It is a cliche when clients fall in love with their therapists. But many movies seem to get the client/therapist roles all wrong. Movies often deal with transference lust rather than love. Most notably Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte, who consummate their transference issues on the big screen during Prince of Tides, before going back to their respective partners and boring lives. The scriptwriters got around that particularly awkward, ethical situation because Nick Nolte was not officially Barbra Streisand’s client, he was the brother of her client, which, although sails perilously close the edge of the world as we know it, technically manages to navigate its way through the tidal-waves of legal and moral violations. Just.
The Sopranos also managed to neatly satisfy an audience’s vicarious voyeuristic transference tendencies when Tony Soprano had a sexual fantasy scene which involved violently sweeping all accoutrements off the therapist’s desk except for the therapist Jennifer Melfi herself, and going for it in an unbridled, finally requited, sexual transference.
In a nutshell, erotic transference is where the traumatized client wants to have healing sex with the nurturing therapist. Eroticized transference is where the delusional client thinks the caring therapist wants to have healing sex with their irresistible self. However, if your therapist is suffering from erotic or eroticized counter-transference (for everything there is an opposite) and wants to have an unethical, illegal quickie with you, leave their office as rapidly as possible, preferably leaving a small whirlwind of dust in your wake.
Sexual fantasies however (on both sides of the couch) are apparently normal. A peer-reviewed journal provides evidence based research that 95% of male therapists and 76% of female therapists have sexual feelings towards clients. In real life a dual relationship (and not just of the sexualized sort) has vast potential to harm the client and puts an almighty question mark over the therapist’s ethics and standards. While therapy sex makes for great TV viewing, it tends to reveal more about audience expectations than the therapy profession itself. However, never mistake Fantasyland for the excellent work done in a real-world therapist’s office.
There is a reason I have stayed with my therapist for fourteen years – she is a most ethical person with self-restraint and well-defined boundaries – and that niggles, irritates and gets on my nerves greatly at times. I would like to go to the movies with her, share a café cappuccino, go for a walk along the beach, take her out for dinner or move in together and live happily ever after. It’s what Sigmund Freud called transference love which is not about sexual feelings but rather the more ubiquitous sensual fantasies of merging, enmeshing and being engulfed in the mother/child symbiotic relationship. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a male or female therapist, whether your therapist is fat or thin, attractive or has a face like a smacked bum, or whether or not you (or they) are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual; these transference fantasies always come from the same deep primitive place – your parents and the way they related to you as a child.
Transference love is crucial to the therapeutic process. It allows the patient to explore all manner of parental feelings in a safe, trusting and respectful environment.
Here are eight ways to know you are in love with your therapist:
1. Shopping with your therapist is not retail therapy, but…..
You go shopping for clothes and visualize what your therapist would look like in them rather than yourself. I’ve had to actively remind myself on many an occasion that I have my own sense of style and taste that differs from hers. My therapist once wore a blood-red and sunset-orange frilly, ruffled skirt that looked like an out-of-control bushfire on a hot Australian summer day. It felt like it was alive and breathing fire. I didn’t like it but I wanted to go out and buy one anyway.
2. You have your therapist’s voice in your head.
You have your therapist’s voice in your head; a warm, honey-toned, well-modulated one that says, “You are very special! You can do this! I believe in you!” This mellifluous chant has, over the years, slowly replaced the harsh, angry, scathingly judgmental rant that used to scream, “I hate you and I wish you were never born.”
3. Sharing synchronicity and relationship through books.
Books are connection points for like-minded people. You read a book about mothers and daughters and immediately want to post it to your therapist so she can share your experience. And she would except for the time factor. She has her own set of books she hasn’t got time to read. I’ve just read “Waiting Room” a memoir by Gabrielle Carey, about her very private, distant, unknown and emotionally unavailable elderly mother who was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to send it immediately to my therapist or my own mother. During therapy, I will sometimes give her a brief synopsis of the current book I am reading and explain my feelings on the subject for a deeper and more penetrating awareness and understanding of what the themes, motifs, symbols, plot and characters mean to me. Sometimes we do swap and read each other’s books. Once she gave me a book that I was already reading at the time.
4. When your therapist gives you a gift.
I have two roses, one pink, one yellow, dried and pressed in a wooden frame sitting on my bookshelf (see above photo). My therapist gave them to me when I had cancer. It is a potent symbol of her on-going care. It has more meaning to me than a thousand fresh roses from the world’s most expensive florist. This is because it came from her garden. She told me that one of them was her mother-in-law’s favourite. If our house ever catches fire, after the photo albums it will be the most treasured item I will grab.
5. You don’t have to agree with her all the time in order to connect.
Just because my therapist is a yoga freak, doesn’t mean I will ever like yoga (or Pilates). I went once, passed wind, snored my head off and was too embarrassed to ever set foot in the place again. Yoga is aerobics for the elderly and Pilates is yoga for people who have a fetish for plastic and bondage. However she has instilled in me that exercise of any and all sorts (and good eating) is important for both the brain and the body; by example rather than nagging and threats of love withdrawal.
6. A good therapist’s wisdom affects more than just the client.
If my therapist is my substitute mother, then she is a surrogate grandmother to my children. She passes on her worldly wisdom to me and I pass it onto my teenagers who tell me in no uncertain terms to, “Stop talking like a psychologist, Mum.”
7. Your therapist cares for you even when you don’t.
I remember a defining moment twelve months into therapy. I found out I had Type 2 Diabetes and was really frightened, angry and wanting to retreat into denial. My therapist leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said that she “cared about my kidneys.” Eight years later when I was diagnosed with a malignant kidney tumour, she gave me a bunch of roses, two of which, one pink, one yellow, I dried and pressed as a permanent visual reminder not only of her loving/kindness, but that I need to care for my two kidneys, one pink and one yellow (and the rest of me) as well.
8. You admire and respect your therapist so much you decide to become one yourself.
Some children want to grow up and be just like their mothers. I am no exception. Eighteen months ago I embarked on a psychology degree, love it dearly and am doing very well. Passing on her love of education in general and psychology in particular is, I consider, a legacy of her great therapy to me among many other things. Like caring for my family, my house, my garden, my health, my self-respect, my respect for others; thus instilling in me an overriding wish to help other people who have suffered from any form of mental illness.
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Last reviewed: 26 Sep 2009