Transference in Therapy
I dreamed of giving him my bone marrow. I offered him poetry, homemade cupcakes, passionate sex and a basket of Honey Peanut Balance bars, his favorite. I even proposed to repaint and decorate his waiting room — at my expense.
I was in love.
His name was David. David was my therapist.
I started treatment with him after my mother’s death from a six-month bout with cancer. Her death left me broken open, bereft. My three-year-old marriage hadn’t quite found its footing and I felt alone in my grief. So I began therapy with David expecting a psychic sanctuary.
What I did not expect was finding myself thinking obsessively about him between sessions, planning the outfits I’d wear to my appointments, wondering if he preferred chocolate chip cookies with or without nuts.
Three months into our work I walked into his office, sank into his loveseat and blurted, “I think I am in love with you.”
Without missing a beat he replied, “Wow. That’s a big deal feeling and an even bigger deal to share with anyone, let alone your therapist.”
I felt my face redden. I wanted to run away but before I could move David continued. “Cheryl, you are very brave, self-aware, and smart. You are a beautiful person with many attractive qualities.” I knew his next sentence would include a “but.”
“That said,” he continued, “I don’t have affairs. And even if someday we both get divorced, we still wouldn’t be together. In fact, there are no conditions that will ever allow us to have anything other than a doctor/patient relationship. But I will always be here for you as your therapist.”
The tears that had been welling up spilled down my cheeks. I reached for a tissue to dab at my eyes — not wanting to ruin my makeup or add to my humiliation by openly sobbing or blowing my nose.
Before the interminable session was over, David told me about transference: the tendency for patients to project childhood feelings for parents onto their therapist. Mine, he said was a case of “erotic transference” due to the infatuation I was experiencing. The depth of my feelings for him represented the depth of other unfulfilled longings.
He proposed I commit to our work for at least another ten weeks. Not the proposal I had wanted, but I accepted.
Returning to David’s office session after session to wrestle with my desire for him was torture. But he was right to encourage me to do so, and was superbly professional in every way. When I confessed my urge to run off and make love with him in the woods, he said: “I think your desire is a statement of the aliveness that wants to be born in you.” He then asked me if my desire reminded me of anything, and deftly steered the conversation back to my emotions and my childhood.
Time and again David returned me to myself this way and to the exploration I needed to be doing by forcing me to tune in not to him, but to me. He established clear-cut boundaries and never swayed from them, even when I used every trick I knew to try to break through his professional barrier, to win him over, earn his affection and make him want me. Love me.
His consistency was maddening at times: he steadfastly refused my offer of gifts and wouldn’t answer my questions about his favorite movies, food and books. To my dismay, he wouldn’t even tell me his birthday.
He noted that even if he did share this information, it might just fuel my desire. And he reminded me repeatedly that he wasn’t rejecting me, but was maintaining boundaries. He was the only man I’d ever known that I couldn’t fix, flatter or have sex with.
And yet, he was also one of the only people I’d ever known who welcomed my feelings such as they were. My love and desire for him, my tantrum-like fits of frustration with his boundaries and even my hatred for him: he received and accepted each one without judgment, offering the unprecedented, unconditional support I needed.
About 18 months into therapy, my husband, Alan, and I were dining at our local sushi restaurant. David walked in with his wife and daughter.
Waves of nausea coursed through my body. I burrowed my flushing cheeks inside the menu, hoping Alan wouldn’t notice my anguish. As the waiter served our tuna rolls, David and his family left the restaurant carrying their takeout. With a quick wave toward Alan and me — casual and friendly to just the right degree — David reached for his daughter’s hand and departed.
After seeing David’s family with my own eyes I could no longer deny they existed. Something inside me came undone. But I survived. And I realized that not only was David never going to run into the woods with me, but even if he did, the day we left the woods would be a complete disaster.
David’s fierce commitment to our work helped me understand and break free from my lifelong addiction to longing for something (or someone) unavailable. He allowed me to challenge the deeply embedded belief that my worthiness and healing would come from outside of myself, in the form of a man’s love. During one of our sessions, he asked me what would be the worst part of giving up my longing for him. “Well, then I’d have nothing,” I replied.
But a week after the sushi restaurant incident, I was emptying the dishwasher when Alan walked in the front door proclaiming, “The luckiest husband alive is home.” And it dawned on me that I actually had all that I longed for. Not in the ways I’d fantasized about but in the ways I had created. I could no longer let longing eclipse this real and available — albeit scary, messy and imperfect — love.
Rice, C. (2018). Transference in Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/transference-in-therapy/