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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

You Are NOT In Love With Your Massage Therapist

It happens, sometimes unexpected and unwanted feelings of attraction can occur in the therapeutic model. After all, you end up spending hours at a time together, in close proximity and very intimate settings, with little or no clothing. Confusing emotions are bound to come up now and then, but I am here to assure you- you are NOT in love with your massage therapist.

In massage therapy we are often (if not always) in one-on-one service treatments. Clients and Therapists. Because clients are voluntarily coming in and seeking services from the therapist to fulfill a need- a need the therapist’s skills, knowledge, and care can provide, there exists a power differential. An experienced therapist is able to balance this power differential by respecting the client’s autonomy while keeping the focus on the client’s therapeutic goals in ways that best serve the client. Professional relationships are NOT places to have personal needs met.

Transference Basics

When exploring this topic, it’s important to identify a key term or two. Transference is a term that is used when a client transfers their past feelings and attitudes to their current relationships & circumstances. Transference can be positive or negative- for example if a therapist reminds a client of a family member the client had a good relationship with, the client may start to transfer their past feelings about that family member onto the therapist. From there roles and boundaries can start to dissolve. This makes the therapeutic relationship all but spoiled. Conversely, if a therapist reminds the client of a person they had negative experiences with- the client may start to behave in counterproductive ways toward the therapist.

In the event of a client developing romantic or sexual attractions to their therapists, it is obviously an example of positive transference. Perhaps the therapist reminds the client of a past friend, or lover, or partner.

When transference occurs it is because the client is not seeing the massage therapist as who the therapist actually is. Remember, massage therapists are just someone who provides professional services. When clients engage in transference, they are casting the therapist in a role that the therapist either can’t or won’t fill.

Massage is a very intimate and vulnerable circumstance for client’s to commit themselves to. When added to the power differential that exists, bad faith actors in the position of the massage therapist could take advantage of the client’s vulnerability.

Why does this happen?

Sometimes, emotional needs are being met by the massage therapists. Closeness felt by the client can lead to misunderstandings. Also consider that when you see your massage therapist, over time you get used to only feeling good when you are around them. They become this symbol of feeling good. You get all the good feelings from an effective massage treatment without the balance of negative feelings otherwise present in your day-to-day life.

Touch is the primary form of treatment in massage therapy. Emotions and touch are interconnected, emotional reactions to touch and physical arousal are not uncommon. Misinterpretations and miscommunications can occur. While touch is perhaps the most primal and easiest reason to blame- other senses can also be responsible for sexual arousal. Sexual responses can be triggered by sight, sound, or smell with our without sexual thoughts or feelings being present. The sensual pleasure of massage is it’s greatest asset and it’s largest liability.

Sexual arousal can happen due to parasympathetic dominance of the Central Nervous System. Relaxation, trust, serotonin, and increased circulation can all lead to this arousal. None of these in and of themselves are bad things- in fact, these are all necessary for the efficacy of massage. The hormone oxytocin and the chemical serotonin are released in the body during massage. This can mimic feelings of attachment & being in love.

Physical arousal can happen with or without being attracted to your therapist. It happens! And if it does there’s nothing wrong with the therapist or the client feeling more comfortable with a momentary pause of treatment until the arousal has dissipated. There is also nothing wrong with ending a session early and rescheduling with a different therapist. There is also nothing wrong with ignoring it until it goes away.

A sexual response is NOT sexual misconduct until it is acted upon. Massage therapists always have the right to refuse massage therapy services to clients that make them feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or sexualizes the massage experience.

Re-establishing Boundaries

Remember, massage therapy is neither intentionally nor coincidentally sexual in nature. You are not in love, there are physiological and psychological forces responsible for feeling like you are. Feelings are just feelings, and they are totally normal- it needn’t alter the therapeutic relationship until it is acted on from either party. But these feelings can threaten the professional boundaries required of a therapeutic relationship.

Professional relationships are NOT places to have personal needs met. Remember that you don’t know your therapist- a professional therapist should disclose as little personal information about themselves as possible. As a therapist, being a blank slate is important to keep the focus on the client & their treatment goals. You only know your therapist in the context of the therapeutic professional model.

Both therapists and clients should remember that sexual and romantic relationships between the two are unethical & illegal. The National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork’s (NCBTMB) standards of practice recommend ending a therapeutic relationship with a client for not less than 6 months before pursuing a personal relationship. But sometimes, no amount of time is appropriate before dating between a therapist and client is acceptable- there are many factors that go into this and there’s no one-size-fits-all method. Arkansas Massage Therapy law is far more strict than NCBTMB standards (and takes precedence because it is law and not just standards- I am beholden to both)

To quote Arkansas Laws & Rule:

Title 17- Chapter 86- Section 311 Subsection (c) Subdivision (1): The massage therapist-patient relationship is founded on mutual trust. Sexual misconduct is prohibited.

Title 17- Chapter 86- Section 102 Subdivision (14): “Sexual misconduct” includes: Paragraph (C): Sexual activity with consent of a client or at the request of a client. (The Rules, Section 2, Paragraph 23 reiterates this definition)

Speaking of the Rules:

Section 10, Subdivision 3: Therapists shall ensure and safeguard the following rights of the clients: Subsection(c): Refrain, under all circumstances from initiating or engaging in any sexual conversation, sexual conduct, sexual behavior, or sexual activity involving a client, even if the client attempts to sexualize the relationship.

The law and rules are very clear- this is a no-no!

Happy Valentines Day! And remember, you are NOT in love with your massage therapist!

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB

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