Attraction, Romance, and Sexual Intimacies with Clients and Subordinates

Psychotherapy is a sensitive and delicate process. It is characterized by a person disclosing highly intimate details of their life in an environment where they feel welcomed and accepted. Therapy is intimate as it involves open discussions about aspects of a person's life that they keep barred from the rest of the world. This setting induces feelings of closeness and belongingness in a client, which can be used for therapeutic purposes. Still, there may also be feelings of attraction and romantic love.

These feelings need to be acknowledged by the therapist and be navigated in ways that benefit the client. The following text examines this phenomenon in detail.

Interpersonal Attraction in Therapy Settings

Attraction in a therapy setting can be a complex and sensitive topic. In psychoanalytic theory, a client's feelings toward a therapist are called transference, while a therapist's feelings toward the client are called countertransference. It is important to understand that attraction is a normal human experience and can occur between a therapist and their client. However, it is also important to recognize that such attraction can potentially compromise the therapeutic relationship and harm the client.

Caste Study

In the therapy setting, the therapist-client relationship is professional, and it is the therapist's responsibility to maintain appropriate boundaries and prioritize the client's well-being. This means that any feelings of attraction should be acknowledged, explored, and managed in a way that is ethical and in the client's best interest.

The intern psychotherapist, Martin noticed that he was sexually attracted to his client in about the second session when he experienced an emotional and physical response to her presence. The client was physically attractive to Martin and impressed him as articulate, sophisticated, and generally richer in interpersonal attributes than other clients. Martin had never been sexually attracted to a client before and was very distressed by the situation; he experienced various negative feelings. For example, he felt embarrassed that he was sexually attracted to someone with numerous complex problems. He felt guilty that he was devoting more attention to this client than others, and he felt tortured inside because he enjoyed being attracted to her and did not try to change his feelings. As the sessions progressed, Martin looked forward to seeing the client each week. Thus, the sexual attraction created an emotional dilemma that he struggled to manage.

Therapists are generally ashamed of admitting sexual attraction towards their patients as it often questions their competence as mental health professionals and their fear of sending invitational gestures to the client.

The Breachings of Ethical Boundaries

It is incredibly important that the therapist does not act on these feelings and breach boundaries. There are limits to a therapeutic relationship, and crossing them is immoral, unethical, and even illegal. If a therapist crosses their boundaries, they may face legal repercussions, including revoking their practicing license. Breaching boundaries in therapeutic settings may look like the following −

  • Touching the client and decreasing physical proximity.

  • Excess and unnecessary self-disclosure about the therapist's personal life.

  • Meeting a client outside the therapy room.

  • Initiating romantic and sexual gestures with a client.

  • Sympathizing instead of empathizing with the client to win their approval.

  • The next section will examine how, when one encounters these feelings, one may process and manage them, including using them for the client's benefit.

Clients Attracted to Therapists

Clients may feel sexually attracted to their therapists and conduct sexualized behaviors toward them, such as suggestive stares or taunting. Given the personal nature of psychotherapy, this should come as no surprise. Such strong emotions can be described as love or something similar. However, they may be focused on the therapy setting rather than the therapist as a unique person. In a poll of female psychologists, over half experienced sexualized conduct by male and, less frequently, female clients.

The younger the therapist, the more likely they will be subjected to sexualized conduct. When a client communicates interest improperly, three components demand internal processing. To begin, how does the therapist evaluate the client's behavior? Was it on purpose? Was it an attempt to entice, control, or dominate? Was the client attempting to associate or bond, even if it appeared unintentional?

Second, how does the therapist see his or her role in causing this? What role did he or she play that prompted this behavior? Could a joke or a casual remark have sparked improper behavior? Finally, what was the therapist's internal emotional reaction? Was it flattering, perplexing, frustrating, or disgusting? Other contextual elements, such as the personal styles of both the client and the therapist, as well as the duration and aim of treatment, must be addressed before responding appropriately.

