Transference Relationship Definition Essay

Just when I thought we’d completely exhausted everything there is to say about therapy, a brilliant question appears in my inbox.

Once again, we have a disguised and distorted letter from an unidentifiable and possibly fictional reader:

Do you have any advice on how to deal with (and endure) transference as a client? I have been in therapy for several months, and I am in the thick of an intense attachment to my therapist. We have talked about it plenty, and I am always encouraged to bring it up. However, I can’t help but notice the irony: The thing I am supposed to talk about is what is preventing me from talking about it. This seems like a design flaw. I have been trying to research the phenomenon myself, but I only find definitions and descriptions and theories. Coping strategies for clients, not so much.

Sounds like a job for In Therapy. Let’s back up to the definition of transference, because there are a few conflicting ideas. As I mentioned previously, psychology has a bit of a jargon problem, and this is one of the worst culprits. Depending on who you ask, “transference” could mean one of three things:

1. Therapists in consultation with one another may refer to transference as a general statement about the strength of the therapeutic relationship. In this view, a “good” or “positive” transference means the therapist and client get along reasonably well. “Negative” transference means some conflict or blockage prevents a good working relationship. It’s not uncommon for a supervisor to ask a trainee “how’s the transference?” and the trainee responds “good” without much elaboration.

2. The classic use of the term transference comes from psychoanalysis and includes: “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object.” We all do this all the time. A boss at work reminds you of your cranky grandmother, so you cower accordingly. The guy next to you on the train reminds you of your college friend Stan so you crack a joke that Stan would appreciate, to the train-stranger's bewilderment. Or the battle cry heard from loving couples around the world: “Stop treating me like I’m your mother!” Perhaps you respond to your younger-than-you female therapist as if she were your father. Transference happens everywhere, including within any therapeutic modality. Psychoanalysis just intensifies it (through all that blank screen stuff) and places it under the microscope.

3. Yet another way transference is used refers only to the loving feelings. Shorthand for what therapists call “erotic transference,” this is where the client develops romantic feelings for the therapist. It happens. More often than you think. Let’s say we’ve got a client longing to be known, with a history of misunderstandings or rejections, and we sit them down with a professional listener and understander. OF COURSE there are going to be some positive feelings. Maybe even feelings or fantasies of taking this exquisite understanding home. Living every day with this understanding in peace and harmony. Even merging with this understanding in an intimate, passionate way. The desire to connect with a caring person in a meaningful way is completely valid. But acting on it in a sexual way with a therapist is never an option.

What’s the problem with transference? Rather than connecting with the person, we’re relating to a template, which may be quite different from the flesh and blood in front of us. You’re treating Jane Doe like she’s your mother, or your grade school rival, or an idealized object of desire, when she’s actually none of the above - she’s Jane Doe. It prevents you from really connecting with Jane in a meaningful way. But it’s not always bad. Transference in therapy can be incredibly helpful, pointing us in the direction of unhealed wounds. It can transport therapy from lecture to laboratory.

Fictional Reader says the “intense attachment” is uncomfortable and difficult to discuss, and wants some coping strategies. A few come to mind:

Normalize - Some people feel ashamed for having loving, sexual, or seemingly off-the-wall feelings toward their therapist. But really, this does happen all the time. Therapists interested in relational issues and deep work expect transference of some sort to arise, and most are comfortable talking about it.

Talk about it - Fictional Reader is talking about it, and his therapist encourages it. Most of the time, this is all it takes to make these uncomfortable feelings more manageable and even help them diminish. Having difficulty getting started? How about: “I’ve been feeling a little uncomfortable here recently, and I think it has to do with our relationship.” The therapist should know where to go next.

Find the root - Transference reactions usually point to some deeper issue or unfinished business from the past. Your therapist makes you angry because he reminds you of your bully cousin? You’re in a loveless marriage but you have strong feelings for your therapist? When you can identify, discuss, and work through that deeper issue, the strong reaction to the therapist should subside as well. At least that’s what the “make the unconscious conscious” theory says!

