Coping with life’s stressors isn’t always easy to do alone. However, not all therapeutic relationships work out for the best, leaving clients questioning whether or not they should terminate their therapy sessions.
“People’s goals for therapy sometimes change, and therapy might not always end up meeting those goals,” said Catherine Eubanks, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University and an expert in therapeutic relationships.
If you’re considering ending your relationship with your therapist, it can be important to recognize the signs when the relationship is no longer in your best interest. Doing so can then allow clients to explore appropriate ways to end the relationship with mutual understanding.
“Therapy is 45 minutes of your life every single week with the same person who knows such intimate information about you and your experiences,” said Marissa Robinson, a psychotherapist from myTherapyNYC. “You want to leave that in a closed way that feels emotionally connected with the therapist that went on this journey with you.”
What Does a Healthy Therapeutic Relationship Look Like?
In psychology, a therapist-client relationship is called a working alliance, Eubanks explained. According to research about therapeutic relationships from the American Psychological Association, key components of a healthy working alliance include:
Collaboration: Therapists should work closely together with their clients on the treatment process.
Goal consensus: Therapists and clients should agree on the goals and expectations of therapy.
Empathy: Therapists should be sensitive to the client’s feelings and struggles and should try to understand the client’s point of view.
Strong feedback: Therapists should appropriately engage the client to understand how they are responding to treatment.
Positive affirmation: Therapists support their clients regardless of their behavior, attitudes and emotions to help improve the therapeutic relationship.
The report also noted that it’s important for therapists to express their feelings when appropriate. However, according to Eubanks, clients should not be made to feel unsafe, criticized, judged, unheard or belittled.
Robinson echoed this sentiment noting that no good progress is made unless there is a strong, trusting and collaborative therapeutic relationship.
When Should You Terminate a Relationship With Your Therapist?
Sometimes, a therapeutic relationship doesn’t work out because a therapist is not the right fit. In other instances, a client may have outgrown the relationship, or it didn’t achieve the desired goals. Eubanks said this is called an “alliance rupture.”
“Ruptures can be opportunities to really learn something valuable about ourselves. It gives us a chance to handle relationship difficulty in a different way,” she said.
According to the APA’s research, anything from disagreeing on treatment goals to misinterpreting something the therapist might have said can lead to the end of a therapeutic relationship. This may cause clients to respond in different ways, including:
Confrontation: The client is angry at the therapist or hurt by them. They may make accusations or sharply question the therapist.
Withdrawal: The client may pull away from the therapist, retreating into silence and not fully engaging out of fear of being criticized or divulging deeper pain.
But even when ruptures occur, clients can take a more measured approach to addressing the situation. It’s important for clients to remember that a healthy therapeutic relationship should feel like the process is helping them, Eubanks said.
When gauging whether or not to end a relationship with a therapist, clients can consider the following questions:
How well is therapy meeting my goals?
Am I able to talk about meeting my therapeutic goals with my therapist?
Are the things I’m doing in therapy making sense to me?
Do I feel any improvement? Were the results not fast enough?
What specifically is making me want to terminate?
Do I feel comfortable and safe with my therapist?
Am I facing any outside pressure to stay in therapy?
Is it hard for me to prioritize therapy right now?
Do I want to repair the relationship instead?
“Knowing this information about yourself can help guide your future decisions about therapy and what works for you,” Eubanks said.
How Do You Terminate a Relationship With Your Therapist?
Ending a therapeutic relationship can be a tricky space to navigate, considering that it’s both an inherently intimate and professional relationship. Before deciding to terminate sessions, clients can consider whether repairing the relationship is possible and whether goals should be re-evaluated or improved upon.
Eubanks and Robinson offered guidance on how to evaluate whether to end or repair an alliance.
Tell your therapist that you are considering terminating the relationship. Bring it up at the beginning of a session to explain why you are considering ending the therapeutic relationship. Eubanks said it’s important to avoid bringing it up at the end of a session, communicating by text or ghosting.
