How Much Should the Therapist Love?

By Florence Rosiello, PhD

A female patient presented a dream about her new lover, “He and I were lying in bed together, both of us naked.” In the dream, her lover moved her head so it would rest on his shoulder. She explained the dream, saying they wanted to get even closer and turned their faces to each other, nose to nose. My patient told her lover to “breathe in deeply” showing him by inhaling with her mouth somewhat open. She interpreted that she wanted him to internalize her essence as he inhaled. In the dream, he did take a deep breath, but then the scene dissolved and she was facing a large black hole. In the next moment, the dreamer, still embraced by her lover, felt them both falling into the blackness. She continued to recount the dream, “My lover and I fall into this abyss and while there’s a fear of the emptiness that surrounds us, I know we are still very much intertwined.” She finished with, “I woke to the sound and to the feeling of struggling to inhale.”

For some people, love feels exciting in its intimate surrender, recognition and mutuality. It is an emotionally warm feeling of attachment, desire, hope, and sensual arousal that motivates us to be in the presence of the person we love. Of course, there are others who feel love in perverse ways that are bound up in levels of sadomasochism and enactments of domination and submission, but my paper will focus on love as a warm, intimate, mutual desire that is experienced with another. Love elaborates every narrative leading the therapist to a recently told or long ago story of when love began or love left. My patient was communicating her experience of love set in time, broken down into moments. In analyzing what she felt, she described her feelings of love as brief; only a fleeting reprieve from a more profound sense of aloneness – and the emotions that live in aloneness. For her, those emotions encompass her sadness in losing love, in feeling shamefully inadequate and unworthy of receiving love – a repetition of a genetic constellation. Her experience made sense to me, in that any feelings of love that I have known have been fleeting.

While I may return to thoughts of love repeatedly during the day, they are just momentary daydreams before the reality of my daily behaviors interrupts love-fantasies. The feeling of love is over so quickly that it reminds me of the cravings I used to have for a cigarette: Just breathe deeply for a few moments and the desire or fantasy will morph into something else. “All You Need is Love” (and Space) A relationship between any two people creates an intersubjectivity, potential space, or thirdness that both unites and destabilizes the evolving emotional communication between two individuals. The term “analytic third” was introduced by Thomas Ogden in 1994 (1999, p. 463), in relation to Winnicott’s notion of potential space (1960), as the area between two participants that exists as psychic playground. While many contemporary psychoanalytic writers have discussed intersubjectivity, I prefer Jessica Benjamin’s concept because she gives thirdness a specific developmental meaning. She (1990) suggests that thirdness created between two individuals “…appears only in the relationship of recognition, [it is] the space that mediates the two partners’ viewpoints, preventing the collapse of tension” (p. 204, 1999). She differentiates her idea of intersubjectivity or the third (2004) from Ogden’s analytic third, the latter being “a kind of co-created subject-object,” (p. 9) meaning it is a collapse of co-created space. I like Benjamin’s notion of intersubjectivity, rather than Ogden’s, as it feels more mutually empathic, more symmetrical. There is an almost inherent sense of identification with the other, a mirroring, an affective attunement, and sameness. Intersubjectivity or the third is where self-regulation meets mutual regulation; it is where the individual’s differentiation from the other is infused with empathy. But when intersubjectivity or the third collapses, when mutual recognition breaks down into twoness/two separate subjectivities, what can replace it is a sense of shame. Shame in not being recognized, not being mirrored, not being worthy of the other’s effort to attune (Benjamin, 2004). Separateness or aloneness from an other can be a shameful inner-world experience. Kohut (1977) thought an individual’s experiences of shame were disintegration products, and indeed, when we experience shame we feel as though we might shatter or fragment into pieces.

But, is it shame that fragments the self, or shame that protects the individual’s inner-most self-state? To my way of thinking, it is the notion of oneness, meaning the desire for merger with another that flaunts the importance of shame. The infant experiences shame when he feels inferior to an other/object/event as when mother values anything over meeting the infant’s needs – mother’s rejection of oneness/merger with the infant. The infant’s reactions to mother’s inattentions are early exposures to feeling shame and inferiority for not being enough to claim mother’s primary focus. This experience becomes reinforced in varying degrees/with various others throughout development. While other feelings are also reinforced throughout life, shameful emotions can overpower all others – if not in the moment, certainly in the recounting of the experience. To my way of thinking, all emotions, actions, and behaviors are attempts to alleviate, alter, escape, defend or resist the confinements of shame.

