple relationships is available at http://www.zurinstitute.com/multiple_relationships_26types.pdf

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