The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name
And so we sit together, my client and I. He is weeping, deep sobs making his large body quake. Tears over a woman who could not return his love. I sit with him, holding his despair. My eyes also feel wet and sad, but I notice other feelings within myself. First there is anger – who is this idiot woman who doesn’t realize what a sweet, kind, partner he could be to her? And the other feeling – the urge to come over to the couch, put my hand on his or rest it on his back. The desire to touch. Maternal feelings. Protective feelings. Nothing I would act on, but something I would observe in myself with him and other clients from time to time. A kind of feeling that reminds me that despite the intimate connections we create in our work, there are also barriers we do not cross.
When I was in graduate school studying to become a psychologist, we were encouraged to explore our counter-transference. We were told it was common to sometimes have strong feelings for our clients. We might feel anger, rage, sexual longing, disgust. I was warned about sexual attraction. I was warned about daydreams and fantasies about clients. But nobody prepared me for the love. Nobody adequately prepared me for the sense of closeness and care that I experience when sitting with a patient.
It didn’t bloom during the early stages of my career. Since I was usually limited to brief therapy in a college counseling center (6 – 8 sessions), there wasn’t much opportunity to develop such deep connections. I was too busy patching people up and referring them to other mental health professionals who would be the ones to hold their hands and walk a longer, deeper path with them.
College counseling may have been my first dream. But after eight years, it lost its luster. I wanted to see people past the crises they were having and to go deeper with them. So I found an office and started accepting private practice referrals.
It took a couple of years for me to begin to notice that clients who I met with for a couple of months were people I felt I barely knew. At my former job, these were the people I was seeing “long-term.” Now, meeting with someone for eight sessions felt like the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
Not every client becomes a longer-term patient, and not every client is looking to do that kind of work. But to deny the intimacy that we experience as mental health professionals is to miss something essential. There is nothing more lovely than looking at my appointment book for the week and seeing a list of the names of people I’ve come to care for deeply. I had no idea how deeply I would be moved by my work.
I don’t tell clients I love them. As a psychologist who is very much aware of licensing board complaints, risk management and transference concerns prevent me from saying much more than “I care about you and your well-being.”
But sometimes I get teary in a session watching a couple interact together in a way that seemed impossible when they first came to me. My heart explodes with joy. Sometimes, I witness a success with someone who has been in pain for a long time and my heart wants to dance around the room. Or I feel outrage when someone hurts a client who is dear to me. But I never feel like I can reveal my heart and show clients where they map inside it: how much some of them come to mean, how much I believe in them or hurt for them or adore them. It would make things weird.
These feelings are not romantic or sexual. They are deep affection for who a person is, compassion, belief in them, a sense that when they hurt, I hurt for them. The knowledge that their successes make me proud like a parent (I don’t necessarily mean the successes that come from our work).
I have tried to discuss this with other clinicians, and I have been met with a variety of responses. A few people are willing to admit they feel similar things. But our risk management sensors, and clinical judgment has kept us from making the care we feel so explicit. Cards to our vests, we are cautious in the words we use. But at the same time, the feelings seem important, and I wish we were not so confined to not express the very thing that could be extremely healing to some people.
So we love them in silence.
There are those who deny that love can exist within a relationship with financial implications. This stuns me. The idea that someone paying (or receiving) money from another would preclude the development of “true feelings” seems limited to me. I’ve seen and heard of many examples involving the exchange of money or “work” in which loving feelings have developed: nursing, sex work, massage therapy, childcare, teachers, physical therapy, spiritual counseling, traditional and arranged marriages…these are just the situations that immediately come to mind. It makes no sense to me to suggest that the exchange of money puts a cap on one’s emotional experience or connection. But perhaps the belief that it does serves as self-protection for some? Perhaps the worry about abusive relationships, which certainly can and do develop, makes it easier to say that this is all fantasy and projection. But I don’t buy it.
Some have admitted they told long-term patients who were dying or dealing with end of life issues that they loved them. It intrigues me that only in the face of death will some clinicians feel free to say the unspeakable. Is this a good or a bad thing? Is it because there is a looming time cap on the relationship and reduced fear of a board complaint?