Shame, therefore, is a crucial aspect to what happens between two people, but I would like to add that shame is already intrinsic in the development of love in intersubjective thirdness. When we experience extreme feelings of mutual recognition, attachment, desire, emotional warmth in intimacy, coupled with intense sexuality between two individuals, we typically label this co-creation – love. When two people surrender to loving each other, there is an initial excitement that motivates both people to deepen their mutual desire in the hopes of feeling even more recognized, even more known and even more attached within intimate emotions. As this excitement develops, so does its converse: there is also a growing destabilizing effect on the self, the fear of being known, recognized as insufficient, and as a result, shamed in anticipated rejection and inevitable confirmation that one is not truly loved as much as we love the other.

Lovers attempt to stabilize each other and self with even more creative professions of desire and assurances of acceptance of sameness and difference. They hope to eliminate fear of loss of the other, but more specifically they are attempting to eliminate their own anticipated shame from the other’s potential abandonment. A repetition of the original abandonment experienced by the infant on the eventual realization that mother and self are not one. The feeling of love sets up a temporary relief from shame and within this relief, the self desires to exist as if the self is the other. This sense of shame in wanting to inhabit the other or wanting inhabitation by the other provides an escape from narcissistic self-states – the self can feel ‘inhaled’ into the idealized other, as my patient felt in her dream. In other words, love becomes a narcissistic achievement from self-injury; love is an escape from self-shame. But, the escape from narcissistic self-shame into love is only momentary, shame is a powerful warrior against love, and the desire to re-experience love with all its genetic proportions – reconfirms loss, inferiority, dissociation, and longing.

“Anticipation” Is Keeping Me Waiting

When we say we feel in love, I believe we are feeling an anticipation of love, an anticipation of desire for recognition, an anticipation of acceptance by another, and it is these anticipatory features that create the constellation of feeling in love. While the feeling of love and intimacy can be achieved in thirdness, neither love nor intimate emotions can be reliably experienced or faithful. Love morphs into fantasy when lovers separate. No two people within a relationship can love equally. It isn’t humanly possible to love in exactly the same, mutual, symmetrical way. Yet, we hope we will be loved as much as we want to love the other, or desire to be loved, but hope and want and desire become qualifiers in the maintance or upkeep of thirdness. In love’s beginning, both individuals anticipate a sense of co-created certainties that each will feel known, recognized, accepted, emotionally warmed by the other, and sexually desired by the other. But, there is no certainty that love, once it is achieved, will remain intact.

Living in love is a fallacy. But, we can live in a constant state of anticipating love because even when anticipation is altered by desire, hope, need or want, or threatened by shame of inadequacies – the anticipatory state still exists, in whatever degree or level of intensity, anticipation can remain constant. Love can be questioned, as it is in poetry, songs, plays and film, but anticipation can’t be questioned since anticipation is a question. Within the experience of feeling in love, it is the anticipation of love, inflamed by the vulnerabilities of desire and longing in wanting to be known, recognized, warmly intimate, and sexually desired – it is all ‘these’ that make love susceptible to shame.

