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Transference is Not Transferable

“What we all want, really, is to be loved. That craving drives our worst behaviour.”

It was this line from Jodi Picoult’s latest book that captured my imagination and, although not about therapy, made me think of all the emails and blog comments I have received from readers over the past ten months since I started writing “Therapy Unplugged.” These are clients who have fallen for their therapists in a big way before being rejected and abandoned and barred from contacting them ever again.

Some therapists are at their most useless when dealing with transference. Even therapists who have experienced (suffered perhaps?) transference with their own therapists can be harshly cold and dismissive with their clients when the transference beast rears its ugly head and roars loudly in the therapeutic playspace.

When this happened to me my therapist repeated over and over again that she would not abandon me, that we would work it through together. For many years afterwards she would joke about being my substitute mother and I would glow in the warmth of our role-playing. I really wanted to be loved and that craving had driven my worst behaviour.

I have had comments and emails from both clients and therapists who have told me to explore different types of therapy with different therapists, but when transference love fills the room like a sudden burst of red roses, changing therapists is simply not an option. It’s rather like trying to change your eye colour by seeing another ophthalmologist. But transference love can be just as transforming as romantic love if the therapist is willing and the client remains reasonably rational.

I was lucky to have found a very tolerant and willing therapist but others are not so lucky. I’ve received emails from others who are devastated that their beloved therapist has refused to see them again, terminated therapy, refused further contact via any form of electronic communication, called the police or even taken out restraining orders. These are women (it’s usually women) whom, it would appear cannot move forward in their lives till they have closure on their relationship with their therapist. Sometimes it’s the therapist who terminates and sometimes it’s the insurance company. These women are suffering badly because of the frustration level at not being able to be heard.

But it’s not all one-sided. I can also sympathise with the therapist her/himself. It must be confusing and disorientating to suddenly become the object of someone’s desire and receive emails, texts and letters of love or declarations of intense feelings in the therapy room. It can’t be dismissed as “just transference, it’s not real” because it is real. Feelings are real. Feelings of being overwhelmed by feelings can paralyse rational thought. It’s the therapist’s job to acknowledge these emotions, recognise them, embody them as authentic and be most respectful of them.

Most transferentially-charged clients are not stalkers or erotomaniacs (delusional thoughts where client thinks professional health worker is actually in love with client but also in denial and cannot reciprocate because they would lose their job). Most clients do understand these feelings are mainly one-sided, coming from them only but that the therapist cares for them.

I once asked my therapist if clients ever affect their therapists and she replied, “oh yes, all the time.” We get under the skin of these kind, caring people. Sometimes they take us home and mull us over in their heads. On one joyous occasion my therapist was at a book-launch and told me during the speech that she replayed my history of obscurity to author in her head. She also told me she is not allowed to fall in love with clients, is not able to and doesn’t want to. That actually came as a relief to me. My feelings for her are sometimes not entirely logical or rational and I’ve often wondered how fast I would run if my therapist declared everlasting love for me.

Whichever way you look at it, transference is simply not transferable.

Transference is Not Transferable

Sonia Neale

Sonia Neale was recently awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study and research Borderline Personality Disorder overseas in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. Her previous Psych Central blog was called Therapy Unplugged. She is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books/Harper Collins. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three adult children, has studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, has a Certificate IV in Mental Health and is studying for a Psychology/Counselling degree. She currently works as a peer support worker in the mental health field.

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APA Reference
Neale, S. (2010). Transference is Not Transferable. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Jan 2010
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