One of my clients has been coming for help with low self��esteem after a difficult divorce. During a recent session, she said she had 'matched' with someone on a dating app who she would like to meet. As she described them, alarm bells started ringing for me as I realised she could be talking about my former partner, whom I had left because they had become controlling and abusive. Where do I stand -- would I need to stop working with the client because of the boundary issue? Also, if it was my ex and they did end up dating, would it be within my remit as her therapist to warn her about their behaviour?
BACP's Ethics Team replies: In this modern world of social media and online dating, our day-to-day boundaries are continually being challenged, and protecting privacy and confidentiality can feel not as simple as it did before digital communication and interactions. This dilemma could be a hard one to answer and it's one that practitioners may have their own very strong view on, so there is much for us to consider here.
Key areas to think about are boundaries and conflicts of interest. This situation describes working with a client who might very soon start dating their therapist's former partner. If the situation were changed slightly, in that they came to you for therapy and before you started your work together you realised they were dating your ex-partner, what would your actions be then? In that situation most practitioners would see it as a clear breach of boundaries and would most likely not proceed due to their commitment to avoid dual relationships by ensuring that 'any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client' (Ethical Framework, Good Practice, point 33b).
When thinking about disclosing it is, of course, always important to consider whether it is in the best interests of the client -- under the Ethical Framework we commit to 'putting clients first by making them our primary concern' (Our commitment to clients, point 1a). Ethical self-disclosure is most often motivated by clinical rationale and client welfare -- is this the case here?
Attitudes towards practitioner self-disclosure have broadly changed over time, although opinions still vary widely. Careful consideration of the impact and implications of self-disclosure for building the appropriate relationship with the client, maintaining integrity and demonstrating accountability and candour are needed. We are required to 'establish and maintain appropriate professional and personal boundaries in our relationships with clients by ensuring that:
a. these boundaries are consistent with the aims of working together and beneficial to the client b. any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client c. reasonable care is taken to separate and maintain a distinction between our personal and professional presence on social media where this could result in harmful dual relationships with clients' (Good Practice, point 33).
The situation is complicated by the fact that you suspect your client and former partner have 'matched', but you don't know for certain. If it is your former partner, it is hard at this stage to know if anything will ever come from it, or if they will continue swiping and meet someone else from the dating app.
However, as you mention that your former partner was abusive, safeguarding may need to be considered if you feel that they could be a risk to your client. As always, we would recommend an open conversation with your supervisor, or in peer supervision, where you can consider all these different angles. Talking to your supervisor or colleagues could help you determine the level of risk and your duty to safeguard if required. Another topic to focus on in supervision is how best you can 'put the client first' and whether there are any 'personal or professional interests' that conflict with that (Good Practice, point 8). You are committed to the ethical principle of candour, to 'promptly inform your clients of anything in your work that places clients at risk of harm ' (Good Practice, point 52). However, unless the harm is a clear safeguarding issue -- for example, the former partner has convictions that put the client at risk of serious harm, or the client is under 18 or a vulnerable adult -- the risk is more about whether you can continue to work with this client given how you feel about your former partner. How easy or realistic might you find it to remain impartial?
It takes courage to work transparently, but self-disclosing in this instance would reveal a lot about yourself to the client, not least that you have been in a domestic abuse situation. There is a significant risk that the disclosure may rupture the relationship. What if you disclose and the client disregards what you have said -- how would that then impact the therapeutic relationship? Would a 'wait and see' approach be safer until you receive more explicit confirmation that the client has made contact with your former partner? In the meantime, you could perhaps see if there is an opening for a more generalised conversation around online dating and safety.
Many therapeutic models discourage self-disclosure and the heart of this dilemma is the question of whether disclosing this information would be in the best interests of the client. Is telling a client that they could be about to date your abusive ex-partner an example of 'non-maleficence', of putting the client first, or is it more about your personal feelings? Honest self-reflection is needed -- perhaps in personal therapy -- to explore whether the reasons for disclosing are really about warning the client of harm or about you being unable to respect client autonomy in making good choices. The client is an adult with self-responsibility after all.
Even if it turns out that your client has not matched with your former partner this time, now the possibility has been raised, you need to consider whether you can bracket off what you know and how you feel as a result of your personal experience, and focus on your client. If the possibility of them 'matching' with your ex would always be a distraction, you may need to spend time in supervision considering options to refer on. Consideration of how boundaries will be maintained if you continue to work together must be paramount.
This column is reviewed by an ethics panel of experienced practitioners.
Sometimes it's a small world where personal and professional lives intersect, and we feel the impact of that collision. You have encountered a very uncomfortable situation and you have raised two parts to your dilemma which I will address separately.
Would you need to stop working with the client because of the boundary issue? Are you sure it is your former partner -- has she mentioned the name, full or otherwise? With due consideration of client autonomy and not causing harm to clients, you could share with the client that it sounds like they are considering meeting someone with whom you used to be involved and give them the choice of meeting the person and moving to a different therapist, or turning down the 'match' and continuing to work with you. Be prepared with a few different possible referrals if needed. An honest discussion where the client can contribute to the choice, rather than perhaps being told that you can no longer work with them for 'personal reasons', fits well within the BACP ethical commitments to clients to 'show respect by working in partnership with clients' and 'being willing to discuss with clients openly and honestly any known risks involved in the work and how best to work towards our clients' desired outcomes by communicating any benefits, costs and commitments that clients may reasonably expect'.
