themighty logo

How Transference Harms Relationships


We all have issues that are unresolved from our past. When you don’t resolve something that happened to you, you might experience transference on another person. Whether that individual is your therapist or someone in your life, transference can harm your relationship.

Transference between therapist and client

When you hear the word “transference,” you probably think of the connection between a therapist and a client. The person in therapy has unresolved issues with their mother, for example, and transfers those maternal attachment issues onto their therapist. Maybe their relationship with their mom was dysfunctional, and they’re looking to their therapist to be a surrogate maternal figure. It’s dangerous for the client to believe that they can find a mother figure in therapy. A therapist is there to help them work out their problems, but not to be their mother. The therapist has an important job — they need to support the client to work out their transference issues, but they cannot be their client’s mother or satisfy those needs to be nurtured.

Family issues

I know a woman who looked at her therapist as a brother figure. Her biological brother wasn’t a kind person, and she looked to her counselor to fulfill the need for a mentor. Her therapist helped her to understand her feelings and confront them. After many sessions, she realized she could forgive her brother for not understanding her, and move forward. Her therapist didn’t serve the purpose of a brother figure any longer.

Identifying Transference

A therapist has a tough job. They need to bring transference issues out into the open. It might be uncomfortable for the client to face their problems with people from their past. If their mother hurt them, and they’re taking that pain out on their therapist, it’s probably going to hurt when the counselor points it out to them. However, it’s important to effectively confront transference and cope with the underlying issues, however difficult that is. The therapist asks the client questions about how they’re feeling and why they’re saying particular things. The client may begin to realize they’re treating their therapist like their mother, and then start to talk about the pain from their maternal relationship.

Denial

The trouble becomes when a client doesn’t address the issue of transference. They might not recognize there’s a problem. Maybe they believe their resentment or anger towards their therapist is rooted in real events. There are moments when it’s natural to get upset with your therapist. But it’s a different story when you’re having transference issues, where you’re angry at your mom and taking it out on your therapist. If the relationship with the client’s mother was abusive, confronting the trauma can be extremely painful. When the therapist points out that the client may be angry at their mom, not with them, the client may become defensive. If they’re in denial about the abuse, it’s hard to get them to face the truth. The more the therapist persists and tries to get them to see their trauma for what it is, the further the client may want to run away from it.

Normalize transference

One of the most effective ways to deal with transference is to remove the element of shame. When a client develops romantic feelings toward their therapist, they may be embarrassed, which makes it difficult to talk about their emotions. The therapist can show their client there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and their feelings are real. No, they’re not going to reciprocate the love their client is expressing for them, but the person can discuss their feelings in therapy. The more the therapist shows the person there’s nothing to feel ashamed of, the better chance that that person can work through their transference issues.

Getting support through transference

Whether you’re working with a therapist online or in local private practice, you may experience transference. Remember that these feelings are typical in a therapeutic relationship. There are people in our lives that remind us of others. You can work through your emotional issues with your therapist, even if you’re projecting emotions on them. Your therapist knows about transference and is there to support you understand your feelings.

Getty photo by noipornpan