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Client is Attracted to Counselor

Posted by Stephanie Adams on April 8, 2011 at 11:14 AM

What do I do if a client expresses attraction to me in session?

First, don't freak out. I know that's the temptation. In fact, that's what I did the first time this happened to me. I stammered a little, and I think I said "thank you", which wasn't the best thing I could have done. But it was awkward. It was really, really awkward.

I discussed in the last ACA blog post "Extraneous Information Syndrome" how every feeling we (the counselors) have in a counseling session means something. This situation, trust me, will cause you to have feelings, so I ask you what  your feelings in this situation could mean? First, here are some common feelings you might find yourself having:

  • Awkwardness
  • Concern about ethical issues
  • Reciprocal attraction
  • Fear/Vulnerability
  • "Stuck" (what do I do next?)

That's a lot of feelings! And any one of those makes it really hard to think of what to do in the moment. That's why it so good that this question came up. It's one of those that's really best to address ahead of time if you can.

Of course, with so many different directions, it's hard to declare just one definite answer. So don't try. Just think through as much as you can. A rule of thumb: if you have any reciprocal attraction, hear warning bells. You need to immediately refer and consult with a colleague to work through those feelings.

If it's not a mutual attraction, realize getting you to refer to someone else might be the point of expressing the attraction. The first time this happened to me, it was on the first session with a guy who was a serial adulterer and didn't have a lot of respect for women. His wife wanted him to come to counseling, and he had no use for it. It is my belief that he knew he would fluster me by bringing that up. He wanted to get off of the topic at hand, which was his problems. To my discredit, it worked. But now, at least, I know better than to have it happen again.

As with all client-counselor interest conflicts, you can get through this by remembering that you are in charge. You're the counselor, and you have the capability to deal with anything that comes your way. (Even if it might take a little fumbling....) You are the professional, and you will get through this in a professional manner. In the moment, ask yourself "why?" and remind yourself that you can handle it. Even though it seems so scary, attraction to the counselor, in the end, is just another symptom for you to explore.

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Reply Jogi
3:02 PM on April 22, 2011 
I hear you, Stephanie, and there is definitely this angle to it requiring the steps you mention.

If true transference, though, I think I would use the situation as an opportunity. If it's not just a client fooling around, then it might very well fall under transference, which, from a Freudian or person-centered style could be used in the sense of helping the client identify those feelings and try to get at the root of them. It might not be the counselor the client is 'hitting on', but rather some aspect of the counselor the client incorrectly identifies with because of some past (usually far-past) interaction that caused the incorrect association. So I think that if a counselor has the ability, this type of transference can be a golden opportunity to set things right for the client.
Reply Stephanie Adams
9:54 PM on April 22, 2011 
Good point, Jogi. How would you suggest bringing that information out in session?