Love’s duration is brief and it is parasitic to shame. Mitchell (2002) in his book Can Love Last? listed a few popular opinions on ‘romance,’ one being “…it degrades into something else, much less captivating, much less enlivening, such as sober respect or purely sexual diversion, predictable companionship, or hatred, guilt, and self-pity” (p. 27). I disagree that it degrades into something else, because to my way of thinking, it is our sense of shame that protects the self-system. Shame creates the need for desire, the wish for acceptance and necessity to feel known by another – shame creates the anticipation of not feeling shame. Shame invents the longing for recognition and for loving attachment. If we can love for a moment, or for a few moments, then, for those moments, we have been released from the constant state of shame of inadequacies. Shame creates a window of opportunity for love to exist and yet won’t let it exist with any regularity. It is shame that eventually devalues love and the love-object, protecting the self in a repetition of an earlier, genetic configuration and the return to homoeostasis. In an article by Judith Vida (2002) on love in psychoanalysis, she made the pithy statement that love is experience and cannot be spoken about except from one’s own perspective, meaning when we speak of love, we speak of ourselves. What she described was her experience of love being “a deep human connection, on an unconscious as well as conscious level, that involves generosity, recognition, acceptance, and something like forgiveness. It is a background experience that ‘holds’ many encounters, both delightful and difficult, over a long time; and it is also an illuminating flash of momentary transcendent understanding, usually unilateral, but occasionally mutual, that may vanish as mysteriously as it showed up in the first place” (p. 438).

So, if you go into treatment with an analyst who feels love in such am engaging way, you anticipate an experience of real love. But, a long-lasting sense of love is magical thinking. In a paper that focused on an analysis of specific emotions, Schactel (1959) discussed the affect of joy which I believe is a major feature of love: love being the pinnacle of joy, the extreme of it, the cherry on top of joy. What Schactel says about joy directly relates to my notion of love. Schactel references Sartre (1948) who believed there was an “impatience in joy [and that joy was]…the magical attempt to realize full possession of a desired object as an instantaneous totality” (p. 39). According to Schactel, there are two types of joy: magic joy and real joy. Magic joy is based on anticipation of a drive fulfillment or having achieved something or someone. He proposed this feeling as short-lived and contended that joy conveys a sense that now the individual’s world will be different. In the anticipated feeling of magic joy, one’s inner world is altered from unhappiness to happiness. Magic joy comes about as though by gift, not by the individual’s activity but through passive acceptance of a bestowed joy as an endowment from another (1959). Real joy is an activity-based affect that results from achievements that are currently happening, particularly the sense of joy in relatedness with another. Real joy is not linked to an expectation of a change, but rather to a profoundly rich association with another individual, object, achievement in the present (1959). However, even real joy is a momentary experience. In Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), the main character’s real joy at having a male child is infused with fear that the infant will be stolen by a passing, jealous spirit who envies a joyful household. Envy is a constant companion of joy from others who desire good fortune of others. The fear inherent in the loss of joy creates its time-limited expression. The loss of joy is experienced as filled with shame, partly because joy is demonstrative. This experience holds true in the fear of losing love from the object. When we love another we fear it will be taken away by those who envy us our love object, or when our love creates desire in another for our love object, or when we fear the object of our love will love us less than we love them and leave us shamed in emotional vulnerability when mutual surrender becomes submission to our inner world demands to be loved.

On Skewing Freud

Freud had two notions on love: one theory is from the three essays (1905) where he stated that every object-finding is a re-finding, meaning we never really ‘fall in love’ for the first time. The second premise where Freud positioned love was within the economic theory. He said the pleasure principle was based on the idea that pleasure is experienced as a relief from over stimulation and excitement. We feel pleasure when inner or outer world experiences are reduced, lowered, or abolished. Essentially, I am suggesting the converse of this notion, that love is the external stimuli that provides relief from the more pervasive, nagging feelings of shame that the individual struggles to quell – on the introduction of love. Freud said, “…the work of the mental apparatus is directed towards keeping the quality of excitation low, then anything that is calculated to increase that quantity is bound to be felt as adverse to the functioning of the apparatus, that is as unpleasurable” (1920, p. 9). While I do not find Freud’s concept of energy convincing (his theory of energy was not socially determined, and also, I prefer to think of energy as being emotion), I am quite partial to what Freud states a moment later: He invokes the use of the repetition compulsion as the individual repeats preoedipal and oedipal childhood dynamics in our adult love relationships. I like this because it puts a time-limit on dynamics.

