I have many clients who enjoy chatting with me during their massage. One long-time client is particularly fun to visit with. She has an upbeat, fun personality, she enjoys cooking and dining out, movies, books and travel, and she has a great husband and family. All traits that I enjoy and value with my best friends. One day recently we visited on the topic of my relationships with my clients and I told her that I’ve always been a little squeamish about using the word “client”. “But, I don’t really feel comfortable using the word ‘friend’ either,” I told her, sort of thinking out loud. After a pause, I continued, working this idea out as I went, “You, for example, I would definitely think of you as a friend, but we don’t do the normal things that friends do, like going to events together or meeting at each other’s houses to grill out, because of our massage relationship.” And then I hit upon a phrase that perfectly described this relationship I enjoy with her and many other “clients”: “Friends with Boundaries!”
I think many of us tend to attract clients to our practice who are like us, or who are the types we enjoy spending time with. Aren’t we told to market towards the groups we know? That’s how I’ve built my practice. So what happens when some of these clients who also happen to share similar interests (just like our non-massage friends) step over into friendship territory beyond the massage table? How do we proceed when welcomed social invitations outside of the massage session arise?
Let’s define the term “friend”:
• a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard. (Dictionary.com)
• one attached to another by affection or esteem. (merriam-webster.com)
Basically, someone to whom you form an affectionate attachment. We seem to be hard wired to want to form networks and social groups. So what’s the problem with mixing some friendly massage clients into our social scene?
That voice in my head from my first ethics teacher in school, for one. “Thou shall not cross the line from clients to personal relationship!” My early instructors carved those words into our brains as surely as they were carved into the “stone tablet” that was our Ethics textbook. “You’re not becoming a massage therapist to find a lover or new best friend, you’re doing this because you want to provide the best therapeutic massage you can give to each client. Period.”
As I researched the various Codes of Ethics and Standards of Practice that we have each have agreed to adhere to (if we’ve joined or been certified by one of our professional organizations), the words “friend” or “friendship” aren’t listed. But they have plenty to say about therapist/client relationships.
For instance, NCBTMB, in its Standards of Practice, warns against “Multidimensional Relationships: Overlapping relationships in which the therapist and client share an alliance, in addition to the therapeutic relationship,” and, “An alliance in addition to the client/therapist relationship, such as social, familial, business or any other relationship that is outside the therapeutic relationship.” These Standards recommend avoiding multidimensional and dual relationships, as do corresponding documents from many other massage organizations.
Other serious concerns that arise as we become social with our clients include:
• Client confidentiality during social interactions
• Sexualizing the relationship
• Development of transference and counter-transference issues
• Your ability to give unbiased care and advice, to name a few.
While we can rationally think of many solid reasons to strictly keep your therapist/client relationship as just that, we live in a world where we do seek and cherish connections and friendships in our everyday lives. I confess that I have a small handful of these overlapping relationships – not many – but they have seemed to work out about as well as relationships with any other new friends. I think it’s necessary to define for ourselves, each of us, what our boundaries are on this topic. Some things to consider:
• Does the boundary apply to each and every client equally, or are there some exceptions? What are the exceptions?
• If an opportunity comes up to move to a level of friendship, should we immediately accept, or take some time to consider how this may affect the professionals relationship?
• Might you or your client start to feel differently about the exchange of money for ongoing massage sessions?
• Will your friendship become awkward if your client chooses to discontinue massage with you or change to different massage therapist?
• Would you consider ending the professional massage relationship between the two of you in order to cultivate a social relationship?
It seems wise to discuss concerns such as these with your client early on in your social relationship. Always keep in mind how the relationship started and proceed with caution.
I know many massage therapists who have found wonderful friends that began as clients. But I’m also aware of relationships that have gone terribly wrong, from miscommunications and hurt feelings, to massage therapists being stalked or worse. So far with my few overlapping relationships, my friends beyond the massage session, I’ve had no disasters. But I have purposely put the brakes on many more opportunities, sacrificing the expansion of my network of friends and settling contentedly for the pleasant visits with clients during their appointments.