Others tell me they don’t feel this love at all. Or they insist that loving feelings must be romantic or sexual. For these people, I feel sad. I know what my romantic and sexual feelings are like. They are accompanied by attraction, fantasy, longing, desire for more, thinking about someone in a craving sort of way. This isn’t what I’m talking about. To put a finer point on it, there is nothing unrequited about this love. It just looms quietly in the shadows, ironically unspoken in rooms otherwise punctuated with the most taboo words and stories.
I wonder if those who insist this is sex or romance have ever really experienced love in a more pure form? It worries me to think that people who don’t have access to such feelings are doing this work.
The times I’ve felt most aware of the love has usually been when a client is hurt, feeling shame, wanting to disown an aspect of self, struggling with self-love, and I wish I could loan mine out. Instead I try to beam the love to them through my face, my eyes, while I use words to remind them they are human and working hard on very difficult things and that I care deeply about them in this work and respect how they are showing up and being vulnerable.
But it’s interesting because I think in this one way, I am my least authentic self with clients. When I feel love, I circumvent it or find another way to convey it because it is too dangerous to speak. I regret that at times.
Here is another thing. I learned long ago that the aspects of psychotherapy that make the most significant impact on treatment aren’t the style of therapy or theoretical orientation, length of treatment, or number of years of experience the therapist has. The things that are connected to better outcomes are empathy and our ability to create an emotional connection with a client. Since I learned that, I have considered it a matter of both ethics and clinical efficacy to not take on a client unless I believe at the start that I can come to care for them deeply and make an emotional connection. It is one of my principles.
I have never told a client I love them. These words are too easily misinterpreted. Even the term “therapist love,” which is cute and tries to put a frame around it feels cheap and minimizing. I understand that a one-sided weekly therapy relationship over the years or even multiple-sessions-a-week therapy for decades, isn’t the same as a friendship, romance, or a family relationship. I understand it isn’t the same love that would develop if this were a reciprocal relationship. But I’m not going to let people tell me what is and isn’t real in my heart. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let people tell me that what I experience as love isn’t really love. Even if it goes unnamed and must exist in the air and the spaces between the words we actually speak. I’ll just have to hope that my clients can feel it and hear it in the spaces in between, behind the ticking of the clock and the hum of the white noise machine.
June 21, 2017 @ 7:52 am
Tender, professionally couragous and honest. Beautiful. Thank you!
June 21, 2017 @ 5:55 pm
Beautifully written and expresses what I so often feel for my clients when therapy is really working. Pure, unconditional caring and deep connection that perhaps seems even more intense because it is kept in one room with clear boundaries rather than having a relationship in the outside world. And you’re so right about the possibility of this feeling being misunderstood or judged by others. I, too, was warned about romantic or sexual feelings in the therapy room and this is a very different feeling/experience and valuable to the therapy process. Thank you for sharing!
June 21, 2017 @ 7:29 pm
Yes, I feel this way about several of my clients. We see into our clients’ souls, we witness their pain and their fierce resilience. We cheer for them, we mourn with them, how can we not love some of them?
Thank you for articulating this so well.
June 22, 2017 @ 1:08 am
Beautifully stated. Each therapist needs to figure out exactly how to draw their own boundaries. What I hear here is the instinct to express love through touch and direct verbal confirmation. But love is expressed in actions as well, and good therapy inherently loving. I think many clients know they are loved even if boundaries prevent it being expressed more directly through touch and words.
June 22, 2017 @ 4:30 am
An addendum to my comment above:
I was just listening to Bill Moyers who stated “Listening is an act of revolutionary love.” While he may have been talking about journalists in this instance, it’s equally applicable to therapists. Truly hearing someone who has not been heard.
July 13, 2017 @ 7:18 pm
Absolutely. For our work, I call this feeling non-egocentric nourishment. It’s the deepest reward.
April 20, 2018 @ 10:52 pm
Refreshing to read about the real human feelings and connections that develop in the therapy room. I know as a person who has sat in both chairs of being a client and a therapist that the appropriate and authentic expression of being liked and care for was healing and this has informed my practice.
Jillian B Beverstock, LMFT, PLLC
April 22, 2018 @ 8:09 pm
Thank you for your honesty and courage to share. I too hope my clients feel they are loved and cared for to bring them hope on their journeys.
