Counseling Today, Features

New guidelines on dual relationships

Mary A. Hermann and Sharon Robinson-Kurpius December 9, 2006

The recent revision of the ACA Code of Ethics significantly changes the ethical guidelines related to dual relationships. Careful review of the specific ethics code language addressing dual relationships is imperative in order to navigate this prevalent ethical issue. Though the 1995 code offered guidance on the topic of dual relationships, the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics provides more explicit guidelines about which dual relationships are ethically acceptable and which are strictly prohibited.

Dual relationships exist on a continuum ranging from potentially beneficial interactions to harmful interactions. One dual relationship that is always considered harmful is a sexual relationship with a client. The 2005 revision of the ACA Code of Ethics reiterates and expands the ban on sexual relationships with clients. Under the new code, counselors are ethically prohibited from engaging in sexual relationships not only with clients but also clients’ partners or family members (Standard A.5.a.).

Another substantive revision is the extension of the time ban on sexual relationships with former clients. In the 1995 code, the specified period of waiting was two years, with extensive justification after two years that such a relationship would not be harmful to the former client. The 2005 code extends this period to five years. Echoing the previous code, the 2005 code states in Standard A.5.b. that “Counselors, before engaging in sexual or romantic interactions or relationships with clients, their romantic partners or client family members after 5 years following the last professional contact, demonstrate forethought and document (in written form) whether the interactions or relationship can be viewed as exploitive in some way and/or whether there is still potential to harm the former client; in cases of potential exploitation and/or harm, the counselor avoids entering such an interaction or relationship.”

Though sexual relationships with clients are clearly prohibited, nonsexual relationships are ethically permissible under certain circumstances. Like a dual relationship that is sexual, a nonprofessional dual relationship has the potential to blur the boundaries between a counselor and a client, create a conflict of interest, enhance the potential for exploitation and abuse of power, and/or cause the counselor and client to have different expectations of therapy. The 1995 code instructed counselors to avoid nonsexual dual relationships when it was possible to do so. The Ethical Code Revision Task Force felt that this instruction was being interpreted as a prohibition on all dual relationships, including relationships that could be beneficial to the client (see “Ethics Update” in the March 2006 issue of Counseling Today). Thus, the 2005 code revisions clarify that certain nonsexual interactions with clients can be beneficial, and therefore, those relationships are not banned (Standard A.5.c.).

The 2005 code also provides examples of potentially beneficial interactions, including “attending a formal ceremony (e.g., a wedding/commitment ceremony or graduation); purchasing a service or product provided by a client (excepting unrestricted bartering); hospital visits to an ill family member; mutual membership in a professional association, organization or community” (Standard A.5.d.). When engaging in a potentially beneficial relationship with a client or former client, however, the counselor is expected to “document in case records, prior to the interaction (when feasible), the rationale for such an interaction, the potential benefit and anticipated consequences for the client or former client and other individuals significantly involved with the client or former client.” Standard A.5.d., “Potentially Beneficial Interactions,” further clarifies that “Such interactions should be initiated with appropriate client consent,” and if harm occurs because of the nonprofessional interactions, counselors are expected to “show evidence of an attempt to remedy such harm.”

In settings such as rural communities and schools, nonsexual dual relationships are often impossible to avoid. The 1995 code provided guidance on managing unavoidable dual relationships, stating that the counselor was expected to “take appropriate professional precautions such as informed consent, consultation, supervision and documentation to ensure that judgment is not impaired and no exploitation occurs.” Though this language is no longer explicitly stated, such precautions still seem warranted.

The 2005 ACA Code of Ethics also provides guidelines for supervisory relationships, stating that “Sexual or romantic interactions or relationships with current supervisees are prohibited” (Standard F.3.b.). Furthermore, the ethics code clearly states that “Counseling supervisors do not condone or subject supervisees to sexual harassment” (Standard F.3.c.). It should be noted that not only is sexual harassment unethical, it is also illegal.

Counseling supervisors are expected to “clearly define and maintain ethical professional, personal and social relationships with their supervisees” (Standard F.3.a., “Relationship Boundaries With Supervisees”). The standard goes on to say that “If supervisors must assume other professional roles (e.g., clinical and administrative supervisor, instructor) with supervisees, they work to minimize potential conflicts and explain to supervisees the expectations and responsibilities associated with each role.” The 2005 ACA Code of Ethics also cautions counseling supervisors to remain aware of “the power differential in their relationships with supervisees” (Standard F.3.e.). The code further clarifies that “Counseling supervisors avoid accepting close relatives, romantic partners or friends as supervisees” (Standard F.3.d.).

Standard F.3.a. also advises counseling supervisors not to engage in “any form of nonprofessional interaction that may compromise the supervisory relationship.” If a counseling supervisor believes a nonprofessional relationship with a supervisee has the potential to benefit the supervisee, Standard F.3.e. provides that supervisors take precautions similar to those taken by counselors who engage in potentially beneficial dual relationships with clients. It goes on to say that “Before engaging in nonprofessional relationships, supervisors discuss with supervisees and document the rationale for such interactions, potential benefits or drawbacks, and anticipated consequences for the supervisee.”

The 2005 ethics code addresses other dual relationships as well, including relationships between counselor educators and students and relationships between researchers and research participants. Standard F.10. sets guidelines for counselor educators and students that are similar to the ethical guidelines for supervisors and supervisees. Standard G.3. virtually mirrors these rules for researchers and their research participants.

The 2005 ACA Code of Ethics clarifies that nonsexual dual relationships are not prohibited; however, navigating dual relationships can be challenging. Counselors are ethically mandated to approach dual relationships with care and caution. Informed consent is a critical component of engaging in nonsexual dual relationships with clients, and this includes specifying the potential negative consequences of such a relationship. It is wise for counselors to consult when faced with a dual relationship to ensure that clients are not harmed. Though the standards related to dual relationships in the ACA Code of Ethics have undergone significant changes, the spirit of their intent can still be summarized in one sentence: Do what is in the best interest of the client.

Mary A. Hermann, a professor of counselor education at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Sharon Robinson-Kurpius, a professor of counseling and counseling psychology at Arizona State University, are members of the ACA Ethics Committee.

Letters to the editor: