Love between a therapist and a client is a tricky thing. Historically, the fathers of psychology viewed “love” between a therapist and client as a form of transference or countertransference – both labels that imply the felt experience of love is displaced, unreal, or otherwise not valid. But as research on effective outcomes of therapy has shifted away from detached and overly clinical analysis towards authentic, attuned, attachment-based therapy, does the dismissal of feeling “love” for a therapist consider reconsideration?
Love has many nuances and many potential expressions (some of which can be highly problematic in a therapeutic relationship) but the felt experience of love is, to many therapists, a positive sign that the relationship between a client and therapist has a powerful potential to bring healing.
Why feeling like you love your therapist may be a good thing
Realizing “I love my therapist” can be scary! It may feel embarrassing, stigmatizing, or easily dismissed as “not real,” but when it comes to therapy, having feelings of love for your therapist may actually be a really good sign that therapy is working.
To explain a little more in detail, let’s start with talking about some of the mechanics behind how therapy works:
How therapy works in a nutshell
When we enter therapy, some of us want answers and strategies for quick fixes. While there are therapy models that focus on offering short-term, solution-focused therapy, most good therapy is longer term.
Therapy takes time. Why is most good therapy long term? Because by the time we enter a therapist’s office, most of us have been holding our pain alone for so long that our brains have changed in order to accommodate our need to avoid any additional pain like trauma triggers, situational anxiety, or the discomfort of intimacy with another person.
Healing takes time. These changes in our brain didn’t begin overnight and, similarly, treatment takes place over an extended period in order to allow brains to heal at a sustainable pace. (Incidentally, EMDR is a powerful short-term therapy for survivors of recent trauma because brains are less likely to experience those long term changes.)
Relational Connections in Therapy Matter. For many of us, the wound that brings us to therapy is deeply relational. Often, our pain can be traced to a relationship where deep harm occurred (or a relationship colored by absence and loss). In these contexts, short-term therapies are less effective. A course of therapy that gives us only a place to vent and a few new coping strategies is unlikely to make a deep impact on our capacity to internally regulate our emotions, seek out support-giving relationships, and experience fewer symptoms.
Attachment-focused relational therapy can. A therapist that engages relationally (these therapists often call themselves psychodynamic, attachment-focused, relationally-oriented, or relational-neurobiology informed) builds a very real relationship with clients – one that is safe and healing because of a clearly communicated frame and maintained professional boundaries.
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In the authenticity of that relationship, a client (and a therapist, for that matter) experience vibrant and very real emotional experiences. Through experience and training, the therapist remains anchored in safe boundaries, rather than being swept away by the powerful emotional experience. This safe relational intimacy can begin building (or repairing) neural pathways in the brain that support healing.
Through this type of relational therapy, brains have the opportunity to form new memories around “corrective emotional experiences*” that inform how we engage relationships outside of therapy and, through mirror neurons and other neurological processes researchers don’t yet fully understand, learn to soothe and regulate our own emotions. Eventually, this safe therapist-client relationship gives us the practice and confidence to seek out healthy relationships outside of therapy, risk emotional intimacy with others, and develop the satisfying and supportive relationships we need for good mental health (source)
*Corrective emotional experiences are experiences that help us, on an emotional level, repair previous relational harm. For example, reading a book about conflict resolution might not help someone who tends to walk out when their partner is angry, but learning through an emotionally charged experience of rupture and repair with their therapist, that person might come to understand on a deeper level that conflict doesn’t have to end with the loss of a relationship. This experience in therapy can then help that person show up for their partner next time there’s conflict in the relationship.
Love for your therapist, then, is a good sign.
Against this backdrop of authentic emotional experience as a driving force behind the change that occurs in good therapy – we shouldn’t be at all surprised when love enters the therapy room. When love enters therapy sessions – whether spoken or unspoken – it’s a powerful indicator that something that matters is happening in therapy.
Sexual & Nonsexual Love in Therapy
Normalization of the feelings of sexual attraction between clients and therapists was constantly impressed on me in my own training to be a therapist – and rightfully so. In the context of therapy, feelings take center stage, so why should certain feelings be shoved aside, shamed, or ignored? While not all feelings are meant to be acted on, a safe therapy space is one in which a therapist maintains steady professional boundaries and in which a client can bring any emotional experience – including professions of love – both sexual and nonsexual to be examined thoughtfully.
Here’s what I want you to know if you found this article through a google search about love for your therapist: Healthy adults respond to care and attention with attachment, and attachment ignites arousal. In this context, feeling love for or sexual attraction to a therapist isn’t pathology, it’s an adult brain and body doing exactly what they are meant to do. The feelings are normal and discussing them is something experienced therapists have handled many times.
While film and TV sometimes portray clients and therapists acting on these desires and falling in love, in reality, a therapist who fails to maintain personal boundaries, particularly those around physical intimacy, can lose their license and their career.