Update: This post has drawn a lot of traffic in the time it has been up, leading me to believe it’s a topic that a lot of people may wish to discuss further. If you have questions about anything in this post, or questions about things not discussed in this post, please feel free to ask a question in the comments or send me the question privately at the email address in the right column. Thanks! – AG
I got a request from a reader to discuss erotic transference, so I thought I would share a few thoughts. I do want to be clear that although I have done a lot of reading about erotic transference, most of what I write here is based on my own experience and so may not be all that universal. I also think that erotic transference can be a very complex thing encompassing several different dynamics in the relationship. Our sexuality is a very powerful, integral part of us and therefore a lot of things get played out in this area; issues around power, love, desire, longings, sensuality, self-worth, and attractiveness to list only a few. And all of these things are going to be even more highlighted in the therapeutic relationship since the therapist carries so much symbolic weight.
DISCLAIMER: I just want to be very clear that when I am discussing the erotic/romantic component of my relationship with BN, I very much believe these feelings to be one-sided. Things wouldn’t have played out any differently if there was desire on his part, because he’s a highly ethical therapist who takes his responsibility to his patients seriously, but I do feel compelled to mention that I have never caught even a hint of feelings in this vein on his side. Yes, I do realize that he has feelings about me, even if I don’t get to hear them, but I think they are closer to friendship or paternal ones. I just wanted to be clear, so that when I am discussing what it would have been like if he had expressed sexual desire, that I am discussing a hypothetical situation. 🙂
The first thing I want to do is define what I mean by erotic transference. Erotic transference is essentially when a client has strong romantic/sexual feelings for their therapist; it can feel like you are “falling in love” with the therapist. Erotic transference is not necessarily a problem if the client is open to talking about the feelings (as well as the therapist, not every therapist is comfortable in this area) and keeping the focus on themselves and the work. Essentially, erotic transference is something that can be handled and even used to advance therapy. On the other hand, eroticized transference is something that actually blocks the work. A person with eroticized transference truly believes and often tries to convince their therapist, that they really are soul mates, that if they had met outside of therapy, they would have had a wonderful relationship together. Their focus is actually on seducing the therapist and getting them to move beyond the therapeutic relationship. In other words, they don’t want to change themselves, they want to change the therapist. If this happens, then the erotic/romantic feelings can become problematic enough that a referral is necessary because instead of being used to forward the work, the feelings are interfering in the work.
There is a reason that erotic transference is a bit of a cliché. People often go into therapy because their life is not working right, which usually means that they are frustrated with their relationships. So they sit down across from someone who is totally focused on them, is working to understand them, is unconditionally accepting and makes it their goal to understand. What’s not to love? It’s not so much surprising that some clients have romantic feelings, it’s a wonder that they ALL don’t. A therapist can seem like a perfect lover; they don’t have any needs, they don’t get defensive and ok, ladies, let’s be honest. A man who listens? and understands our feelings? Sign me up! 🙂 (My deepest apologies to any male readers in the audience for my sexist moment.) And because we do not fully know our therapist and can feel so connected to them, we can invest in them any qualities we wish and they can feel like the “perfect match.”
Because a therapist keeps their own needs out of the room, they can always put you first and respond to your needs in a way that someone in “real life” can’t, because they have to get their own needs met. A therapist does that when they are away from you, so it just doesn’t register. What we are longing for is to have 24/7 access to that perfect person, but they don’t exist. I remember once saying to BN that I would kill for just 15 minutes with his wife. He laughed and told me it would only take her five to set me straight. 🙂
I mentioned earlier that erotic transference can be quite complex and serve different purposes for the client. I want to talk about some of the dynamics that I came to understand were operating for me. I’m sure that this is not an exhaustive list, nor would all of these necessarily be true for someone else, because my particular reasons were unique to me and my experiences. But my hope is that by highlighting the ways in which these feelings tied into my issues, you might find insight into your own reasons for these feelings about your therapist.
