Erotic transference can be one of the most difficult issues to work through in therapy. What is the history of the understanding of erotic transference, and what factors may play into its emergence in therapy?
Erotic transference is a term used to describe the feelings of love and the fantasies of a sexual or sensual nature that a client experiences towards their therapist. Erotic countertransference is about the therapist's feelings towards their client. The therapeutic experience is designed to bring up issues around love, belonging and relationship. The resultant emotions can be confusing and destabilising. It is hardly surprising that both clients and therapists can at times struggle to make sense of their feelings. As therapists it is our responsibility to hold the difficulty and uncertainty of the client as they explore this unfamiliar territory.
Understanding and managing transference and countertransference is one of the key elements in successful therapy. Transference is the repetition of feelings toward someone in the present which have their origin in past experiences with a significant person in the past. Everyone experiences transference reactions.
Sigmund Freud was the first to describe the phenomenon of the erotic transference, theorize its origins, and make a connection between transference and romantic love. But an understanding of the erotic transference did not spring full-blown, even to Freud. His introduction to the phenomenon began with a strange series of events that he learned about through his mentor and collaborator Josef Breuer.
It was not easy for Freud to arrive at insight into the erotic transference. Simply being a close colleague seems to have brought him too close to the phenomenon for comfort.
He was privy to several instances of enacted patient-doctor affairs. For example, at a time when Carl Jung was still a disciple of Freud, Jung fell in love and began a relationship with one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein. This was well-known to Freud because Spielrein fled Jung to go into treatment with Freud.
Over time, Freud formulated a theory about the relationship between the erotic transference and the experience of love, recognizing that feelings of love, whether in treatment or in real life, draw on earlier life experiences.
Transference has been proposed as a critical concept in psychotherapy. The transference may be positive, negative, or sexualized. When the transference becomes sexualized, there are potentially damaging outcomes depending on the management of the transference.
Erotic transference does not affect men and women in treatment in the same proportions. Women in treatment with men analysts exhibit the condition more often than men in treatment with women. In the latter situation, patients often direct erotic feelings outside the treatment, because males are less likely to admit their erotic feelings to a female analyst.
The erotic is at the heart of unconscious fantasy life. The erotic is usually understood as sexual desire.
Eroticised transference is no different. It is simply a transference of intensely positive feelings, rightly attached to someone from the past, displaced onto the therapist and which has become infused with erotic excitement. Most people would not consciously and purposefully attempt to pervert a therapeutic relationship into a romantic affair, that is highly unlikely to ever be realised. Erotic transference must eventually be seen for what it is, talked about and worked through. True erotic transference does not depend on the therapists' or patients' age, sex, physical charms, or emotional allure. Nor does it depend on seductive behaviour towards the patient or any inappropriate behaviour by the therapist.
Therapists tend to be objects of fascination to their clients by the nature of their anonymity. Who lies beneath the professional mask? We have a perverse desire to know more. The therapist should be a blank slate and not divulge any personal information that could lead to envy, admiration, resentment, feelings of failure and much else. The therapeutic relationship is not a friendship.
That relationship is a complex one – on one level, one of the closest you will ever experience, layered with tears, confessions, possibly projected anger – and on the other, it is a financial, professional arrangement with a stranger that is entirely severed once the process ends. There is also a balance to be achieved: research shows that the efficacy of the treatment is largely predicated on the strength of the client-therapist relationship.
The therapist could potentially be drawn into the patient’s unconscious dynamics. A therapist needs to have their own framework of support and supervision. Transgressions are taken very seriously and can be career-ending. The damage to the patient could be catastrophic – as the therapist potentially colludes with, and re-enacts, the patient’s core pathology.
Transference is often intentionally used by a therapist as a tool. It informs our understanding of the patient’s unconscious drivers. But its use needs extreme care, and therapists will generally discuss the transference with their own supervisors. Transference and countertransference are possibly the analyst’s greatest and most reliable tools. They can be noted, felt, and listened to, but boundaries must always be respected.
Countertransference happens, but you must rein that piece of yourself in completely. It can be a major temptation for a therapist who is being adored. It is a powerful energy if you are hooked in. The therapist must stay really grounded. It is important to see it clearly, name it and be compassionate with it, so I do not have to climb into being their parent. The therapeutic space needs to feel safe and contain all sorts of difficult thoughts, feelings, memories, and fantasies.