Transference and the Playground of Love

This is a much abbreviated version of a paper I developed.  Here, I represent one of three important psychoanalytic versions of transference to show how it can help us better relax into loving each other.

When in conversation I mention the word psychoanalysis, I am usually responded to with comments referencing sex, perversion, or the unconscious. Even then, the conversation usually takes on an insouciant tone. Whatever other responses I have received, I am unable to recall any that included references to love. And yet, in a letter to Carl Jung dating from 1906, Freud indicated that psychoanalysis offers transformative experiences because psychoanalysis is a, “cure through love” (McWilliams, 11). And again, near the end of his life when reviewing the sum of psychoanalytic findings in Analysis Terminable and Interminable, Freud gently reminds that, “finally, we must not forget that the relationship between the analyst and patient is based on a love of truth, that is, on the acknowledgment of reality, and that it precludes any kind of sham or deception” (352). Freud’s final assessment of the sum work of psychoanalysis includes an emphasis on love that, through allusion, subtly relates the analytic relationship to the philosopher’s refrain of ‘the love of truth.’ Looking to the world outside, the philosopher’s vocation is a dictum and a passion, a wondering and a commitment, a discipline and a quest. But it is also a refrain echoing back through deep and ancient corridors that tunnel down into the primordial recesses of human relationships. The phileo of brotherly love unites with the sophia of wisdom and far too often results in a misunderstood injunction to love wisdom as one might love a brother. Perhaps this misunderstanding is to a large degree responsible for the dead-end, cul-de-sac circling that philosophy often turns out to be. Better is to understand philosophia as a way of holding, protecting, and heralding love in human relations. The philosophical insight Freud alludes to, which acknowledges reality and that precludes any sham or deception, is the truth of love. Loving wisdom is not the work of philosophy; the work of philosophy is to realize the wisdom that inheres in the cures known to brotherly love. What does psychoanalysis teach us about love?

One reason for considering psychoanalytic perspectives on love is the way psychoanalytic psychotherapy evokes love from its clients. In Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Nancy McWilliams quotes Martin Bergman’s observation that, “For centuries men and women have searched for mandrake roots and other substances from which a love potion could be brewed. And then… a Jewish Viennese physician uncovered love’s secret” (157). McWilliams goes on to say that the secret of love is, “to listen carefully, to be genuinely interested in the other person, to react in an accepting and nonshaming [sic] way to his or her disclosures, and to make no demands that the other party meet one’s emotional needs” (158). McWilliams clarifies, however, that love is not evoked only in the patient. Analysts also come to love their patients through the therapeutic process. The love that develops within the psychoanalytic process is both intersubjective and mutual.  McWilliams writes that it is a, “mutually loving process in which the therapist’s subordinated subjectivity fosters an actualization of love along with an actualization of self in patients through a natural progression of desire, belief, and hope” (158). Distinguished from romantic, sexual, and countertransferential love, therapeutic love is a crucial element in human healing.  Not only does the patient heal through a process leading to intimate self-awareness, but the analyst also heals as s/he experiences himself or herself as loving.

Patients often find themselves loving their analysts because in the beginning stages of the therapeutic work, they identify the analyst with the positive characteristics of their primary caregivers. They also differentiate the therapist from the negative characteristics of their primary caregivers. Eventually, however, the patient’s idealization of the analyst begins to crumble. As the patient really does experience the analyst as a past, primary caregiver, deep emotional currents begin to stir in the patient. The patient wanted to undo and heal past wounds and so looked for an analyst who in important ways was unlike their primary caregivers; the analyst had no intention of wounding or failing the patient, and yet almost inevitably, it happens. McWilliams offers two well-known scenarios to make the point: “patients who are convinced that all authorities are critical elicit the critical part of the therapist, those who presume that all men are narcissistic somehow evoke the narcissism of the male clinician, and so forth” (159). Just as the eternal hell of Sisyphus was comprised in repeatedly rolling the boulder up the hill, so also the hell of most significant love relationships is comprised in the endless repetition of the very conflicts they sought to avoid, undo, and heal. The attention that psychoanalysis gives to this process is one of the features that distinguish it from other therapeutic approaches. The process that receives special attention is one that Freud indexed under the heading, transference.

