Understanding Transference In Relationships

Transference is a dynamic that most couples are unaware of and when I work with couples it is something that we explore that most find useful. www.thebookoflife.org explains perfectly how transference plays out in relationships.

‘You’re flicking through a fashion magazine and playfully suggest that your partner might want to make a few experiments with their wardrobe. How about a different pair of jeans or a new T-shirt, a duffle coat or platform heels? But at the mention of this possibility, your partner gets very agitated indeed: they scornfully declare that money is tight, they haven’t got any time, they have too many clothes already and why are you deliberately annoying them by making vapid proposals like this? This response is very off-putting. You only made a perfectly reasonable suggestion and now they are declaring war. You didn’t do anything. Their behaviour seems utterly out of proportion with what triggered it. You may conclude, as you have done on other occasions, that in some areas the person you love really does seem ‘a bit mad.’ This conclusion, though perhaps depressing, also feels strangely satisfying. At least you know what is up. Couple having serious interaction But we are all a ‘bit mad’ in ways that preclude such dismissive statements and demand closer and more generous examination.

For all of us, there are situations and behaviours which can be counted upon to elicit swift and powerful responses which don’t seem in any way in line with what is happening right now. Our behaviour seems not to fit what is unfolding in front of us. For example, someone we love is going away for a month, and tells us they will miss us very much indeed. They move to hug us. But far from feeling sad and tender, we just register numbness, pull away and can’t say anything other than that the weather is unseasonably chilly today. Or we return home to find there is a bit of a mess in the kitchen, but rather than taking this in our stride, we start to shout at our partner that the house is chaos and life with them has become impossible. Or a friend is only ten minutes late for our birthday party, but we are compelled to send them a text calling them an a**hole and asking them not even to bother coming.

These sort of behaviours don’t make any sense if we try to justify them simply according to the facts in the here and now (as we and their perpetrators are inclined to do). The clue to them lies in something known as transference – a psychological phenomenon whereby a situation in the present elicits from us a response – generally extreme, intense or rigid in nature – that we cobbled together in childhood to meet a threat that we were at that time too vulnerable, immature and inexperienced to cope with properly. We are drawing upon an old defence mechanism to respond to what feels like a very familiar threat.

In most of our pasts, when our powers of comprehension and control were not yet properly developed, we faced difficulties so great that our capacities for poise and trust suffered grievous damage. In relation to certain issues, we were warped. We grew up preternaturally nervous, suspicious, hostile, sad, closed, furious or touchy – and are at risk of becoming so once again whenever life puts us in a situation that is even distantly evocative of our earlier troubles. Perhaps a parent we loved left us for long periods to work abroad. They didn’t mean to but the pain was so intense at that time, we reacted by shutting down our capacities for affection. Our way of coping was not to feel, to grow numb – a response that we keep producing even now, 30 years later, whenever someone we love has to go away for a time. Or perhaps we had chaotic, unreliable parents whom we dealt with by rigidly organising our room, arranging books by size, and reacting with alarm at the slightest bit of dust – and even now, outer disorder ushers in a panicky feeling within that everything is out of control once again. Or we had a sister who was always late to events that mattered to us, or a mother who was both humiliating and obsessed by fashion.

The unconscious mind is slow to realise that things have changed in the outer world but sadly quick to mistake one person for another, seeming to judge only by crude correspondences; ‘someone we love’ or ‘a person coming to our party’ appears to be enough to confuse us. Because transference happens without us knowing it, we generally can’t explain why we are behaving as we are. We carry years behind us that have no discernible shape, which we have forgotten about and which we aren’t in a position to talk others through in a manner that would win us sympathy and understanding. We just come across as mean or mad. What we would ideally need is a guardian angel who can pause the present and carry our partners back to another time and place, to the moment when the neurotic defence that we are projecting originated. They’d be able to see the unreliable parents, the chaotic house, the loving but neglectful father, the fashion-obsessed mother etc. – and might be appropriately moved by what we had to cope with before we knew how to.

The concept of transference – and the accompanying idea of projection – provide a vantage point on some of the most frustrating behaviours that we ever meet with in relationships. And they allow us to feel sympathy and understanding where we might have only felt irritation. If we cannot always be entirely sane in our relationships, the kindest thing we can do for those who care about us is to hand over some maps that try to chart and guide one through the more disturbed regions of our internal world. In good relationships, people are ready to accept that they might be involved in transference. Ideally, we should all rationally disentangle and un-distort our transferences and explain them to others in good time. But it rarely happens and collectively we pay a big price for our ignorance. We keep making things tough for everyone by over- and under-reacting – and so our relationships are far harder than they need to be.’

Please feel free to contact me should you want to explore this or any other topic further.

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