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.