Is Erotic Transference Ever the Thing We Call Love?

Erotic transference is troublesome. Counselors are trained to view its occurrence in one way only: a counterfeit of real love. Sexual feelings toward the therapist are pathologized, made into a kind of specimen for microscopic examination rather than something more basic. Is there another way? Are a patient’s affection and desire for the counselor ever no different than the early stages of romance? Perhaps we therapists go too far in making something unusual of a thing we might otherwise call love.

For those unfamiliar with the topic, I’d suggest you read my 2015 essay before proceeding. The psychoanalytic view of erotic transference refers to its infantile nature, an unrealistic and intense quality of “wanting” presumably not found in other romantic attachments. The contrast with non-clinical love is emphasized more than the likeness.

What I wrote in 2015 reflected the field’s accumulated wisdom and the observations of countless practitioners who recognized the amorous gaze of the patient across the room: the look that signaled “I only have eyes for you.” The allegedly misplaced affection is a common therapeutic occurrence, marked down because of its commonness and the clinician’s need to guide the process toward a therapeutic end, not a romantic one.

I am not talking about the extreme of erotic transference, where desire becomes obsession and stalking. Within the less acute expression of feelings, however, I would include those patients who profess their love (or keep it secret), say their genitals lubricate (or, for men, become erect) in session; offer themselves in words, dress to seduce, and bring suggestive gifts to the doctor. All these happened in my practice. They happen in every practice.

More than rejection frustrates such clients. They can feel discounted, their yearning made into another treatment issue to be worked on, worked through, and worked-over. They are told their emotions will likely disappear even if those stirrings are the most enlivening experience in their lifetime. The therapist’s intellectualization of the heart-throb and heartache makes the matter of the client’s heart a conundrum for the doctor’s head. The patient and practitioner then operate in two universes: the former feeling the issue, the latter thinking about it, unless he reciprocates the patient’s sentiments.

My profession considers erotic transference a kind of mistaken identity due to your history and because of the nature of treatment. A sensitive and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his personal life. You automatically infer qualities in him for which you have no evidence, unconsciously imagining he is like the loving parent you never had (for example). He seems to fill a vast, cavernous, lonely gap in your heart. All true, but not so different from other infatuations.

Perhaps we would do better to recognize that love often depends on what we don’t know about the other, not only what we do. How many people understand the partner well before they fall in love? Many questions have not been asked – may never be asked and answered by words or observation. This is true in the extreme for young people, where the right questions are not yet known. They do not even know themselves. Hormones rule the day.

Counselors also should admit – especially in this day of therapists’ websites describing their practices, listing credentials and schools attended, and maybe even including a blog (!) – that we aren’t the blank slates we believe ourselves to be. Unless seated behind the reclining patient’s pillowed head, we have always had a physical presence, tone of voice, a smile, laughter, and movement. No, the client is not dealing with a shadow or computerized speech.

In almost all fresh attractions, aren’t the fantasy, the newness, and imagination what it means to be in any romantic, early-stage love? Throw in uncertainty, idealization and physical urging. These are among the most magical and wondrous qualities of romance. Over the long haul it can be argued that loyalty, devotion, kindness, respect, similar interests, proportion, compatible values, pulling together, and shared experience are more important, but they do not send a shiver down the spine.

Devotion does not levitate, no matter however precious and essential.

Therapists are not the only people about whom one experiences transference (or stimulus generalization). Has not a new person reminded you of someone else in your past? Think for a moment:

  • Bosses, teachers, the next door neighbor.
  • The neighborhood bully, father and mother figures.
  • Political leaders.
  • Mentors, the people we instinctively dislike, and those we are automatically drawn to.

If I am right, the therapeutic management of transference requires a different kind of sympathy, more recognition for the genuine nature of what is in the patient’s heart and the sensual pulse in her being. This will be difficult for the therapist, rather like dealing with someone who says “I love you” outside the controlled atmosphere of his sealed-off office; with its sex-discouraging moat, doctor-patient ethical boundaries, and the requirement of therapeutic distance.

All this suggests that the process of her “getting-over” erotic transference may not only be a matter of uncovering the mistaken identity nature of feelings more properly attached to other people and earlier times, and releasing emotions derived from past relationships. The unrequited love then demands grieving not unlike other lost loves. Perhaps such grief-work can only be managed with a different therapist, although – one hopes – after the remaining treatment goals have been accomplished.