When a client communicates sexual sentiments explicitly, it is critical to maintaining professional boundaries while also protecting the client's self-esteem. Leaping into interpretations of unconscious difficulties may appear to be the safest option. However, it may be perceived as embarrassing by the honest client who has collected the courage to reveal their innermost sentiments. A therapist's hasty assertion that acting on such feelings is unethical may appear as an anxious response.

Furthermore, therapists must remember that when a client expresses romantic sentiments toward the therapist, it does not always imply that the client wants them to be acted on. What the therapist perceives as seductive conduct may be an indicator of dependence. The preferable course of action is to delve deeper into the client's emotions and refocus on why the client is in therapy.

How to Manage Attraction and Intimacy?

One key aspect of managing intimacy and attraction in therapy is establishing clear boundaries between therapist and client. This means setting limits on physical touch, avoiding romantic or sexual involvement, and being mindful of the power imbalance between therapist and client. The therapist needs to be aware of their feelings and reactions and not let them influence the therapeutic relationship.

Another important aspect of managing intimacy and attraction in therapy is addressing these feelings when they arise. Suppose a client expresses feelings of attraction towards the therapist. In that case, the therapist needs to acknowledge and validate those feelings while making it clear that any kind of romantic or sexual involvement is inappropriate. If a therapist is experiencing feelings of attraction towards a client, they should be honest with themselves and seek supervision or guidance to maintain professional boundaries.

In group therapy, managing intimacy and attraction can be even more complex. The therapist must be aware of the potential for attraction and intimacy between group members and address any issues that arise promptly and sensitively. Managing intimacy and attraction can also be challenging when working with couples. It is important for the therapist to understand the dynamics of the relationship and to be aware of any potential power imbalances. It is also important for the therapist to help the couple develop effective communication and conflict-resolution skills.

Harms to Clients

When sex is introduced into treatment, the therapeutic atmosphere is disrupted. Even early polls of psychologists and psychiatrists expressed reservations about romantic contact or sexual intercourse with clients, with some comparing such actions to rape or incest. Indeed, one of the most disturbing research results is that adult survivors of familial incest are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse by their therapists.

The research available demonstrates the negative and exploitative impact of sexual contact with clients owing to power abuse, mismanagement of the transference connection, role confusion, and other aspects relevant to clients as persons. Although some may argue about the research's quality and the generalizability of the findings, such disputes overshadow the main point: Sex with customers is unethical and falls well short of established care standards.

The available data came mostly from what clients reported to new therapists about former abusive therapists, replies to questionnaires and interviews by exploited clients, and official complaint records. Taken together, the majority of clients examined from these categories described therapist sex as harmful.

Several moving and compelling personal testimonies testified to the harm caused by sexualized therapeutic partnerships. Pope identified a set of symptoms that she saw in some clients who had sexual connections with their therapists.

These included emotions of ambivalence toward the therapist, similar to incest victims who have both positive and bad sentiments for the offending family member; feelings of guilt, as if the client was to fault for what happened; and feelings of isolation and emptiness; cognitive dysfunction, particularly in the areas of attention and concentration; identity and boundary disturbances; difficulties trusting others as well as themselves; confusion about their sexuality; mood lability and feeling out of control; suppressed rage; and an increased risk of suicide or other self-destructive reactions.

Some clients may first see sexual interactions with therapists as delightful or may at least conceal the abusive aspects but subsequently come to regard them as exploitative. While serving on ethics committees, we witnessed the expressions of such sentiments. The complainants typically expressed outrage over what was done to them; described other damaged or destroyed relationships in their lives; experienced feelings of abandonment, exploitation, and hopelessness; questioned whether they could ever trust another therapist again; and frequently admitted filing charges to help ensure that the therapists did not harm anyone else. Ambivalence and guilt were also present. Some complainants, for example, stated that they did not want anything terrible to happen to their therapists; they only wanted them to know that what they did was wrong and harmful.


Attraction and sexual interest are complex topics that can significantly impact an individual's mental and emotional well-being. In therapy, these topics may be addressed in various ways, including exploring personal attractions and desires, relationship dynamics, and cultural and societal influences. The goal of therapy is to help individuals understand and accept their feelings and desires and to develop healthy ways of expressing and managing them.