Psychotherapy - Transference
June 30, 2014 8:01 AM   Subscribe

I have been seeing an older male psychotherapist (psychodynamic/analytic orientation, I guess) for a year to deal with issues related to my divorce, self-esteem, trauma, grief, and so on. At 34, I am finally resolved to living a conscious life and so I decided to commit myself to long-term psychotherapy. Our sessions have been fairly productive--I have gained some insight into the faulty and harmful ways I deal with men, and have accessed deep wells of grief that I had repressed for a long time. My shrink is (was) wonderful....until...

About three months ago I revealed to him, quite bashfully, that I "preened for him" before sessions. His response was to tell me "did you ever think the feeling might be mutual" and "if I acted on my feelings it would be incestuous and exploitative." He also asked if "I want there to be sexual tension between us." So, I left with the impression that he did indeed acknowledge a certain kind of sensual chemistry between us, that he probably found me attractive and harbored his own (to what degree I don't know) fantasies about us. But he held the boundaries and was adamant that nothing would ever happen.

Fast forward to this past month. In session he asked me what my fantasies were. I simply said "I wish I could be your mistress." He laughed and said "How do you know I want a mistress." I said something to the effect that it was a hypothetical scenario (thought this was patently obvious!). He said "so you want me to be deep inside, skin to skin, as close as two people can be?" Then he said "are you afraid that your feelings aren't reciprocated" I said, well, of course, but expressed that he did indicate some mutuality ( I forget my exact words). He looked extremely uncomfortable and said "you think I am preening for you? Lusting after you? You are wrong. I have never thought of you sexually. Ever. It would be inappropriate. "

I felt dead inside--as if I had been gas-lighted. Told him that I felt betrayed, led on, etc. His anger was palpable when I said that he could no longer be my therapist because some fundamental trust was broken and I needed a therapist who was congruent between sessions. I left and he muttered a sarcastic "good luck" as I closed the door behind me.

Two days later I called him, in tears, asking him to basically take me back. Told him in the next session that I could not bear the thought of not seeing him again (in the ensuing days after the fatal session I was on the bathroom floor at work sobbing). He called what happened a "misunderstanding" basically.

Is it harmful if I continue with this therapist? I vacillate between wanting to be a "good patient" and continuing despite the pain and wanting to leave.

I wish I could find a story similar to mine, but could not (seduced and then punished by a therapist), which is why I am posting here. Was I seduced? Punished? What the hell happened?
posted by Jaspersen145 to Human Relations (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What. The. Hell. New therapist, NOW.
posted by BrashTech at 8:03 AM on June 30, 2014 [54 favorites]

Gosh, yes, it is harmful if you continue -- this is not a healthy therapeutic relationship. Choose a different therapist, unfortunately.
posted by htid at 8:04 AM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Whoa, this guy is the worst. THE WORST. Please don't go back there.
posted by something something at 8:07 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, darling.

When you have a question like this, a question like "should I keep seeing this therapist," and the reasons are this complicated and difficult to even type out and explain?

That means you should leave. I am sorry.

I have found that personally a female therapist is much better for me for a lot of reasons. That might be something to consider.
posted by sockermom at 8:08 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you heard what you wanted to hear in his original conversation and built it into something in the meanwhile that isn't there and never was. And now it's messy. Short answer is find another therapist because, what?!, continue with this guy? No.

The longer answer is more complicated. What he said was, "Did you ever think the feeling might be mutual?" That's a question, not necessarily a come on. Did you answer him? Did you answer honestly? Did he press for an answer? Because that seems the crux: Are you here in therapy thinking about whether we have mutually romantic or sexual feelings for each other and if so, that's a natural step in what you're working on and it is useful material." But you don't say how the rest of the conversation went...

And when he said "If I acted on my feelings it would be incestuous and exploitative." That can be a basic expression of his responsibility as a therapist or a come on. If he's just letting those statements hang provocatively and not pressing you to answer and reveal unhealthy patterns to work with, then maybe he's as coy and oblique as you are about it. In which case neither of you should be involved with anybody at the moment, personally or professionally, and you should go get yourself another therapist (maybe a woman?) with whom you replay this entire thing and have in more responsible hands to work with. Because certainly there's a lot to work with here.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:11 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: All terrific answers, thank you.

Cocoagirl, I responded "no" to the mutual question, but not emphatically. I was rather surprised as the question. He said "oh, I thought you might have been picking up on what was happening here." I interpreted that to mean: I like you too. It felt ok because he said "we will never have sex." He looked so happy in that session--he was wonderfully warm and flirtatious while maintaining the boundaries. I miss him that way.