Look for differences - If you really feel the need to end the transference pattern, you can try to actively separate the person from the template. Is your therapist really like your mother? Probably not. Is he really your ideal lover? Nope. Make a list of a dozen ways that the person differs from the template, then discuss them with your therapist. You can also ask (because you can ask anything) if the therapist is willing to disclose more information about her life to help further distinguish the two.

How do you want to relate? - Like so many situations, when we’re focusing on what not to do, we do just that. Don’t think of an elephant. Spend some time thinking about and discussing how you want to relate to your therapist, how you’d like it to feel, what you imagine it would look like. Then practice.

Leave, Part I - I’m definitely one for working relational issues through, but I can see two reasons to leave therapy due to transference. The first is if it has no impact on the rest of your life. Let’s say you have no significant problems in relationships with friends and family (and they would agree), and you come to a CBT therapist to work through your fear of bears. Your therapist happens to be a replica of your first boyfriend and you’re so smitten and tongue-tied that you can’t get any work done on the arctophobia. This is the only time you’ve felt this way, you don’t see a need to work through your feelings regarding your first boyfriend, and this bear problem needs to be addressed before your Into The Wild re-enactment vacation in a few weeks. You might as well find another therapist. And don’t forget to pack a lunch.

Leave, Part II - Fictional Reader mentions the “design flaw” inherent to this issue - the stronger the erotic or negative transference, the more difficult it can be to talk about it. If you’ve tried the points above and still this inhibition is so strong as to cause communication paralysis, no progress is being made. I’m not talking about Fictional Reader’s functional discomfort, I mean therapy is at a silent, excruciating standstill. If this is unbearable, it might be time to take a break, temporarily or permanently. I’ve known of clients who temporarily leave Therapist 1, go talk to Therapist 2 about the transference issues, then return to Therapist 1 when they feel unstuck. Or maybe you just want to leave for good. As always, it’s your time and your dime, you can terminate therapy whenever you want (see this).

As magical as it seems, transference is really just a relationship issue. You learn more about yourself when you work on your relationships, and transference gives you the opportunity to understand plenty about your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, relationships, and fantasies. Isn’t that why you came to therapy?


Transfer yourself right on over to my website or facebook for more musings.

Is there something in my teeth?

For other uses, see Transference (disambiguation).

Transference (German: Übertragung) is a theoretical phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of the feelings a person has about a second person to feelings the first person has about a third person. It usually concerns feelings from an important second-person relationship from childhood, and is sometimes considered inappropriate.[1][2][3] Transference was first described by psychoanalystSigmund Freud, who considered it an important part of treatment in psychoanalysis.


It is common for people to transfer feelings from their parents to their partners or children (that is, cross-generational entanglements). For instance, one could mistrust somebody who resembles an ex-spouse in manners, voice, or external appearance, or be overly compliant to someone who resembles a childhood friend.

In The Psychology of the Transference, Carl Jung states that within the transference dyad both participants typically experience a variety of opposites, that in love and in psychological growth, the key to success is the ability to endure the tension of the opposites without abandoning the process, and that this tension allows one to grow and to transform.[4]

Only in a personally or socially harmful context can transference be described as a pathological issue. A modern, social-cognitive perspective on transference explains how it can occur in everyday life. When people meet a new person who reminds them of someone else, they unconsciously infer that the new person has traits similar to the person previously known.[5] This perspective has generated a wealth of research that illuminated how people tend to repeat relationship patterns from the past in the present.

High-profile serial killers often transfer unresolved rage toward previous love or hate-objects onto "surrogates", or individuals resembling or otherwise calling to mind the original object of that hate. It is believed in the instance of Ted Bundy, he repeatedly killed brunette women who reminded him of a previous girlfriend with whom he had become infatuated, but who had ended the relationship, leaving Ted rejected and pathologically rageful (Bundy, however, denied this as a motivating factor in his crimes).[6] This notwithstanding, Bundy's behavior could be considered pathological insofar as he may have had narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder.[7] If so, normal transference mechanisms cannot be held causative of his homicidal behavior.[citation needed]

Sigmund Freud held that transference plays a large role in male homosexuality. In The Ego and the Id, he claimed that eroticism between males can be an outcome of a "[psychically] non-economic" hostility, which is unconsciously subverted into love and sexual attraction.[8]

