Published November 17, 2014-Updated February 9, 2018

What is “transference”?

“Transference” is a psychoanalytic term that refers to something that is very common in daily life: People displace unresolved conflicts, dependencies, and aggressions onto others (e.g. substituting a lover, spouse, etc. for one’s parent) for reasons that are not easily understandable. This operation occurs commonly in psychotherapy when a client transfers feelings that were previously directed to someone else to the therapist. The client sees in her therapist the return of some important figure from her childhood or past and consequently transfers on to him feelings and reactions from the past. Early childhood relationships, memories, and emotions, are deeply intertwined; this “bundle” resurfaces in current relationships again and again. It becomes evident in the analytic process that the transference is an instrument of irreplaceable value to decode the clients past, and it is also a source of serious dangers for the clinical relationship. From this perspective, transference refers to the actualization of unconscious fantasies, memories, and wishes during psychoanalytic treatment. They are unconscious because neither the client nor the analyst knows initially what is happening. in the process. The general assumption is that by working through the transference of feelings onto the therapist or analyst, the client comes to confront the actual cause of his or her feelings.

Carl Jung wrote a somewhat strange book entitled “The Psychology of the Transference” (1969) where he uses alchemical symbolism to describe transference phenomena. He explains how within the transference dyad, both participants experience a variety of emotional constellations and opposites, from love to hatred, and the key to success and psychological growth is the ability to endure the tension of the opposites without abandoning the process. In Jung’s view, the tension is itself the force that allows one to grow and to transform. Jung’s chemical view of relational processes demonstrates the difficulties we encounter when trying to theorize a complex phenomenon such as transference.

The mentioned ambivalence is similar to any love-hate relationship. Transference is an imaginary relationship; it comprises positive and affectionate as well as negative and hostile attitudes toward the analyst, who is frequently put in the place of the father or the mother of the client. Positive transference facilitates the analytic process and changes the therapeutic relationship in particular ways. It sidetracks the client’s rational aim of becoming well and free from his troubles. Instead, there emerges the aim of pleasing the analyst, of winning her applause and love. This becomes the true motive behind the client’s collaboration. The transference effect causes the weak ego to become strong; the client achieves things that would otherwise be beyond his reach; his symptoms disappear and he seems to have recovered easily. He expresses his admiration or love for the analyst or his appreciation for the therapy process. The truth of it, however, is that these therapeutic successes occur under the sway of the positive transference; they are suggestive in nature. If the transference turns negative, the early therapeutic gains can be reversed just as easily.

In the following, I will briefly discuss the evolution of the concept in Freud and Lacan. Here is the summary:

  1. Transference is like a projection, where memories and desires from the past are mixed with the representation of the analyst. This leads to a partial identification where features of significant figures from the client’s history melt with the perception of the analyst.

  2. The term can also be used more generally to refer to all aspects of the client’s relationship with the analyst.

  3. The analyst’s unconscious reactions to the client – and to the transference itself – are described as ‘counter-transference’.

  4. Freud initially took the view that transference was a displacement of existing affects or emotional charges, and that it was a remnant of old emotions or something to be analyzed like any other symptom.

  5. The transference was an obstacle because it induced repetitions and blocked the emergence of new free associations.

  6. In his account of the ‘Dora’ case, Freud concluded that his inability to complete the analysis was the result of his failure to analyze the transference.

  7. Later on, Freud still views transference as an obstacle to analysis but also accepts that without it, the actualization of repressed emotions would be impossible.

  8. Lacan initially refers to transference as a dialectic of identifications; in later formulations, he adopts the formula that the analysand views the analyst as the ‘subject supposed to know.” Transference is thus linked to the fantasy that there is someone who knows, and this differential between analysand and analyst forms the basis of the analytic relationship. The analysand has the assumption that there is an other – the analyst – who possesses knowledge about herself, and who can understand her innermost thoughts.

  9. According to Lacan, any pedagogic relationship is structured by a similar fantasy. The fantasy is very common, and therefore, transference exists almost everywhere. The analytic relationship is unique insofar as it is dedicated to examining this phenomenon.

Freud’s view

The term transference first emerged in Freud’s work as simply another term for the displacement of affect from one idea to another. Later on, however, it came to refer to the patient’s relationship to the analyst as it develops in the treatment. This soon became the central meaning of the term and is the sense in which it is usually understood in psychoanalytic theory today. The use of a special term to denote the patient’s relationship to the analyst is justified by the peculiar character of this relationship.