Next session he said "so, do you want to talk about last session?" I said "Well you looked happy." He said "It's nice to be liked. What's not to like."

I think his ego was merely gratified and he got a bit carried away with being the object of a young attractive woman's desire (he is 67). But there is still a bond there, which is why I am so conflicted.
posted by Jaspersen145 at 8:27 AM on June 30, 2014

You need a new therapist for your own sake. Continuing with this one is going to lead to trouble and drama. That's diametrically opposed to what a therapist should bring to your life. This situation is not good for you. Whether he's a bad person or led you on or you misjudged the situation or whatever, for your own sake, you need to not be putting yourself into this mess again.
posted by Solomon at 8:32 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

he was wonderfully warm and flirtatious while maintaining the boundaries. I miss him that way.

Why would you want your therapist to be "wonderfully warm and flirtatious"? I think you are in love with him.

I fell in love with my professor once under certain circumstances. Older dude with lots of professional experience and wisdom and knowledge of human nature who also happens to be generous, who listens to everything you say, shows you recognition and shows care, trust and attention . . . is a trained professional who is just doing his job.

Get away quickly. Your feelings are too strong, you desire his approval too much, this is not healthy for you.
posted by winterportage at 8:40 AM on June 30, 2014 [17 favorites]

Both of you have more or less acknowledged feelings that aren't supposed to be part of a clinical therapy relationship. He backpedalled and even lashed out a bit and is trying to catch his balance because he knows that he has participated (and perhaps wants more) in violation of professional ethics.

Why do we have those ethics?

* therapy can create a power dynamic that leaves patients vulnerable to manipulation

* the intimacy of therapy can create illusions about how close therapists and participants really are

* the intimacy of therapy can even create *real* closeness but without some restraining force the connections created there can compete with and threaten other healthy long-term connections present in the lives of both therapist and patient

* once the relationship between the therapist and patient starts being about their relationship the therapy itself can easily become secondary, and so the patient stops getting clinical therapy

It unlikely that you can put this genie back in the bottle enough to have a clinical relationship with your therapist. Not completely impossible -- you'd have to figure out if you're really committed to that course and if so have a conversation where you clear the air and mutually re-commit to that clinical relationship.

A new therapist would be the more reliable route back to normal clinical therapy.

Also, if I'm reading the word "mistress" right and the guy is married, continuing could turn into big trouble for both of you very easily.
posted by weston at 8:56 AM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry but no, this isn't a healthy therapeutic setting for you. Even if you got a different therapist, and kept seeing this guy on the side it wouldn't be healthy.

This is classic transferance, and if your therapist crosses a boundary by flirting back, it's malpractice.

So, find a new therapist and cut this dude off. It's almost like a heartbreak, but you can discuss with your new doctor.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:04 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wish I could find a story similar to mine

Maybe take a look at this book. It's all about transference in different therapeutic modalities, and I think that is the answer to your question -- right there in your post title.
posted by clavicle at 9:35 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your therapist has completely taken advantage of the power dynamic in a way that is unprofessional and unethical. Please find yourself a new therapist. You deserve better.
posted by radioamy at 9:50 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, if you wanted a similar story, check out season 1 of In Treatment. One of the interwoven stories is about the analyst Paul falling for his patient Laura. It might give you a little insight into the other side of the experience too, as the show shows their sessions, as well as him discussing them with his own therapist.
posted by amileighs at 9:54 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

This not just an unhealthy therapeutic relationship -- it is actively harmful, and is undermining the very important, hard work you have been doing. I nth the answers that it is urgent that you change therapists immediately. This is also something to bring up with your new therapist right away (including the fact that you feel conflicted -- that's perfectly understandable).

I'm really sorry this happened to you.
posted by scody at 10:36 AM on June 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

Regardless of your therapist's intent you should still get a new therapist, because any therapist worth their salt would have known that going about this conversation in this way would potentially send a patient into an emotional tailspin.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:39 AM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

What an ordeal for you and in your 'safe space' too. You have done absoloutely nothing wrong - you have been honest and authentic.. it is very hard to bring that stuff up to a therapist (but not at all uncommon to feel that stuff). This is not someone who should be doing this job.

Look up cluster B personality disorders and get away.. so painful I know... I was your age when I started therapy... lot of painful stuff with men.. my (brilliant) therapist is female, could be my mother in age.. and feels like the stronger woman I want to be and the soothing mother I didn't have. I had a crush on a male therapist years ago.. couldn't face saying it.. and personally just want a female now (no crush so far ;-o).

