transference 101

Discussions of transference in psychological manuals tend, it seems to me, to be rather formulaic and to miss the more significant contours of the clinical phenomenon. Here's my working attempt at elucidating more cleanly the phenomenology of some of what tends to get called by that name.

The main difference, from standard approaches, that I wish to stress here concerns what normally prevents someone from forming a transference. For whilst it is not uncommon for transference to emerge in various relationships - with teachers, managers, supervisors, etc. - it is also the case that ordinary relationships can be surprisingly free of transference. Yet in the recumbent and perennial conditions of psychoanalysis it flowers forth endlessly. Why this disjunct?

The reason, I believe, is that transference only belongs to attachment relationships, and most relationships we form are kept contrivedly detached. We seek out socially sanctioned forms of quasi-relating that do the job, keeping matters safely out of the attachment zone and away from the emotional conflicts that unfold inexorably in that territory.

i. Some understandings of transference stress to us the disposition to project the form of an earlier significant relationship onto a current relationship - to treat our boss as if he is our dad. ii. Others stress that it is not so much an active projection as a continuous behavioural disposition. iii. Yet others still collapse it into any of the intense emotional involvement of patient with their therapist.

i. The problem with the first is that it doesn't tell us why we engage in this projective activity. Perhaps we could posit a repetition compulsion - an attempt to mend a past hurt by repeating its conditions under the hope it will come out differently? (That seems a bit far fetched to me.) ii. The problem with the second is that it doesn't explain why it often doesn't happen. iii. The problem with the third is that it deprives it of interesting clinical meaning.

Here though is an understanding of transference that, I believe, meets the phenomenon where we intuitively locate it. When we are in an intimate attachment relationship we have arising within us, naturally, a range of expectations, dispositions, loves and hates and fears and envies. It is, in fact, only really in attachment relationships that self-development takes place. Yet it is also hard to achieve real stability and mutual knowing in such relationships. We've been hurt too many times. Felt or worried we got it wrong. Not been afforded recognition. Been blamed when we thought we were guiltless and felt bewildered. It's a muddle, in this zone, to tease out who - you or me? - is the culpable one. It's hard to think here, hard to find our bearings. So we swing about wildly, from pole to pole - from hate to guilt, from omnipotence to shame.

This is the zone that needs to be activated - ideally, perhaps, by the perennial and recumbent conditions of analysis, but to some degree in any healthy relationship - before new deep emotional learning can take place. Activated, that is, so that then the swings can be made less wild, gradually stabilised by tolerance and insight. Most of the time, however, we avoid getting close to the conflict zone, we automatically arrange our interpersonal liaisons in some or other Switzerland. Pseudomaturity is, as it were, simply the norm in adult human life. The conflict in the transference zone is naturally regressive - just because it embodies our actual developmental achievement so far in negotiating this non-simulated terrain (and, sadly, we're just not as emotionally cocked and savvy as we might typically wishfully imagine). It is specific to attachment relationships, since these are the only ones where the whole tricky business of love and hate, you and me, comes up. And it is not that we are repeating or projecting forward the past - but rather that, under the bonnet, we've just never yet grown up.


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