A Short Guide to ‘Transference’, the Relationship-harmer

Last weekend I was spending time at my boyfriend’s place. It was his birthday, so we had one or two social engagements, plus he was preparing for something important on a personal project. This meant he had less available attention than usual.

As the weekend unfolded, I experienced an old wound reopening. A past unmet emotional need I had for my mum’s love and attention was suddenly alive inside me, only it had been transferred onto my partner. I felt a lot of fear.

Transference is the phenomenon of redirecting emotions that were originally felt in childhood, or in former relationships with previous partners, onto someone in your present reality.

When you are caught in transference, you cannot see reality clearly. The emotion of fear often works overtime when there is no immediate threat. Your attention is narrowed onto the negative and potentially catastrophic.

Transference happens regardless of your intelligence or emotional stability. It is a deep structure of human relationships. Psychotherapist David Richo says “even without issues with our parents, we would displace, project and transfer, since we are beings who easily slip out of the smart embrace of present reality into the enchanting grip of the imaginary world.” We don’t just transfer our parental stuff, we transfer traits of former partners onto current partners, too.

For these reasons, it’s essential to be aware of how transference shows up in your relationships, and how you tend to respond when it does.

This post is about how to do that, and therefore avoid the past from being present in your relationships.

Understand that transference serves an important purpose

Transference is essentially a compulsion to return to our past in order to clear up our old blockages. It has the potential to be destructive, but it is also a doorway to growth and awakening.

Transference comes from a healthy desire to heal and get closure.

Taking my example: without that legacy of an emotionally unavailable mother, I would have just noticed that my boyfriend was not making as much time for me as usual, and worked around it with minimal impact on my feelings.

Given my reaction, the occasion offered me some learning and growth. It helped me to locate a long-unnoticed issue; a piece of unfinished business. And it has been satisfying to be able to bring more consciousness to the situation than perhaps I could in the past.

How to recognise your own transference

The most common clues to transference are:

  • Stronger feelings than seem to fit the circumstance;
  • Instance reactions;
  • Holding onto a relationship when it isn’t working;
  • Obsession;
  • Unexplainable attraction or repulsion;
  • Personalizing others’ actions; and
  • Similarity in characteristics of our partners.

Look for situations and behaviors which can be counted on to elicit swift and powerful responses; those that don’t seem in any way in line with what is happening.

Transference isn’t always negative. A lot of us transfer positive traits we associated with one or both parents onto new partners, not seeing them clearly for who they are.

Apparently is it a rare relationship that does not ignite through transference!

Seven types of transference love relationships

On that last note, here are the common types of transference relationships.

They aren’t necessary to be aware of, although you will find it interesting if you are the type of person who seeks to account for their attractions.

(1) A Mother-Oedipal Complex: subconsciously falling in love with someone who reminds you of your mother.

(2) the counter version of that: subconsciously falling in love with the opposite.

(3) A Father-Oedipal Complex: subconsciously falling for or being attracted to someone who reminds us of our father.

(4) the counter version of that.

(5) A Mixed-Oedipal and counter: subconsciously falling in love or being attracted to someone who reminds us of a combination of our mother and father, and/or their opposites.

(6) Narcissistic Transference Complex: falling in love or being attracted to someone who reminds us of ourselves, either in the present, past, or as we wish to be.

(7) A Counter Narcissistic Transference Complex: falling in love or being attracted to someone who we view as being opposite to ourselves, which is likely our subconscious way of saying there is a part of us we wish to unbury and bring alive.

How to deal with transference when it happens

Here are the psychological practices suggested by therapists that help you to work through transferences. These must be combined with the practice of mindfulness.

  • Notice the psychical facts about others as they are in the moment. “Ruthless focus on here and now reality avoids the seduction of your imagination”, says expert David Richo.
  • Ask your partner what they are really saying or feeling.
  • Make the transference conscious. Ask “who are they (your partner) like right now?”
  • Ask others what they see as being your possible transferences.
  • Notice when you are trying to find in others what you missed out on in childhood. Mentally check through the so-called ‘5 As’: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, Allowing.

End this process with a loving-kindness practice. (Internally) meditate on the following: “May you and I love more authentically. May we act from a more enlightened place.”

Final thoughts

To wrap up, here is a thought-provoking quote from the brilliant book, When the Past is Present, Healing the Emotional Wounds that Sabotage our Relationships. Try to work out which of the three bases for transference is your go-to (I am a despair girl myself).

“Hope, expectation and despair reside in all of us. Whichever happened in childhood lingers on in us and then becomes activated in an intimate relationship. We then transfer onto other our hope that they will come through for us, our expectation that they will make up for all our past deficits, or our despair of them ever being really there for us. We can even cause any of these three options to happen.

In the transference based on hope, we ask those we love, often tentatively and indirectly, to provide us with what was missing from the past. We believe others, some others, can indeed be trusted to be there for us. In the transference based on expectation, we demand this. In the transference based on despair, we anticipate and fear repetition of failures of attuning to our needs. We imagine that an adult partner will disappoint us as our parents did, and we shame ourselves from being unworthy or blame our partners from being ungiving.”

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