Discuss why you are considering terminating the relationship. Address the different concerns you may have and see how your therapist responds. Does the response reinforce feelings of being unheard or criticized? Are they willing to work on challenges with you? Reviewing concerns can help your therapist better gauge your relationship.
Continue evaluating the termination of the relationship over a few sessions. Eubanks said it may take several sessions to get to the bottom of the issue. It’s important to be open and genuine when speaking from your experience. The process of ending can also bring up feelings that help you reflect on your progress.
Compassionately terminate the relationship if you choose not to repair it. Do not blame yourself or the therapist. Robinson said the best way to frame it would be to approach it as, “I really appreciate the work we’ve done together, but at some point I didn’t feel safe or I didn’t feel comfortable sharing, etc.”
How Do You Find a New Therapist?
It may seem daunting to start over and find a new therapist. However, clients can reflect on what they have learned from their previous experience to help identify what they need.
“If you seek out another therapist, you should ask yourself if you are able to spot the warning signs that you’ve learned from your previous one,” Eubanks said. “Evaluate what works for you and what doesn’t. This way you can really gain something from a challenging experience.”
Eubanks said it’s important to be able to do two things:
Identify what you’re looking for in a therapeutic relationship.
Do I just want someone to talk to each week?
Do I want to focus on intense symptoms affecting my life?
Do I want to focus on a particular emotional issue?
Do I want someone to restructure and modify my thinking or behaviors?
How do I want my symptoms to be treated?
Identify what you’re looking for in a therapist.
Who do I want to be sitting in front of and have them hearing all of this?
Am I looking for a therapist who has a certain expertise in working with specific problems or populations?
Do I prefer a therapist who is more warm and friendly or cool and clinical?
Do I have any preferences in gender, sexuality, ethnicity or race?
Is it important for my therapist to have a better understanding of my life experiences given my identities?
What do I want to accomplish by seeing this new therapist?
Robinson emphasized the importance of going “therapist shopping.” Clients can schedule a first-time introductory session with more than one person to get a sense of what they are like. They can make it known to each therapist that they are trying to determine fit so that therapists know they aren’t committing yet.
“Every therapist you meet might not be a good match for you,” she said. “It’s okay to not find that perfect fit on the first try.”
She also pointed out that the first meetings are usually when a therapist is simply learning information about the client and what they are looking for, which may not give the client the most accurate picture of the therapist’s style. Having questions prepared for a potential new therapist may be helpful for clients.
Questions To Ask Your Therapist During an Introductory Session
What’s your approach to therapy?
What is the framework that you work with?
What would a typical session look like for us?
What is your background?
What do you specialize in?
What do you really like about therapy?
What made you want to be a therapist?
After choosing a new therapist, clients should set expectations with them and explain their concerns and what they would like to avoid happening again, according to Eubanks. Routine check-ins about how the process is working can also be helpful.
“You really want somebody who’s going to help create a space to be open and thoughtful and reflective and appreciate how relationships are complicated,” Eubanks said.
Terminating a relationship with a therapist and finding a new one can be challenging, so it’s important to remember to be patient during this time.
“It’s really not an easy task to find a therapist, to shop, to terminate. It’s a lot of time, effort, money, and it’s hard,” Robinson said. “Show yourself compassion and create space for the process.”
Resources for Finding a New Therapist
Clients may be able to find a new therapist through referrals and recommendations from people they know, Eubanks said. However, for people who want to start from scratch, here are resources to help guide their therapist shopping.
Inclusive Therapists: a directory for identity-affirming, culturally-responsive therapists who are inclusive of all people, specifically centering the needs of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), as well as the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.
TherapyTribe: a directory for therapists searchable by location and issue area.
Information on OnlineCounselingPrograms.com is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling advice. Always consult qualified professionals with any questions you may have about mental and behavioral health-related issues.