Love

I'm A Gay Guy And I Fell In Love With My Male Psychotherapist

Photo: Dikushin Dmitry / Shutterstock
man talking to therapist

Believe it or not, developing very strong feelings for your psychotherapist is a relatively common experience for clients and it is referred to as transference.

This is when the client redirects feelings from their past and projects them onto the psychologist.

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The feelings are said to be created by unmet needs we suffered in infancy or in childhood at the hands of our caregivers, our parents, and relationships with siblings — perhaps even unresolved conflicts exist surrounding former lovers, bosses, or any number of relationships.

These unconscious feelings can be the catalyst that ignite intense feelings for the psychologist.

Some mental health experts say we experience transference to some degree at all times in all of our human interactions.

Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, developed these theories in the early 20th century and many renowned psychologists continued this work arriving at the place we are today with modern psychotherapy.

Although the explanation of transference seems simple enough, the manifestation of these emotions is complicated and they differ from person to person.

Whereas some clients experience transference in a pleasant and reassuring way, other patients may be thrown into turmoil by the experience and it will cause mayhem to their mental health. Their lives are disrupted by it. Positive transference — platonic, romantic, paternal. maternal, even sexual — may become a fixation and can be troubling. Sometimes obsessive.

The British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists (BACP) published an article describing the significant hazards associated with transference of this kind. It's not only clients who experience transference: countertransference is when the therapist's unconscious feelings are perhaps stimulated by the shared thoughts, feelings, and behavior of the client.

Therapists are trained to deal with countertransference and they are mindful of when it occurs so as not to derail the therapeutic work. Therapists have their own supervisors who are also therapists with whom they can unload and unpack difficult issues that arise with clients so as to deal with countertransference.

The BACP explains that when a client is overwhelmed with love and is fixated on the therapist it is known as Adverse Idealizing Transference (AIT). This is when transference  feelings of love for the clinician  becomes a serious, troubling issue for the client. This can subvert the work of therapy and insert itself as the main issue, eclipsing the main reason the client came to therapy in the first place.

Transference happened to me.

I was living alone when Covid hit and I was fearful and shocked by the eeriness of the silence on the streets and the isolation. This was a paradox, as I had always enjoyed living alone and more recently I had embraced solitude as peaceful and enjoyable. I liked my autonomy. I enjoyed living solo until the lockdown was forced upon us.

I became lonely and scared and I needed connection. This, coupled with the fear of potentially dying from Covid resulted in my drinking more alcohol and smoking more cigarettes than I should have.

I was self-medicating. I needed to take a look at that.

I reached out to a local organization that serves gay, bisexual, and trans men. The community wellness organization offers wellness groups and one-on-one counseling free of charge and this seemed perfect.

Connection!

I happily signed up and began to attend Zoom groups with other men just like me. The camaraderie in group work was an antidote to the enforced isolation at that time.

Alex became my personal counselor. He also facilitated a few wellness groups so we met virtually a few times every week.

Looking back it is amusing now to reflect on how therapy began with Alex. Initially, we were overtly hostile toward each other. I was quite uncooperative. I was defensive and argumentative and questioned everything he said. I had studied psychology at university and disliked the way it was taught, so I transferred to theatre school but still had an avid interest in psychology. 

Alex initially appeared to be using the "blank screen approach," which is a technique used by mental health clinicians whereby they appear neutral and mostly silent: this means the patient always leads the session. I misinterpreted his neutral expression as hostility. We barked at each other like suspicious hounds in a dog park and eventually, we both agreed we had descended into jousting and vying for control.

He changed tack. He gradually became a little warmer (so did I), more animated, humorous, and friendly. He shared a little more about himself which is something therapists often do at their own discretion as long as it serves a client's needs. Sometimes therapists use a mirroring technique to gain trust and if he was doing that, it worked.

A few months in, I distinctly remember telling Alex that I trusted him.

This was difficult for me to divulge.

When I told him I trust him, I became emotional. He said it helps therapy when a client and a therapist develop a strong therapeutic alliance.

I am not fond of therapy jargon. By therapeutic alliance, he meant when the clinician and client click and are in sync. I began to look forward to our sessions and my affection for him slowly grew.

I enjoyed interpreting my dreams with Alex in the driving seat, suggesting pertinent links to my waking life. It was fun! A couple of my dreams were about him and we laughed about it. The work was fascinating and I was engrossed.

I found myself making sure I was wearing a decent shirt. I would shower and shave. Comb my hair. The therapy hour was a weekly event that I looked forward to. In fact, it was the only time I spoke one-on-one with someone. Whereas I relished this time, I was also sad that I had to admit to myself that I was very lonely. Why?

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Then I fell for him. Hard.

We didn't only click. I had fallen crazily in love with him and I had never even met him in person. He was beamed into my living room and was simply an image on a screen. Two-dimensional at that.

In my creative writing classes, I wrote prose and poetry about our therapeutic relationship and how I felt. I look back at this as amusing now but at that moment I was bewildered, grief-stricken, embarrassed, and ashamed.