Transference and countertransference during psychotherapy[edit]

In a therapy context, transference refers to redirection of a patient's feelings for a significant person to the therapist. Transference is often manifested as an erotic attraction towards a therapist, but can be seen in many other forms such as rage, hatred, mistrust, parentification, extreme dependence, or even placing the therapist in a god-like or guru status. When Freud initially encountered transference in his therapy with patients, he thought he was encountering patient resistance, as he recognized the phenomenon when a patient refused to participate in a session of free association. But what he learned was that the analysis of the transference was actually the work that needed to be done: "the transference, which, whether affectionate or hostile, seemed in every case to constitute the greatest threat to the treatment, becomes its best tool".[9] The focus in psychodynamic psychotherapy is, in large part, the therapist and patient recognizing the transference relationship and exploring the relationship's meaning. Since the transference between patient and therapist happens on an unconscious level, psychodynamic therapists who are largely concerned with a patient's unconscious material use the transference to reveal unresolved conflicts patients have with childhood figures.

Countertransference[10] is defined as redirection of a therapist's feelings toward a patient, or more generally, as a therapist's emotional entanglement with a patient. A therapist's attunement to their own countertransference is nearly as critical as understanding the transference. Not only does this help therapists regulate their emotions in the therapeutic relationship, but it also gives therapists valuable insight into what patients are attempting to elicit in them. For example, a therapist who is sexually attracted to a patient must understand the countertransference aspect (if any) of the attraction, and look at how the patient might be eliciting this attraction. Once any countertransference aspect has been identified, the therapist can ask the patient what his or her feelings are toward the therapist, and can explore how those feelings relate to unconscious motivations, desires, or fears.

Another contrasting perspective on transference and countertransference is offered in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy. Rather than using the patient's transference strategically in therapy, the positive or negative transference is diplomatically pointed out and explained as an obstacle to cooperation and improvement. For the therapist, any signs of countertransference would suggest that his or her own personal training analysis needs to be continued to overcome these tendencies.

See also[edit]



  • Heinrich Racker, Transference and Counter-Transference, Publisher: International Universities Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8236-8323-0.
  • Herbert A Rosenfeld, Impasse And Interpretation, 1987, Taylor & Francis Ltd, ISBN 0-415-01012-8.
  • Harold Searles, Countertransference and related subjects; selected papers, Publisher New York, International Universities Press, 1979, ISBN 0-8236-1085-3.
  • Horacio Etchegoyen, The Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, Publisher: Karnac Books, 2005, ISBN 1-85575-455-X.
  • Margaret Little, Transference Neurosis and Transference Psychosis, Publisher: Jason Aronson; 1993, ISBN 1-56821-074-4.
  • Nathan Schwartz-Salant, Transference and Countertransference, Publisher: Chrion, 1984 (Reissued 1992), ISBN 0-933029-63-2.

External links[edit]

  1. ^Kapelovitz, Leonard H. (1987). To Love and To Work/A Demonstration and Discussion of Psychotherapy. p. 66. 
  2. ^Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (8th ed. 1976).
  3. ^Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (2nd College Ed. 1970).
  4. ^Jung, Carl C.The Psychology of the Transference, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01752-2
  5. ^Andersen, S. M. & Berk., M. (1998). The social-cognitive model of transference: Experiencing past relationships in the present. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(4), 109-115.
  6. ^"Michaels, S. G., & Aynesworth, H. (2000). Ted Bundy: Conversations with a killer, Dallas: Authorlink.
  7. ^Describing Ted Bundy’s Personality and Working towards DSM-V. Douglas B. Samuel and Thomas A. Widiger. Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky.Independent Practitioner (2007), 27 (1), pp. 20–22.
  8. ^Freud, S. (1960). The ego and the id. J. Strachey (Ed.). (J. Riviere, Trans.). New York: W.W. Norton. (Original work published 1923)
  9. ^Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 1) p. 496
  10. ^Horacio Etchegoyen: The Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, Karnac Books ed., New Ed, 2005, ISBN 1-85575-455-X

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