The Dilemma of Dual: Dual Relationships in Counselling

Some of you may know that I am a registered clinical social worker and a proud one at that. Also, as you may know, social workers in BC adhere to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice of the BC College of Social Workers (BCCSW), which contains practice principles that social workers must adhere to in order to be registered to practice social work.

While this is by no means a scintillating read (sorry), there are a number of principles in the Standards of Practice which are worth talking about, particularly since clients are one half of the therapeutic relationship. One of these principles is the concept of dual relationships. I first touched on this topic in an article I wrote in 2014 but I wanted to explore it in more detail here.

It’s important to note that the concept of dual relationships is not specific to social worker-client relationships, but extend to other counselling relationships as well. As a social worker, however, I write from this perspective.

What Is A Dual Relationship?

The principle in the BCCSW Standards of Practice states,

“Social workers avoid conflicts of interest and/or dual relationships with clients or former clients.”

And defines dual relationships as

“…a situation in which the social worker, in addition to her/his professional relationship, has one or more other relationships with the client, whether this occurs prior to, during or following the provision of professional services.”

What Are Some Examples of Dual Relationships?

  • A client asks their social worker if the social worker can come into a store the client owns, believing that the social worker would benefit from a product the client is selling.
  • A parent at a community school where a therapist also has a child asks the therapist if he could also be their counselling therapist.
  • A counsellor has been a regular at a gym for the past year and noticed for the first time that their client was working at the front desk.
  • A social worker sends a LinkedIn request to one of her former clients.
  • A counsellor turns up at a community play and sees her client sitting in the audience.

Dual relationship scenarios can, and may even frequently happen inadvertently and may or may not be able to be avoided; as social worker and author Claudia Dwayne (2010) discusses, they are both common and complex.

Dual relationships are important to understand because of their ethical implications, particularly when dual relationship scenarios involve a conflict of interest.

The BCCSW goes on to elaborate that not all dual relationships constitute a conflict of interest, however warn that “where dual relationships exist, there is a strong potential for conflict of interest.”

What is a Conflict of Interest?

Because dual relationships have such potential, and because conflicts of interest can lead to harm to a client it is important to understand what is meant by this concept. The BCCSW defines conflict of interest as situations where a social worker “has a personal, financial or other professional interest or obligation which gives rise to a reasonable apprehension that the interest or obligation may influence the social worker in the exercise of her or his professional responsibilities.”

In other words, such interest(s) would affect the ability of the social worker to carry out their professional duties in a way that would solely benefit the client. The BCCSW also clarifies that the responsibility of the social worker is not simply limited to actual conflicts of interest but also to situations of perceived conflicts of interest.

Categories of Dual Relationships (Where Conflict of Interest Is Involved)

According to the BCCSW, conflicts of interest in dual relationships can fall into several categories which extend beyond the social worker/client relationship including, but not limited to:

  • Relationships in which the social worker receives a service from the client.
  • Where the social worker has a personal, familial or business relationship with the client (included in this, ethical social workers do not have sexual or romantic relationships with their clients).
  • Situations where the social worker provides therapy to students, employees or supervises.

Categories of Dual Relationships (Where Conflict of Interest May or May Not Be Involved)

Social worker Frederick Raemer (2001) adds some additional categories, which may or may not involve conflicts of interest:

  • Emotional/Dependency – Social workers and counselling providers for that matter, are often drawn to the field because the possibility of making a difference in people’s lives is emotionally very meaningful, however, should the social worker’s emotional needs trump the client’s, Raemer rightly points out that the social worker has violated a boundary. While social workers are understandably motivated by a desire to help others, they must not be getting their core emotional needs met by their clients and should have other ways of doing so, independent of their work.
  • Unintentional/Unplanned Relationships – Inadvertent situations which often happen accidentally, and particularly frequently in rural communities where the potential for client and social worker/therapist to know one another in additional settings is higher.
  • Altruistic – Situations where the social worker wants to help the client outside of the traditional bounds of the therapeutic relationship, such as donating to a cause the client is involved in or offering a client a ride home, for example.

Negative Consequences

Possible negative outcomes of dual relationships include:

  • Financial gain for the counselling professional, over and above any employment income that they received from the client or an employer.
  • Knowledge acquisition used to to benefit the therapist, particularly for selfish reasons.
  • Role confusion – confusion for the client about the boundaries of the counselling relationship.
  • Personal gain – improvement in the counsellor’s or social worker’s personal situation which could include things such as advancement of status, career or privilege.
  • Good intentions gone bad – As Dwayne (2010) writes, altruism which morphs into dual relationships “can feel like a bribe, create dependency, or have detrimental symbolic meaning.”

Situations which fall into the above categories can exploit clients, leave them feeling used, create significant confusion, trigger intense emotional upheaval or create unobtainable expectations for the therapeutic relationship or a relationship outside of therapy.

Is Dual Always Bad?

Should dual relationships be universally rejected? This is an interesting question and must be treated with caution, including the social worker taking steps to confer with a trusted colleague or receive clinical supervision. Dwayne (2010) notes that context and outcome are important considerations in asking such questions, within the backdrop of professionalism, the understanding of client vulnerability and avoidance of client exploitation or conflict of interest.

Dwayne (2010) continues that such factors could include but not be limited to:

  • The setting that the social work service/counselling is being offered in (institution vs community, for example).
  • Situations which would benefit the client’s therapy.
  • Predetermined mutual understanding of boundaries by both client and therapist.
  • Culture or even certain therapeutic approaches where therapeutic power dynamics are minimized, for example.

Prevention and Action

While dual relationships do not necessarily involve exploitation of a client’s knowledge, skills, resources or situation (because not all dual relationships are conflicts of interest), it is important for social workers to be alert to this possibility so that they can take active steps to prevent this, including meeting regularly with a clinical supervisor.

Clients can benefit from exposure to knowledge about the ins and outs of dual relationships too, so that they can be empowered to take action if they believe they were harmed. If this is the case, there are several ways that you can proceed:

Start with describing your concerns to the social worker or counselling therapist that you are working with. See how they respond. Do they listen? Non-defensively explore your concerns? Were you satisfied with their response? Did your situation of concern seem deliberate or accidental? What is the plan moving forward?

If you are unsatisfied with the response you received, there are options. If you felt unheard but unharmed, many people would look for a new therapist.

Conversely, if you believed that you were harmed and this harm was not resolved in your conversation with your therapist (or you did not feel emotionally safe having this discussion), contact the college or association that your therapist is (hopefully) attached to. As I have written about previously, counselling is an unregulated field in British Columbia, meaning even someone with no training can set up shop and call themselves a counsellor. Consider always choosing, or switching, to a regulated counselling professional as the mandate of such professional bodies is to protect the public.