Counselor and Ethical Boundaries


Boundary issues in counseling result from failure of a counselor to stick to the limits to which he/she is professionally authorized regarding a client. As a counselor, I have to ensure that my relationships with clients remain professional when delivering psychological services within the restrictive parameters that are safe for clients. Dual relationships, on the other hand, refer to a situation where, in addition to profession relationship, a significant emotional relationship exists between the client and the counselor. This dual relationship is generally unfit for professional counseling, since there will be power imbalance that may negatively influence the counseling process (Syme, 2003, p.6).

Boundary Issues and Dual Relationships

Various issues exist in relation to situations pertaining to ethical and appropriate professional relationships between the counselor and the client. Boundaries to a counselor might include the fee charged, time span of the counseling sessions, level of personal disclosure, and physical contact. The primary concern of counselors is establishment of boundaries and management with respect to individual clients, where the counselor focuses on delivering services beneficial for clients. Although determination of whether acts are appropriate or ethical may be difficult, the above criteria can clearly distinguish their appropriateness.

Observation of these boundary issues and dual relationships is paramount, considering the existence of inherent power imbalance where the client trusts the therapist’s expertise, and therefore discloses personal information (Pope, Tabachnick & Keith-Spiegel, 1987). There are situations where dual relationships are complex and ambiguous. In this case, there is a need for application of a decision-making model where clients are involved in discussions to maintain professionalism. In my place of counseling in the community, it coincidentally happens that among the clients who come for counseling services are my students whom I teach in college.

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In this case, an ambiguous dual and complex relationship exists. In such a case, there must be a discussion with clients in order to avoid interactions that may hamper success of counseling services. Over and above discussion and avoidance, therapists may choose to terminate the therapy process in order to observe the codes of conduct. As a counselor, I may be involved in community projects of my interest, where I am appointed as a board member. It coincidentally happens that among the board members are my clients who go ahead to meet me in person during the board meetings, and openly admit being glad of sharing similar interest and characteristics in the community.

These situations call for one-on-one discussion with clients to enable distinction of the two relationships. One example of a complex dual relationship may occur in a case when an unmarried counselor is celebrating a special day, and in the process, a friendly couple joins his celebration and decides to take charge of organizing the occasion and inviting other people. The couple also invites another single person of the opposite sex, a situation that happens to be a blind date for the counselor. Coincidentally, the blind date turns out to be one of the counselor’s clients, thus resulting in a complex dual relationship. As a counselor, agreeing into the invitation is fine, but clear-cut distinctions of both relationships must be established through personal discussion with the client. The same decision model can be applied to a scenario where close friends come for counseling services, putting pressure on the counselor to pay special attention to them considering that his services are the only relevant and available counseling services in the community (Borys & Pope, 1989).

Thinking Development about Ethics

Dual Relationships and boundary issues with respect to professional counseling can be generally concluded as a result of therapists being members of the community. Generally, dual relationships cannot be avoided, since counselors carry out their day-to-day activities within the community and more so, they have their own interests and livelihoods. In a case where a counselor is elected to membership of a community project boards in which one of the clients is also a member, there arises an issue of complexity with respect to a dual relationship. Modification of thought in such issues of complexity bases its claims on the fact that counselors cannot continuously deny the opportunity of advancing their interests in order to avoid dual relationships with clients.

In order to resolve issues related to the dual relationships, new ways of managing dual relationships should be put in place rather than evade the relationships. Dual relationships widely vary and may include social, professional, business, communal, and even institutional relationships. These relationships often result in complex professionalism issues that are ambiguous and difficult to resolve. Dynamic views towards these complexities involve distinctive dual relationships where counseling is completely separated from the emotional relations shared outside the profession. The client should understand that the counselor has a duty to observe professional codes of conduct irrespective of other relationships. At work, both the client and therapist must make the assumption that no other relationship exists, and that the right to this distinction during interactions outside therapy is paramount.


Borys, D.

S., & Pope, K.S. (1989) ‘Dual relationships between therapist and client: A national study of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers’. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 20(5); 283-293.

Pope, K.S., Tabachnick, B.G.

, & Keith-Spiegel, P. (1987) ‘Ethics of practice: The beliefs and behaviors of psychologists as therapists’. American Psychologist, 42(11); 993-1006. Syme, G. (2003) Dual Relationships in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Exploring the Limits.



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