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Ending Therapy

There is no “right” length of time to be in therapy. But for most people, there will come a time when therapy no longer feels necessary or progress has stalled. In most cases, the client will choose to end therapy; there are also situations in which a therapist decides to end sessions and refer a client elsewhere. Formally, ending therapy is called “termination.”

How do I know it’s time to end therapy?

A positive sign that it’s time to end therapy is if the client feels they’ve accomplished the goals they first set out to achieve. If a client who came to therapy with anger issues, for instance, feels that he’s identified triggers and developed effective strategies for coping with them, he will likely feel therapy has reached its goal. In less ideal termination scenarios, clients may feel as if they have hit a wall; though their depression improved at first, for example, progress seems to have plateaued. Logistical challenges, such as scheduling conflicts or financial difficulties, are also valid reasons to end therapy.

Is it normal to have mixed feelings about ending therapy?

Yes. Termination can be an awkward, emotional, or even painful process, even when a client is satisfied with the progress they’ve made and is making a conscious choice to move on. Openly discussing uncomfortable feelings and next steps can help clients attain closure, process feelings of loss, and develop a plan for maintaining the progress they’ve made.

How should I tell my therapist that I want to end therapy?

Some clients simply stop showing up to appointments or returning phone calls. But “cut and run” is never the best termination strategy; it both denies the client the opportunity to process any feelings associated with ending the relationship and may leave the therapist unsure why a client left and whether they plan to return. Instead, the client should tell their therapist that they are thinking of ending therapy and why. Together, therapist and client should review progress and determine if terminating would be in the client’s best interest. Though the therapist may counter argue or suggest that more time in therapy would be appropriate, they should never pressure the client to stay or become visibly upset at the thought of termination.

Once I end therapy, can I come back for “maintenance sessions?"

Yes. After termination, most therapists leave the door open for clients to return if they so choose. In some cases, this means restarting regular therapy after an absence of several months or years; in others (particularly in cognitive behavioral therapy or other highly structured modalities), this may mean periodic “booster sessions” to check on progress and reinforce the use of coping skills. As part of termination, clients and therapists should discuss the potential for further sessions and under what circumstances they might occur.

After I end therapy, can I become friends with my therapist?

Therapists maintaining friendships with current clients is forbidden by many codes of ethics. Friendships with past clients are a gray area—they’re not explicitly forbidden, and do occur, but many therapists would still decline to socialize with a former client. Many adhere to the “once a client, always a client” rule; they leave the door open for clients to return to therapy after termination, and aim to maintain firm boundaries in case that occurs. Others believe that the power dynamics established in therapy make true friendship impossible.

Does a therapist ever terminate therapy with a client?

Yes. If a therapist determines that they are no longer able to provide adequate care for someone, codes of ethics require them to refer the client to another professional who is better suited to their needs. For example, if a client who entered therapy with a particular problem—such as depression—begins to present with new issues (such as substance abuse or sexual assault) that are beyond the therapist’s expertise, the therapist may determine that termination and referral are in the client’s best interest.

What if I feel personally rejected by my therapist’s desire to end therapy?

If a therapist feels that a client is not making progress and that they are unable to help them do so, they should refer the client to someone else. Sometimes, a therapist’s own life may interfere with their ability to conduct therapy—if the therapist is getting a divorce, for instance, he may find it challenging to remain neutral in couples therapy sessions. While therapist-instigated termination can feel painful or confusing for clients, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of therapists who terminate therapy do so out of the client’s best interest. In rare cases, a therapist may terminate therapy when they feel that their own safety is in danger—if a client is stalking them, for example.

What are next steps if a therapist terminates and a client wishes to continue?

If a client is unsure why a therapist is ending therapy, they should ask; in most cases, a good therapist will be able to provide a direct answer to this question and help the client work through any feelings of abandonment. If the therapist did not offer a referral to another provider, the client can ask for one. A new therapist can help the client process lingering feelings of discomfort or stress about the previous termination.

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