Abuse of power describes the way a therapist or religious leader, for example, can wield their authority to manipulate and control those under their care or supervision. In this article, I want to look at the abuse of power, and, specifically, I want to address this question…
Can women freely choose a relationship with their therapist or pastor?
I can tell you the answer to this question is a resounding no! Consent cannot be given in a relationship with an imbalance of power. But let me explain…
An affair happens when two adults freely choose to pursue an emotional and/or sexual relationship outside of their marriages. The keyword here is freely. To make a choice freely, there can be no extraneous conditions putting pressure on either person.
In this scenario, I will be describing a relationship between a young woman who has sought help/counsel from an older male therapist and religious leader. At first glance, we might assume that with two adults any decision to pursue a more personal and intimate relationship within the counseling/mentoring relationship is a mutual affair. But wait…
Duress refers to the act of using threats or psychological pressure to force someone to behave in a way that is contrary to their wishes. We can all agree that this would negate a freely chosen affair. So, let’s look closer to ensure that there was no undue pressure affecting this woman’s decision to say yes to the relationship.
Is one of the people in the relationship in a position of power over the other?
Certainly, a therapist wields a great deal of power over a client and a pastor over a congregant. Are we not taught since childhood to be obedient to authority figures? Milgram, a famous psychologist, calls this inclination “authority bias”—humans’ tendency to blindly follow people in perceived positions of authority. He concludes: “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”
So, back to our relationship. We’re just getting started and already we have an issue with this woman being able to freely choose to engage in an intimate relationship with her therapist or pastor.
Is there any childhood sexual abuse in the woman’s history that would prohibit her from saying no?
Numerous studies suggest that sexual victimization in adolescence significantly increases the likelihood of sexual victimization in adulthood. Studies suggest that sexual victimization in childhood or adolescence increases the likelihood of sexual victimization in adulthood between 2 and 13.7 times. In a study by Pope & Veter of 1,000 patients who had been sexually involved with their therapist, 32% of those patients had been molested as children.
If 1 in 4 women are abused, it is safe to say that a large percentage of women seeking help/counseling have abuse in their backgrounds, and research suggests that previous abuse makes an adult susceptible to further victimization. In addition, childhood sexual abuse teaches its victims that they don’t have the right to say no. Therefore, these women cannot freely say yes because no is off the table for them already.
Is there a large age gap between the two parties which could easily confuse/entice the young woman to crave not the person but the nurturing paternal role they are playing?
Male therapists and/or pastors naturally take on a paternal role. Let’s say a client has suffered abuse by her father. That void could create a strong pull toward her pastor or therapist resulting in intense and confusing emotions. It would be vital then that the professional maintain safe and appropriate boundaries.
This emotional confusion in counseling is commonly referred to as the process of transference. Transference occurs when “when a person receiving treatment applies feelings toward—or expectations of—another person onto the therapist and then begins to interact with the therapist as if the therapist were the other individual. Often, the patterns seen in transference will be representative of a relationship from childhood.”
As a result, a woman can become attached to her therapist very quickly. The relationship can feel overwhelmingly intense for the client without her even knowing why. Therapists understand this and anticipate it. They are trained to handle it. Predators, however, will use this powerful transference to their advantage.
As a young person seeking help from a pastor or a mental health professional, is that person in an emotionally volatile and fragile state?
I would suggest she is because the relationship originated with her reaching out for help. This is one of the main reasons safe boundaries are a necessity in a counseling setting. The client in her current state is not in a position to be on guard. She needs to be able to “fall apart” so to speak and trust the professional to maintain that space as she unpacks and wades through her emotional pain. It is important to note that vulnerability is required for therapy to be successful, and one cannot be vulnerable and on guard at the same time.
Once a client becomes attached to the professional, she will be inclined to stay regardless of little red flags she might notice along the way. To find much-needed support and then risk losing it would be a powerful motivator to want to please the one in power.
If the counselor is a pastor or religious leader as mine was, isn’t the woman likely to view him as a representative of God?
The woman may think her pastor or counselor is acting on God’s behalf so she would be more likely to trust his judgment even when his actions seem questionable. I was a brand-new Christian when I began therapy, and my abuser was a church elder and bible scholar. On top of that, I believed he was a blessing from God. My therapist told me the Holy Spirit was his boss, and we opened every session in prayer. So when he seemed to cross boundaries down the road, I worried that criticizing him would be criticizing God. For more on why victims struggle to comprehend the danger surrounding them, click here: https://amynordhues.com/through-the-eyes-of-a-sociopath-what-victims-cant-see/
Will saying no to the person in power result in any kind of negative consequences?
