Friday, 16 March 2012

Transference/Countertransference - The Void... and online relationships... (part one?)

Transference - the phenomenon by which feelings, perceptions, responses attributable to past significant relationships (parents, siblings etc) are re-experienced inappropriately in relationships in the present.

I was writing an essay a few years ago on Transference and Countertransference... and as I was writing I began thinking about online relationships. Dr Sigmund Freud identified the existence of transference in his early psychoanalytic work, though he only recognised this as occurring within the therapeutic relationship. We now understand that some level of transference probably occurs in most, perhaps all of the relationships we form.

It's basically about responding to someone in the here and now, as if they were a person from our past - reliving feelings from the past - so a simple example might be - the policeman who pulls us over to tell us we have a back light out becomes the over-critical father from our childhood - and the sensations we experience as we see him approach our car will be the same as those we felt as a child when we got something wrong and had to face our father - so we might feel guilt, shame, a sense that we're being unfairly judged - all this, even before the policeman has said a word. And it happens because these powerful feelings remain unresolved yet suppressed within us and certain triggers at various times will reawaken them.

Psychodynamic therapists are mindful not to bring anything of themselves into the client/counsellor relationship - to actively avoid self-disclosure, to keep the therapist's own personality completely out of the working relationship, to be the proverbial blank screen, and this creates a void which the client will unconsciously fill with their own fantasies (both positive and negative) - the therapist can become the representation of mother, father, sister, lover, teacher and so on.

Thinking about the encounters we have online - there is always an inevitable and undeniable void - however much a person writes, tries to convey who they are and what they're like, it's just words on a screen - there's no physical presence at all for us to pick up, interpret, get a sense of how they are responding to us - there's no energy. And because it's hard for us as human beings to acknowledge that void, just as in counselling, we fill it with our fantasies - all the bits we don't know we fill in for ourselves.

So for instance with online dating, we have a picture of this person - often just one single image of them, usually just a head and shoulders shot. That gives us an idea of their face but it doesnt really show us how tall they might be, how large they might be, what sort of hands they have or how big their bum is! And yet as we get to know this person - we start to form a more comprehensive picture of what they might look like in our minds, what we'd like them to look like. How often have I heard people say they'd got to know someone from an online dating website, felt really comfortable with them - things progress and they decide to meet up and.............. the person sitting there in the restaurant or waiting outside the cinema is NOTHING like they imagined. Sometimes that can be quite extreme and shocking - the woman is clearly 10 years older than her picture, the man who had a full head of hair in his profile is suddenly bald! And at that point all the dreams, all the fantasies come crashing to the floor - we feel betrayed, foolish, embarrassed etc etc... In fact even when a person has been careful not to mislead, the character standing on the other side of the road waiting for us will not be the man or woman we've dreamt up in our head - they cant be, because the picture was painted by ourselves, with relatively little to go on except a lifetime of past experience to be influenced by. And the same thing is true of personalities - it's impossible to form an accurate understanding of what this person is like, their mannerisms, their strange little ways... just from words on a screen.

But perhaps that's the appeal of it - while we're getting to know 'John from Exeter' he can become our ideal man and for a while we can live the dream - perhaps we always know it's unlikely to go beyond a couple of dinners or trips to the movies - because he's going to have an irritating laugh or a wandering eye or a habit of looking at his watch every 10 minutes??

Now in contrast, first encounters when we meet someone on a train for example are completely different to that. Almost never do those first meetings extend beyond the duration of the train journey however appealing this stranger opposite might be, and there are many good reasons for that. Perhaps part two of this piece should start... 'When we sit down opposite someone on a train........'

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