Erotic Transference or Is My Therapist Hitting on Me?

I cannot tell whether my therapist is being supportive or whether he is encouraging an erotic transference. He has said things to me like "It can never happen, but its extremely rare for me to meet people who think like I do (referring to me)." and "I don't think I'm the only guy out there that would give anything to be with a girl like you." Both of these comments were said in a whisper with an intense facial expression and I could not tell whether it was calculated to be seductive or he was simply insuring that the comment “hit home”. On top of that he has made it clear that he thinks I am attractive (but stops short of saying that this necessarily means he is drawn to me).


That "do anything to date a girl like you" comment was made in the context of a conversation where I was talking about dating and having trouble meeting the right guy who is also into me, but also in that conversation my therapist went on to tell me that men my age (30) are looking for women who are in their early- mid twenties and that I should consider divorced men over 40 (guess which category he falls into). He's also told me that I should be looking for a shy, quiet guy and guess what two words he frequently uses to describe himself? He talks a lot about the things we have in common, enough to give me an impression of a man who has a great deal in common with me, but why is that necessary for treatment????

He blushes a lot, and he has flashes of bashful body language when we get even close to the transference topic. The few times I've tried to talk about it with him he got defensive like repeating that he’s not thinking about me outside of therapy when that had nothing to do with what I was trying to talk about.

I've heard of transference focused therapy, but that type of therapy usually encourages a transference by being a blank slate not by talking about all the things you have in common with your client and how she should consider dating someone like you. He says that his form of therapy is ego-supportive and I will say that he has done a good job of that. But he knows that I'm suffering from a really powerful transference and it just seems mean and not supportive at all.

But the thing is my treatment has been going really well aside from the mega transference problem. My life is looking ridiculously better than it did when I started six months ago. Could all this just be resistance? I want to quit so bad because I feel like he's playing with me but I don't want to derail a treatment that's helping me get my life on track. It feels like being drawn and quartered.

Do you have any experience with this form of therapy? Am I full of myself in thinking these comments are manipulative at best, and sexually charged at worst? Or is this the type of therapy I signed up for? I don’t want to quit if this all has to do with my issues.


Ben's Answer:

I think you've given ample reasons to question the intentions of your therapist. Transference happens in all therapy relationships (when you develop feelings - both positive and negative - towards your therapist as they begin to remind you of significant people in your own life -- parents, lovers, siblings...). This is a valuable part of therapy when the therapist uses this to help you become more aware of your own unconscious needs, desires and feelings.

What is not talked about as much however, is that the therapist also develops some transference - called Counter-Transference - towards their clients. This is a human thing. Some clients may frustrate you, some may feel like friends, some elicit the desire to go out of your way to take care of them... and sometimes you may be attracted to a client. This need not interfere with the therapy. There are all different schools of thought when it comes to working with transference/counter-transference in the therapy relationship. Some therapists are more tightly guarded about their own emotional attachments, and also would never reveal any personal things about their private life. Others (more Existential-Humanistic in approach), may be much more "authentic" and honest in order to foster a genuine trust and openness in the client.

In your therapist's case, if your observations of him are accurate, it sounds obvious that he is attracted to you (unless your perceptions are really distorted). You can't fault a therapist for blushing or having feelings, but a therapist should not get defensive when you confront him. His statements to you sound pretty bold, and very leading. And I personally wouldn't ever tell a client what type, or what age of guy they should date. That may just be my style, but I think most therapists would agree with me on this.

One of the ways a therapist works with his Counter-Transference is to use it as important information. If your client is boring you for instance, your could say, (kindly), "I'm sorry, but I'm having a hard time being present with you today. Do you have a sense of why I might be feeling disconnected with you in this session? Let's see if we can figure this out..." So, client is rambling and disconnected
from their feelings = therapist is bored. Therapist doesn't blame the client, but instead uses his honest feelings (boredom) as an issue to discuss with the client, in order to make the client be more authentic, connected, aware and present. The client may then start to realize that the reason they can't hang onto friends, is because they are disconnected from they are disconnected from their own feelings.

If a therapist is feeling strong sexual attraction to you, and is clear in his boundaries, he should wonder if the client isn't doing something (unconsciously) to elicit those feelings from him. If handled in the right way, that could lead to a very deep, meaningful discussion that would help the client in many ways, and also make the relationship feel stronger, safer, and more secure.

Sometimes clients are seductive or flirtatious with a therapist and don't even realize it. A therapist can lose his professional boundary in this situation if he's not dealing with his own feelings in the best way (like getting consultation or therapy himself).

"Ego-Supportive therapy" is a general term - often referring to more short-term, solution focused therapy that get's less involved in the therapeutic transference. Most forms of therapy are "ego-supportive" in various ways. It's just a questions of what those particular ways are.

Personally, I think you shouldn't let him off the hook so easily. Confront him about what you are seeing, and trust your intuition. If he gets defensive, tries to blame you, or avoids the whole discussion, he's no longer being a therapist - he's being a guy whose being confronted by a woman he's attracted to, and being inappropriate with. A therapist can easily abuse the relationship simply by the authority and position he holds with a vulnerable client. No therapist should be "encouraging an erotic transference." There is nothing therapeutic or helpful about doing that.

Take Care,
Ben Schwarcz, MFT

Santa Rosa Psychotherapist

Comments for Erotic Transference or Is My Therapist Hitting on Me?

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Sep 17, 2017
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Awkward
by: Anonymous

Dear Ben,

I believe that I am in a very similar situation to the original letter writer - the ages are also the same. The difference is that the psychiatrist now cancels all appointments without explanation. Each time he sends a letter a few days before saying that he can't make it, then offers a new appointment.