Though many counselors know better, those who believe the mistaken identity only happens in the office need to think again. The same patient who falls for you might already have fallen for others who reminded her of a loved one, with as little ability to look past the transferential aura to the truth of who her partner really was.

One more thought. Should therapists give a written warning to all their new clients?

BEWARE! YOU MIGHT FALL IN LOVE WITH ME!!!

If you are laughing for more than a few seconds, begin reading again at the top.

The first (undated) photo, School Cafeteria, was taken by the Adolph B. Rice Studios and comes from the Library of Virginia. The following picture of Swimmers Annette Kellerman and C.M. Daniels was taken in 1907 by G.G. Bain and is the property of the Library of Congress. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can You Be Too Beautiful? When Sex Gets in the Way of Love

We live in a world of appearances and surface qualities, relentlessly sold, as if only beauty matters. But what of the wreckage that comes in the package when “the package” – the outer wrapping of a gifted female form – blinds the male observer to what is inside?

A few words, then, about the desire to be “known” as more than a “hot chick,” but for the soul and the idea at your core: the craving for understanding that women, in particular, find elusive in their male partners.

Men are built to be struck dumb by beauty, females to blind them, in order to procreate little duplicates and extend our mutual genetic life in the form of offspring. At some point in civilization’s course, we learned to reign in the lust and wait a bit, the better to determine whether physical attraction can combine with compatibility, protection, and parenting. But there is tension between the urge for touch and the restraint of such desire. So the human world has always been.

Good parents, especially parents of daughters, worry about the sex thing in their growing children. My wife and I did, for sure.

One of our little lovelies was unusually sense-sensitive. She craved affectionate touch from us, skin on skin. Not as though my wife and I held back. We couldn’t get enough of holding and kissing our children, just as we fondle our grandson at every opportunity today. Our tiny lady found special joy and comfort in the “skinny” of things, as she and we came to refer to it.

Well, to the good, she didn’t become a wild-woman, as we occasionally feared might happen. Our two daughters had different natures, and we tried to respond with what each one required, not a “one-size-fits all” approach.

In my clinical practice I treated a number of women who resembled my daughter’s wish for the skinny. Some of them came by this characteristic because they’d been deprived of loving touch when young. Others, however, perhaps had my little one’s nature, desirous of physical affection more than most, sense-oriented in their genetic template. I listened to stories from females who found being held more satisfying than sex. Young and older women, both.

The early stage of dating coincides with the early stage of physical maturity. If love is blind, it is blindest when the body parts spring into action, especially the part belonging to the man. Can a young fellow understand his girlfriend when he hardly grasps life at all and hormones are flooding his brain? Not well. But, perhaps the young woman hasn’t yet discovered what a precious thing it is to be precious, treasured for reasons other than her youthful glow.

What happens then? The female gets older, but not yet old, wonders if a “good man” exists – just one – capable of understanding and sexuality; less self-love and more of a kind that recognizes the unique qualities beyond “curb appeal.” “Me, not her!” she seems to say, referring to her appearance as if it had a life of its own. “Want me not only in the bedroom: the other me is important, too.”

Some of those I’m talking about fall in love with their therapists. Beyond the traditional Freudian transference, why might that be?

Could it be because his job is to get underneath the skin, beyond the skin? And, because he is forbidden to touch? He communicates in words, words alone. He thinks about you, listens to you, analyzes you, looks into your eyes, abides with you, cradles your being (not your body) when you most need a comforting embrace.

Moreover, often a counselor is older, less driven by his own sexuality. He is not so captured by his hormones and your fetching vision. He can radiate, for all these reasons, a more fatherly presence, at least the kind of father you might have wanted if your own fell short. The best dads cherish their children of both genders, recognize the human being inside, and speak the words conveying this knowledge.

We need, all of us need, to ache for love, the ache before touch, the ache that cannot grow when want is satisfied early and often. Romance is fueled by magic, imagination, and language; physical reality can get in the way. Not that romance doesn’t crave fulfillment, but lofty affection needs time to brew, age a little before you drink.

Does this sound quaint, the musings of a man raised in a less sexually free atmosphere than we live in today? I plead guilty. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Analogues similar to the doctor/patient growth of love do exist: in bygone days, when people separated by distance wrote love letters. My dad and mom were newly married when he went to war. The ardency of his well-traveled words can be read here: Love Letters.

