Dual Relationships: Romantic Relationships with Clients

This is a revised version of a previously written essay.

Paying attention to other ethics codes and looking at the reasons why, the answer to the sex/romantic dual relationship with clients issue can be summarized with a single word: Don’t.

The problems with this are not abstract or theoretical. After studying the subject relatively extensively in the late 60’s and early 70’s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson put forth the statement that:

We feel that when sexual seduction of patients can be firmly established by due legal process, regardless of whether the seduction was initiated by the patient or the therapist, the therapist should be sued for rape rather than malpractice, i.e., the legal process should be criminal rather than civil.

Kenneth Pope and Valerie Vetter conducted research on the subject and found some tragic–and sadly unsurprising–results. Around 90% of patients who have had sex with a previous therapist have been harmed by it, and around 80% are harmed even when the relationship doesn’t begin until after the therapeutic relationship ended.

Of course, reality is more interesting and nuanced than can be summarized in a single word, and as spirit workers we are faced with some unique challenges in this department. However, even if everything else I say about professionalism for spirit workers is ignored, this is the one thing I adamantly believe should not be. The risk for harm, unintentional abuse, and boundary violations are simply too great.

What Others Say

This is one of the older creeds among healing professions going back to the Nigerian Healing Arts. It is also found, though indirectly, among numerous shamanic cultures. Here are some general statements from other helping professions throughout the centuries:

Psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients. — APA 2002 Ethics Code

Sexual or romantic counselor–client interactions or relationships with current clients, their romantic partners, or their family members are prohibited. — ACA 2005 Ethics Code

Sexual intimacy with patients/clients is unethical. — AGPA (American Group Psychotherapy Association) and NRCGP (National Registry of Certified Group Psychotherapists) Guidelines for Ethics

Massage therapists shall […] Refrain from engaging in any sexual conduct or sexual activities involving their clients.– AMTA (American Massage Therapy Association) Code of Ethics

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves. — Hippocratic Oath

You should not tell what you have learned from the time you enter a woman’s room, and, moreover, you should not have obscene or immoral feelings when examining a woman. — Seventeen Rules of Enjuin

Initiators agree not to engage in sexual activity with their mureeds; if an initiator and their mureed choose to develop a sexual relationship, they agree to first dissolve their initiatic link and to wait until the student has formed an initiatic link with another teacher. — Sufi Ruhaniat International Ethics Committee

The details, of course, vary. The ACA bans romantic or sexual counselor-client relationships for a period of five years following the end of the counseling relationship. The APA puts the number at two years. Both state that the therapist/counselor should document whether the relationship could then be viewed as exploitive or whether there is a potential of harm to the client.

I personally feel that two years makes a good absolute minimum, and that five years is a safer number.

Doing Work For Significant Others

While the statement don’t sleep with your clients is relatively uncontroversial, one of the subtle ways this can become a problem is in doing work for someone who you already have a preexisting romantic relationship with. Because surely there’s no problem with helping them ward their home, right?

Of course there is. Just because the romantic relationship started first, doesn’t mean that the situation won’t compromise your ability to heal and cause long-term trust issues in the romantic relationship.

This is where we get into what constitutes a low powered relationship. It is one thing for me to offer friendly advice, to help ward someone’s house, to have them help me ward my house, to receive help from the spirits on the behalf of someone else in an emergency situation, and another for me to enter into a professional, deeper or longer term relationship with a client who I am seeing romantically. The former are lower-power and usually single shot and do not require an intimate, healing relationship with the individual. It is also best even if these lower power relationships are kept professional in attitude and demeanor while they are taking place, just to establish that sense of space while the work is taking place.

It is also a good idea to document when such things happen, and to talk about it with a Teacher or another spirit worker, just to make sure that everything stays above board. Do not be afraid to refer them to another individual if the situation starts to get too high powered or if the boundary lines start to blur.

To do otherwise, to make them your client, creates an unstable situation where the position of trust you share in one domain will cause conflicts in the other. It can make a relationship unintentionally abusive, and your focus cannot be entirely on healing them as your client.

To illustrate, consider what happens if there are problems in the relationship, or even if you break up? Will they lose their spirit worker while simultaneously losing their significant other, should they? What if during a journey on their behalf you find out that you caused the problem that you are trying to help them with. What if it turns out that, as described in Sandra Ingerman’s Soul Retrieval, you–entirely accidentally–steal part of their soul.

While all of these are manageable situations overall if the spirit worker and the romantic partner are different people, they can and do cause endless problems and are rife with potential unintentional abuses–let alone if either parties intentions are not entirely honorable.

In short, you can be their lover, you can be their spirit worker, but you cannot be both.

Conclusion

Although the prohibition against sex with patients reaches back beyond Freud, beyond the Hippocratic Oath, and at least as far as the code of the Nigerian Healing Arts, it was only with systematic research that began in the 1950s that the profession began to understand the depth, pervasiveness, and persistence of the harm that can result when therapists abuse their license, role, power, and trust. — Kenneth S. Pope

The more we learn about shamanic practice and its links with psychology, especially now that our techniques are being used in psychological healing, the more it looks like the boundaries set by these other healing organizations–especially groups like the APA and ACA–are appropriate for us as spirit workers as well. We are members of a healing profession and our role as spirit workers is to help others, it only makes sense that we build our code of ethics off of others who are trying to do similar things.

I will admit that there are some corner cases here that I am deliberately not addressing such as sacred prostitution, where I view that as part of the nature of the primary relationship and thus not strictly dual in the same sense. Still, this is an area where we need to be extraordinarily careful and considerate of the proper ethical boundaries of the professional and nonprofessional relationships, and deserving of significant discussion.

Aside from that case, romantic relationships with clients are one of the most clear-cut areas in the domain of dual relationships. Fortunately, where professional and social relationships can be unavoidable in the communities we frequent, romantic entanglements are almost always entirely avoidable with existent clients, as is becoming the spirit worker for your current romantic partner.

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2 Responses to Dual Relationships: Romantic Relationships with Clients

  1. Lupa says:

    This is really heartening to see. While I don’t feel that spiritual counseling (as a very general term) needs to be quite as strict ethically as professional counseling–for example, it shouldn’t be as big an issue running into a client at a festival or Pagan Pride event–I am really glad to see discussion of ethics in this vein anyway. Nice work!

  2. Hrafn says:

    I am glad you enjoyed!

    On the issue of (broadly) Spiritual Counselor boundaries, I am inclined to agree. I have been reading through various spiritual direction ethical guides of various groups to get a better feel on that one, which while they all reject romantic relationships they are a little more open in some other regards.

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