In October 2003, the 45 year old mother of 3 teenage children, Susan Polk, apparently stabbed her husband, 70 year old Felix Polk, to death in their sprawling Orinda home near Berkley, California. According to a Los Angeles Sunday Times, magazine section article of June 15, 2003, Susan had met Felix at the age of 15 years old when she was his patient and he was her therapist. He was 40 years old at the time and married. When she was 16 years old, her mother alleges, they were having a sexual relationship. Susan never dated other men. Felix divorced his wife. They continued their relationship while she attended college and married when she was 25. He was 50. Their relationship had been troubled for years. Susan finally decided to divorce Felix. He then obtained a court order giving him possession of their home and custody of the children. He also reduced monthly payments to her. He telephoned several people saying that Susan was threatening to kill him. On Monday October 14, 2003, Felix was found in his cottage dead of stab wounds. Susan was arrested for the crime and is waiting in jail for a preliminary hearing that is expected in July.
The standards for therapist/patient relationships in the 1970’s may have been more lax. But by any standards, it seems clear that Felix violated the trust of his young patient and her parents. There are now better defined standards of practice. But there is still inconsistency in the ethical standards of professional organizations for different groups of psychotherapists. For example, the American Psychiatric Association believes that sex between a patient and a therapist should never happen. The National Association of Social Workers recommends that it never happen, but if it does, the burden of proof that the “former client has not been exploited, coerced or manipulated,” is on the therapist. The American Psychological Association says that therapist and patient must wait at least two years after therapy ends before engaging in a sexual relationship. But the burden of proof is still on the therapist that no harm was done the patient.
Psychiatrist Glen Gabbard argues in the September 2003 Psychiatric Clinics of North America Journal, that transference never ends and therefore such relationships are always harmful to the former patient. He talks about the new neurobiological research that indicates powerful emotional experiences such as therapy are imprinted on the brain. He sites research in which former patients were interviewed about their therapy years later and continued to express emotions about the therapist that indicated transference was still active. There is also the fact that clients often return years later to the same therapist to work through new issues or re explore old conflicts differently. If an intimate relationship ensues this possibility is cut off.
Gabbard has interviewed many psychiatrist/former patient pairs and has come to the conclusion that they have not really worked through the differences in power and influence that are inherent in the therapeutic relationship. Even though in some cases these post therapy affairs work out, that does not provide sufficient justification for condoning them. “When one considers that there are approximately five billion people on Earth,” he says, “something is seriously awry if therapists cannot prevent themselves from sleeping with a former patient.”
The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.
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