Professional ethics are hammered home from the first day a therapist embarks on their training and I knew this. Any relationship outside of the therapeutic alliance is absolutely forbidden. Alex wouldn't have been interested in any event, but oh my goodness was my brain looking for hints and signals, signs that he felt the same as me.

I always had one foot in reality and was mindful that this was a phenomenon but part of me was relentlessly wishing I could live out my delusion. Apparently, according to Alex, this part of me was subconscious. I had been unaware of it.

I feverishly researched 'falling in love with your therapist'. I became obsessed with reading about it. One day I was up at 6 am reading and still at it at midnight. Thousands of pages later, it was good to know I was not the only one to experience this but I was constantly preoccupied. I was thinking of him 24/7. I dreamed about him.

I spoke to two other therapists to try to get a handle on it. I felt I was losing my mind. I listened to songs that described the feelings — there are a lot of them!

The feedback I received from Doctor Google was "tell your therapist about the feelings."

So I did.

Alex took it in his stride and was not phased at all. I was heartened by his kind, professional response. The feelings were real and intense. I craved his presence and was in an all-day-all-night semi-trance like a hamster on a wheel yet we had never met in person. Some therapists will terminate or refer the client out at the first sign of positive transference.

I didn't fully share the extent of my feelings until several weeks later when he noted that I was being obsessive. 

I became scared.

I would break down and cry at the drop of a hat. One morning I drifted into my kitchen and couldn't decide to have tea or coffee and, dazed, I burst into tears and fell into a semi-trance.

I was pretty much dissociating a lot of the time. I counted the days, hours, and minutes until our next Zoom session. The sadness was real. The tears were real.

It was intense platonic love mixed with agonizing grief that it could never be. As a gay man, I also found it strange that my feelings were platonic and bordered on romantic but were not at all sexual. This confused me but my research assured me that it is not uncommon with AIT.

Looking back, What had been triggered was interesting. I realized I was unhappy with how I looked in middle age. I had grown unhappy with my body. My age. My weight.

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I despaired that it was too late for any kind of relationship with anyone. My future of being perpetually single. The lack of love in my life which I had thought I was indifferent to. Few friends. My tendency to isolate even before lockdown. My estranged family. My past. My future. My accountability for failed relationships. Mortality. Everything was tumbling down around me. I realized I had given up.

It felt like a crushing bereavement.

I was jealous of Alex's other clients. It felt like intense sibling rivalry and I didn't have the courage to bring that up with Alex because I was so ashamed of this. I am sure he would have helped because it sounds so obvious to me now that I have family issues that needed excavating.

When in the throes of AIT it was like being in the eye of an emotional hurricane.

I struggled with the concept of transference. I didn't want to believe it was a phenomenon — a cliché - that I was experiencing. It felt real.

I believed it wasn't at all connected to my past relationships. It was him. Alex. Him alone. Nothing to do with therapy. Although on the one hand, I wanted to wrestle down and conquer the emotions, I reveled in my dream world too.

I lost my temper with Alex and blamed him for the transference. I told him that all his theories about transference were poppycock and that the therapy construct itself was to blame: unconditional positive regard, mirroring, reflecting, reframing, non-disclosure by the therapist, and fake one-way 'friendship'. All of this will threaten to throw a vulnerable client into a crazy love vortex.

It wasn't my fault, I told him, it was his. It was the fault of the whole world of psychology! They should have a black box warning! I was furious and I ranted for some time and eventually, I terminated with him.

I started contributing to online forum discussions and I dubbed transference Stockholm Syndrome — one psychologist online even agreed with me.

What I hadn't realized  and understand now  is that my subconscious mind had placed Alex on a pedestal as high as the Empire State Building.

My first dream about Alex involved my father and I dreamed about my deceased Dad several times after that.

In Love and Limerence, Dorothy Tennov explains that Limerence (intense pain associated with unrequited love) can last as long as two years and it's a coincidence that I'm at the two-year mark since beginning consultations with Alex. I now see him as an ordinary guy. He is human. He has flaws. We all do.

He is not perfect and neither am I. He's doing his job and I am doing mine. I like him. That's essential — but I don't love him like I thought I did and I probably never really did. What happened was a therapeutic phenomenon.

Three months after I terminated with Alex I contacted him asking him to reconsider me as a client once again.

There had been a tricky rupture at the end of our work together.

My strong transferential feelings had simply vanished.

I now believe that part of the difficulty with AIT was down to unmet deep unconscious needs in my past and present. I had hidden away a profound yearning. Beneath my cavalier "I love solitude and I am happy to be single" was a childlike need for affection. Connection. I found, to my dismay, that I am not a robot.

Therapy isn't all doom and gloom. I fondly remember a session where I laughed so much there were tears running down my face.

I am sure I shall be navigating more challenging obstacles in therapy sessions and hopefully in the future, I'll be having a few laughs, too.

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Trevor Martin is a freelance writer and his work appears in the Guardian, BBC, The Advocate, Huffington Post, and more.

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