We did not argue at all at the last appointment. If anything I think he panicked due to how much he has self disclosed.

Why does he continue to set appointments? Always for the last session of the day. I requested to see another psychiatrist and this is not an option.

While my symptoms are very mild to the extent that at the last session he suggested I have the diagnosis removed, he said I should come back for one final appointment.

The next scheduled appointment should take place around six weeks from now, though I expect he will again cancel a few days before. This is making me feel quite resentful as I need to book time off work weeks in advance to attend.

Am I being unreasonable?

Ben's Response:

I'm not sure what exactly he has said or done beyond his unreliability - cancelling sessions - but this alone is certainly unprofessional and odd. Sure, sometimes things come up and schedules need to be changed but this should be rare, and not a pattern. If he is suggesting removing your diagnosis, your symptoms are mild as you say, and this is just a question of a last session as a sort of formality, then perhaps you should listen to your instincts here and just do what you feel is best for you and your own well being.

- Ben

May 14, 2014
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Counter transference that's not
by: Anonymous

So transference is feelings the client puts onto the therapist, and counter transference is feelings the therapist gets because of the client..

What do you call feelings the therapist puts on the client?

Sexuality is such a vulnerable issue, I know how much I appreciated a chance to have therapy without sexual comments. Even personal comments about my appearance or unnecessary probing questions about my sexuality (they were always open to chat about it if I wanted to though).

Those comments sound like attempts at being seductive to me, if your therapist is unaware that it could be very unhelpful then they're not that smart- I'd say get a new one.

If they are aware, then clearly they don't have your best interests at heart- I'd say get a new one.

Sure therapists can expect a certain level of reciprocity in the therapeutic relationship, but you are the one paying, and you are the one sharing your personal information and for that reason in a more vulnerable position. You don't go to therapy to hook up, you go because there are pressing problems and you really need some help. If they're not clear about that, then maybe they're letting their own needs get in the way of what's best for your therapy.

Apr 28, 2014
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Hurting
by: Linda

My PT at first stared into my eyes every time we had a session. So much so that it made me uncomfortable. He said " your just so pretty" I simply thought he was weird at first. I was just in a lot of pain. I had rotator cuff surgery. He told me over a period of 5 months where he lived, who he dated, how often he dated, what time he went to bed every night, about his mail, his former girlfriend, where he hung out to meet single women, about his dog, his mother, brother,sister, father, stepfather etc. pretty much his entire life. So naturally I start to get feelings for him. What did he expect? He ask me. To take him, out to dinner. I never replied. I thought he was joking. Then I was telling him one day I was going shopping. He ask if he could go with me. I said yes. When I called him. He tried to say I was stalking him. Just out of the blue. I am so embarrassed. I don't know what to think. He set me up
To watch me fall. He even had the Vice President of the company where he works to email me and tell
Me to not contact him anymore. He's the one who started the entire thing. I think he just got caught with his pants down and tried to make me look like the fool.

Apr 16, 2013
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Creepy man
by: Phaedra

He sounds like a creep.

He's serving his needs not yours.

You need to terminate and find a woman therapist.

Mar 02, 2013
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Very inappropriate
by: Anonymous

Reading this as a therapist myself, I would recoomend transferring to another therapist. This guy's judgement seems quite impaired and I think that it is impacting the therapy negatively.

Jul 30, 2012
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Benefits of erotic transference
by: Anonymous

I recommend reading David Mann and Florence Russell's take on erotic transference in n therapy. Their experience and research have helped them explore the benefits of the erotic in therapy.

Aug 08, 2011
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illicit vs elicit
by: Anonymous

"Thanks for the grammar correction!"
-Ben

Aug 04, 2011
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Homonyms
by: Anonymous

Ben Schwarcz needs to consider the difference between illicit=forbidden and elicit=evoke. I think he means the latter both times. Otherwise very useful.

Jul 21, 2011
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Working with ET
by: Anonymous

Put two people in a room and there is erotic transference no matter what the gender or sexuality. For me as a therapist it is always about working with my counter-transference, what am I feeling about what the client is making explicit or what is often being said non-verbally and out of awareness.

A good example is a client who I am working with at present who makes no reference to sexual things per se or within the context of her relationship with her husband, but from my experience of her clearly is a sensual woman and displays an abundant cleavage in the room. I am stirred by this of course and am so tempted to say "goodness you are looking attractive today" which I guess would be being authentic. However, because I know so much of her story, her hurt and pain from the past, I hold in mind that she seeks relationship through sex (which explains her great difficulty she is having with her husband) and transfers this on to me unconsciously. This explains why in the beginning and even now sometimes I feel the potential to be shamed or get embarassed. Something is not being owned by her and this triggers the above, a flavour of something erotic in the room.

My way of working with this is always about being the 'safe object' for a client such as this by not sexualizing the relationship. Personally I would not engage in the way your therapist is doing. I'm not saying it is wrong and I'm not saying don't talk about sex. But my sense is that this has to be done in 'adult', boundaried and understanding that this client ultimately, perhaps like you, seeks safety in relationship and a chance to figure out for herself healthy relating.

All this is a very tough call for therapists to take responsibility for their own innermost dynamics about sex, relationships, seduction, etc, to supervision so as to be available for the benefit of the client, not ourselves. As the above comment said you should not be becoming therapist. As long as you continue to be getting benefits and these are panning out in the outside world, you are feeling empowered, relationships are improving or you simply feel that things are shifting something is working for you!

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