Is this not what you want? I sometimes wonder, in our current environment, if a man’s discovery of a woman at the most genuine level is preempted by too much, too soon. In my dad’s day, sex was more a question of whether than when. Now, consummation is expected early and almost disqualifying if one or the other wants to wait very long. But these are general statements and may not apply to you at all. My apologies.

Some women should be treasured for their intellect, kindness, and talent; for their revolt and their surrender; for their self; but settle for financial security or sex or just someone to blunt the dull edge of loneliness. These women should have their hands kissed, but the bargain doesn’t always include tenderness. Stupefied by their own stupidity, men can be blind to what they too are missing.

In the last few years, I’ve come to the point of cherishing my long-time friends, something similar to what I think a woman wants from her mate. I have begun to tell them, men and women both, what makes them special to me. To express my gratitude for their being and for being in my life.

We need to age a little to find this gratitude for the things so long taken for granted. And maybe some of us (men too) need to lose 20% of our charm so the opposite sex will be less dazzled and see farther, less physically attractive to be loved for who we are. Might we need to look middle-aged and recognize our mortality before the whole of us can take precedence over body parts and hair and symmetry and the other handiwork of the sculptor who made us? Not our fault, but still …

I could be way off, as I said. I am a married man who has received more love than I deserve and listened to intimate stories in the office, too. I can’t know by experience what any of you, dear female readers, understand from the inside. But, before you dump my words into the dumpster, consider this. This is what I think you want, in a poem of W.B. Yeats. The kind of love he had for a woman who spurned him:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Maude Gonne, the woman for whom Yeats carried a torch well-beyond the writing of this verse, did not get the fullness of his love because she jilted him. His was an abiding affection even when she was no longer the beauty of her youth.

But then, the question is, do you want this sort of love?

You already know what I think.

—————-

The top photo is A Beautiful Female Mannequin, by epsos.de. The second image is a Boston photo of Jules Aarons. Next comes Beautiful Female Avatar from Second Life, the work of Jin Zan. The iconic American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin follows. Finally, a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo entitled Flora. All the female images except for the Orkin photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and, quite intentionally, none of them are real women (with the exception of the Orkin photo), since the essay is about believing “the package” is the real thing.

The “Sex” of Therapy and the Road to Erotic Transference

The internet is filled with worried psychotherapy patients: worried over their therapists. They are brimming with fear of being discarded, frustrated at their inability to get closer: wanting a permanent relationship, a kind of family tie, or the therapist’s touch. Much of the day is preoccupied with worries involving the counselor, a fresh slant on the distress that brought them into the consulting room initially.

On offer today is the likeness between the “desire” implicit in the client’s wanting the safety and secure guidance of a caregiver … and the romance and caring of a new love.

Treatment begins with a “getting to know you” phase, entirely one-sided, except for the therapist’s way of interacting, the knowledge he imparts, and the questions he asks and answers. But there is more:

  • his attention, concentration, intensity of focus
  • the tone of his voice
  • his physical state of being
  • the office setting (if he approved the decoration)
  • his consideration and understanding
  • the comfort he offers
  • his “presence”

The contact is not so different from meeting a new, potential romantic interest, and going on a date. An appointment is made, a limited time is expected, and the initial stage of acquaintance with “who he is” is part of the agenda. Many questions after the first contacts will still be unanswered in both situations. The newness makes it electric, whether the charge is one of excitement or trepidation.

As feelings unfold, therapy offers a kind of seduction or foreplay: a back-and-forth in conversation, a dance without movement. If there is a desire for physical contact, then the patient experiences the ache before touch, enlarged because he cannot touch: a yearning magnified by the boundary the doctor will not cross (assuming he follows a therapy model insisting on such an invisible moat). The appeal is ancient: the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

Allowing the therapist inside is an intermediate goal of psychodynamic treatment: to permit release of material in need of expression, of grieving, of working-through. Transference is expected: the development of feelings about the counselor similar to those tied to significant people in the client’s past, including parents. Without the patient “exposing himself” and dropping his guard, a dynamic therapy will be unsuccessful. To continue the many metaphors here, you are giving yourself over to the other, putting yourself in his hands.