If the woman decides to say no to a relationship with the man in power, is she at risk of losing him as her therapist or pastor? In the therapy setting, would saying no result in anger or removal of the therapist’s love and affection? In an employer/employee setting, will saying no result in any form of backlash at work?
I would suggest that she will feel an extreme amount of pressure if presented with this choice. I would also suggest that she would lose her therapist or pastor’s approval if she went against his wishes. Again, if there is any risk involved in saying no, yes does not apply.
Is there a dual relationship?
Most of us would say that we are not actors, but in fact, we all play certain roles with the various people in our lives. And with those roles come certain expectations. We play one role with our spouse and another with our children. The behavior we expect from our dentist is far from what we expect from our close friends. We would not act at work the same way we do in the comfort of our own homes.
When we seek professional help, we assume that the pastor or therapist will play the role of professional counselor/mentor for us. We also trust that with that role comes a high degree of integrity, trust, responsibility, and morality. We also believe that he will maintain his specific role with us for the entirety of the relationship. Having that expectation or role in place allows us to trust and be vulnerable. It allows the relationship to work and function properly. There is an unspoken agreement between us that we understand the rules and will abide by them.
When a dual relationship occurs, the counselor steps outside of the parameters of his role. He essentially breaks the rules. He might attempt to morph his role into a different one, such as a friend or romantic partner or he might attempt to play both roles simultaneously.
This switch can feel exhilarating to the client at first as she assumes this change means she is special in some way and is therefore deserving of this unique treatment. But in time, these conflicting roles prove confusing and hurtful. The client can no longer unload on the therapist without concern for his feelings or state of mind. Essentially, the client has lost the therapist or pastor she turned to for help. The professional has refused to hold up his end of the bargain and the mentoring relationship collapses.
Another way you know the relationship is not one of two equals is this: Can you separate the person from the position?
In a regular relationship with equal power, you can. However, once someone acts as your therapist or your pastor or your physician, once they have played one of these particular roles you will forever view them through that lens. It doesn’t matter if the therapist changes jobs to be with an ex-patient. I had a therapist pursue me as a friend after we completed therapy, and I ended up hurt. It just doesn’t work.
Is there any guilt involved in the woman’s decision to stay or leave? In a regular balanced relationship, there is supposed to be a give and take. If your therapist, however, buys you a gift or gives you longer sessions than other clients it will trigger an insane amount of indebtedness in the client and that sense of being indebted will play a role when the woman is asked to do something she has reservations about later on.
The same thing goes for pity. If your pastor breaches professional boundaries and begins sharing hurts from his childhood or his broken marriage with the woman he is supposed to be counseling, she will feel an extreme amount of empathy or pity for him, more so than she would in a healthy relationship between equals. Why? Because the pastor is supposed to be the strong one holding it together for the parishioner.
The therapist is supposed to be the rock allowing the client to fall apart without concern for the therapist. I assure you the woman will feel this as psychological pressure. A pastor and a therapist know this. They are trained to maintain boundaries, and they know they are harming the patient when they breach those boundaries.
Lastly, a mutual affair between two well-adjusted healthy adults with no imbalance of power between them will be honest and transparent.
The woman sees the man for who he is and willingly chooses him. And vice versa. On the other hand, predators use trickery and deceit.
Abusers will create the illusion of whatever the victim needs by first seeking out her voids and then magically seeking to fill them. In this way, they foster a dependency on them just like a victim being given a taste of a drug.
Some bait their victims with romantic gestures, and some lure their victims using the powerful father-daughter dynamic. Others use God and tell their victims they have something special—their relationship is a gift from God, blessed, pure. Once the woman is duly addicted to whatever drug of choice the perpetrator is offering, he can begin to up the ante.
The woman at this stage may think she is saying yes, but she is not saying yes to the relationship she is saying yes to the deep-seated need that is being met, to the “drug” the abuser is offering. She is likely unaware this is even happening. She simply feels better, like maybe the counseling is working or the relationship is benefitting her.
Regardless of how this type of predator seduces his victims and regardless of how the women see their role, they never got to freely choose the relationship. They were tricked into it. And that is far from a free choice.
Words carry power so please hesitate the next time you begin to make a judgment on a woman in this position. If the factors above were involved, even one of them, it was not an affair. Name it for what it was…an abuse of power.