Freud was first struck by the intensity of the patient’s affective reactions to the doctor in Breuer’s treatment of Anna O in 1882, which he argued was due to the patient transferring unconscious ideas onto the doctor. As he developed the psychoanalytic method, Freud first regarded the transference exclusively as a resistance which impedes the recall of repressed memories, an obstacle to the treatment which must be dissolved’.(Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on Hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.)

He modified this view gradually, coming to see the transference also as a positive factor which helps the treatment to progress. The positive value of transference lies in the fact that it provides a way for the analysand’s history to be confronted in the immediacy of the present relationship with the analyst; in the way he relates to the analyst, the analysand inevitably repeats earlier relationships with other figures (especially those with the parents). This paradoxical nature of transference, as both an obstacle to the treatment and that which drives the treatment forward, perhaps helps to explain why there are so many different and opposing views of transference in psychoanalytic theory today.

Transference in Lacan’s theory

Lacan’s thinking about transference goes through several stages. His first work to deal with the subject in any detail is ‘An Intervention on the Transference,’ in which he describes the transference in dialectical terms borrowed from Hegel. He criticizes ego-psychology for defining the transference in terms of affects; “Transference does not refer to any mysterious property of affect, and even when it reveals itself under the appearance of emotion, it only acquires meaning by virtue of the dialectical moment in which it is produced.” (Ecrits, p. 225)

In other words, Lacan argues that although transference often manifests itself in the guise of particularly strong affects, such as love and hate, it does not consist of such emotions but in the structure of an intersubjective relationship. This structural definition of transference remains a constant theme throughout the rest of Lacan’s work; he consistently locates the essence of transference in the symbolic and not in the imaginary, although it clearly has powerful imaginary effects. Later on, Lacan will remark that if transference often manifests itself under the appearance of love, it is first and foremost the love of knowledge that is concerned. Although Lacan does speak occasionally of countertransference, he generally prefers not to use this term.

Lacan returns to the subject of the transference in the seminar of 1953-4. This time he conceives it not in terms borrowed from Hegelian dialectics but in terms borrowed from the anthropology of exchange. Transference is implicit in the speech act, which involves an exchange of signs that transforms the speaker and listener. Each time a man speaks to another in an authentic and full manner, there is, in the true sense, transference, symbolic transference – something which takes place which changes the nature of the two beings present.

In the seminar of the following year, he discusses the symbolic nature of transference, which he identifies with the compulsion to repeat, the insistence of the symbolic determinants of the subject. This is to be distinguished from the imaginary aspect of transference, which mostly consist of the affective reactions of love and aggressivity. By distinguishing between the symbolic and imaginary aspects of transference, Lacan provides a useful way of understanding the paradoxical function of the transference in psychoanalytic treatment; in its symbolic aspect it facilitates the analysis by revealing the repetitive signifiers of the subject’s history, while in its imaginary aspect (love and hate) it acts as a resistance.

Lacan’s continues to circle the subject of transference; the eighth year of his seminar is entitled simply ‘The Transference’. He uses Plato’s Symposium to illustrate the relationship between the analysand and the analyst. Alcibiades compares Socrates to a plain box which encloses a precious object (Greek: agalma); just as Alcibiades attributes a hidden treasure to Socrates, so the analysand sees his object of desire in the analyst (see objet petit a).

Finally, in 1964, Lacan articulates the concept of transference with his concept of the subject supposed to know, which remains central to Lacan’s view of the transference from then on. This view of the transference is seen as Lacan’s most complete attempt to theorise the concept. According to this view, transference is the attribution of knowledge to the Other, the supposition that the Other is a subject who knows; ‘As soon as the subject who is supposed to know exists somewhere . . . there is transference.” (Seminar II, p. 232)

Although the existence of the transference is a necessary condition of psychoanalytic treatment, it is not sufficient in itself; it is also necessary that the analyst deal with the transference in a unique way. This differentiates psychoanalysis from therapies based on suggestive techniques; although both are based on the transference, psychoanalysis differs from suggestion because the analyst refuses to use the power given to him by the transference in this way.

