It sounds like the plot of a soap opera, or the theme of an afternoon talk show where the participants yell and cry. Unfortunately, this storyline sometimes isn’t fiction, and the tears it causes are all too real. One national study of psychologists revealed that half of the respondents had treated a patient who had been sexually intimate with a prior therapist. From the calls coming into our office and the clients we work with, we have heard of many therapists who engage in sexual or inappropriate behavior with their clients. The clients often don’t realize it while they are in the midst of it, but this behavior is a form of medical malpractice on the part of the therapist.
It is bad enough for a therapist to take sexual advantage of a client they are seeing in individual therapy. In some ways, it is even worse for a therapist to have a sexual relationship with one member of a couple that is in marriage counseling. By definition, the couple is struggling with issues in the marriage, and the members of the couple are vulnerable. One or both may have experienced trauma in the past, and may currently be experiencing sexual problems in the marriage.
In order to address and resolve their problems, the couple must see the therapist as reliable and trustworthy, with the best interests of the couple at heart. Then the spouses must be willing to open up about their most personal and intimate secrets. The couple must be able to have complete confidence that the therapist will use that information only to help them. Sleeping with one member of the couple is an inherent violation of the trust that is needed to make therapy successful.
Sex between a therapist and one spouse harms the other spouse, whether or not the other spouse is aware of it. Let’s say that the therapist is having a sexual relationship with Spouse A. Spouse B is being harmed in multiple ways. Obviously, there is the betrayal of the affair itself, coupled with the fact that the therapist has taken advantage of the couple’s vulnerability rather than helping them repair their marriage.
The therapist and Spouse A are in league with each other, keeping secrets from Spouse B and perhaps even “gaslighting” them if Spouse B expresses suspicion of an affair. This is detrimental to Spouse B’s mental health. If and when Spouse B finds out about the affair (as usually happens), trust in the spouse and in the therapist is destroyed.
Because of this, the relationships are almost impossible to repair, and Spouse B will probably struggle to trust both romantic partners and therapists in the future. Usually when a spouse has an affair, the injured spouse can turn to a therapist to sort out their feelings. In this case, the therapist is not available to help heal because they are the source of the injury, and their behavior casts doubt on the trustworthiness of other therapists. Without their marriage, without a trusted counselor, and already struggling with emotional issues, Spouse B can easily spiral into depression and self-destructive behaviors.
While it is easy to see how Spouse B is injured in this scenario, it is important to realize that Spouse A has been harmed, too. Spouse A went into the therapy looking to repair and strengthen the marriage. Successful therapy usually involves hard work and sometimes painful introspection. Instead of guiding Spouse A through that difficult work, the therapist diverted them from it to fulfill the therapist’s own needs. Spouse A is likely to lose their marriage; even if Spouse B doesn’t find out about the affair, the emotional issues that led the couple to seek therapy will go unaddressed, and keeping the secret of the affair erodes trust and communication.
To an outside observer, it may be harder to be sympathetic to the harm to Spouse A, because they appear to be a willing participant in the affair. They may even think it was their idea. But the bottom line is that the therapist put their own needs ahead of Spouse A’s, as well as Spouse B’s. This is a clear ethical violation, and constitutes therapist malpractice.
As you can see, a therapist who enters into a sexual affair with one spouse to whom they are providing marriage counseling causes tremendous damage to both spouses and the marriage itself. Why lay so much blame at the feet of the therapist? Because by the nature of their position, therapists are in a position of power over their clients.
Therapists know their clients are emotionally vulnerable. They know that clients must trust the therapist and be open with them in order for therapy to be successful. They have committed to using their power to help the client, never to harm them. So when a therapist intentionally acts in a way that is counter to a client’s best interests, they must be held accountable.
If you have been in marriage counseling and the therapist had a sexual relationship with your spouse, or with you, you already know the devastation that ensues. Taking action to hold your therapist responsible may not only help you get closure, but will protect other vulnerable clients. If you have questions about how to address therapist malpractice, we invite you to contact Huegli Fraser to discuss your situation and take the first step toward healing.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
© 2021 Huegli Fraser PC