I'm a 26 year-old therapist, and my married patient confessed his love for me

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  • A therapist told Insider about her experience working with a patient who, nine months into working together, admitted he thought he was in love with her.
  • They discussed his feelings in therapy, but months later, he came to an appointment drunk and reiterated his affection.
  • The therapist kept working with him, but said the experience made her question herself and her abilities.

In this As Told To, Insider's series of edited conversations about interesting and unique experiences, Julia Naftulin talks to a 26-year-old therapist about her experience counseling a patient who developed and admitted he had feelings for her.

From the start, I could tell that my patient, who is an artist and entertainer and around my same age, really valued our sessions together.

I started working with him in the summer of 2018. I had just started working at my practice in Pennsylvania a month earlier. Since this is my first therapy job since graduating with a Master's degree, I saw him for the majority of my career. Advertisement

At the beginning, he would spend a lot of his sessions going down rabbit holes and going on tangents, but it would all kind of loop back together. Still, we both noticed we couldn't really accomplish as much in a normal 50-minute session as I do with some other patients, so I would give him two sessions' worth in one sitting, and he would pay for both of them.

About nine months into working together, he admitted he had feelings for me. I wasn't shocked, because he always praised me a lot and really made it clear how much he valued our time together and how much I was helping him.

He consistently told me how he looked forward to our sessions and was very complimentary, often telling me my hair looked nice or that I "looked great." He also referred to our sessions as "hangouts," which I found a bit strange. Still, it felt more like he wanted me to understand how much the therapy sessions meant to him. And that he viewed me as his friend.
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Nine months into working together, he admitted he thought he was in love with me

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But in March 2019, I realized how intense those feelings were. He told me he wished we could be friends outside of my work. Then he started talking about how Tony Soprano feels about his therapist, Dr. Melfi. [Editor's note: In the HBO show "The Sopranos," mob boss Tony Soprano tells Melfi he's in love with her during an early session.] That kind of clued me into how he was really feeling about me.Advertisement

A week passed after he made the Tony Soprano comment, and at our next session, he was like, "I feel really awkward about saying I wish we could hang out. But I think what I was trying to say is, I think I'm in love with you."

He said it in a questioning tone, like he knew he wasn't actually in love, but that felt like he was. Then he continued: "I know I'm not in love with you, but it feels like I am. And I know that's because of how our relationship is that, you know, I feel like I can tell you everything and that's how you should feel when you're in love."

We talked through his feelings during our session

After he admitted his feelings, we used his entire 100-minute session to process it all. He's married to this woman, and they have problems with communication. I think he started having feelings for me right away just because his age demographic is close to mine and he really enjoyed having very intimate conversations he wouldn't have with his wife.Advertisement

But that's what my career is like. We have the most intimate conversations, and not intimate in a sexual or romantic way, but just deep conversations with patients about and the things that they don't talk about with anybody else.

During school, my classmates and I were told that this could happen, a patient telling you they're in love with you or have feelings for you, but you don't think it's actually going to happen.

It's so bizarre because you shouldn't love your therapist, and when most people think of a therapist, they think of a frumpy old lady in a cardigan, or like this old geezer saying, "How does that make you feel?" But I think when you're talking to a therapist who is your age in such an intimate way, it's easy for people to start to develop crushes, or wish their relationships could be similar to how their relationship is with their therapist.Advertisement

When we initially processed his feelings, I brought this up. I said, "I think that our relationship should be a model for how you should feel in a romantic relationship, right? It should feel open and honest. But the thing is, there are boundaries in our therapeutic relationship, and what's different from a romantic relationship is that this is a one-sided relationship. It's impossible for you to actually be in love with me because you actually don't know me outside of this room."

He told me he wished he could know me outside of the room. He wasn't trying to convince me to run away with him or anything, but it was like he was just trying to get across that he wishes that he could have a relationship where he could feel as open and free and vulnerable as he does in our relationship.

