In a national survey exploring the significant ethical challenges and dilemmas faced by helping professionals, respondents ranked “blurred, dual or conflictual relationships” among the most difficult to navigate in their day to day practice (Barnett, Et Al., p. 401). Dual relationships, also commonly referred to as multiple or nonprofessional relationships, are defined in the American Psychological Association’s ethics code as “ones in which a practitioner is in a professional role with a person in addition to another role with the same individual, or with another person who is close to that individual” (Corey, Corey & Callahan, p. 268). While any relationship occurring simultaneous to the therapeutic one has the potential to be harmful, the only relationships extensively studied in this regard have been those of a sexual nature. Most agree that such sexual relationships are unethical, resulting in boundary violations that are both harmful and exploitative to the client. Both ethical and legal ramifications exist to address this issue including revocation of one’s license to practice and both criminal and civil sanctions.
However, continued debate regarding the benefit of nonsexual multiple relationships to the therapeutic process is ongoing. Historically, there was an outright ban on engaging in such relationships. Opponents argued that due to the inevitable power imbalance existing in the therapeutic process, exploitation and harm to the client would undoubtedly be the result. Professional boundaries were enforced to prevent compromise to the level of care received and crossing such boundaries was unanimously discouraged (Nickel, p.17).
However, in more recent years, there has been a shift in the ethical codes governing the mental health profession. The APA ethics code now states, ”multiple relationships that would not reasonably be expected to cause impairment or risk exploitation or harm are not unethical” (Barnett, Et Al, p. 403). Today, it is acknowledged that not all boundary crossings can be avoided or are even unethical and, in fact, some may even be beneficial to the therapeutic process. Today, the ban on multiple relationships has been downgraded to a cautioning against. However, the difficulty exists in determining which relationships are acceptable and which are not (Nickel, p. 403).
Because of the varied consensus regarding multiple relationships, there is no real direction available to instruct the professional in how to proceed if the opportunity presents itself (Nickel, p. 21). However, it...