Erotic transference refers to feelings of romantic love or sexual fantasies that a client experiences for their therapist. As with any difficult feelings experienced in therapy, the key to working through these feelings is talking about them; however, it can feel almost impossible to do so. I started to experience these feelings around eighteen months into my own therapy and realised, through reading numerous blogs, that they were surprisingly common.
Sexual feelings towards your therapist can be extremely confusing, particularly if you are in a stable relationship, if the therapist is of a different gender to the one you are usually attracted to, or if you tend to see your therapist as a parental figure. I chose an older female therapist in order to minimize the risk that I might ‘fall in love’ with her. Her age and gender made no difference however, and the tension between my sexual feelings and my desire for her to be my mother, was difficult to cope with. If you are in a relationship, you may also experience feelings of guilt as well as confusion.
You may feel as though the sexual fantasies are ‘wrong’, ‘not normal’, or that you are ‘bad’ for having them. The therapeutic relationship may be intimate, but awareness of its boundaries and professional nature can make erotic transference feel overwhelmingly shameful. My own shame was closely related to the fear of admitting my feelings to my therapist. Would she be horrified and disgusted? Would she think badly of me? Some clients worry that their therapist will end the therapy if they find out about the erotic transference.
It often helps to remind myself that thoughts aren’t actions, and feelings aren’t facts. Though it would be unethical for either party to act on sexual feelings, the emotions themselves are not ‘wrong’. In therapy any subject is open for discussion and I hope most therapists would be prepared and trained to talk about erotic transference. It is easy to feel as though you must be the only client experiencing these emotions. However, your therapist will almost certainly have worked with this before, and may even have experienced it themselves, in the context of their own therapy.
What helped me most of all was understanding how the erotic transference came about, and realising that these feelings ‘stand for’ something. As we grow older we acquire a deeper and wider vocabulary, and not just a verbal one. We learn other ways to express ourselves and our feelings – through metaphor, through creativity, and also through sex. A child might display frustration or playfulness through tears or tickling. As adults we can use these same vehicles for our emotions, but in addition we have more complex and multi-layered responses available to us, including sex.
A child’s earliest experiences of emotional intimacy will most likely be in the context of their relationship with mother. As adults, such intimacy tends to take place in the context of a romantic relationship, where it is often expressed physically. Therapy involves an emotionally intimate relationship in which we’re often acutely aware of being in more than one state at once. We have the body, mind and experience of an adult, but are often exposing our most vulnerable and childlike selves. I used to have a strong need to feel ‘merged’ with my therapist, in the way that a very young infant feels ‘at-one’ with her mother. Though this was a childlike longing, the adult reference point for such intense feelings is within the context of sex. When seen as a childlike need processed through an adult brain, erotic transference seems far from shameful – it feels entirely unsurprising.
Erotic transference can convey meaning and uncover unconscious dynamics. Sometimes it signaled frustration at not seeing my therapist during a break; sometimes it uncovered a desire to be an ‘irresistible’ and satisfying client; sometimes it was a vent for my anger at a perceived misunderstanding. The erotic transference has also helped me to identify a dynamic in which I sometimes used sex as a form of emotional self-harm.
When I first spoke about these sexual feelings with my therapist, I felt vulnerable and afraid. However, being open about it has led to greater insight and progress, and to a deeper sense of acceptance. Erotic transference is certainly revealing - but it is nothing to be ashamed of; it has been one of the many transformative aspects of my therapy.
Clara blogs at LifeinaBind