Warning your client directly about your former partner's behaviour is a further dilemma as this could be seen to be going beyond your normal remit; however, if you think there would be a risk of imminent harm to your client from this man, then you may have a duty to warn them. While Rod Dubrow-Marshall and I have proposed the value of a register of coercive and controlling offenders this has not been implemented, and the closest to this is Clare's Law, which allows people to find out if someone has been convicted of domestic violence. Nevertheless, there may be opportunities for you to explore your client's issues of low self-esteem and how these may be related to her experience of the difficult divorce, and even how some men take advantage of a woman's vulnerability in these circumstances and initially seem like the most attentive partner ever and how that can transform into abusive jealousy and coercive control.
It would also be beneficial to discuss this in more depth with your supervisor. Dr Linda Dubrow-Marshall is coprogramme leader of the MSc Psychology of Coercive Control programme at the University of Salford, and is an integrative psychotherapist working online with victims of coercive control
Your ex has come into the therapy room. So while rightly considering the ethical boundaries around the therapy itself -- whether you can continue and what you can disclose -- you are also dealing with the inner processes within each of you. These include the elements that are shared between you, the fact that you have both experienced break-ups, as well as your client's process, feelings and issues -- and yours.
It appears that your ex has been hovering in the room throughout this therapeutic relationship. As practitioners we know it's important to check in with ourselves and own our process, staying aware of when what we feel and perceive comes from us or the client.
While you are not yet certain whether your client has been matched with your ex, I wonder what is coming up for you? What emotions are you feeling? There will be your feelings about the relationship and the break-up, but you will also now be dealing with the considerably difficult emotions around potentially learning about your ex's dating life. You are also no doubt concerned about the effect your ex will have on your client, who is working on her self-esteem.
Until you know for sure, it could be useful to reflect on what is happening for you by taking this to supervision, to consider how this potential situation is affecting you, your work and your perspective.
If it does turn out to be your ex, and they just go on one or two dates, is this enough to finish with the client? Should the relationship continue, the question is whether to tell your client that you experienced your ex as abusive. You certainly do not have a duty of confidentiality towards your ex. As you know, controllers and abusers rarely show their true selves until someone is committed to them -- which can take months -- so it would be kind to tell her your thoughts about him, and let her draw her own conclusions.
Emma Cullinan MBACP is an integrative therapist working with individuals and couples in private practice
My thoughts are that if it becomes clear to you that your client is actually dating your abusive ex, then you must stop working with your client. This would apply even if there hadn't been abuse in your relationship with them. This is an important boundary issue, and it would be unethical to continue without acknowledging this history you have with her potential new love interest.
Your second point is more tricky. Do you have a duty of care to your client to tell them about the behaviour of your ex-partner when they were with you? At this point it would be down to the limits of confidentiality that had been contracted in your initial meeting with your client. I tell my clients that only if I'm very concerned about safety of them or others will I speak with them about possible breaking of confidentiality. So then the question for you is do you believe your client would be in significant danger if she was dating this person? You say your ex-partner became abusive and controlling -- how far did you have to go to protect yourself? Have they received treatment for this behaviour? You are also aware of your client's vulnerability as she heals from a recent divorce, and this is another important consideration.
These would be delicate conversations to have with your client and you'd need significant supervisory support to help you navigate in this eventuality.
Elaine Leonard MBACP is a supervisor and therapist working with individuals and couples in private practice
"The heart of this dilemma is the question of whether disclosing this information would be in the best interests of the client. Is telling a client that they could be about to date your abusive ex-partner an example of 'non-maleficence', of putting the client first, or is it more about your personal feelings?"
You can find more information in the following BACP Good Practice in Action resources, available online at
■ Managing confidentiality within the counselling professions (GPiA 014) Legal Resource
■ Working online (GPiA 047) Fact Sheet
■ Accountability and candour within the counselling professions (GPiA 073) Fact Sheet
■ Dual roles within the counselling professions (GPiA 077) Fact Sheet
■ Boundaries within the counselling professions (GPiA 110) Fact Sheet
■ Boundary issues within the counselling professions (GPiA 111) Clinical Reflections for Practice
■ Accountability and candour within the counselling professions (GPiA 113) Clinical Reflections for Practice
"With due consideration of client autonomy and not causing harm to clients, you could share with the client that it sounds like they are considering meeting someone with whom you used to be involved and give them the choice of meeting the person and moving to a different therapist, or turning down the 'match' and continuing to work with you"
We welcome members' responses to these upcoming dilemmas. You don't have to be an 'expert' -- if a question resonates with you, do share your experiences or reflections with your peers. We welcome brief or longer responses (up to 350 words), and you can find the individual deadlines below. Email responses or any questions to [email protected]
I have just started working for an agency that offers telephone counselling for young people and have been told that the company policy is that we only share our first names with clients. There is also an option to work under a pseudonym, which some counsellors do. I feel uneasy about this -- I feel clients have a right to know who they are talking to. Is it OK for the service to work this way?
I'm about to set up in private practice and intend to see in-person clients in my home. I was thinking of investing in a smart doorbell with a video camera, but a colleague mentioned there could be potential GDPR issues with this as I would be recording clients. I live alone and will offer evening appointments as well as daytime so I need to consider my personal safety, but would it be unethical or problematic to use a smart doorbell?
I'm in private practice and one of my long-term clients is moving to China for two months for work and wants to continue working with me while there. We already work online. I am happy to do this, and the client has said they would value my support, but I have heard there are potential problems with working with clients not based in the UK. What do I need to consider to do this ethically?
The dilemmas reported here are typical of those worked with by BACP's Ethics Services. BACP members are entitled to access this consultation service free of charge. Appointments can be booked via the Ethics hub on the BACP website.