Containing Erotic Transference in the Context of Therapeutic Encounter


In all relationships, fantasies both conscious and unconscious are involved. This is also true in the case of therapeutic relationship.  In their paper, Antonio & Blom (2006) highlights the five types of relationships potentially present in a therapeutic context. They are. (a) the working alliance, (b) the transference/counter transference relationship, (c) the developmentally needed/ reparative relationship, (d) the person to- person relationship, and (e) the trans personal relationship.  A successful outcome of therapy is obtained when exploration and assessment of patterns of relating by the patient, is made possible through the analysis of transference phenomena (Lemma, 2003).

Historically transference and counter transference were first noted as impediments to psychoanalysis (Loewald, 1986). Freud first used the term transference in 1905 when he was reporting on emotions he experienced, that he regarded them as ‘transference’ experienced as a consequence of a ‘‘false connection’’. Freud saw transferences as ‘‘new editions’’ of old impulses and phantasies aroused during the process of psychoanalysis with the therapist replacing some earlier person from the patient’s past (Lemma, 2003).

From classical Freudian position, the transference is understood as repetition of the past, which is in line with Freud’s notion of the repetition compulsion. Freud understood transference as a non-verbal communication of repressed experiences of the past, which are manifested in the therapeutic relationship with the therapist (Lemma, 2003).

For Klienian analysts transference is more than just a repetition of the patient’s ways of relating to significant figures in the past; rather, what is enacted in the here-and-now is an internalized object relationship. For example, the therapist becomes, in the patient’s experience, a critical other who perhaps humiliates him.

This paper looks at erotic transference in the context of therapeutic encounter and how the feelings of transference and counter transference could be contained and managed in a way that is therapeutically advantageous for the client.

What is Transference?

 According to Lemma (2003), many contemporary practitioners understand transference,

As a process in which current emotions and parts of the self are externalized into the relationship with the therapist. This involves the projection of object relationships infused with benign, positive feelings and phantasies, namely the positive transference, and those infused with more hostile feelings and phantasies, namely the negative transference (p.233).

Contemporary analytic practice gives more emphasis on the interpretation of the here-and-now transference. When the therapist works through the transference, he/she explores the patient’s unconscious phantasies as they arise in relation to the therapist.

What is Counter transference (CT)?

Counter transference (CT) is the phenomenon of the therapist’s emotional reactions to his or her patient. In Freud’s time, this was considered as ‘‘blind spots’’ in the professional life of the therapist (Lemma, 2003). Freud viewed therapist CT as a sign of his pathology, and he considered it as his own transference onto the patient. He didn’t regard it as it is regarded today as an empathic response to patient’s unconscious issues and as a useful process in therapy (Clarkson & Nuttal, 2000). When the therapist discharges onto the patient his or her own unresolved conflicts, this phenomenon is misused. Nevertheless, when these emotional reactions are approached with honesty, they are helpful guides to what the patient cannot articulate verbally.

Kleinian projective identification is considered to be closely involved in the aspect of CT. The concept of being able to place ‘into’ the other parts of the self that is to be disowned (bad part) or preserved (god part) was developed as a way of understanding CT by analysts after Klein. There seems to be a close rapport between the unconscious of the client and the therapist. This rapport brings up to the surface by way of feelings which therapists notices in response to client’s, in his CT (Clarkson & Nuttal, 2000).

Projective identification played normal role in the communication between mother and baby. If mother wasn’t a good container, the projective identification is carried out with greater intensity and frequency and continues to be used as an ego defense in adulthood. Projections of this kind are picked up by the therapists in CT. And therefore it communicates the types of developmental deficits experienced by the client. And the therapist can bring into focus requirements of the reparative or developmentally needed relationship (Clarkson & Nuttal, 2000).

What is erotic transference? 

Its original definition comes from Freud (1915) in his paper ‘observation on transference as love’. Freud describes ‘transference love’ as something that occurs when the patient declares that she/he has fallen in love with the analysts (Stirzaker, 2000). Freud seems to see erotic transference as a manifestation of a strong resistance against treatments and uncovering some of the archaic experiences of the past.

    Blum (1973), distinguished between eroticized transference and erotic transference. He describes eroticized transference as “an intense, vivid, irrational, erotic preoccupation with the analysts, characterized by overt, seemingly ego-syntonic demands for love and sexual fulfillment from the analyst” (p.63). This type of erotic transference is resistant to interpretation and as the client is shadowed by an overwhelming wish for sexual gratification.

Some of the common factors identified by Blum (1973) that make a person likely to develop eroticized transference are:

  1. Sexual seduction in childhood while in the oedipal phase.
  2. Instinctual over-stimulation combined with parental deprivation in terms of lack of appropriate  protection and support
  3. Intense masturbatory conflicts
  4. Family toleration of incestuous/homosexual behavior (p.67)

Hence client attempts through therapy to repeat the seductive pattern to master trauma through active repetitions.  Many analysts after Freud like Blum, Mann, Hirsh and Kesell and others considers erotic transference to be a fundamental part of therapy which occurs in different degrees in many therapeutic encounters. This is more likely to be a re-enactment of early, close and important relationships similar to those which occur in the majority of relationship, particularly those of an oedipal nature.

The facilitation or inhibition of erotic transference ( in any gender combination) revolve around experience and reactions in relation to empowerment- patient’s experience of an empowered therapist or therapist experience of self as empowered ( Celenza, 2006). Since treatment setting has its own power structure, empowerment is an inevitable part of this context and therefore transference and counter transference do develop.

