Breaking up with someone is awful, no matter the context, but there’s something particularly, frighteningly vulnerable about breaking up with your therapist. They’re the one person who knows you better, and more objectively, than anyone else — or at least that’s who you were hoping they’d be before you decided things weren’t working out.
Finding the right therapist can be hard work, which means that many (if not most) people who pursue therapy will have to cut ties with at least one or two before finding their match. How you get to the point of no return can vary; there are lots of reasons you might decide a breakup is warranted. But once you’re sure (or pretty sure) it’s what you want to do, how should you handle it? We talked to Kathleen Smith, a licensed therapist with a private practice in Washington, D.C., about how to make your therapy breakup as painless as possible.
Tell your therapist you’re thinking about moving on.
As opposed to a romantic breakup, in which warning your partner you might want to break up probably wouldn’t go very well, a therapist should be receptive to your changing feelings, says Smith. “It’s important to give your therapist feedback, so if you’re thinking about what’s next for you, or what’s working, or what hasn’t been, I always appreciate when people share what they’re thinking,” says Smith. “That doesn’t mean I’ll always agree with it, but ultimately I leave it to my clients to know what’s best for them.” Reminding yourself that your therapist doesn’t have to agree with your every decision might make it easier to come to one.
If you’re honest with your therapist, you might learn they’re ready to part ways with you too — not that that makes it any less (potentially) devastating. “If a person wants to work on something their therapist doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with, it’s up to the therapist to be honest as well,” says Smith. “It’s my job also to be honest with people about what I can and can’t do for them.” That’s not to say that every therapist will be honest about their own limitations, because, like the rest of us, they’re not perfect people. It’s important to trust yourself to know when you’re not being heard, says Smith.
Have the breakup conversation in person, if possible — but ghosting is okay, too.
Again, because sharing your concerns with your therapist could lead to a turnaround for your relationship, it’s worth having the conversation in person whenever possible — think of it as good confrontation practice for the rest of your life, too. “Therapy is a pretty safe place to practice sharing your thinking,” says Smith. “Ideally, a therapist is trying to hear you out and respond. I think the stakes are low most of the time. We make them out to be a lot higher than they actually are.”
Smith acknowledges, though, that the therapist’s office isn’t always the safe space it should be. Before coming out, I once effectively “ghosted” a therapist by failing to schedule our next appointment after she dismissed outright the idea that I could be gay — for me, there was no coming back from that. “Ultimately, it’s not your responsibility to teach your therapist how to be better or more considerate or more effective,” says Smith. “It’s up to the individual to decide whether sharing that feedback [with the therapist] is important to them, or whether they just need to let it go and move on. It’s okay to never reply, or just not contact them again.”
Remember that your therapist is human, just like you.
For anyone with an average amount of empathy, it’s natural to fear hurting someone’s feelings — even if they’re a professional you pay handsomely for their services. But there’s no need to feel bad about feeling bad, says Smith. “It’s human to worry about what the other person is going to think, or worried that their feelings are going to be hurt,” she says. But if therapists are doing their job right, says Smith, they’ll know that not every patient they meet will want to come back. “If you’re doing it right from the beginning, a therapist is going to be very honest about what framework they’re using and what a normal session looks like so people can make an informed decision,” says Smith. “There are going to be people that don’t like your style or your framework for thinking about things, and that’s okay.”
At the same time, therapists are people, too — they have feelings, sure, but they also have flaws. “Therapists have other motivations that can sometimes get in the way of what’s best for the client,” says Smith. “They have to make money, they sometimes get attached to their clients, and they have their own ideas about treatment goals. They may share their thinking, but you also have to trust your own thinking. A good therapist will respect your ideas and your autonomy.”
Know it was never meant to last forever.
Some people are in talk therapy for months, and some for years, and that can be great, and helpful — but in most cases, therapy shouldn’t be viewed as a lifelong commitment, says Smith.
“I think it’s important to remember that the goal isn’t for people to stay in therapy indefinitely,” she says. How you arrive at the end-date can vary from patient to patient, and therapist to therapist, which is all the more reason to ask questions early on to learn more about your potential therapist’s style. “Some people act more from a position of authority, setting a specific recommendation for treatment length,” adds Smith. “For me personally, I think it’s up to all my clients to decide when they want to stop or do something different.”
In other words, when you know, you know.