You probably can't face it, but I would actually think about reporting him - I suspect he is quite dangerous. This is a very tough thing to do.. and ofcourse the client with a legitimate can be painted as irrational/crazy etc by a warped therapist.. at least document things somewhere safe that you don't have to look and you can come back to it later should you want.

You deserve a bloody refund (that won't happen) and a big hug from someone who has sorted their own shit out.
posted by tanktop at 10:56 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

he muttered a sarcastic "good luck" as I closed the door behind me.

Sarcasm is a big no-no in any sort of therapeutic relationship. If your therapist lacks the emotional regulation to not be snarky and derisive, he creates an unsafe dynamic. Uncool.

My strong sense is that you should not return to this therapist, unless you are under the care of a new therapist whom you've developed a trusting relationship with, and she advises you to do so.

(I specifically used "she" because I think it would be better for you to have a woman therapist at this point.)
posted by nacho fries at 11:04 AM on June 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Is it harmful if I continue with this therapist? I vacillate between wanting to be a "good patient" and continuing despite the pain and wanting to leave.

Yes. Leave. Your brain is now confusing your therapist with a parental figure. Your job is not to please and take care of the parental figure -- it's to focus on living a more conscious life while your therapists helps you sever those parent-child dependencies. Even though it's tricky ground to navigate, that's how I interpret you confessing about your preening behavior -- that you were consciously noting that you were doing this, and looking for guidance as to how to work with it (i.e. is there a more transcendent way to work with it, or is a person always at the mercy of these feelings, etc.)

This therapist needed to guide you in setting up a boundary with this behavior so that you are not defaulting to experiencing sexual attraction for any man who will listen to you. This...

He said "so you want me to be deep inside, skin to skin, as close as two people can be?"

was not helping you. This was entrenching your behavior as sexual, followed up by a punitive rejection. Especially with his resentment-loaded sarcastic "good luck" on your way out -- that was a very disrespectful way to imply to you that you are hopeless, and clearly it worked because two days later you reacted like he is the *only* person in the world who can help you -- which with any good therapist, is NEVER true. A great therapist is someone who can facilitate another's self-healing -- NOT become their one and only their savior.

And FWIW, it IS possible to have healthy boundaries safe-guarding one's sexual feelings. Just because the older generations didn't know it firsthand doesn't mean our generation is clueless about it. (If you want to swap thoughts about managing feelings of attraction to people you logically know you should not be feeling attraction for, feel free to message me. I'm an early 30s female also.) Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 11:26 AM on June 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Seconding nacho fries. Aside from this therapist's (at best) totally oblivious and (at worst) exploitative and manipulative comments during your sessions, his passive-aggressive sarcasm when you expressed your preferences and needs is a big piece of red fabric on the end of a large stick.
posted by chicainthecity at 11:30 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

But there is still a bond there, which is why I am so conflicted.

OP, I'm really sorry to tell you this, but you do not have a bond with this person. The bond you think you have is not real. It is the product of transference on your part, and completely inappropriate, unethical, and potentially actionable behavior on his part.

The... situation you have with this person (I can't even call it a relationship because that would imply some kind of equal footing) is harmful.

Please see another therapist. And do not get your referral from this guy.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:39 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

it IS possible to have healthy boundaries safe-guarding one's sexual feelings. Just because the older generations didn't know it firsthand doesn't mean our generation is clueless about it.

This is not a generational thing. It might indeed be better for the OP to work with a therapist closer to her age, just as it might be better for her to work with a woman, but this does not mean that she couldn't also work well with another older therapist or another male therapist.
posted by scody at 11:43 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

By way of encouragement, you did a really good job advocating for yourself when you told your ex-therapist to go pound sand. It took some real guts and sense of self to stand your ground and do this:

I said that he could no longer be my therapist because some fundamental trust was broken and I needed a therapist who was congruent between sessions.

I hope you can give yourself props for that.

I've been in somewhat similar situations, and I remember how hard it was -- it's intense to stand up to someone under those conditions. You did great.
posted by nacho fries at 12:15 PM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Dangit, this sounds like a tough situation. I'm sorry you got so embroiled in it. I've been in a similar situation, although with a teacher and not a therapist. I wasted SO MUCH time thinking about that teacher...time I wish I could have back. But I was young, and didn't know any better.

I strongly encourage you to break away from this now so you don't waste emotional time and energy on him anymore.

He sounds like a grade A douchebag, and extremely selfish.