Interpreting the transference

Early on in the history of psychoanalysis, it became common to distinguish between those aspects of the patient’s relationship to the analyst which were ‘adapted to reality’ and those which were not. The client’s reactions which are caused by perceiving the analyst in a distorted way fall into the latter category. Some analysts use the term ‘transference’ to refer to all aspects of the analysand’s relationship to the analyst, in which case they distinguish the distorted ‘neurotic transference’ or ‘transference neurosis’ from the ‘unobjectionable part of the transference’ or ‘therapeutic alliance.” (Edward Bibring, Elizabeth Zeztel)

Other analysts argue that the term ‘transference’ should be restricted to the ‘unrealistic’ or ‘irrational’ reactions of the analysand. (William Silverberg, Franz Alexander). However, the common assumption underlying both of these positions is that the analyst can tell when the client is not reacting to him on the basis of who he really is, but rather on the basis of previous relationships with other people. The analyst supposedly has this ability because one assumes that based on his training he is better ‘adapted to reality’ than the client. Informed by his own correct perception of reality, the analyst can offer ‘transference interpretations’; that is, he can point out the discrepancy between the real situation and the irrational aspects in the clients’ reactions. Such transference interpretations supposedly help the analysand to gain ‘insight’ into his own neurotic transference and thereby resolve it or ‘liquidate’ it.

Lacan criticizes this representation of psychoanalytic treatment. His criticisms are based on the following arguments:

  1. The whole idea of adaptation to reality is based on a naive empiricist epistemology, involving an appeal to an unproblematic notion of ‘reality’ as an objective and self-evident given. This entirely neglects what psychoanalysis has discovered about the ego’s construction of reality: it is based on misrecognition and distortions. Hence when the analyst assumes that she is better adapted to reality than the client she has no other recourse than ‘to fall back on her own ego’ since this is the only ‘bit of reality she knows’. If this is true, then the healthy part of the client’s ego is defined simply as ‘the part that thinks as we do’. This reduces psychoanalytic treatment to a form of suggestion in which the analyst simply ‘imposes his own idea of reality’ on the analysand. Thus ‘the inability [of the analyst] to sustain a praxis in an authentic manner results, as is usually the case with mankind, in the exercise of power.”

  2. The idea that the clients’ distorted perception of the analyst’ could be liquidated by means of interpretations is a fallacy since the transference is interpreted on the basis of the transference itself. In other words, there is no metalanguage of the transference, no vantage point outside the transference from which the analyst could offer an interpretation, since any interpretation he offers “will be received as coming from the person that the transference imputes him to be.”

  3. Thus it is contradictory to claim that the transference can be dissolved by means of an interpretation when it is the transference itself which conditions the analysand’s acceptance of that interpretation; “the emergence of the subject from the transference is thus postponed ad infinitum.”

Does this mean that Lacanian analysts never interpret the transference? Certainly not; Lacan affirms that “it is natural to interpret the transference,” but at the same time, he has no illusions about the power of such interpretations to dissolve the transference. Like any other interpretation, the analyst must use his art in deciding if and when to interpret the transference, and above all must avoid aiming his interpretations exclusively at the transference relation. He should know what he is seeking to achieve by these interpretations. The goal is not to rectify the patient’s relationship to reality, but to maintain the analytic dialogue. “What does it mean, to interpret the transference? Nothing else than to fill the void of this deadlock with a lure. But while it may be deceptive, this lure serves a purpose by setting off the whole process again.” (Ecrits, p. 225)

When describing the transference as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, Lacan takes two different approaches. Following Freud, Lacan sometimes uses these adjectives to refer to the nature of the affects, ‘positive transference’ referring to loving affects and ‘negative transference’ referring to aggressive affects. Sometimes, however, Lacan takes the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to refer to the favorable or unfavorable effects of the transference on the treatment. Lacan argues that it is possible that the analysand’s resistance can function to oppose suggestions of the analyst, and in this regard what looks like negative transference is actually the opposite: the resistance of the client is positive transference because it maintains the direction of the analysis, even against the actions of the analyst.

Lacan also replaces the idea of counter-transference with the concept of the “desire of the analyst.” “The analyst’s desire . . . tends in a direction that is the exact opposite of identification.” Rather than identification, the analyst desires that the client’s own unique truth emerge in the treatment, a truth that is absolutely different to that of the analyst; the analyst’s desire is thus “a desire to obtain absolute difference.”

(Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 274)