Erotic Transference in Therapy

It strikes me that I did not elaborate on erotic transference in my recent blog post about transference. It seems to me that sexual feelings towards a therapist are often some of the most uncomfortable and difficult feelings that can emerge within the relationship. Often such feelings come as a complete shock to a client, especially when the therapist is not the client’s ‘usual type’ or even preferred gender.

As I talk about erotic transference, I want to confess some ambivalence about the term. It seems to me that these feelings can extend beyond the erotic, to romantic feelings, infatuation or feeling in love with a therapist. Having said that, a more all-encompassing term does not immediately present itself (answers on a postcard) so for the purposes of this blog post, erotic transference will be assumed to include any feelings of a romantic nature, including feeling in love and any sexual feelings towards the therapist too.

The emergence of erotic transference within the therapeutic relationship

Disclosing erotic feelings to a therapist can be a terrifying proposition. How will the therapist respond? Will they change boundaries? Will they feel disgusted? These are common concerns I hear expressed about the prospect of discussing erotic transference with a therapist.

I think it is important that therapists consider how they might respond to such a disclosure. Do they feel able to be accepting of whatever feelings emerge? To hear details of sexual fantasies, or desire for a romantic relationship, from any client who might express them? And how confident is the therapist in ethically managing erotic countertransference in this scenario? Physical sensations or reciprocal feelings could be very unsettling for a therapist and it is important that the client’s exploration of the emerging material is not undermined by the therapist’s uncertainty in the work. Supervision is vital of course, and an understanding of the nature of transference is very important to working ethically with these feelings and retaining a sense of perspective in the work.

So how are the feelings worked through? Accepting the feelings just as they are is huge. Listening with an open curiosity and without judgement, and crucially, never pushing the client for details which they do not wish to disclose. It’s really important that, as therapists we are examining our motivations for interventions as we work, because a client may feel very vulnerable when discussing erotic transference, and the potential for harm is present.

It is my personal feeling that boundary changes as a result of a disclosure of erotic transference (in fact, disclosure of any feelings towards a therapist) can be received as punitive, and should be avoided. As an example, any sudden changes to boundaries such as out of session contact or therapeutic use of touch because of a disclosure of erotic transference may feel like rejection, and reinforce conditions of worth which would be counterproductive to the therapeutic process.

One foot in the past

Erotic transference, like all other feelings towards the therapist, is likely to be rooted in a mixture of here-and-now feelings and feelings which originate in past relationships. So there may be here-and-now attraction (or not), but if these feelings are characterised by an unusual intensity, I think that this provides a clue that some element of the feelings may be historical. This could be around past romantic relationships, or quite often related to relationships from childhood.

Clients sometimes describe experiencing a mixture of erotic and maternal transference or erotic and paternal transference towards their therapist. It is not surprising that in some cases the emergence of strong attachment feelings last felt in childhood might be associated with eroticism in the adult brain. After all, the passion with which we loved our parents and needed our parents’ love and touch as infants is not usually paralleled in adult life, other than in romantic relationships. I feel it is possible that erotic feelings can sometimes be a way of consciously making sense of powerful unconscious feelings which are stirred from infancy.

I could get carried away with theory at this point, so I am consciously reining myself in. There are lots of useful books offering varied perspectives on erotic transference and love in the therapy room, and I would encourage anybody who is interested to explore the literature.

Why work through it?

I am a firm believer that the therapeutic relationship is a vessel to growth and change. If we ignore the emergence of any feeling, including erotic transference, we are potentially missing opportunities for movement in the relationship and important clues about the client’s process.

It needs to be handled with care and understanding, and the therapist must be aware of the delicacy of the work and attuned to the client’s needs (an in-depth exploration of the past will not be appropriate for a client in crisis, for example). However, feelings around erotic transference are simply feelings, and I feel, should be accepted and valued in the therapeutic process the same as any other.

4 thoughts on “Erotic Transference in Therapy”

  1. I’m curious, since you discuss boundaries and boundary changes frequently, how you see the needs of the therapist and the needs of the client being negotiated in the therapeutic relationship. (I feel like that’s sort of ambiguously phrased; I’ll try to be a bit clearer). I mean, how much discomfort does the therapist shoulder and how much discomfort does the client shoulder when it comes to negotiating boundaries? For instance, if a client asks the therapist to move closer (proximity) so that a client who frequently dissociates is less likely to dissociate, but the therapist only feels comfortable in their particular chair, does the therapist insist that the client move to the other chair (which is not comfortable or safe to the client) or does the therapist move to the couch (despite not being comfortable there)? Obviously, there is moving the therapist chair closer to the couch, but let’s assume that means moving large, heavy furniture (i.e. a solid wooden coffee table). There isn’t a win-win situation in which either party is comfortable. Silly example, maybe, but I think the small stuff informs the larger stuff.

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    1. Hi KD, that’s a really good question and I think it’s going to be heavily dependent on the context. The first thing I would say is that the therapist needs to feel safe. It seems to me that the client is not going to have the necessary sense of safety if the therapist is not feeling safe. So in your example I don’t think it would be appropriate for the therapist to move to a place where they felt uncomfortable. I think it is really important that the therapist is aware of their boundaries from the outset and not making it up on the fly. So if they are only comfortable in one chair I would hope there has already been some reflection on how they might manage such a request from the client.
      Equally, in my view it would be inappropriate for the therapist to insist that the client moves. There’s something there about autonomy and again, if the client feels unsafe, it seems unlikely that therapy is going to be helpful.
      With dissociation, I think it’s important that the therapist and the client develop a collaborative strategy for managing its effects at a time when it is not occurring. The client needs to feel confident that the therapist is able to help them in the way that they need, and must make a decision about whether a therapist who isn’t able to meet their proximity needs is the right person to help them through the traumatic material which triggers dissociation. Another example that springs to mind is that of outside contact. Again, it is dependent on a lot of relational factors and practical factors, but I think a dialogue needs to occur between the client and the therapist about how the client’s needs can be met within the frame of mutually agreed boundaries, or whether other support needs to be put in place.
      Those are my thoughts, though I appreciate there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
      I hope that answers your question. Again, this is only my take on things, the best thing for any individual circumtances is, in the first instance, a conversation between counsellor and client.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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      1. Thanks so much for the in depth answer to my question. I totally avoided the outside contact example because it is sort of a soft spot for me right now. I have been going round and round with my own therapist because we just, simply disagree on the ethics and effects of her having asserted one boundary that encouraged outside contact (despite my apprehension), then she realized it wasn’t sustainable and changed the boundary abruptly. The suddenness and lack of prior communication about the need for change made me feel abandoned, rejected, and as if my own needs and boundaries were secondary. I guess we haven’t moved past that in any other areas where boundaries are concerned. Hence why I’m so curious about the negotiation of boundaries. It’s difficult to know how they work within a relationship that is inherently different from all other professional or intimate relationships.

        Boundaries are just such a strange, complicated thing but especially when attachment and abandonment issues are brought into the mix. I think its valuable conversation even on a general level. It’s really helpful to gain perspective from others in various different roles, positions, etc. That’s the only way I find clarity, being able to see many different perspectives and parse out the gray area.

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      2. I’m sorry to hear that you have been having difficulties around boundaries in your therapy. It feels like out of session contact is one of the most common boundary issues to arise which is why it is a recurring example in my blog.
        I hope you and your therapist are able to find a solution which works for you, and that you are able to work through the painful feelings that have emerged as a result of the shift. Best wishes.

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