The Junk in the Driveway – A reflection on Dual Relationships

I’ve been thinking a lot about conflicts of interests, boundaries and dual relationships lately.

This wasn’t actually prompted by the appalling abuses of power we have seen in news headlines in the past few months (and, what a long list we could make…) of people in positions of trust or influence who violated some fundamental rules about power dynamics and respect.

And it wasn’t really triggered by questions I regularly get from new professionals in health care or the legal system, as they try to sort out the grey zones in their Codes of Conduct between what is right and what is wrong when we engage with other human beings: maybe get closer to our clients emotionally, or know of something that could really help them out but is a breech of the rules we are governed by. Or we find something out in our work that has an impact on another aspect of our lives but we are bound by confidentiality.

No, this all started with a pile of junk blocking a driveway.

Dual relationships – the fairly benign ways in which we are all put in potentially tricky situations when we wear several hats personally and professionally.

This happens frequently when we live in small communities of course – when your in-law is also your dentist, or your hairdresser, or your best friend is also the town’s police officer or the women’s shelter worker or land developer or when you hire your sister’s kid to mow your lawn.

But let me go back to the pile of junk.

Imagine that I have hired your daughter Holly to help me with yard work. You and I are close friends, and we also work together. But I’m also your supervisor at the office.

We have an agreement, I pay your kid x amount for the work that she does and Holly knows when she is supposed to come. Great. I am getting my junk cleared and your child gets some pocket money and some work experience.

But what if I’m not happy with Holly’s work? It may be that I’m really comfortable being a direct communicator and we just sort it out between ourselves, Holly and I. All good.

It may also be that Holly’s shy and I am worried about hurting her feelings so I don’t say anything because she’s your kid and you’re my friend and I’m also your boss.

Now imagine that one day, you are driving by my house, and you notice that the junk hasn’t been removed when it clearly should have. What happens next? Do you text your child and say “get your butt over there”? Do you get out of your car and do the junk removal yourself ? (don’t laugh, I have done this in the past, I confess! Shame shame!).

What happens next? Let’s say I, the boss, get to work, and I am frustrated with Holly’s work. In fact, I wasn’t able to get my car out of the driveway because she didn’t do her job and I’m late for a meeting with you, her parent.

Ok let’s try another scenario: You are selling your house, it’s on the market. A dear friend wants to buy the house and says “let’s do it privately, we’ll save a ton on real estate fees.” Is that ok? Is it a dual relationship?  What if you agree and there turns out to be a huge problem with your sewer system, that you didn’t know about or failed to disclose? What happens to the friendship? Does your best mate have to sue you? How do we handle this?

A few years ago, I was contacted by a woman who urgently wanted me to see her adult daughter for counselling. Although this mother did not know me, I knew exactly who she was – and the odds of us ending up at a private function or dinner party were extremely high. I told her that I wasn’t comfortable seeing her child but that I would recommend other excellent therapists. The mother insisted: “why can’t you see her? I don’t know you, and I would not be in any way uncomfortable seeing you at a dinner party.” And I realized that in this case, the discomfort was that this would potentially encroach on my privacy – what if the patient and I don’t get along? What if I, at some point, have to report her to child protective services of have her hospitalized? So I politely turned the mother down and, in the end, it was the right call, as things unraveled and I would have been in the middle of a mess that overlapped between my personal and professional life. Not good for them, not good for me.

None of these examples are situations where people abused their power, or violated any ethical or moral codes. But they are examples of dual relationships, and I think that we all encounter these at various times in our lives, especially if we live in small communities, no matter what profession we’re in.

Registered health professionals receive training on ethics and codes of conduct and we all know the sacrosanct rules about confidentiality, duty to report and that we’re not supposed to date our patients (Ugh. I hope everyone knows that one). But I think that all of us encounter more subtle challenges in our daily lives that, unaddressed, can lead to conflict, awkward misunderstandings and a myriad of other problems.

I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t hire Holly to do your yard work. But I am thinking that clear agreements ahead of time can prevent upset and strife.

The real estate deal is partly a true story, although we didn’t have any hidden sewer problems. How we handled it was through very clear communication about all the ways in which this could be tricky, and I spent a great deal of time writing a full disclosure document about all things down the road and we shared information with the vendor about things that were potentially wrong with our house. This process was about transparency and communication and it was essential, in my mind, to prevent future conflict or damage to our friendship.

Dual relationships are sometimes inevitable, but I always take a pause when I see one in the offing and I try to reflect on the cost of ignoring the potential pitfalls for the sake of saying yes or being a pleaser.

How you navigate them in your life?

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