One very common reason for sexual feelings for a therapist is actually rooted in our childhood needs. Psychology sometimes refers to the “golden dream.” All human beings had the experience in the womb of being in a safe place, cared for, where all your needs were met and there was no separation between you and your mother; at that point in our development, we are not yet capable of even conceiving that we are a separate being. Then we’re born. No one really knows what a baby is feeling, but when we carry unfulfilled longings and needs from childhood, part of what we long for is to return to that time of perfect safety, where our needs were met without speaking them and there were no boundaries. Part of the maturation process for human beings is the realization that we are a separate person, with our own feelings and needs which are distinct from another person’s. But it is in a romantic/sexual relationship where an adult normally lowers their boundaries the most. Ideally, we allow a lover to see us clearly, both emotionally and physically. In the act of making love, we seek as much contact between us as is possible. The Bible actually refers to the sexual union within marriage as the two becoming one flesh. So when we enter therapy and those long dormant childhood needs and longings are stirred and awakened, we struggle to “fit” them somewhere. And the channel in which they flow most smoothly is in our sexual feelings. In other words, we are experiencing really intense, primitive longings from childhood and the closest thing we have to that as an adult is our sexual/romantic feelings. So we experience strong sexual feelings that ultimately, are really about what we wanted as children and didn’t get. It is this dynamic that is at the root of a client with a life-long heterosexual orientation to feel sexual attraction to a same gender therapist or a client with a homosexual orientation to feel attracted to an opposite gender therapist.
Another important dynamic for me was one of power. My experience of power in a relationship was that it would be used to hurt me. A parent of necessity wields a lot more power in the relationship than the child. Children need parents BECAUSE they are powerless to take care of themselves for a very long time. When we are abused, our experience is that being powerless in a relationship is a very bad thing. I remember really struggling with feelings of humiliation and fear when I realized that I had these kinds of desires for BN, because I knew that my wanting him gave him the power (correction: I BELIEVED he had all the power) and that was scary. Because what if he misused the power in our relationship the way my father had misused his power? But if I could get BN to love me, to desire me sexually, then he needed me, and I would have power and therefore be safe. In some ways, the desire to create sexual desire in the relationship is a way to pull a therapist’s needs into the relationship and even out the power differential. One of the reasons that a sexual relationship with a patient is such a powerful taboo, much like the incest taboo, is that when a therapist’s needs come into play, then it’s no longer therapy. In other words, to enter a sexual relationship is to end therapy.
But one of the things that I needed to learn was that my father HAD abused his power. That with a safe person, in a safe relationship, becoming vulnerable is actually a good thing. That yes, BN does hold more power from the standpoint that I need and want him in a much more central, powerful way then he does me (if at all), but I am important to him in the sense that he is committed to my good. He cannot allow himself to need me, but he can, and does, recognize the powerful role he plays in my life and treats that role, and the power inherent in it, with respect and care. So I am now able to experience being in a relationship where I need someone, where I am vulnerable because of that need, and their response is to use their power to protect me. In experiencing that crucial difference, I learn that it can be safe to stand close to someone without having to wrest away their power.
For me, the erotic feelings were also about having to “pay” for the relationship. My father eroticized a relationship that should not have been. On some level, I carried an unconscious belief that any close relationship with a man would include sex. It wasn’t a thought out plan or even a cognitive recognition as a child, but in effect, I endured the sex in order to get some attention and semblance of physical comfort and closeness. I had to pay for the relationship with my father by having sex, which I couldn’t begin to comprehend, just in order to get some kind of affection and attention. It has taken me years (and I do mean years!) to work out the damage it caused. I did not experience being valued for who I was but for what I could be used for, so if I was getting comfort and care from BN, wasn’t I supposed to be providing sex? And this is where the BN’s boundaries became of such paramount importance. The only way for me to realize that I do not have to “earn” love, or relationship is to experience a relationship the way I should have as a child, as a gift freely given from the other person. For BN to indulge in a sexual relationship with me would have repeated the injuries my father did to me, and forever confirmed my belief that my value resided only in what I could provide.
