How to know when it's time to break up with your therapist, because sometimes it's for the best
There was a gnawing feeling in my stomach for a while before I knew what it meant. Part of me recognized that it was time to end our relationship, but I just wasn’t ready to accept it yet. How could I end things with someone who had become such a large part of my life? How would she react? I didn’t know what to do, so naturally I put off the decision until it was too late. Two months ago, I broke up with my therapist over email with barely any notice and very little explanation. Was that the right thing to do? I’m not sure, and I’m also not proud of it.
When I first started treatment for anxiety and depression last year, I became heavily reliant on my therapist. At a time when I was at such a low, she was my guiding light. Having someone I could confide in each week and receive support from made a massive difference to my well-being. It was thanks to the work we did together that I started taking real care of myself, healed my complicated relationship with my father, and found the courage to leave my corporate job and follow my dreams of pursuing life as a freelance writer. In the process, I grew obsessed with therapy and self-improvement; for a while, I got so caught up in healing myself that I became the kind of person who would reference my therapist in nearly every conversation.
While over time I grew more stable and less co-dependent, things really began to shift a few months ago when I was forced to change my insurance due to my job situation. Unfortunately, my therapist only accepted the insurance I had prior to my freelance status, which meant that I would have to go from paying $50 to paying $175 for each weekly session. Since I was not able to pay that amount on top of the money I was spending out-of-pocket on my insurance, we decided to start seeing each other every other week instead.
When I first went freelance, my therapist’s advice about being self-employed was essential. She helped me ease into the transition and get started in my new career. But slowly, our conversations became repetitive and less helpful. At the same time, I realized that although I had bounced back from a difficult time and worked through a lot of my personal issues, I was still interested in exploring anti-anxiety medication, which was something my therapist, who takes a more holistic approach, didn’t seem too keen about. Moreover, as I grew more anxious about the financial challenges of working for myself, spending the $350 on therapy each month started to feel less and less worth it.
Yet I didn’t feel like I could be honest with my therapist about any of this. So, six days before one of our sessions, I sent her a short yet appreciative email expressing that I could no longer continue our work together for financial reasons. She replied explaining that stopping therapy usually happens over four therapy sessions, but there was no way I could justify spending $700 I didn’t have on ending our relationship. I told her that that was not feasible for me, so she asked if we could do one more session together. Again, I couldn’t even justify spending $175 on an hour-long conversation. I was honest and told her I couldn’t even afford that. She never replied, and I’m still sorting out how I feel about all of it.
Nicole Reiner, a psychotherapist based in New York, says it’s common to realize a relationship with a therapist is no longer working. According to her, “Sometimes we wind up in a therapeutic relationship and realize it’s not a great fit. Other times, we have this gut feeling that we need a mental break, or that we feel like we have plateaued, or that the therapist isn’t meeting our needs, or even that we feel threatened by the relationship and have become guarded and disconnected.” The truth is therapy isn’t meant to last forever—in fact, it’s normal for the relationship to run its course.
Going one step further, psychiatrist Carlene MacMilllan thinks there are practical considerations that can outweigh the benefits of the therapist-client relationship. “For example, if you move and your current therapist is now a two-hour commute or if you cannot afford to see an out-of-network provider, it may be time to problem solve and find someone new,” she tells HG. However, it’s important to be honest with yourself about whether or not you are using a logistical reason as an excuse to stop therapy, rather than an actual concern.
If you believe you’ve given the relationship solid effort and are not feeling like you and your therapist are clicking anymore, though, it may be time for a new perspective. “It’s the same with if you are feeling your therapist is judgmental or imposing their own values in a way that is shutting down discussion rather than fostering curiosity,” says MacMillan. All of these circumstances could be seen as signs that it’s time to move on.
But how do you go about ending it? And is there a right way to do so?
When it came to ending things with her therapist, Chandra Johnson, a producer based in New York, says finances were a concern while she also felt like she was in a good place and that there didn’t seem to be much to talk about anymore. At the time, she had just returned from a trip, had begun seeing a new partner, and things were going well at her job. So Johnson started seeing her therapist every other week, then once a month, and ultimately gave her therapist a month’s notice before stopping their sessions together.
It was only later that Johnson realized the main reasons she didn’t want to see her therapist anymore. “We didn’t really get to the root of my issues and that just because things temporarily seemed good didn’t mean that they were,” she says. After taking a step back from therapy, Johnson has since started seeing a new provider, and things are going well.
Jennifer Kettle, an editor based in London, began reconsidering her relationship with her therapist when she found herself reaching for things to talk about during their sessions. Beyond this, she says, “I’d also become comfortable with the idea that I wouldn’t fully resolve or ‘cure’ myself of what had brought me to therapy and I felt more confident in using what I had learned to move through challenges which would have previously left me confused as to how to deal with them.” While Kettle had thought about stopping therapy for a while, it was her therapist who initially brought it up.
Together, Kettle and her therapist agreed to do three more sessions together and plan out what they would speak about ahead of time while also leaving room for whatever topics came up. Having an end in sight helped Kettle make the most of each appointment, and it also encouraged her to put what she had learned into practice. Kettle says that while she feels resilient enough to cope with challenges on her own now, she doesn’t feel uncomfortable taking a pause because she fully intends to go back to therapy in the future.
Though there isn’t one right way to end a relationship with your therapist, Reiner says it’s helpful to bring it up with your therapist and process it in the room together. She tells HG, “It’s a big misconception that your therapist will be angry with you for wanting to end therapy.” But if you feel like you’re in a good place to stop seeing a therapist, a therapist will likely be glad you’re feeling empowered and honor those feelings.
Instead of stopping your sessions abruptly, you should bring it up with the therapist as soon as you start to notice feelings of ambivalence about continuing with therapy, this way there is ample time to work out a smooth transition. MacMillan affirms, “Do not ghost your therapist. It is a real relationship and ghosting is not the way to treat it with respect.” Like all relationships, it’s important to be considerate of your therapist’s time and efforts.
Beyond this, Reiner says it’s important to consider how we deal with the ending of the therapy and client relationship. “Therapy is a microcosm of our external relationships,” she says. This means that how we relate to our therapist is likely how we relate to other important people in our lives. “Are we dragging out a relationship that isn’t working due to fear of hurting the therapist’s feelings? Are we afraid to honor our gut feelings and talk about our relational experience because it feels uncomfortable? Or are we putting up guards and distancing because the therapist has asked us to be vulnerable, and this type of relationship feels scary?”
With this, I can now see how my own therapy breakup reflects the anxiety and lack of communication that was present in some of my past romantic and working relationships.
“While termination sessions can be uncomfortable at times, learning how to honor your needs, express your feelings, and healthily process relational endings can be extremely therapeutic in itself,” says Reiner. She adds that when we feel guarded or disconnected from a therapist, it’s important to evaluate the dynamic and repair any ruptures together before finishing treatment.
Though I wish I had brought up my feelings with my therapist when I initially started feeling like our relationship wasn’t working anymore, I believe I learned an invaluable lesson through this experience, which also reiterates a lot of the work we did together. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed myself making a stronger effort to exercise mindfulness and effective communication while I’ve also been pursuing other self-care activities, such as reading self-help books and starting my yoga teacher training.
As I begin to look for a different therapist who better caters to my current needs, I will definitely keep these lessons in mind and bring this insight into all relationships and areas of my life. Taking care of my mental health will be a lifelong process, but it’s been nice to see how capable I am of putting my mental well-being first, all on my own, even if it’s temporary. I’ve grown a lot, and while my former therapist played a large part in that, it was me all along who was the captain of this ship.