It’s common for clients to love their therapist. Some may love their therapist like a parent. They “feel safe and protected and love having a caregiver who meets their needs without demanding much in return,” said clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D.
Others see their therapist as an ideal friend — a person “who understands them and doesn’t judge.” Still, others develop “erotic and romantic feelings about their therapist and imagine sex or even marriage,” Howes said.
If you think you’re falling for your therapist, you might be freaked out. But your feelings are actually understandable, Howes said. “Therapists tend to be non-judgmental, compassionate, empathic, patient, good listeners who spend time and effort getting to know you and focus on your strengths.”
Because of the intentional one-way relationship, therapists also appear perfectly healthy all the time, he said. “Who wouldn’t like a relationship like that? Is it any mystery why someone might appreciate this relationship and even want to take it home with them?”
“For some clients who fall in love with their therapist, it’s likely a dynamic called ‘transference,’” said Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and author of several books on depression. The client transfers an unresolved wish onto their therapist, she said.
For instance, a woman who always felt ignored and dismissed by her father starts falling in love with her therapist because he “pays exquisite attention to her and works to understand everything she feels without judgment,” Howes said. To her this feels like “the one piece that has been missing her whole life.”
Transference actually presents an important opportunity in therapy. Howes sees transference as “a big arrow pointing at the very issues that need to be addressed and worked through.” It’s the unfinished work in a client’s life, he said.
When clients or clinicians end therapy early, “they miss an opportunity to do some of the most meaningful work therapy can offer.”
However, there is an exception: You sought therapy for an issue that has nothing to do with relationships, such as finding a career path or fear of flying, said Howes, who pens the blog In Therapy. While your romantic feelings are worth exploring, it can take time and effort, he said. Switching therapists can help you meet your original goals sooner. “You can always return to address the deeper issue later.”
Serani worked with a young artist who was struggling with extreme panic and worried he’d never find a partner. He started bringing in drawings of Serani to their sessions. Over time, they became erotic, and he confessed his love.
According to Serani, “It was a serious moment for him and for this therapy, because it was time to help him see that he really didn’t know me to love me. [Instead] what he was feeling was deeply involved with the panic and the tragedies he’d experienced in his life.”
Eventually, he realized that Serani represented the nurturing figure he never had. He started understanding and processing this loss. His panic and romantic feelings diminished. Years later, he proposed to a fellow artist, and they moved out of state for work. As a goodbye gift, he drew a beautiful picture of Serani sitting in a chair in her office.
Years ago, Howes worked with a woman who started complimenting him in almost every session. Instead of discussing her marital problems, she wanted to focus on her ideal future. This included an ideal husband whose qualities resembled the compliments she was giving Howes. When he brought this up, she admitted imagining a life with him.
“We talked about how her fantasy of a caring, emotional, and non-judgmental relationship with me was a welcome departure from the reality of her marriage, which was complicated, dry, and difficult.”
When she realized her fantasy was an escape with no future, the client refocused on her marriage. Her relationship still didn’t meet her fantasy. But she met other needs with friends and causes she was passionate about.
What to Do
It’s tempting to ignore or dismiss your feelings. It’s temping to stop attending therapy altogether. Naturally, this is an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking situation.
But both Howes and Serani stressed the importance of sharing your feelings with your therapist. Again, as Serani said, this tells your therapist that “something profound is operating beneath the surface of your emotional life — something that needs to be further explored.”
“Of course, this can be one of the most awkward conversations you’ll ever have, but it could be profoundly healing,” Howes said. You might start with this statement, he said: “I’d like to talk about us. I have some feelings toward you that make me feel uncomfortable.”
A good therapist will know how to handle the situation. Most therapists are trained in the psychological issues that underlie falling in love, Serani said. They can offer supportive and non-judgmental guidance, Howes said.
In general, your therapist will help you explore where these desires and feelings come from, Serani said. Often it’s from pain, trauma or an early loss in childhood, she said. “Once the client understands the past history for such yearnings, the romantic or erotic love that is felt diminishes, and eventually leads to insight and change.”
Howes also works with clients on understanding the roots of these feelings. They explore why these feelings are so strong right now, and how they relate to the client’s history and current relationship circumstances. The client grieves that these needs weren’t met and aren’t being met today, he said. They also create a plan for meeting as many of these needs in healthy ways.
In other words, they explore: “Why do you want the therapist, where else have you felt that, and how can you get that in healthy ways, since the therapist isn’t an option?”
What Not to Do
Both Howes and Serani underscored that you should never act on your feelings. “Romantic relationships between therapists and clients, even long after therapy has ended, is never an option,” Howes said. The state of California, where Howes practices, asks practitioners to distribute this flyer if they suspect inappropriate contact.
Unfortunately, when you share your feelings, some therapists may have an insensitive reaction. According to Howes, there are several reasons: They might’ve been trained in a specific technique but not in handling this issue. They might’ve not had their own therapy to help them manage their feelings and not respond reactively. Maybe this “struck a chord they’re dealing with in their own personal life.”
Whatever the reason, the insensitive response is more about them than you, he said.
“If a client expresses a feeling toward a therapist, be that feeling anger, frustration, gratitude, or love, and the therapist can’t accept and discuss those feelings, [it’s] a problem. That’s like working with a surgeon who is afraid of blood.”
Howes suggested telling your therapist that discussing your relationship is an essential part of your work. Voice your feelings, and let them repair the damage. However, if that doesn’t work, he suggested talking to their supervisor, if they have one, and finding another therapist.
Again, direct communication is key in therapy. Howes encourages his clients to reveal any odd thoughts or feelings — whether it’s wanting to punch or hug him. “All of that is grist for the mill, be it an impulse, an attraction, an emotion. It’s all an opportunity to understand the client better. The more we have access to that data, the better.”
Psychotherapy can lead to vulnerable feelings, which may trigger shame, fear or worry, Serani said. “But the key is to share them and allow the structure of therapy to do its work.”
Therapy session photo available from Shutterstock