Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. An ethical obligation or revenge?: For the past year and a half, my husband and I have seen a marriage counselor, both individually and together as a couple. Our marriage counselor has always been critical of me and supportive of him, but my husband always told me I was imagining things. Lo and behold, the two of them were having an affair. I found out two weeks ago, and I’ve initiated divorce proceedings.
The only thing keeping me from reporting my former marriage counselor to the proper boards is that she’s a single mother supporting two young children. If I report her, she will likely lose her license and therefore her means to support herself and her kids.
I’m so furious and betrayed that I don’t know if I’m thinking straight. I don’t want to hurt her children in my anger. But I also feel obligated to report her. Would doing so be vindictive?
A: The reason therapists are not allowed to have sex with their clients is not because the people who make the rules are a bunch of killjoys. It’s because people seeking professional help from therapists are institutionally and personally vulnerable. Many are depressed and suffering from the aftereffects of trauma; some are suicidal. They are counting on their therapists to be trustworthy and reliable, and they reveal some of their most intimate secrets as a result of that trust. Sleeping with clients takes advantage of that trust and vulnerability.
There are reasons therapists have to be specially trained and licensed and why the law recognizes therapist-patient privilege and the privacy it affords patients. Therapists have an inherent power advantage over their clients, so we have laws in place that attempt to protect the clients from exploitation, whether or not the clients consider themselves to be willing participants.
All this is to say that disclosing your therapist’s malpractice to the relevant ethics board is not merely about you and your marriage. It will protect future patients. Whether or not you personally will feel gratified at the thought of her experiencing professional fallout from sleeping with your husband is not a sign that reporting her is the wrong thing to do. Make the report. She will have to figure out an alternate way to make a living.
On some level she was aware when she embarked on a sexual relationship with a client that she was running the risk of losing her practice, and she decided to play the odds. She may need to turn to friends and family for temporary support, apply for various social services, take a less prestigious and well-paying job, downsize her car and apartment, or make a variety of tradeoffs in order to care for her children. You are not throwing her out into the street or making anything impossible for her. She has options. The important thing is that she not be allowed to continue to practice as a marriage counselor after so profoundly disregarding the ethical foundation of marriage counseling.