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By John M. Grohol, PsyD
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
“I think I’m in love with my therapist. What’s wrong with me? What should I do?”
It is not unusual to feel strong feelings of “love” or affinity toward your therapist. But those feelings probably aren’t what you think.
Psychodynamic theory suggests the reason that many people fall in love with their therapist is because they are repeating emotional patterns they experienced as children toward their parents. This behavior and set of feelings was first described by Sigmund Freud who coined the term “transference” to describe it. He discovered transference after noting this many of his mostly-female clients would start describing their own romantic feelings toward him. In some patients, the feelings were not romantic, but instead more childlike and Freud took on a parental role in the patient’s mind. It was as though Freud became their father figure, and the tempestuous relationship would then play out in his office.
Freud described this process over a hundred years ago, and therapists and their clients still deal with this issue even in modern psychotherapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy. Because the process itself is a very real possible side effect of psychotherapy, although it doesn’t happen to everyone in all therapeutic situations.
Why Does Transference Occur?
Nobody can say for certain why transference seems to be a process of many people’s psychotherapy, regardless of the actual background of the therapist or focus of therapy. Goal-focused, short-term psychotherapy is no guarantee that transference won’t occur. Some cognitive-behavioral therapists, in their efforts to focus on empirically-based treatments, simply ignore these feelings when they come up in the course of psychotherapy. Others downplay their importance.
Transference likely occurs because the therapeutic environment is generally seen as a safe, supportive and nurturing environment. Therapists are seen as accepting, positive influences in our lives, but sometimes also as authoritative guides. In these various roles, a therapist can inadvertently step into roles previously occupied in our lives by one of our parents. Or a client can become infatuated with the seemingly endless supply of wisdom and positive self-regard some therapists exude. The effects can be just as intoxicating as one’s first love. In this increasingly detached world, someone who spends nearly a full hour with our undivided attention may become quite godlike.
Therapists may also represent an individual in a person’s life that provided the unconditional acceptance (and perhaps love) that we all seek from important others in our life. Our mother. Our father. A sibling. A lover. A therapist doesn’t ask for a person to be anything other than themselves. And in the honest emotional environment that’s so often found in the best therapists’ office, it’s easy to idealize (and in some cases, idolize) the accepting, caring professional who sits across from us.
I Think I’m in Love! Now What?
So you feel like you’re in love with your therapist and while intellectually you may understand that this is just a normal process of psychotherapy for some, you still need to do something about it.
The first thing to understand is that this is not anything you should be ashamed or afraid of. This type of transference is not an uncommon feature of psychotherapy, and these kinds of feelings are not something you can simply just turn on and off at will. Having these feelings for your therapist is not “unprofessional” nor does it cross any kind of therapeutic boundaries.
Second, talk to your therapist. Okay, I know this is the hardest step, but it is also the most important. Your therapist should be experienced and trained in transference issues (yes, even the modern cognitive-behavioral therapists), and be able to talk to you about them in an open and accepting manner. As with most issues in therapy, bringing it out into the open and talking about it usually is sufficient to help most people in dealing with their feelings. Your therapist should also talk to you about ways you can better understand them in the context of your therapeutic relationship, family history and background, and what kinds of things you might be able to do to help and reduce their intensity.
Third, accept your feelings and continue in focusing on the reasons that brought you into therapy in the first place. For some people, this will be easy. Once they’ve discussed the issue with their therapist, they feel relieved – like a weight has been lifted off of their shoulders. For others, the process may be more difficult and require that some therapy time be spent further discussing these feelings with your therapist.
I should also note that if a therapist returns your feelings of love in any form whatsoever, it is a breach of the professional therapeutic relationship and ethics. Professional therapists are trained to cope with their own “counter-transference” issues, and in the U.S., a romantic relationship between a client and their therapist is considered unethical and verboten. You should consider ending your relationship with such a therapist and talking to your regional ethics board about filing a complaint.
“Falling in love” with your therapist is sometimes a normal process of psychotherapy. It only means that you’re feeling positive, intense feelings for another person who is helping you with important issues in your life. Do not run away from these feelings – or your therapist – in fear. Talk to your therapist about them, and chances are, it will help.
This is a real life story on which we can base our ideas on.