All relationships encompass potential loss or the threat of loss as we repeatedly cathect (or not) the love object. Freud said, “This ‘perpetual recurrence of the same thing’ causes us no astonishment when it relates to active behaviour on the part of the person concerned and when we can discern in him an essential character-trait which always remains the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experiences” (1920, p. 22). Freud also addressed extreme cases of being in love in relation to identification and while he does not link identification to a relief from shame, he says “being in love…[is] a state in which the ego has introjected the object into itself.” Or, “…[when] the object has been lost or given up; it [the object] is then set up again inside the ego, and the ego makes a partial alteration in itself after the model of the lost object. In the other case [where] the object is retained… there is a hypercathexis of it by the ego…at the ego’s expense” (1921, p. 14). Perhaps it is not at the ego’s expense, but rather at the superego’s expense, where love provides relief from childhood shame and feeling of inadequacies in having lost the oedipal battle.

What’s Love, But a Second Hand Emotion?

A few years ago, I began working with a couple who had been living together for five years. The woman, Serena, motivated the couple’s treatment with her boyfriend, Phil, who at first seemed to vacillate between compliant participant and bemused bystander. Both Phil and Serena are in their 30s. Neither has been previously married; and both have had a few long-term relationships. Serena’s anxiety that Phil would not marry her and her sense of shame at having again picked an emotionally unavailable man, inspired her to begin couple therapy. Initially, Phil accompanied her because he felt Serena would leave him, otherwise. He thought she was the best woman for him, loving, caring, a real emotional partner, and someone who tolerated his behaviors in a way that allowed him to remain in the relationship. Phil is a talent agent who lives a very sexy, celebrity infused life, full of parties, elaborate dinners – actually, working with Phil is akin to reading 'Time Out' magazine – he always knows the hot places to visit in New York City, LA, or London. While Serena enjoys this fast paced life, Phil rarely includes her. I was silently surprised that she tolerated waiting for him to come home from late night meetings at chic restaurants and clubs. In countertransferencial moments, I fantasized if I were living with a man who went to clubs without me, I would change the locks while he was out. She attributed her acceptance of his actions as related to her traditional, Latin, upbringing, where the woman focuses on her husband and home.

Serena has a career in fine art, which she does pursue, but it is secondary to her relationship with Phil. Initially, her anger at him seemed dissociated. The only emotion she experienced was a sense of frustration and shame that he wouldn’t make plans with her until last minute and broke them last minute and then ridiculed her sensitivities about abandoned plans and feeling rejected. She seemed to live in a constant state of anticipation. She constantly anticipated his arrival home and she repeatedly anticipated he would include her when he went out. She anticipated he would return to the loving, adoring, sensual man who desired her in their early courtship. When she anticipated deepening her love for him, he anticipated she wanted merger/oneness (as his mother had) and he emotionally and actually withdrew.

When I first met Phil, I was surprised at how he commanded attention. It was as though he was his own Broadway show, a one man theatric who was interesting, funny, and knowledgeable about many ‘things.’ There was a raw edge to him, an emotional defensiveness and an allusive sense of self that was engaging, almost magnetic in how he stimulated the listener’s narcissism so that you wanted to be a member of his club, or of his fan club. Phil’s narcissism felt so powerful, exciting, and electric that it often filled the room, you felt chosen to be in his company. Still, over time, his grandiosity became emotionally exhausting as there was no real way to be consistently included in his one-man show, and, because unless Phil was constantly idealized by others, he felt shamed in their ‘rejection’ of him. Phil’s defenses against potential shame were often primitive in that often when Serena was talking, Phil would just talk louder so that he controlled the subject and flow of conversation. Also, he often mistook her topic and responded instead to a similar one and again would re-route the discussion, diverting any possibility of feeling shame. Interpretations about his manner of conversing with Serena were met with pleasant rejections, and a joking but critical retort that addressed what he thought was her paranoia or my missing the point.

