Falling in love with one’s therapist is as old as therapy itself. I say this not to trivialize it but to validate it: in many cases a person gets healthy through falling in love with her (or his) therapist.
Freud, the father of psychotherapy, was the first to note this. Freud is a brilliant and lucid writer and too few people read him. So let me quote one brief passage where Freud is describing this phenomenon of clients falling in love with their therapist, something he gave the broader name of “transference.” I say transference is broader than falling in love because it can also include negative feelings toward one’s therapist. Freud said either instance indicates a dependence upon one’s therapist, with one having a “+” sign and the other a “-“ sign:
“We notice, then, that the patient, who ought to want nothing else but to find a way out of his distressing conflicts, develops a special interest in the person of the doctor. Everything connected with the doctor seems to be more important to him than his own affairs and to be diverting him from his illness….The form in which this affection is expressed and what its aims are depend of course on the personal relation between the two people involved. If those concerned are a young girl and a youngish man, we shall get the impression of a normal case of falling in love; we shall find it understandable that a girl should fall in love with a man with whom she can be much alone and talk of intimate things and who has the advantage of having met her as a helpful superior….The further the personal relations between doctor and patient diverge from this supposed case, the more we shall be surprised to find nevertheless the same emotional relationship constantly recurring….We are astonished to hear declarations by married women and girls which bear witness to a quite particular attitude to the therapeutic problem: they had always known, they say, that they could only be cured by love.” 1
Think about it: how much easier is it to learn a difficult subject if you have an intrinsic love for it? How much easier is it to get up in the middle of the night to tend to a crying baby because of your native love for that child? What incredible sacrifices have men on the front lines in war made because of their commitment to the men by their side? So why should we be surprised or distressed if we fall in love with our therapist? Couldn’t the higher purpose of this love be to motivate us to do the difficult work we need to do?
The devil, of course, is in the details. Love in therapy is a means to an end and cannot be an end in itself. If the love for your therapist motivates you to want to please him or her by working harder on yourself, then the love is indeed a beautiful means to a noble end. If the love for your therapist makes you think that only by being next to that therapist can you become whole, then you are disowning your own qualities and giving them over your idealized image of your therapist. In religious terms, we would call this idol worship: projecting onto a physical being numinous qualities. No limited mortal can live up to such lofty projections, and if perchance your therapist were foolish enough to run off with you to some imagined perfect union, you would both very shortly wake up with a thud to the discrepancy between the beauty of the transference and the painful limitations of the reality. In some ways it is quite similar to the transition all couples need to go through when moving from romantic love to a committed, long term relationship.
Love is one of our greatest capacities. It expands us, it uplifts us, it helps us to transcend ourselves to become more of who we were born to be. This experience of having someone – our therapist – see in us things we have forgotten or haven’t been able to see in ourselves quite naturally and automatically triggers our love for them. In a way, we are falling in love with ourselves, the larger selves we were born to be and which our therapists can help us have glimpses of, when we have moments of experiencing ourselves in this deeper way. But again, the purpose of this love is to help you love yourself enough to claim those things you feel when you are with your therapist as your natural birthright. This love is to help you become whole, but you have to do more than love your therapist to get there — you have to love yourself too.
So please: if you are in the throes of loving your therapist, apply at least 10% of that love toward yourself. Learning to love yourself more fully is what brought you to therapy in the first place, isn’t it?
1. Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, pp. 492-493, New York: Penguin Books, 1979.