Get another therapist (I recommend a female if you're straight). Don't get the recommendation from him. Tell the new therapist about this situation immediately upon intake on first visit.

Treat yourself nicely for the next month or two.

I promise you, therapy can be SO GOOD if you find an appropriate therapist. I have a great therapist right now, although I can totally see where you're coming from because I am scared of transference and will actively police my thoughts if I find myself thinking about my therapist in any way other than in the office.
posted by christiehawk at 12:54 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm as close to a 67 year old male psychodynamic therapist as you're going to find on Metafilter. All I have to go on is your report and my experience of similar situations. There's much I don't know about what actually happened and, of course, IANYT.

In my experience, patients reporting on what went on with their previous therapists may represent what they truly believe occurred but are far from objective. Therefore I will refrain from making judgments on whether this guy is competent or not since I don't have the facts. My opinion, though, is that he was exploring your feelings with you and was not interested in either breaking boundaries or being seductive. In short, I agree with the young rope-rider's first comment above. There is great value if that sort of exploration done properly and it would be worth your while to stick around for it, as uncomfortable as it might feel. Part of that exploration is of how angry you were (and I suspect still are) at him for your understanding of what took place. There's a big difference between getting angry and saying you will leave. He (assumed to be competent) should be able to allow you to be as angry as you are without retaliating.

Next session he said "so, do you want to talk about last session?" I said "Well you looked happy." He said "It's nice to be liked. What's not to like."

The statement "You looked happy." sounds to me as a masked request that he tell you he would have been unhappy if you left--some statement that he still liked you despite what had transpired. He sort of evaded it with his response, but not in a bad way. He may have wanted to cool things down a little. It is quite therapeutic to get angry at your therapist without feeling you have to hold back and not have it held against you. You shouldn't feel that you had to crawl back and disavow how angry you were, and he should make it clear that your strength is welcome in the session.

67 year old men are not ruled by their hormones. They may be ruled by their ego and if you think that is the case you should say so. He's allowed to "like being liked" but he's not allowed to let it get in the way of your treatment.

Similarly, you should confront him that his "good luck" was sarcastic. It was probably at least a little ambivalent, since you were quitting him. See what he has to say for himself.

He looked extremely uncomfortable and said "you think I am preening for you? Lusting after you? You are wrong. I have never thought of you sexually. Ever. It would be inappropriate. "

I don't know if that's a literal quote or not. And whether he said it calmly or in some other way. It was not necessarily incongruent with his earlier self which may have been more exploratory than declarative. You need to tell him how hurtful you found it, though.

To sum up: Get your money's worth and work this out with him if you can. You can always decide to quit later.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:38 PM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

With this update, I suggest that you ask him to direct you to another therapist immediately for a consult, and discuss this issue with that therapist. This seems to have thrown you into a crisis and I think that more support is really important for you, as well as an objective third party.

That seems like terrible advice to me. He might direct you to another therapist with the specific intention of directing you to someone (a friend of his for instance) who would put a particular construction on the events you had with him.

Dump this guy right now. Find another therapist, sure. But you need NO MORE input from your current therapist in any way shape or form.
posted by jcworth at 1:54 PM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Gross gross gross.

He said "so you want me to be deep inside, skin to skin, as close as two people can be?"

People get crushes on their therapists all the time. A good therapist is ready to deal with this. But they don't do it by making a statement like the one above that tries to escalate the emotional tension in the room, they ask you to talk about what you think your attraction means. Your guy took it to a super weird place, and he really really shouldn't have.
posted by MsMolly at 5:08 PM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

No, we don't know what the OP's statement was that precipitated that comment. It may well have been a kind of "mirroring" of what the OP was expressing toward him.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:15 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, goodness, when the person we trust in our life to take our dangerous vulnerabilities seriously does not, it is the worst thing. Please listen to your instincts and find someone kind and professional and not a huge awful asshole. My abused, depressed mother stuck it out for TWENTY YEARS with a terrible dangerous therapist. A good therapist helps you build a platform that you can use to peak out over the abyss and say, hey maybe I can get across there. A bad therapist keeps you mired.

When you find a kind thoughtful new therapist do not be ashamed to relate this story. You did absolutely nothing wrong.
posted by Pardon Our Dust at 6:18 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A therapist had best be doing his/her own work so they don't act on feelings which they may be harboring, or, rather, so that they act appropriately on any feelings they may be harboring toward any of their clients.