July 20, 2019 @ 10:02 pm
Thank you for writing this! It gives me insightful look of what’s in a therapist’s mind. I recently referred to therapy because of anxiety, the midlife crisis, stress from work, family members getting cancers, stressful husband, repellent teenagers. This is the first time I see a therapist, I didn’t know there is even concerns about hugs. On second session, I mentioned about some painful memory I wasn’t planning to talk, it was so overwhelming. I was feeling like dropping down into a deep black hole. It’s time to end the session. I tried hard to hold my cry and my brain was blanked out. When I stood up I felt dizzy and closed my eyes, then I heard my therapist saying something like “Is there anything else I can door you?”, I felt that I desperately need a hug to lift me up. So I said “I need a hug”. Then I felt him hugged me tightly and said “you are very brave” and I bursted into tears. Before I left, he suggested me to take a short walk first before I back to my work place. I felt that it’s the best hug that I have ever had, stopped me dropping deeper into the dark hole. From then on, we talked about the tragedy I experienced as a child. Even though I didn’t plan to share it at the very beginning.
I am glad that I didn’t know know much of therapy and asked for a hug. It’s the beginning of building the connection and trust between me and my therapist. I feel cared and supported and loved during my therapy. Later on, I had another hard time because of an unexpected loss of a family member. But I was able to move forward because I find strength through all these care, support and love from family, friends, therapist and even strangers.
I do not care my feelings toward my therapist is love or transference because I will never do anything to change this professional relationship. I trusted him as my therapist, that’s it. I will remember this warm moment like any moments in my life that I treasure forever, as the source of energy, strength to guide me through hard times.
Dr Clark, Psychiatrist
March 29, 2021 @ 4:11 pm
Patient: “Do you love me?”
Psychiatrist: “I do. Let me give you something to explain.
It is unfortunate that in the English language, “love” is limited to so few and possibly dangerous meanings.
The Greek language is much more clear about the different types of love.”
Gives the following paper:
Types of Love:
1. Eros (romantic, passionate love) passion, lust and pleasure
2. Philia (affectionate love) friendship “without physical attraction”
3. Agape (selfless, universal love) such as the love for nature or God, a boundless compassion and an infinite empathy that you extended to everyone, whether they are family members or distant strangers.
4. Storge (familiar love) a natural form of affection experienced between family members, protective, kinship-based love is common between parents and their children, and children for their parents, a sense of patriotism toward a country or allegiance to the same team
5. Mania (obsessive love) Stalking behaviors, co-dependency, extreme jealousy, and violence are all symptoms of Mania.
6. Ludus (playful love) having a crush and acting on it, or the affection between young lovers
7. Pragma (enduring love) built on commitment, understanding and long-term best interests, love that has aged, matured, about making the relationship work over time, also showing patience and tolerance
8. Philautia (self love)
“I DO love you in a NON-traditional way. I Agape-Love you, because I feel compassion for you. I Storge-Love you because I feel protective of you, as I am on YOUR TEAM! I Pragma-Love you, because I have your best interests at heart, over time.”
April 21, 2021 @ 1:46 pm
Keely, I came to your site looking for your social media policy to give to a colleague but was drawn to the mystique of this article’s title. Once again, you dare to speak of what often remains unspoken. I too have felt similar feelings for not a few, but most of my long-term clients. It is a deep and ever-present bond that I believe is mutual. I also think that it is the fuel they use to grow. It is the wind beneath their wings if you will. In any case, you remain an inspiration, a true colleague, and a friend. Be well.
April 29, 2021 @ 3:01 am
Beautiful. Love is the most powerful healing tool there is. So why can’t we show it? It would be nice if therapeutic touch was ok as long as client and therapist were on the same page and it was ethical. I’m talking about a warm hug or reassuring touch. Touch deprivation is a real thing. I’m on the client end of things. I feel a strong attachment and genuinely like my therapist as a person. They’ve been willing to talk a little bit about themselves as long as we don’t lose focus on why we’re here. So it’s always very brief. I just wish I could know them better. I can’t help it. I feel like I would possible enjoy being their friend or colleague. Sigh. Go for a run or walk our dogs and just talk about whatever. If my therapist hugged me that would be so nice. But I understand the rules. I hope one day maybe we could be friends. If not, they are at least my friend for now and I love them as such. And that warm feeling of love has really given me strength and comfort 🙂 I’m so grateful to have for this experience.
