Love is always complicated. However, love is rarely as complex as the love felt by a person for their therapist. Although it’s often dismissed, buried, or even shamed, loving your therapist is deeply human. Many times, it’s a sign that therapy is working.
Historically, the fathers of psychology viewed “love” between a therapist and client as a form of transference or countertransference. Both of these labels imply that the felt experience of love is displaced, unreal, or not valid. However, the research on effective therapy outcomes has shifted away from detached and overly-clinical analysis towards authentic, attuned, attachment-based therapy. So, does the dismissal of feeling “love” for a therapist deserve a closer look?
Love has many nuances and many potential expressions. (Some of which can be highly problematic in a therapeutic relationship). Yet, 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.” However, when it comes to therapy, having feelings of love for your therapist may be a 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. 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 to a relationship colored by absence and loss). In these contexts, short-term therapies are less effective. A course of therapy that only gives us a place to vent and develop 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 creates deep connections. A therapist that engages relationally builds a very real relationship with clients. (These therapists often call themselves psychodynamic, attachment-focused, relationally-oriented, or relational-neurobiology informed.) With this type of therapist, a relationship can be built that is safe and healing because of a clearly communicated frame and maintained professional boundaries.
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In the context of that relationship, a client (and a therapist, for that matter) experience vibrant and authentic emotional experiences. Through experience and training, the therapist can remain 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*.” These inform how we engage in relationships outside of therapy. Additionally, through mirror neurons and other neurological processes that researchers don’t yet fully understand, we can learn to soothe and regulate our 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. However, learning through an emotionally charged experience of rupture and repair with their therapist, that same 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 the 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
Normalizing 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. Because of this, both sexual and nonsexual out 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.