Being in that room for an hour every week, maybe twice a week, your guard totally down, your emotions wide open, hey, you're vulnerable as hell. And so is he. It's an extraordinarily intimate relationship, has to be, to get the goods from it.

Patients fall in love with their therapists all the time. Therapists fall in love with their patients all the time. How could it be otherwise?

But. That therapist had best be doing their own work, they had best be telling their own therapist about being in love with their client, acknowledging their humanity, and then using whatever strategies have worked for them in the past when they've fallen in love with their clients. They'll have to discipline the living shit out of themselves so as to keep therapeutic clarity in that room, that clarity that will allow them to help you probe your love for them while keepit it totally safe for you to do so, all the while maintaining a complete poker face to it all, not letting on for even an instant about their own hammering heart, not even when you're wearing that one red dress that's blown them right out of their fucking shoes.

Being a therapist is not an easy job. Rewarding as hell. But sometimes you'll bleed. The amount of work involved if/when they do fall for one of their clients can be staggering. They may end up going to their therapist three times a week dealing with this emergency.

And it is an emergency. They've commuted to a life of helping people, but unlike other helping professions they don't use a scalpel or an x-ray, their tool is their damn heart, all of it, not just the easy part, not just the giving, not just being open and listening and supporting but also tapping their wisdom, if they've got any, and their discipline, which is built same as building muscles in a gym, by exercising it.

In any case, it's a very human situation, and you falling for him is absolutely something that happens every day, and him falling for you the same, if in fact he did fall for you. It is his job to boundary that off, it's probably on page one of The Job Description Of A Therapist that he boundary that off, but the reason it's on page one is that it's so common, it sure does happen. Do you report him to whatever authority? I don't think so. For one, he'll stonewall it totally. (Though getting his finger caught in the door might help him tighten up his act, protect the next person.)

I wasn't in that room. None of us were. We're hearing your telling of it. You do seem a good reporter though, and if you are, it's time to move on, carrying with you a hurting heart, some confusion, some experience, that red dress. How do we learn to choose a therapist, how do we learn what questions to ask them as we decide whether or not to spend our time and money in that room with them? By experience. Follow your heart as to what course to follow -- do you go back into this guys office or not? Why? Or why not? Might be that these are good questions that you can use to sound out a prospective new therapist.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:45 PM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

It sounds like this particular instance of transference was certainly poorly handled.

If you're after good examples of someone in your situation, the book Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder contains an excellent autobiographical account of smoothly handled transference.

Here's an excerpt from the eBook
posted by Clicheguy at 3:09 PM on July 1, 2014

There is absolutely no escape clause for "so you want me to be deep inside, skin to skin, as close as two people can be?"

I would go no-contact on this therapist immediately. While you locate another one, you are welcome to visit CoDA meetings where you can be with other people right away and share your experience.
posted by macinchik at 9:28 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: To all of you who commented on my original post, thank you. Many of your responses were insightful and compassionate and showed a thoughtfulness that I was touched by.

Some may be curious how it ended (a month later or so after my original post); of course it ended, it was inevitable...

I had forgotten to add in my original post that I had asked him if I could be his "little girl" one session (my feelings were a witches brew of childlike love/adoration, raw sexuality, and goodness knows what else). He smiled slightly and said "yes." If this is therapy, get me out of here.

So, we "repaired the rupture"--stuck a band-aid on a large gaping bleeding wound shortly after my post and I continued to be his patient. Until...

During one session, I blurted out, in response to something funny he had said "Oh my God, I'm in love with you." It's funny because I was feeling affectionate and tender in a non-sexual way towards him. He immediately responded, again angrily, with the following (almost verbatim). I should add too that it is also interesting is that it was the first time I had uttered the words "love".

The good Doctor's response: "It's very interesting and conspicuous that you fail to mention another person when you tell me you "love" wife. I am in love with my wife, period."

My response shall not be posted here. After that fatal session I finally got the gumption to consult with a brilliant psychoanalytically oriented shrink whom I continue to see when needed.

Lesson to anyone who is contemplating therapy: ask re how the therapist looks at transference/counter transference. CBT therapists typically don't engage well with it but mine was insight-oriented so I assumed I was in good hands when I started having "feelings."

My case was severely mishandled and it need not have been; he was a good therapist otherwise and I still miss him. The power dynamics in these situations are heady indeed and if you find yourself drowning, don't necessarily believe that an experienced therapist will save you from your own feelings.

As my old therapist said, while rejecting my "loving" feelings towards him: It could have been worse (i.e. sex).
posted by Jaspersen145 at 12:07 PM on November 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

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