According to Celenza (2006) the power differential between male analyst and female analysand coincides with the traditional gender stereotypes. And therapeutic setting provides a template for activation of unresolved conflicts associated with archaic parent-child relationships and the ways, experiences were accommodated by gender.

 Celenza (2006) argues, 

For some analysands, both aggressive and eroticized strivings will be activated and experienced specifically in relation to this power differential. The power that the analyst embodies can become an erotic icon that symbolizes both the old templates and hoped-for potential of a new form of erotic desire (p.1210).

Working with people who are sexually abused

Studies shows that certain CT issues may be more likely to arise with victims of sexual abuse but that they are not isolated to this group. It is observed that therapist experiences strong feelings and fantasies associated with the client material which, for example may be in the form of sexual or aggressive reactions.

Erotic counter transference

It is observed that therapeutic relationships mirror the parent/ child relationship that makes open discussion on erotic counter transference very difficult. Blum (1973) believes that ‘parental’ guilt associated with admitting erotic feelings towards children fosters the incest taboo which silences the parent and also the analysts. Many authors have acknowledged that therapeutic situations can evoke a re-enactment of oedipal desires, which makes it essential to discuss and how to work with erotic transference as it arises in therapy.

To manage the erotic transference (Stirzaker, 2000), therapist could keep these in mind:

  • Erotic transference can emerge in different relational settings- same sex, different-sex dyads. Therapist’s role is to help client understand these transference phenomena in the context of their early relationship in order to help them realize their current ways of relating
  • A child’s experience of erotic feelings towards the parents can be understood and acknowledged non-verbally by the parents and not acted upon. In the context of the therapy, it may be enough simply to acknowledge these feelings and for this to be a part of the therapeutic process.
  • Often it is assumed that the erotic transference emerge in response to an individual’s history. Therefore it is important to place any interpretation in the context of previous relationships.
  • Though it is helpful to work through erotic transference, they might be instances when a therapist has to make a referral.
  • Dealing with one’s own issues in therapy and/or in supervision, makes one more competent to work with erotic transference with their clients.

Therapeutic frame

Rouholamine (2007) looks at ‘frame ‘as a container of erotic transference. In psychotherapy ‘frame’ refers to a ‘structure with rules’ that differentiate between what goes on within the therapy room and outside the room. In short a ‘frame’ distinguishes therapeutic relationship from any other relationships. As the patient shares most intimate and private aspects about himself or herself in therapy with the therapist, to make sense of issues that trouble the patient, erotic feelings for the other can arise on the part of the client or the therapist. In these circumstances maintaining ‘frame’ is extremely important.

What is a frame?   

Maria Luca defines the frame as “a structure that sets the rules of the therapy and holds and contains the participants’ behavior” (as cited in Rouholamine, 2007, p.182). The main elements of frame would constitute: the meeting place, the frequency of meetings, their length- both in terms of individual sessions and of overall contact (time-limited or open-ended) – fees, payment for missed appointments, and breaks for vacations.

Contemporary analysts believe that the frame provides the container for a therapy of trust and a therapy of intimacy. The frame also should have some of the important components such as ‘continuity, consistency, security and safety’.

The client who miss or arrive late for the therapy may be trying to control the therapy, perhaps to minimize the painful experiences of the therapy. From the therapist part, if he or she changes the frame to suit the clients, may indicate to the clients, therapist’s inability to contain powerful emotions (Rouhlamine, 2007). Money has symbolic meanings such as power, control, nurturing or withholding. Paying reminds the patient of the professional nature of the relationship.

According to Gray,

 “It is important not to start the session early, since this will indicate an inability to deal with anxiety about waiting, as well as setting up a pattern that is hard to alter…From the outset the therapist is providing a model of care which emphasizes continuity and consistence” ( as cited in Rouholamine, 2007, p.191).

Stirzaker (2000) in his paper ‘The taboo which silences’ establishes that anxiety can be reduced by helping client understands why they are experiencing erotic transference towards the therapist. By explaining that such feelings may be a “reflection of early Oedipal relationships normalizes the feelings but doesn’t trivializes them, and hence allows the client to consider them more openly” (p.126).


Transference and counter transference is everywhere in all relationships. While many therapists feel at ease to discuss transferential issues with their therapist or supervisors, counterrevolutionary issues particularly erotic in nature are kept out of discussion and personal analysis. Setting up a consistent, caring and secure therapeutic frame can contain the erotic transference. Perhaps therapists need to become comfortable feeling and containing erotic transference as they signify the patient’s deepest wish for growth. Like those in love, patients too like to be loved and understood. They like to change what make them unlovable.  All this is possible if therapist can be intentional in containing their feelings, like a caring, and nurturing parent.


Antonio S.A & Blom T.G. (2006). The Five Therapeutic relationships. Clinical Case studies, 5, 437-451

Blum,P.H.(1973). The Concept of Erotized Transference. Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association, 21(61), 61-76.

Celenza, A. (2006). The threat of Male-to-Female Erotic Transference. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 54(4), 1207-1231

Clarkson, P & Nuttal, J. (2000). Working with Counter transference. Psychodynamic Counseling 6(3), 359-379.

Lemma, A. (2003). Introduction to the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. UK.

Leowald, H.W. (1986). Transference-counter transference. Journal of psychoanalytic Association, 34(2), 275-287.

Rouholamine, C. (2007). The ‘frame’ as a container for the erotic transference- A Case study. Psycho dynamic Practice, 13(2), 181-196.

Stirzaker, A.(2000).The taboo which silences. Psychodynamic Counseling, 6(2), 197-213