Bad Therapy Boundaries and Beyond On TV and Film

Looks as though How I Met Your Mother has finally found a way to get rid of Kevin, he of bad therapy boundaries, he who never should have been dating his former client Robin.

Let me make this brief: Before knowing that she can never have kids, Kevin proposes. Robin discloses. He again proposes. She accepts. She discloses she doesn’t want kids either. He’s unfazed. She insists he really thinks this through. He un-proposes. Done.

So, this has gone the way of all of those inappropriate shrink/client relationships we’ve seen on TV or in movies that eventually crumble because in the end the client realizes he or she’s been exploited or because of other negative effects on the client’s well-being or…

Whoa. Wait a minute. Wait a darn minute. That actually never happened on HIMYM, and…well, has it ever happened anywhere on TV? In the movies?

Back around 1993, a study regarding therapy boundaries in U.S. movies showed that there were 22 that featured female therapists having sexual relationships with male clients; eight had male therapists getting involved with female clients. (In real life, by the way, more male therapists take advantage of female clients than the other way around.)

The psychiatrist behind this film research, Glen O. Gabbard, states: “Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the movie The Silence of the Lambs was probably more ethical than most screen psychiatrists–he only ate his patients.” (For more info, see the second edition—1999— of Gabbard’s book Psychiatry and the Cinema, cowritten with his brother Krin, a literature professor.)

As stated by Dr. Ofer Zur, Ph.D., author of Boundaries in Psychotherapy: Ethical and Clinical Explorations (2007) on his website:

Sexual relationships between therapists and current or recently terminated clients are always unethical and often illegal.

Whereas in real life, most clients who’ve become lovers of their therapists are significantly harmed emotionally, most of the celluloid clients and shrinks seem to suffer no such thing. Many of these films, in fact, have even been billed as exciting “romances” by their producers. And, Zur adds:

What is interesting about some of these movies is that they depict the sexual relationships as effective in promoting health and healing.

Fortunately, more and more of the public is aware that it’s wrong for therapists to develop romantic or sexual relationships with clients and/or clients’ family members. One way that I see this every day, in fact, is in the disproportionately large number of hits to this blog by people searching for info about whether or not the therapist in the movie 50/50 and Kevin on HIMYM have been unethical. It’s as though these searchers already know the answer but need some validation.

I don’t remember if the following scene from The First Wives Club (1996) happens before or after Annie (Diane Keaton) finds out that her therapist (Marcia Gay Harden) has become involved with her husband—probably before—but, in either case, it may serve as some small comfort to those who’ve felt betrayed by their shrinks:

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