The Subtle Implications of “Transference-love”

Although not widely recognized as a central theme in his writings, Freud’s emphasis on the analyst’s recognition and handling of love is posited as being of essential importance in one of his remarkably few papers on technique.  “Observations on Transference-Love” (1915), on first glance, appears to be a straightforward recommendation to the analyst not be seduced into a sexual relationship with the patient who has fallen in love with him.  However, a closer reading reveals that Freud’s considerations on the situation in his short paper involve a reflection on many of the essential elements of the psychoanalytic situation involving:  1) the paradoxical nature of transference-love, 2) the asymmetrical relationship between the analysand and the analyst in analytic discourse, and 3) the concept that love must be used at the service of the treatment in psychoanalysis to bring about change.

Freud notes that there is no model in life outside of psychoanalysis from which to draw in order to navigate the complexity of the erotically-charged analytic situation.  Through the repetition of the transference, the analysand is carrying her identifications, projections and displacements into this transference-love which “consists of new editions of old traits,” and “is lacking to a high degree a regard for reality.”  However, upon a bit of reflection, Freud argues that these “new editions” of erotic investments in the transference seem to be present in all loving relationships in life: there is a repetition of the erotic characteristics in each transference dynamic, whether inside or outside the treatment room, in analytic relationships or otherwise.  Furthermore, being in love is characterized by “lacking” of  “regard for reality,” regardless of if the subject is inside or outside the psychoanalytic setting.  So, strangely, there is no essential difference between love and erotic transference other than 1) the transference-love is invoked by something about the clinical setting, and 2) somehow the erotic transference increases the resistance to the lifting of repression and the subsequent working-through which Freud considered necessary to enable change.  Love and transference are inextricably interrelated.  The analyst must, therefore, carefully navigate the currents through the love-transference delta to guide the analytic ship in its passage of treatment towards smooth sailing.  

Freud cautions the psychoanalyst not to give into the demands for him to reciprocate the patient’s affections by demonstrating his love for the patient.  After noting some ethical and practical reasons for this, Freud identifies the essential dynamics of what Lacan would later designate as the Hysteric’s Discourse in his theory of the Four Discourses presented in Seminar XVII (1969-1970).  In this discourse, the subject demands that the analyst produce the cure to her symptom to prove his love.  Whatever the analyst produces to satisfy her demand will enevitably fail; every attempt to demonstrate his love or solve her problems just proves his impotence at getting to the root or the fundamental truth of her symptom, which is ultimately the link to the driving force behind the erotic transference in the first place.  Freud recommends that the analyst must use the power of love in the erotic transference.  He must resist, however, responding to the demands of the patient while fundamentally changing the shape of the conversation.  This is what Lacan would formalize as a shift from the Hysteric’s Discourse to the Analyst’s Discourse.  In the Analyst’s Discourse, the psychoanalyst deflects the patient’s demands while listening enigmatically and demonstrating a loving curiosity.  This orientation compels the subject to work towards the bearing of repressed material.  Having been brought to speech, this repressed material can ultimately lead the analyst towards interpreting the unknown fundamental truths which drive the analysand’s symptoms along with her transference-love.  

Freud’s reflection on the dynamics of transference-love in his short paper suggests that the analyst needs to reorient his position in the clinical discourse with regards to love at the service of the treatment.  Freud seems to acknowledge the asymmetry of the positions of the lover and the beloved as put forth by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium.  Freud recognizes that if the analyst, believing the patient has fallen in love with him, allows himself to accept the position of the beloved, he cedes his position in the reciprocal role of being the lover.  So then by believing that the patient truly loves him and by responding to her demands so that he may remain in the position of the beloved, the analyst loses his ability to listen with love with no demand to be loved in return.  Freud thus recommends that the analyst neither accept the belief that he is truly the beloved nor respond to the pressure from the patient to produce evidence of love on demand.  He must listen carefully, and must listen with love to the “new editions of old traits” manifest in the repetition stemming from the patient’s erotic transference.   In his short paper Freud’s thinking extends well beyond his recommendations for professional abstinence clearly evident at the surface.  Freud points towards the inseparable union between love and transference.  He illuminates how the psychoanalytic process, without a precedent in any other situation in life, involves a necessary change in discourse that doesn’t primarily address the patient’s demands at a manifest level.  (For example, this differs from a medical treatment in which the physician is enlisted to treat a specific ailment on a manifestly physical level).  Finally, Freud recognizes the consequential nature of erotic passion related to both the strangeness and intensity of the analytic setting.  He exhorts us to accept our great responsibility by using love at the service of the treatment.