Jealousy may develop. There are significant-others in the counselor’s life, known or unknown: lovers, children, and friends. He also maintains a practice full of patients, competitors for his time. The weekly session is but a mini-slice of him, something shared when you are starving and have shared too much in your life already. In the course of working-through the transference, such feelings diminish. The counselor steps more “off-the-pedestal” than earlier, if not fully off. Only, that is, if the transference has been resolved.

Not all treatment models include enough time, in my opinion, on launching the patient into the world. Outside, sympathetic others represent a more appropriate target for strong and continuing attachment once the client is ready.

Part of the reason therapy is often eroticized is because of our instinctive desire for contact and kindness, a buffer against the inherent loneliness of the human condition. We want permanence and protection to face the transitory inevitability of life. Many of us wish to crawl into another’s skin, not be the solitary creatures we are, manufactured by nature into different sausage casings. We yearn for merging and this yearning is easily sexualized because intercourse involves momentary joining.

The illusion of the perfect therapist can create something of the honeymoon period. The blindness of new love enabled our species to survive. We need the illusion to bond in both treatment and everyday life. A persuasive mirage is not inevitable, but the risk of it is.

Powerful emotional attachment, assuming it happens, is maintained (in part) because of the distance and lack of consummation. Marriage, in contrast, involves consummation, routinized closeness, and repetitive exposure and over exposure. The illusion disappears, at least to some extent. The honeymoon ends and marriages fall into the world of reality from the lofty plateau of apparition and romance. Without a continuous fight against this gravitational force, starry nights and champagne morph into partly cloudy daylight and carbonated soft drinks that have lost their fizz.

A couple of additional thoughts: not everyone develops the sort of attachment I’ve described. Nor is there a way for those vulnerable to enchantment to protect themselves against it. Remember, however, some therapy models depend on the development of strong transference for ultimate healing.

Life teaches us we can’t have everything we want, nor forever keep what we have won. Yet our time here offers the possibility of joy even though many wishes are denied. We adapt. We must adapt.

If impermanence is the nature of things, the sooner one accepts that truth, the sooner one will come to appreciate and enjoy what is still possible here: on a rich, confusing, dark, but dazzling place called Earth.

Two versions of a Starry Night, above: the first by Van Gogh and the second, Edvard Munch. Both come from WikiArt.org.

Erotic Transference: When You Hunger for Your Therapist’s Touch

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Is erotic transference merely a sexual fantasy about your therapist? Is it a desire for steamy, big screen sex with him? Might something else be happening?

Erotic transference is about more than these brief descriptions suggest. First, let’s deal with what simple “transference” is. Here is Wikipedia’s take:

One definition of transference is “the inappropriate repetition in the present (moment) of a relationship that was important in a person’s childhood.” Another definition is “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object.”

I prefer to broaden the definition a bit. Let’s assume you meet a new person who reminds you of someone else — someone you knew well at an earlier point in life. The resemblance might not even register. Instinct leads you to make certain assumptions about him and to impute qualities to him similar to those of the man in your past. In effect, you are reaching back into your history and transferring feelings and beliefs to your present understanding of the new individual. Moreover, it is likely you will react to this acquaintance as you responded to the previous one, including whatever hopes or desires you unload from man #1 and redirect to man #2.

An experimental or behavioral psychologist would call this “stimulus generalization.” You are acting and reacting to person #2 in a style somewhat like your behavior toward person #1 because of your perception of similarity between them. They needn’t look alike or act identically. Rather, something about them or the situation triggers unconscious feelings and behaviors.

Think back to Pavlov’s dogs. If a dog learns to salivate to the sound of a bell (because the noise precedes the delivery of food), he will also begin to get his juices flowing when a different bell-like sound is heard. The canine, of course, doesn’t say to himself, “Oh, food is coming!” He simply reacts. Transference is like that.

This type of transference or stimulus generalization needn’t be sexual. That is, it need not generate erotic sensations and preoccupations. You can simply enjoy being around the freshly contacted person because of the underlying unconscious affinity toward him derived from the earlier relationship. Similarly, you can automatically dislike, distrust, or detest him, any of which would constitute “negative” transference.

Still with me? Now let’s apply this to your therapist. Add other sentiments (I’ll talk about only positive ones) to those already mentioned. These might include tremendous respect (even reverence) for your healer, confidence, or gratitude; as well as putting him on a pedestal because he is an authority in a position of power relative to you.