At times, I was surprised when he considered my comments at all, even though they were crouched in empathy, respectful of his narcissism and the layers of shame that his manner defended. Serena, in a sense, is a trophy girlfriend. She is beautiful, talented, funny, sensitive and very insightful and empathic. She was, however, the daughter of a very aloof, emotionally unavailable father and mother, and within these abandonments her shame at being inferior was nurtured. Her own historical familiarity with narcissism and schizoid behavior, as well as surrendering her own needs to maintain an attachment, kept her involved in the relationship and shamed by her need of it. This is not an abusive relationship, by any means, but it is neglectful and in that way, Serena feels bruised and her needs as inferior to Phil’s. Phil, too, feels bruised by Serena’s demands for more of his attention and in his inadequacies to give more. Phil lives in fear of oneness/merger with Serena until she threatens their relationship with abandonment, then he feels shamed at the prospect of losing her. His shame in losing her overpowers his own constant sense of shameful inferiority. It overpowers his fear of merger. His shame in losing her creates the potential to anticipate her love, to anticipate thirdness with her, recognition, warmth, attachment, anticipate feeling known once again by her. His anticipations of love resound in Serena as she feels once again recognized by his attentions, loved in his desire to keep her, needed in his desperation and fear of losing her. She recognizes his vulnerabilities as her own in their kinship of feeling even more inferior without each other. They meet in thirdness, promoted in a mutual anticipation of love as it holds a sense of identification with the other, holds mirroring, empathic attunement, and sameness, all the while maintaining its antithesis – the individual’s potential vulnerability to shame.

This is their moment of love, long anticipated, and quickly devolved into a black abyss of aloneness. I chose Phil and Serena as a clinical example because they live in an anticipation of love. Perhaps you think this is an extreme example of a relationship filled with shame and insecurities. I don’t think it extreme, but rather an illustration of thirdness-in-the-making, an aspect of intersubjectivity that exists in all lovers to one degree or another, at one time or another and in anticipation of its re-creation. Loving feelings are rarely actualized for any extended length of time. Because of a desire for the chance to love the other, Phil and Serena stay emotionally engaged in their anticipation of receiving and giving love. These infrequent moments of co-created thirdness are due to their mutual fear of a destabilized self, a fear in becoming known and therefore known as despicable to the other, a fear of being recognized as insufficient, and as a result, shamed in anticipated rejection and in the inevitable confirmation that surrendering into the anticipation of love will result in not being loved. Their respective inner world experiences of shame continue to return them to twoness with occasional regressions into oneness.

It is the co-created thirdness in a romantic, loving relationship, when one feels most recognized by the other, most known within a tender mutual intimacy – it is then that the self desires to exist as if the self is the other. In the dream presented at the beginning of this paper, my patient wanted to inhale her lover as she felt an anticipation of love, a potential thirdness with her lover. These are the moments that create thirdness, when the anticipation of love becomes an achieved escape from anticlitic self-shame; when it successfully defends against the repetition compulsion of the infant’s experiences of humiliation when mother did not meet the child’s needs. It is the moment when the repetition compulsion gets fixed – for a moment.

Perhaps the listener/reader will rebuke my idea that love is felt as an anticipation of love with examples of being with a partner for years, decades, and still feeling in love. I won’t dispute that, but the love we have after years in a relationship is not the same experience of love that existed in the early stages of the relationship. Mitchell (2002) likened “romance and its degradation” (p. 25) as an evolutionary fait accompli. Thirdness is different in mature love: A long-term love is made up of companionship, history, familiarity, pragmatism, shared commonalities and adjustments to differences. But, should we label that love? Shouldn’t we categorize it under some other name? Do we hold onto the label ‘love’ because it defends against the shame of feeling something very different over time? Initially, I provided two definitions of love. The first definition is one that I believe belongs to the beginning of a relationship such as warm feelings of intimacy, mutual recognition, attachment, and the wish for sexual and emotional surrender to another. The second definition speaks to a more mature love, an emotionally deep relationship, generosity, recognition, acceptance and forgiveness that can ‘hold’ many experiences and while at times it is mutual, it can quickly vanish into oblivion (Vida, 2002, p. 438).

