Q. Several years ago I sought out therapy during a perfect storm of events in my life that left me quite depressed. My therapist, a soft-spoken, empathic, and nonjudgmental person, became a safe harbor during this storm. I fell in love with him.
When I realized that I was in love with my therapist, I thought the best thing to do would be to end the relationship and find a female therapist to work with. However, the therapy was a lifeline; we worked well together and I was reluctant to start over with another therapist.
As best I could, I talked about the romantic and sexual feelings in therapy. My therapist maintained clear boundaries, assured me that it was safe to talk about whatever came up, respected my feelings, and demonstrated that he could be trusted with my vulnerability.
I stayed in therapy and continued to work on the issues that brought me there. Loving him was painful, yet the relationship was a source of a lot of healing. I occasionally brought up in therapy the feelings toward him, which helped me to keep perspective.
I’m ready now to end therapy. I wish I could feel more respect for myself about having had feelings for someone who is off-limits. When I talked about this in therapy recently, my therapist asked why I would feel disrespect toward myself for these quite natural feelings. I responded that if I wrote a Love Letter to Meredith, the reply would be something along the lines of “What, are you crazy? In love with your therapist? Really?” And that the letters from the LL community would be judgmental and unkind, along the lines of “get a life already.”
But of course I underestimate you and your community (I hope). So here I am writing to you.
I feel much grief about leaving someone who is so dear to me. I’d like to be at peace with the cliché of having fallen in love with my therapist. I’d like to be able to remember this positive relationship with gratitude, without the shadow of shame. Any words of wisdom?
AN ENLIGHTENED HEART
A. There’s no need to punish yourself for developing feelings for this man. Therapists are trained to deal with transference because it happens. Of course you’d become fond of the person who always shows up and listens. Of course you’d feel nice things about your “safe harbor.”
But please keep some perspective. You used the phrase “in love” four times by my count. And while I believe that you developed romantic feelings for this man, I don’t believe that you were in love. This was a one-sided relationship. You were never forced to sit for an hour and listen to him talk about his life. You never saw him when he was super cranky. You know nothing (hopefully) about his mistakes, habits, and transgressions.
You don’t know what his bathroom looks like. And I don’t want to get mean, but you were paying this man for help. He was at his best, providing a service. If you fell in love, it was with 2 percent of him. You can’t make assumptions about the rest of him.
Be grateful that he was a help. Be grateful that you learned that you’re looking for a partner who listens. But please don’t make him more important than he is. And if you’re not sure that you’re done with therapy, go get some more — from someone new.
From my own experience with therapy, I know that the therapist is there only to listen to you and help you work through things. They do not talk about themselves, and do not let you in on their personality or interests, generally. So unless this therapist of yours is very unorthodox and has struck up some kind of intimate friendship with you during your sessions — which would be unethical — then it is likely that you have not fallen in love with him, but with the idea that a man can be compassionate, empathetic, and caring toward you.
It’s called “transference”, and it happens in many, many therapist-patient relationships. Stop beating yourself up for it. (But don’t try to act on it!)
You were experiencing a very normal reaction to therapy called transference. Read about it. It’s really not that bizarre and from what I’ve read in your letter, your therapist did an excellent job. It is also very appropriate to experience grief when terminating with your therapist because you had such a productive and positive relationship. He may also be feeling his own symptoms of grief at it ending. Don’t make this experience neurotic. What you have been going through is pretty normal.
I honestly think you are not ready to leave therapy, but I urge you not to continue with this therapist. Having been in therapy, I understand it’s a pain to start over with someone new, but you must. Make her female and I hope to God you don’t have any lesbian tendencies.
I had this really great therapist, a guy, British, adorable, funny, tall, good looking, really helpful. There was one day when I was sitting there in that comfy reclining chair of his, admiring his book collection and prattling on about some vapid story about my grandmother, my brother, and a wet towel, when I stopped and imagined us tumbling around naked on the woven Afghan red and blue wool rug. The next week, I called the lady social worker whom I saw five years ago, the one who fell asleep when I was telling the same story, and said, “I think it’s time we scheduled a regular appointment again.”
“Loving him was painful.” That’s when you know it’s not the right love. I find it very hard to agree with the concept that love should be hard, that it’s something you have to work at. It should be the easiest thing in the world.
“My therapist — a kind, soft-spoken, empathic, and nonjudgmental person.” Didn’t you just describe *every* therapist?
MCDIMMERSONColumn and comments are edited and reprinted from boston.com/loveletters. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@