Can you now imagine how affection might enter the equation? This man listens to you, comforts you, and works toward your well-being. The therapist is calm and benign. Your relationship is not (I trust) fraught with lack of consideration, conflicts of interest, and the disregard present in all our lives outside the doctor’s office. The consulting room becomes a place of refuge, hope, and possible growth. Your counselor morphs into a magician of the soul, a person who is hard not to idealize. Should he possess a fine physicality, then the slide is further greased to generate sexual attraction; if he is not handsome, the absence of surface beauty may make no difference at all. Even shrinks unpleasing to the eye can carry the same kind of transferential aura.

Last, add one more ingredient to this witches’ brew: the sexual nature of the human race. Spend enough time with a particular member of whichever gender you prefer and, assuming there is even a small amount of appeal, you might discover the affinity grows. Were it otherwise you and I wouldn’t be here. We were built to mate and create offspring who do the same thing. Those ancient humans who didn’t are not the ancestors of the seven billion of us on the planet today. Nature imbedded this prescription in our DNA.

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Positive transference toward the doc is rather like a trance. Indeed, the first syllables of transference and trance are similar. Think of the honeymoon period of a romantic relationship or the youthful idealization of a parent or professor. Elements of awe are present. Rationality is not the driver.

Transference can also be triggered by unresolved issues with a parent, as the Wikipedia definitions quoted above suggest. A client might perceive the counselor as a love object in all senses. The doctor’s presence in the patient’s life may silently signal the opportunity to win (at last) the perfect love of a parent substitute. Ironically, the shrink is (or should be) as unobtainable as a time machine designed to give you a better childhood than the one you lived.

Rather than altering the past, transference provides the chance to “work through” old feelings about parents or previous lovers within the consulting room. The counselor helps to grieve the original loss and disappointment of the client’s life in the hope of resolving both the unfinished business of the patient’s emotional past and letting the air out of his irrational attachment to the therapist.

What other meanings can a sexual preoccupation with a therapist indicate? I treated patients who tested me — wanted to find out if I would take the amorous and sensual “bait,” in order to discover whether I was really trustworthy. A patient’s attempt to persuade the therapist to violate his professional ethics can also be, in part, a way to avoid underlying treatment issues. Clients will sometimes use their sexuality in the pursuit of power within a relationship which would otherwise leave the doc “in charge.” Still others confuse love and sex, wanting to be held by the doctor as much or more than penetrated by him.

How do you know whether you are experiencing an erotic transference? Dreaming about your therapist from time to time isn’t remarkable, even if sexualized. I’d say there are two practical markers of a strong erotic transference:

  • You are so preoccupied with your therapist as a potential sexual object that you can’t focus on the important treatment issues.
  • You become repeatedly aroused in the session to the point of becoming lubricated (if female) or erect (if male).

Your shrink is unlikely to address the issue unless you take the initiative to do so first. Why? Suggesting you are sexually motivated can be profoundly embarrassing to the patient. It might be taken as a rebuke. Moreover, the therapist isn’t always right. Trust and safety are big issues in treatment. Good counselors avoid fueling the discomfort of what is already a risky business of self-disclosure and “naked” examination of the psyche. Pointing to possible sexual arousal in the patient is often interpreted as erotic interest from the doc.

Should you experience an erotic transference that interferes with your psychotherapy, the question of mentioning it to your therapist arises. If the healer is well-practiced, ethical, and wise, he has heard and accepted such revelations before. He will try his best to treat you with gentleness while, at the same time, informing you that such relationship (if acted upon) would injure both you and himself. Questions of your attraction to him are irrelevant (except as grist for the therapeutic mill) if he is good at his work and maintains the barrier to sexual intimacy that is for your benefit.

Your feelings are not good or bad. The garment of lust misplaced on your therapist’s shoulders, however understandable its arrival there, must be unraveled.

The best counselors might be thought of as guides through a maze. Life is full of mazes. Each of us has our own and all of us feel confused or lost at times. Erotic transference is just another part of the puzzle, another challenge along the path. Not abnormal or bizarre, but the material of life subjected to the alchemy of therapy; from which, we hope, to create sustenance for the journey home.*

I wrote a sequel with quite a different slant on the topic two years after the one you’ve just read: Is Erotic Transference Ever the Thing We Call Love?

*Thanks to Tina at her blog, xrsize12, for suggesting I write about this topic. The images both come from the 1963 movie, Charade, with Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The first of these was downloaded to Wikipedia by BlueStar.