“What would it mean to you if I gave you a hug?” the therapist asked.
“It would mean you cared about my pain.”
“Can’t I care about you without hugging you?”
“You can. But a hug would be better.”
The therapist was a middle-aged woman who had taken care of her alcoholic father as a girl. She was drawn the occupation of psychotherapy in great part because she had been good at helping her father. Her father and mother were antagonistic and distant, and she became a replacement wife to her Dad. Now she prided herself for being a nurturing therapist.
The client was an attractive young man who had come from a rather difficult background. His parents had gotten divorced when he was two, and from that point on he was shuffled from one parent to the other, as they had a joint-custody agreement. In his adult years he had not been able to form a permanent attachment to anyone. All his relationship ended up badly, as had the one that had driven him to therapy. He felt rejected, lonely, and defeated.
“All I want is just one hug,” he kept saying over and over in his sessions. He was like a dog that wouldn’t let go of a bone. “That’s the reason why I left my last therapist. I practically got on my knees and begged her to give me a hug, and she kept giving me bullshit about how it would spoil the therapeutic relationship if she hugged me.”
“What would a hug mean to you?” the therapist repeated again.
“Oh, God! That’s what my last therapist always said,” he gasped. “She was always turning everything into a question. Look, can’t you just give me a hug? Just one hug? I don’t want therapy mumbo-jumbo right now. I want to be soothed. I didn’t get enough soothing when I was a kid, OK? Just give me a little soothing, a little comfort, and then we’ll do the analysis. After all, even such classical analysts as the Blancks recommended the use of parameters at times,” he added, being versed in analytic literature.
The therapist could not help but be charmed and touched by the precocious young man, and after many weeks of hearing his traumatic story she felt deeply how needy he was. At the end of the session she got out of her chair and accompanied him to the door of her office. He turned and looked at her and realized she was offering herself. He hugged her rather quickly, beamed, and went away happy.
The therapist told herself that it was just one hug and it wouldn’t happen again. The next session the young man seemed to have new energy for the treatment, and he spent the whole time talking about something that had severely disappointed him. At the end of the session, she accompanied him to the door again and he reached out for a hug. The good-bye hug became a part of the therapy routine after that.
The client seemed to throw himself into therapy with even more passion. Then, after the seven more sessions, the client hugged the therapist very tightly and caressed her back with his hands. Then he drew away and smiled rapturously into her eyes. She in turn looked into his soft blue eyes and at his pouty lips. Suddenly he grabbed her and kissed her.
“We shouldn’t do this,” the therapist said.
“I know,” the young man said. “But we are.”
“But I’m your therapist.”
“You were my therapist.”
In general a therapist should never make any physical contact with a patient except a handshake, not only because professional ethics forbids it, because usually, as in this case, it turns out to be detrimental to the treatment. The client was, in effect, blackmailing the therapist by alluding to another therapist he had dumped because she wouldn’t hug him. Instead of actually giving him a hug, she should have let the client know that she cared about him but that she could not give him a hug due to professional ethics. She could also have interpreted his transference—that he was feeling rejected by the therapist as he once had by his mother, which was why he needed a hug so much. Giving him a hug was acting out the therapist’s own father transference. It didn’t help the client to understand himself, it only helped him to avoid understanding.
This article was taken from the author’s most recent book, 76 Typical Therapy Mistakes.