Thoughts From The Couch – ‘Love’ in the therapy room

The susceptibility to develop intense feelings for your therapist has been known and talked about since the early days of psychoanalysis. It is often the theme of jokes and curiosity from others when I mention that I am a therapist. Yet for the client who experiences erotic transference, it can be a profoundly confusing, distressing and shameful experience, with nothing the slightest bit amusing about it.

Is it any wonder that on occasions our clients fall in ‘love’ with us, or at least think that they have? The setting we work from sets the tone for a calm and comfortable environment where our clients are the focus of our attention for the duration of the session. We meet them with intense curiosity and prolonged eye contact, along with unconditional positive regard. We are rarely critical, pre-occupied, snappy or disinterested. Instead, we present with our full presence, empathy, curiosity, patience and a willingness to stay attendant to them no matter what they share. 

Which of us does not yearn to be met in this way by our intimate partner, family and friends? The reality is that life is full of distractions and limited time and so the therapeutic relationship is ripe for erotic transference, which if not handled with care, has the potential to cause considerable disruption to clients personally and in their social and family life. Storr states ‘In the practice of his art, the therapist must treat those patients who make declarations of love with tenderness and understanding. It is important to realise that the love that is shown by the patient for the therapist is just as ‘genuine’, even though it may not be as realistic as love occurring outside the therapeutic situation.’ (Storr, 1979: 78)

Transference whereby clients transfer feelings for a significant person, often parents, onto their therapist, is part of the therapeutic relationship. The transference, whether affectionate or contentious, is often unconscious and necessary to inquire into as part of the therapy. Erotic transference is a term used to describe the feelings of love, as well as the fantasies of a sexual or amorous nature, that a client experiences about their therapist. This needs to be handled with the same respect and interest as anything else a client might bring to therapy. 

I see part of my role as a therapist to find a way to create an atmosphere of openness and safety, where topics such as attraction and sex can be freely explored, especially as for so many people talking about sex openly is often associated with shame and insecurity. By being both transparent and thoughtful, working through erotic transference can often help clients understand problems that initially brought them to therapy.

It is imperative not to ignore transference as it emerges, which can on occasions be problematic, especially if the feelings transferred are those of love, idealisation or eroticism. Freud was clear-cut in his advice for handling romantic love in therapy, stating that the therapist must neither respond nor dismiss the client’s love. Instead, we need to regard a client’s love with the same composure brought to bear on their other feelings. To remain interested, curious and engaged without becoming personally invested. 

We need to acknowledge that as humans, we are all vulnerable to moments where – when faced with erotic transference – we can respond in unhelpful ways. Sometimes where we find ourselves in our own lives can tip the balance in how we react to a client’s attraction to us. On one side, we run the risk of becoming the seductive therapist, using our clients as a source of comfort and validation. On the other side, we can become the punishing therapist, feeling annoyed or ashamed that the situation has arisen. As a result, we quickly close down the topic, thus replaying what potentially happens to clients outside of the therapy room. As a result, we deny them the potential to gain a greater understanding of themselves and the cause of their feelings. 

In those moments, I am grateful for my internal supervisor to keep me on track. Instead of either fanning the flames of love, or making my client feel ashamed in having expressed their feelings for me, I can sit confidently in the middle. I can validate their feelings while letting them know that what they are experiencing is not only a normal part of the therapeutic relationship, but a vital part of our work together.

Sitting in the face of erotic transference, we can find our powers of restraint pushed to the limit. Each of us has known the intensity of feelings we can have for another person and the challenge when we realise that there is no possibility of anything developing in the way that we had hoped. Accommodating these feelings from our clients, especially at their most insistent, needs to happen if the therapeutic relationship is to survive. A robust framework on which I can rely is imperative.

The intimacy that I experience in the therapy room is different from the intimacy that I experience in the outside world. As a starting point, my client and I co-create ground rules and boundaries that I do not set outside of a therapeutic relationship. When erotic transference emerges, it is easy to feel in some way incompetent and vulnerable to the potential misunderstandings and upset that can occur, especially if the transference becomes obsessive and compulsive. Transference of this kind can influence a person’s judgement and interfere with their self-government, which in turn can leave them vulnerable to sexual, emotional and financial misconduct. 