August 3, 2021 @ 3:24 am
My therapist tells me she loves me. It’s not in any inappropriate way. I know she genuinely cares about me as a human being. The love she has shown me has allowed me to learn what love is supposed to look like and show it to my friends, coworkers, family, and the people I interact with every day. Before my therapist I don’t think I ever knew what healthy love looked like it has been an invaluable lesson she has taught me. I find it so sad that there is liability in a therapist telling a client they love them. But I can see how it could be misconstrued. But if everyone just showed each other a little more love this world would be a better place.
December 19, 2021 @ 6:35 pm
Thank you for this article. I’m primarily coming from the client’s perspective, but I’m also going to school to become a clinical psychologist, so I’m experiencing the therapist side as well. I’ve been working with my therapist for about 4 years now. Right from day one, I’ve been highly attracted to him, and I have struggled with that, but over time, especially as I’ve healed from old trauma and am emotionally freer and healthier, there’s also love. It can be a challenge to distinguish the two because we’ve got chemistry in spades–even though I’d never want the attraction to be acted on, I’ve got more chemistry with him than even my best friends, so the attraction can make it really hard at times not to want a relationship outside of therapy. The conversation is so comfortable, we can practically finish each other’s sentences, we share the same quirky sense of humor, there’s plenty of witter banter, we can tease each other, etc.
Though everyone says, “Oh, it’s just transference. You’re imagining it if you think he can feel anything in return,” I don’t 100% buy that. Maybe to a degree that’s the case, but I think it can also be that we can just develop a love for someone that can’t be acted on because of the nature of the relationship. Maybe it can’t be acted on, or maybe it can’t be talked about freely on his end, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of genuine love on either end. I’m human, so I sure as heck know I feel and act when I love someone, and I’m sure as heck not going buy the idea that my love for my therapist is all fantasy and projection instead of real love because of what I never had before. If it could only be fantasy and projection, then how could I have ANY relationship that’s not just transference? How could I ever have a friend or romantic partner who wasn’t just filling an unmet need? That’s like saying that it doesn’t matter who my therapist is, as long as they meet my needs and I connect with them. But a therapist is still a unique, non-repeatable person: He has his smile, his laugh, his way of phrasing things, his mannerisms, his virtues, his faults, his quirks, etc. And the client is her own unique person. So every single therapist-client relationship is its own unique thing with its own personality. The only reason my therapy has gone so well this time–he’s my fourth therapist–is precisely because of that unique relationship and that mutual chemistry. And because, even though his boundaries are rock solid and he would never say anything, I know there’s love on his side as well because it shows.
I think it’s a shame that so many therapists can’t admit to themselves that they love a client, because, for the client, the experience of not just being unconditionally loved, but of mutual, reciprocal love is enormous. For instance, it’s because my therapist and I have a mutual love and admiration that I have learned it’s even possible for me to have a loving relationship with any man. I didn’t just need unconditional positive regard: I needed the experience of mutual enjoyment, delight, and love, because I’d never believed I could experience anything other than one-sided love. To know I can be loved back by the very person who knows me better than anyone else, who has seen all my dark and nasty spots but still enjoys me, has been priceless. It has been the thing that has given me hope for finding love outside of therapy. As I delve into my studies, there’s so much talk about the therapist needing to be accepting, non-judgmental, attentive, etc., but not loving. And we stress that the client needs to love themselves. But why can’t we admit that we’re humans, designed by nature to need love from others? Self-love is great, but at some point, you’ve also got to experience love from someone else. So I’m baffled by the prevailing attitude that we can’t we also talk about the huge fruits that a client can derive from feeling like the therapist enjoys the client, genuinely likes her, and finds her delightful, and that the therapist feels love for her.
July 24, 2022 @ 6:46 pm
Thanks a lot for the perspective and openness. I have only hoped to be a patient my therapist looks forward to when she looks at her appointments for tomorrow. If she says, “ok good!”, well that would be great. Just don´t tell me, that would be too much to know!