Thinking About Transference in a New Way

Transference — erotic and otherwise — is worth an unconventional look.

What past events push one toward an unconscious like or dislike of his therapist? What previous learning does the patient now misapply to a stranger who offers help?

A child reacts to his parents based on reiterated experience. If the adults are pleasant and welcoming, his sentiments tend toward the benign. If the guardian’s proximity signals rash criticism, irrational outbursts, or inappropriate physical contact, he associates them with troubled, private states of mind and feeling.

The young one’s mood changes even in anticipation of adult attention. Looking forward to mom or dad’s return home from work can trigger joy or fear. Repeated signals of happiness or trouble will be learned. When an alcoholic overseer opens a beer can, the internal stir tells the child what might soon happen.

The scene or place connected to a wound matters. The familiar location informs a sensitive offspring of potential discomfort. A bedroom, for example, causes alarm if sexual abuse tends to occur there. The boy or girl’s emotional alteration becomes automatic. Conscious thought isn’t necessary.

We are thus conditioned by neglectful or abusive parents. The brain is a predictor, foreseeing danger. Our time at home trained us to notice subtle warning signs of mistreatment. High alert occurs in proximity to anyone resembling those who inflicted the injury, as if we are wearing glasses enlarging false positive features of menace. The distorting lenses sometimes govern how we see employers, friends, and lovers. Youthful coping mechanisms kick into gear.

A trauma survivor’s life is one of constant reliving.

What characteristics of the therapist contribute to this? First, counselors are most often older than the patient, just as the mom and dad were senior to him. The treating professional has an advantage of authority and power in the relationship, as guardians do. He also sets rules and requires their fulfillment. Payment is expected, rather like the home stipulation to do your chores, or else.

The doctor creates the schedule and determines the length of the session. If you wanted more intimacy with your parent, you might be frustrated by your provider’s boundaries. If you never felt special in the family, the doctor’s full caseload reminds you of growing up without status. You are one of a crowd, not first in line.

A clinician needn’t do anything remarkable to provoke a facsimile recreation of a historical script he never read. As if by magic, he arranges the set for the client’s long-running drama. The latter’s well of resentment, love, sadness, and yearning reveal themselves act by act.

A considerate and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his life. His imputed resemblance to the rejecting sire allows you a mirage-like new chance at the love you never won. He assumes the form of the imagined caretaker you didn’t have, now come to life.

Transference is a kind of disguise, a costume the unknowing client applies to his doctor, who is taken for someone else. The apparel designer’s imagination fills him with qualities belonging elsewhere.

A risk exists here: the mistaken identity can overwhelm the therapist’s capacity to interpret it and refer it back to the initial source.

If this sounds like a guarantee of a bad outcome, however, it isn’t.

Once you accept the idea of transference, you may begin to actively catch the triggered emotions as they develop (or soon after) and work on their underlying cause: the ancient shadow of old relationships and the need to grieve them.

An erotic transference must be more tactfully managed. Tender feelings, romantic or not, are problematic even when unmentioned. While their connection to the past is identical to more common transferential moments, the universal hope for a sainted parent or perfect mate adds a layer of complexity to emotional resolution.

In each case, if your counselor does not overreact to your unhappiness, resentments, or thirst for unique closeness, your imbedded responses should lessen: they will be extinguished or unlearned with time. Likewise, the ability to recognize the difference between your doctor and early custodians is a first step toward doing the same with bosses, companions, and suitors.

People will be recognized more as they are, less similar to Halloween characters. Improved life choices and increasing ease of intimacy becomes possible.

Life and therapy offer us endless challenges. Muhammad Ali, a man who knew a bit about contests inside and outside the ring, offered this advice:

I hated every minute of training, but I said,
‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

——

The first and last images above are both untitled painting by V.S. Gaitonde, the last from 1953. The middle work is called Painting No. 1, 1962, by the same artist.

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.