Over the next few months, his feelings for me were still there. Then he came to an appointment while drunk

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A couple of months later, he brought up his feelings for me again. He prefaced it with, "You know, I know that I'm not actually in love with you, but it feels like I am." We didn't process it as much as we did during the first time he admitted it, but then he did it a third time while drunk, and I had to set boundaries.

The third time he told me how he felt, it was January 2020, and he showed up to my practice's office intoxicated. He admitted he drank some vodka while in his car because he didn't want to deal with certain topics he knew he needed to address, and then he asked me for a hug. I really had to set some boundaries there and tell him no. He ended up sitting in the office for 15 minutes before I called him an Uber and sent him home. He came back for a session the next day, and was really apologetic about the whole thing.Advertisement

During previous sessions when I helped him unpacked his feelings for me, I tried to validate him by explaining it's actually very normal to feel that way, but those feelings can't be reciprocated. But after the drunken incident, I also had to feel out if he was going to get anything else out of the therapeutic relationship even though he felt like he was in love with me. If you feel like you're in love with your therapist, you're going to buy into everything they say or try to please them or try to make them happy just as you would in a romantic relationship.

But that's not the point of therapy, so I really had to ask myself, "How do we move forward?"

I decided to keep working with him, but sometimes I worried the situation would escalate

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It's nuanced because I do care about him, like I care about all of my clients. I enjoy working with him. I think he's creative and I think he really does put a lot of effort into taking what we talk about in sessions and applying those things to his regular life.

Still, his feelings concerned me and I was constantly talking with my supervisor to get guidance on the situation. She heard me out and said that I did the right thing and I kept good boundaries after he asked for a hug. She also suggested I let him sit in my office for a few minutes, and then to call the Uber for him to go home.

I wanted to really cover my a-s because I didn't want an ethical violation coming back to bite me where I didn't document the situation properly, or where he could come back and say that I was...I don't know. I definitely didn't want any sort of speculation.Advertisement

I also caught myself choosing more modest clothing, or taking less time on my appearance if I knew I had a session scheduled with him.

At one point, I considered transferring him to another therapist in our practice, but I never felt uncomfortable in the room, or like he couldn't continue to get something out of our work together due to his feelings for me, so I never did. If he had ever made sexual remarks,, that would've pushed me to end our work right away.

The last time we spoke was over the phone in April, and before that, he didn't overstep his boundaries again. We did a phone check-up because of coronavirus-related restrictions, and honestly, he sounded like he was doing really well. He told me, "I think about you a lot, but as a therapist."Advertisement

After the drunken incident, he always prefaced his compliments with "I see you as a therapist," I think to make up for the other things that he's said. It's kind of like he adores me, and it's a little uncomfortable.

I don't regret working with him, but the experience caused me to question myself

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Honestly, I'm surprised that he hasn't been blowing up my phone recently trying to get sessions since our 10-minute check-in, but I think it's because he's doing really well in his personal life. I think our year and a half of working together did make a difference in his life and got him to that point. I think he's worked a lot on his marriage on his end, and I think he's also noticed more toxicity in it since starting our work together. Advertisement

In reflecting on our therapeutic relationship, I realize it made me question myself and my professionalism, even though I have no reason to worry about those things.

At the end of the day, I'm a very young therapist and I'm not seasoned. I haven't been through years of clients, so I don't always know exactly what to do in these difficult situations.

With him being the first client to tell me he has feelings for me so early in my career, I was anxious. How did I handle it? Did I give him mixed signals? Did I do anything that made him feel that way about me? Advertisement

I know now that working with men in a therapeutic setting isn't my favorite thing, just because I'm worried this could happen again. I don't think I would be able to handle it the next time. Would I question my own professionalism and why this is happening again? What am I putting off that is allowing this to happen?

Truthfully, I primarily and intentionally work with individual women, not only because of this situation, but it's partially influenced that decision for sure.

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