This led to an interesting interaction once, when I was discussing these feelings. BN was talking about how my father would overrun my boundaries and I connected to how deeply I could long for BN to step over the boundaries. I actually cried out, very distraught, that I was wanting the abuse to happen again, that I had wanted the abuse to happen. BN very gently told me that I did not want to be abused, I wanted to get my normal and legitimate needs for closeness and love met, and that’s what I was still trying to do. Which is why it was so important that he provide me with what I needed, not everything I wanted. Just as a good parent should have.
The most unsettling dynamic that came to light for me around these feelings was that I was seeking relief from pain. One of the more confusing things for me about these longings was that when I stopped to give myself permission to fantasize about just what I wanted, it was really difficult to pin it down. How ironic to long so deeply for something that I couldn’t even define or understand. As I was trying to work through exactly what it was I wanted from BN, I remembered that sometimes the abuse, while it was terrifying and overwhelming, also included pleasure. Such is the human physiology, that if you are touched in certain places in certain ways, it will feel good whether or not you want it to. It was also a form of positive attention that felt like I mattered. So I think there were times during the abuse, where I found respite in the physical pleasure of the act. I took those thoughts to BN, and told him that I realized that at least part of why I wanted a sexual relationship was that it would buy me a few minutes of peace. Yes, it would hurt me in the end (sound familiar?) but any relief from the pain, however short-lived, could seem worth it. (I do want you to know, gentle reader, this was not an easy realization or conversation for me. I had to keep a trash can handy, because I really felt like I was going to throw up, so repulsive was the thought that I had enjoyed anything.) BN was very accepting (in addition to being a boundary ninja, he is also a first class shame buster :)) and told me he could completely understand why I would want to experience some peace.
Realizing this helped me to recognize the connection between my going deeper and moving towards new (painful) realizations and an upswing in my erotic/romantic longings. When the erotic feelings grew stronger, it was a sign that I was moving towards something painful and the desire was a distraction, but was also a reaching towards comfort. This was very much reinforced by the fact that when I had a major breakthrough in understanding, my feelings for BN were much more centered around gratitude for my growth and the safety he provided. (One more full disclosure, BN has a lot of qualities and interests that I do find attractive. I also thinks he’s a good-looking man. He’s around 12 years older than me, which is old enough to see him as a father figure even though he’s not old enough and also see him as romantic partner since the gap isn’t all that big, especially at my age. So there is an adult component to my attraction to him, but that part is relatively easy to manage. It is my past that feeds the intensity of desire and the pain I feel at its denial.)
The erotic transference has also proven to be healing in that BN provided a safe relationship in which I could experience sexual desire and explore my sexual feelings. To learn what it was like to desire a sexual relationship not because I was obliged to, or felt I had to, but to desire to express intimacy physically. That, as an adult, to desire someone sexually was actually a good thing (I carried some really twisted beliefs about how bad it was to want to have sex, or to even want to be sexually attractive, but that’s a whole other story for another day, if I ever get up the nerve.)
So erotic transference, like pretty much all of our feelings, can be incredibly useful when the feelings are expressed and examined and used to understand ourselves. These feelings do not spell automatic doom to therapeutic work as long as we are able to recognize that these feelings may never be acted on. BN told me many times that he had the boundaries, that nothing improper would happen between us. I remember once, very early on, asking him to tell me that nothing would EVER happen, believing that I needed it to hear it so I could kill my hope. He very clearly told me that we would never have a relationship outside the one in his office, that those boundaries were his responsibility and he would hold that line. What was so surprising was that instead of hearing my death knell, I heard it as a powerful declaration of my safety. The truth is that as deeply as I could desire BN, if he had actually done anything, I would have run screaming out of his office and never looked back. It was a deeply important gift that he told me that while nothing would be acted on, any and all of my feelings, including any romantic or sexual feelings, were welcome in his office. I learned so much about myself because he was willing to talk about my desire for him. And be the same steady person he was when we were discussing anything else at all. And to be fair to myself, because I was able to accept that the feelings would not be acted on and face the pain of that long enough to look underneath for the meaning.
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