In his very helpful, Freud, Jonathan Leer asserts that transference is one of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, and it is not well understood (117). To explain transference, Leer asks his readers to consider the very idea of a transfer: “For something to be a transfer there must be a stable background against which the transfer occurs. For instance, I want to transfer myself from my apartment to my office. I get up and walk to work. For this to be possible there must be a fairly stable environment – streets, buildings, stairs – in which I take my walk” (119). Transfers assume a stable background through which the transfer takes place. Clinically, we know that what has originally or previously occurred in the patient’s past emerges (ie. is transferred) into the clinical present, and Lear’s point helpfully identifies that for this to happen, it seems as though both the patient and the analyst must presumably share the same social world and stable background. In Freud’s day, this would have been the social world of turn of the century Vienna, with its mores and values and artifacts and other manifestations of European culture. “The social world must be included in the assumed background because the possibility of Freud recognizing this moment as transference requires that he see it as abnormal” (120), writes Lear. To recognize in therapy an occurrence of something abnormal or problematic assumes a background of shared norms, habits, and practices against which the occurrence is understood as abnormal. Freud’s invention of transference, then, functions as an answer to problems that necessarily arise when the normal social order is apparently disrupted.

When transference occurs in therapy, essential parts of the patient’s recollections and fantasies are not just reproduced, they are acted out. Old impulses and fantasies are transferred onto the analyst and, “a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past, but as applying to the person of the physician at the present moment” (122).  The analyst gets entangled into the patient’s whole networks of meaning, which until now, were associated and directed at persons other than the analyst. So in transference, the analyst comes to occupy any number of set positions in the patient’s overall orientation to the world (primary caregivers, abusive sibling, manipulative teacher, religious authority, ex-husband or fiancé, etc.). Lear articulates the point nicely, writing, “the idea is that in addition to the shared meanings of the social world – which help to orient all members of society – there is also an idiosyncratic layer of meanings which orient [each individual patient] in particular ways. So, to say that in Dora’s world there is             a Mr. K position is simply to say that as Dora organizes her life and outlook there will tend to be an older male figure who is at once charming, seductive, attentive, manipulative and self-centered – in relationship to whom she organizes her own complicated emotional responses” (123).

Each of us interacts with a world outside ourselves – our lovers, parents, families, the culture of America, and so on. But we relate to these persons and objects through structured meanings that are also idiosyncratic. These idiosyncratic structures mediate and shape our experience of ourselves, others, and the world we inhabit. Freud uses the phrase mental structure to capture the unique psychological architecture that each of us develops throughout our lives as we relate to others and the world around us. Just as Dora had a Mr. K position in her idiosyncratic structure, which oriented the way she experienced narcissistic men, so also each of us have numerous positions in our idiosyncratic structures, and those too orient the way we experience and relate to others. Transference happens when this idiosyncratic world begins to come into view in the therapeutic encounter. Leer clarifies that as Dora orients herself toward older men in Mr. K like ways, the question arises: “as she enters a new environment – the analytic situation – how is she going to relate to Dr. Freud?” (123).

Just as the patient tries and fit the analyst into various positions of the existing mental structure – of Mr. K, a father, mother, religious authority, brother, friend, etc. –, which works to calm anxiety by reproducing familiar patterns in which one can comfortably relate to others, so also do we tend to experience others as occupying fixed positions in our own mental structures.  Transference, then, is a word used to name the phenomenon of a patient’s idiosyncratic world coming into view. Leer writes, “This world is no longer taken for granted; it becomes the primary focus of inquiry and treatment. What makes transference a special class of structures is that in the analytic situation the idiosyncratic world can come into view as such. In ordinary life, people approach others in structured, idiosyncratic ways – and though that may lead to break-ups in personal relations, fights, misunderstandings, normally people do not recognize the extent to which the catastrophe was the outcome of a clash of structured approaches to life. The challenge, then, is to devise a form of interaction in which people can come to recognize their own activity in creating structures that they have hitherto experienced as an independently existing world” (125).

In transference, the idiosyncratic world that comes into view is a fractal of one’s general pattern (of emotions, reactions, and behavior) of relating to others and the world. And Freud makes the helpful discovery that remembering and repeating are inversely related: the less one remembers, the more one repeats. When the patient doesn’t remember what has been forgotten or repressed, the patient acts out that content, living it out without knowing she or he is doing so. The patient may not remember feeling anxiety around a parent figure who claimed to know, but he now feels anxious around the analyst who claims to know. The patient doesn’t remember being feeling guilty for being annoyed with a quiet and detached sister, but she now feels annoyed with the quiet and detached analyst. Transference is the repetition of the patient’s entire orientation to the world in relation to the analyst. The patient compulsively repeats their rules and morals, inhibitions, attitudes, defenses, in fact everything that has made its way from early repressions into the patient’s manifest personality.  When this happens, the analytic situation has become the site where the patient’s unconscious conflicts and orientations are acted out toward the analyst.