I’ve Looked at Love from Both Sides Now

What meaning we give to the notion of love depends on who is using it, but like any word we also have a consensus about what it means, or in this case, what it feels like. In the years I’ve worked as an analyst and supervisor, I’ve seen quite a few supervisees who speak of feeling in love with a patient. These supervisees feared a loss of perspective on the patient, or feared having no perspective since falling in love with the patient, and were worried they would enact loving or sexual feelings. For them, they wanted to make their love feel more real, although they feared that reality, as well. I was always struck at how intensely in love they said they were, even to the point of some marriages being put to the test of a fantasy infidelity. But, to my way of thinking, these supervisees’ desire broken boundaries in the desire for an anticipation of love, they were not feeling in love. It’s interesting that from my experience, all these analysts are women. I have never had a male supervisee who had fallen in love with a female patient, in contradiction to psychoanalytic history.

Gender aside, the question of how much should the analyst love still stands. The love these supervisees experienced could be better defined as infatuation, obsessionalism, enactment of a genetic configuration, a defense against awareness that the supervisee’s marriage may be in trouble, etc. This definition is very compelling, in part because it returns to erotic countertransference or countertransference love, and many colleagues consider countertransference as having an unreal quality, so, we accept that it will eventually, in time, be analyzed away. Still, I would not label the supervisees’ feelings as unreal, though neither would I agree they feel love, although each and every one of the supervisees would disagree and state it is indeed a real feeling of love.

Love in our profession is more accepted or accepted as being real, if we can define it as maternal or paternal love toward patients. A parental love is politically and professionally safer and accepted as a more usual countertransference development in treatment. I assume that many therapists feel maternal or paternal love is safe or easier to feel because it is sexless, but Oedipus and Jocasta would disagree with maternal love being safe and so would many sexually incested children. I return again to my query, what is the experience of feeling love and how much should the analyst love? Previously (2000), I mentioned having felt worried that only once did I experienced love for a patient and then, for a moment. More frequently, sexual tensions have developed for a very few patients, but not really any loving feelings that could be sustained. I care deeply for my patients, our intersubjective space feels intimate, it encompasses recognition, attachment, an emotional warmth of tender feelings, and on rare occasion, as I said, sexual feelings.

Perhaps it could be argued that I have just defined a love experience. Not so, in my mind, because love should have the potential for mutuality, which is crucial in thirdness, and I do not feel recognized by my patients, not mirrored, I don’t feel known by them. I don’t feel any sort of loss when I’m not in their presence, no sexual excitement that creates a sustained desire. I do feel what love defends, which is a sense of shame that motivates struggling with hermeneutics of an interpretation, the vicissitudes of an analytic comment, the desire to treat the patient as well as I can to lessen shame if I fail to do so. Again, it could be argued that because I feel tender, intimate feelings toward certain patients, emotional warmth toward them, a maternal response to many of them, brief, infrequent moments of romantic fantasy with a patient every decade or so, that I do feel love. I would say it is not love at all and I would say there is not even the potential for the co-creation of an anticipation of love. Therapy and analysis exist within a struggle for mutuality, not the attainment of it. Treatment is co-created as an asymmetrical union between two subjectivities where one works to understand and experience the inner world of the other and even if treatment is ended and a relationship outside analytic boundaries is developed, it is still asymmetrical because the experience of the beginnings of that therapy, were therapeutic and those dynamics exist in memory, and memory places bias against symmetry, bias against mutuality. In the end, Ferenczi admitted his foray into mutuality of the ‘active technique’ of patient and analyst analyzing each other was a disaster (1925). He also addressed the sense guilt the analyst experiences in treatment (1932, p. 52), in relation to what we withhold about who we are from patients, even if it’s only in the beginnings of treatment. Still, until the treatment is quit, the relationship between therapist and patient is not mutual, not symmetrical. And this is why I believe the supervisees were not really in love. While Ferenczi called it guilt between analyst and patient, I refer to it as shame as shame is a feature of guilt. It is shame that serves as regulator of the individual’s inner world experiences.

Some therapists struggle to feel or not to feel love, some struggle to feel or not feel sexual feelings for patients, some struggle to have or not have maternal/paternal feelings, many of us struggle not to experience the full forces of shame in the patient’s presence because shame dictates the intensity of all other feelings. To my way of thinking, love, no matter how you label it, is only a thin veneer that episodically covers shame – and love or an anticipation of love, is only a defense for shame – and the potential for its co-creation in analysis, is impossible.



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