Working within a clear ethical framework is useful, especially when working with erotic transference, as most bodies state clearly that no therapist should have a sexual relationship with or behave sexually, towards their clients. It is well documented that the impact of a sexual relationship between therapist and client is nearly always confusing and negative, even if the therapy has ended. “Research shows that a sexual relationship between client and therapist is almost always traumatising and abusive in the long run, even if the relationship starts after counselling has ended.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001: 148). Despite this, clients in the throes of erotic transference can be tenacious in their belief that a sexual relationship would and could be possible, even if they are already in one outside of therapy. This can put an enormous strain on the therapeutic relationship, especially if there is counter erotic transference.

Erotic counter transference is a normal part of working as a therapist, however similarly to my clients, it is not always easy to manage. In order to be congruent, it is important for me to take my feelings and any concerns I might have to my supervisor. This in turn shows my willingness to do what I am  asking my clients to do by being willing to bring out into the open and explore any erotic feelings I might have towards my clients. 

Sometimes when faced with a direct question such as “do you find me attractive?” or “if I finish therapy with you can we have a relationship?” it is easy to feel put on the spot and pressured to answer. As I have gained more experience and confidence over the years, I can gauge whether to explore the reasoning behind the question or reply directly. Depending on my client, the strength of the therapeutic relationship and the intensity of the erotic transference will often determine how I respond. At all times I am mindful of the courage it takes to ask the question and do my best not to minimise, avoid or move away from it. Once my client is clear, although not always accepting, it opens up the possibility of exploring all and everything that arises in our sessions.

I am always conscious not to exploit the transference in any way. As erotic transference can last over a long period of time, consistency, as well as my integrity and care for my client, is what has seen me through times when I have been on the receiving end of it. I don’t believe in changing the boundaries originally agreed in the face of erotic transference. That said, I do occasionally re-state  them, especially if the erotic transference is relentless. The intensity of feelings can be highly flammable and sometimes problematic and out of control. While my client is working through them, I feel it is essential to remind them that – no matter how strong or insistent their feelings may be – I will always adhere to the ethical code to which I subscribe, even when therapy has ended. This is part of my commitment to them, their safety and their well-being.

Erotic transference emerges for many different reasons and not only in the therapy room. As with everything else, the levels of intensity with which it occurs varies dramatically. Where there is a reliance on another person for help, whether it be medically or any other situation where we are dependent on another for assistance or support, we can experience intense emotional responses. Often the client/therapist relationship is a unique experience, and for some, it may, at times, be unconsciously associated with a promise of love. Erotic transference often comes about as a result of a need to feel special amongst what they perceive to be a wealth of unseen competitors, whether other clients or people in my non-working world. Another reason for its occurrence is a way of regaining control of the relationship to win power and approval. I have also experienced it as a way of testing to see whether I am trustworthy. Some clients have a desire to be so powerful – so seductive – that their wish to conquer me would be their ultimate victory, showing that anyone can be corrupted. The fantasy can be persistent and persuasive as well as dangerous. Some clients feel gratitude and attraction and want to show their affection sexually. A client with sexual abuse in their history may confuse sexuality with intimacy. Whatever causes the transference to emerge, most clients are searching for an emotional relationship rather than a physical one. As the ‘love’ they feel is one way, it tends to echo a parental relationship rather than a reciprocal romantic one. Their feelings are almost always infantile and sensual rather than adult and sexual.

By remaining gentle and clear, clients are able to work through all the feelings that they have confused with ‘love’. I see myself similar to the guides I have had in my own life, that when lost, have directed me home. By walking alongside my clients and remaining open and curious – with clear boundaries in place – my desire is that they can fully experience the erotic transference, whilst also trusting that I will bring them home safely to themselves and their loved ones, with tenderness and respect.

Storr, A. (1979) The Art of Psychotherapy. London. Heinemann.

Joyce, P. & Sills, C. (2001) Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy. London. SAGE Publications

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