Properly handled, the analytic space can now become a space where love can cure.  The goal is not to continue acting out unconsciously, or to confront one’s unconscious acting out per se, but to allow the acting out to repeat again, though with a difference. Freud writes, “we admit it into the transference asaplayground in which it is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything in the way of pathogenic instincts that is hidden in the patient’s mind” (137). The patient is invited to play in the playground of his or her own idiosyncratic world.

Leer invites us to again imagine the case of Dora and her seducer, Mr. K (138-140). We know from her case history that earlier in life her attractive father used Dora for his own purposes, and we may presume that Dora established a fixed orientation in her mental structure toward seducer type men, and the Mr. K is only one more occurrence of that fixation. Lear says that the analyst should relinquish assumed social roles of doctor/ patient, analyst/ analysand, etc. and also any competitive, erotic, or aggressive engagement so that an environment can be established in which the transference can unfold even further. The further transference unfolds, the more likely it is that the patient will recognize it as transference. Dora begins to relate to Freud as another Mr. K, an older, attractive, seductive man who is out to use Dora for his own purposes. And what Freud should have done is encouraged and furthered that transference. Because here is the difference that makes a difference: as the analyst sits back, not resisting or protesting, not denying or defending against any of Dora’s false claims, not pointing out that Dora is transferring her anxieties of Mr. K on to Freud, Freud could have allowed the transference to develop to such an extent that he might finally ask, “‘You seem to be treating me as though I am going to use you. Is that your feeling? If so, in what ways am I going to take advantage?’” (139).  The question doesn’t resist or defend against the transference; it feeds it.  And what makes this different is that Freud’s response is precisely the opposite of seduction: for seduction depends on the prey never experiencing the seducer as a seducer. Seducers don’t say they are out to serve all their own purposes and that after gratifying their own desires they’ll be leaving and never returning; they adamantly defend their love by insisting it is composed of utmost care and concern for the other! Asking Dora to describe the ways Freud is her seducer encourages Dora to articulate her own mental structures without consequence. As she does so, they move from unconscious structures to articulated, conscious structures that she can then identify and appropriate. At that significant point, she witnesses her own mental structures being disrupted; she sees them as her own, and as untrue.

Both Dora and Freud can now recognize how Dora’s way of being in the world with others was oriented by a structured set of responses that dynamically operated in largely unconscious ways. Seeing as much offers Dora the option of moving beyond her conscripted and mistaken reality, her false connections and untrue structures that orient her way of being. She can move beyond them into more open possibilities that include new ways of relating to her self and others.  So how is evoking, developing, and resolving transference a curative act of love?

From her own clinical experience, McWilliams writes, “I think the therapist’s love is experienced mainly in processing the repetitions. The client may feel hurt in ways excruciatingly like his or her childhood suffering, and yet the therapist, unlike the early love objects, tolerates the client’s pain, knows that the interaction feels horribly familiar, and by empathy and interpretation contributes to the             client’s capacity to distinguish what has happened now from what has happened in the past.  The patient’s activity in recreating the situation is examined nonjudgmentally [sic], leading ultimately to an increase in the sense of agency. The affects attending the             repetition are accepted and processed as they were not the first time around. And frequently, the therapist’s remorse about having participated in replicating a painful early experience is evident to the client, who feels the loving repair that is inherent in apology.              It can be deeply touching to patients to realize that the therapist’s narcissistic wishes to be perfect or to be seen as innocent take second place to his or her honesty and wish to restore the therapeutic connection” (160).

W.D. Winnicott was right that hatred is as inevitable and important as love, and that many patients need to evoke the analyst’s hate before they can tolerate her or his love (160). Love is not love when it is based on distortions. And this means that part of learning to love is learning how to hold, protect, and encourage transferences in non- defensive, non- resistant, welcoming and playful ways. Equally true, part of being loved means being recognized and affirmed as a complex mixture of many positive and negative, good and evil, wanted and unwanted qualities. Love is possible to the degree that it is honest; and honesty only remains to the degree that it opens spaces where the truth about our selves, others, and the ways we relate with them can be loved. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy offers a dictum and a passion, a wondering and a commitment, a discipline and a quest toward naming what feels and is true, regardless of how bad or uncomfortable or unacceptable or unwanted.  The psychoanalytic process of transference is one where the analyst creates conditions for the patient to be cured by being loved as they are. It is a process where the patient is cured by seeing that they are loved as they are. It is the caring, curative playground where persons learn to “expand, experiment, hope, and change” (161).

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3 thoughts on “Transference and the Playground of Love

    • Hi Christine, Thank you for your kind comments and support. I wanted to pass on that much of that post was gleaned from Nancy McWilliams’ “Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy” and Jonathen Leer’s “Freud.” I’m passing those titles on because I found both so helpful. Best to you. ~Isak.

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