The Type of Love that is Healing in the Therapeutic Relationship

Some authors who have written on the topic of love in relation to working therapeutically with clients have been very clear about the different types of love. Primarily, they are very keen to make it known that they do not feel romantic love for their clients. I am unsure about claims that deny the existence of romantic feelings because I wonder if people are defending themselves against ridicule.

Sexuality is, primitively at least, present in every relationship between human beings, as human beings are sexual beings. That is not to say that sexual dynamics are consciously processed or realised, but that it may be in one’s subconscious awareness that in any given relationship one is more or less dominant. It is the early, seemingly platonic, relationships with their parents that the child will repeat in romantic relationships later in life. The “nipple-like organ with its fluid-producing functions the baby boy soon finds on himself and keeps to use, to create life and to give pleasure; the rest of his mother, her body, her loving face, her encircling arms, he seeks again elsewhere” (Klein & Riviere, 1937: 18). Likewise for a female, according to Melanie Klein, whose “impressions of her father, her feelings towards him—admiration, trust, and so on—may play a predominant part in her choosing of a love companion” (Klein & Riviere, 1937: 88). The mother-child or father-child relationship is the cornerstone on which all future bonds will be formed, both sexual and loving, both functional and dysfunctional. That is not to say a person cannot overcome a less than ideal upbringing, or suffer in relationships despite having had a more or less ideal one.

While I think we can generally accept that we are all sexual beings, I feel that since Freud there has been an overemphasis, an obsession, with Eros and sex in the field of counselling and psychotherapy. The way that I see it, there are two forms of sexual desire. The first is a biological drive, which creates sexual arousal in human beings and is an instinctual drive present for evolutionary and reproductive purposes. The second form of sexual desire appears to exist for sexual gratification but is actually a desire for intimacy and closeness and aims to fulfil our need for love and belonging. People who seek out sexual relationships without love, as Glucksman’s clients did, looking for love and nurturing, run the risk of ending up unfulfilled and unhappy, as sex does not equate to love. Understanding these forms of sexual desire and how they are transferred or projected between the client and therapist may illuminate the needs and experiences of the client and enhance the therapeutic work.

While these forms of sexual desire or erotic transference and countertransference may enhance the therapeutic process and were of great interest to Freud, they are of limited concern to me. Love exists in the same realm as desire and romance, but those things are transitory, while love is enduring (Young-Eisendrath, 2007). Similarly, it has been said that “Agape may be compared to a stream flowing with immense force in a clearly defined channel,” whereas Eros has been described as “a broad shallow river with marshy banks, which in time of flood overflows miles of country” (Nygen & Hebert, 1932: 33).

There are various interpretations and forms of Eros, but I am interested in an agapic love offered by the psychotherapist, a love that facilitates a secure environment from which the client can explore and play. As a child with a secure attachment to its mother may venture towards areas unknown, a client with a secure and trusting relationship with a therapist may have the support needed to delve deeply into therapeutic work and then transition to enjoying greater freedom in life outside of therapy.

The kind of love that a psychotherapist might strive to offer is the kind of love a grandparent may typically have for their grandchild. I say grandparent because grandparents often have more time to spend with children in mentoring relationships than parents busy with careers and running a household do. One example of such a mentoring relationship was in the life of naturalist John Muir, whose interest in nature was fostered by his grandfather, David Gilrye, a fact I learned during a recent visit to the John Muir museum in his birthplace, Dunbar Scotland. The more affectionate love a parent has for a child can be called storge, an ancient Greek word for affection, and begins with the nursing mother (Lewis, 1960). Conversely, agape is characterised by the desire for growth and fulfillment in the beloved. Rogers felt that theory and technique did not matter as much as the therapeutic relationship and that it was the therapist’s successful communication of agapic love that produced change in the client (Kahn, 1991).

I think the love a therapist might offer is more than agape; I think it might include something that resembles storge as well, when the therapist provides the metaphorical holding environment, like a mother does literally when nursing. Existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom compared his account of a therapy session with a client’s account. He found that his eloquent interpretations were not heard but his personal and supportive comments were treasured (Yalom, 1989).

While I am not denying the existence of romantic love and sexual desire in therapeutic relationships, I define therapeutic love as a human action, intention, and emotion; it is an action on behalf of the therapist that conveys acceptance and warmth, the therapist’s genuine intention and desire to see the client flourish, and the existence and noticeability of the therapist’s empathy and caring. I am defining love this way because I have found this is how I have created successful therapeutic relationships.

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