It was just another busy morning filled with charts, scrips, and patients, when I noticed a line of text posted on the screen of my latest piece of mobile communications technology. It said, "I would not have come for therapy if it had been anyone else but you."
Even though there was no name attached to the message, I knew instantly who had sent the vague text that left my heart racing.
This was the last communication I had with Mr R, a 36-year-old neuroscience researcher with no past psychiatric history. Mr R had 3 children, a “beautiful” wife, and every material thing that most people want to have. He described himself as a fun-loving guy, coach of his kids’ sports teams, the life of the party at social events, and a successful young investigator. But his picture-perfect life had not come easily; he was raised by an alcoholic mother and abandoned by his father before he was 10 years old. He started working in high school and paid his own way through his university studies. He earned his doctorate and was invited into a prestigious lab to continue his work.
He presented for evaluation at the clinic after he found some incriminating e-mails between his wife and another man. Intensely anxious that his marriage was in danger, he decided to come for help. I diagnosed an adjustment disorder with anxious features. We agreed that he start with an antianxiety agent and expressive-supportive dynamic therapy. I had no idea what was in store for me in the 10 therapy sessions that lay ahead.
I set out to help relieve Mr R of his ailment by using the tools of my trade. First, I prescribed a safe and effective medication with minimal adverse effects. That was the easy part. Second, despite a disconcerting feeling of butterflies in my stomach, I harnessed my rational mind in the service of a course of psychotherapy designed to provide insight into the sources of his suffering. To my chagrin, I was faced with a complex question as I sat face-to-face with Mr R: What happens to the rational mind of the therapist when influenced by longings of the heart?
We know from experiences outside therapy that no one is immune to the feeling of intoxication that accompanies physical attraction. We fear it because it can allow reason to succumb to emotion. Although we may be embarrassed to admit it, we crave it because it provides a natural high. We struggle to have candid but necessary discussions on the subject at various stages in our physical and emotional development. Many of us remember the dreaded and infamous “birds and bees” discussion with our parents when we were growing up. Mixed emotions surface when forced to discuss something so personal with an authority—whether it be a parent when we are children or a supervisor when we are therapists-in-training. The seemingly forbidden ideas evoke shame and embarrassment.
Needless to say, when I experienced physical attraction in the context of psychotherapy, I was faced with understandably complex emotions. I called on all of my defenses. Suppression: “I’m attracted to this patient, but I’ll put it aside for now and write about it later in my journal.” Sublimation: “I’ll endure this uncomfortable experience and use the resulting nervous energy to clean my floors and train for a marathon.” Altruism: “I’ll write about this experience to help others who may be struggling with the same issue.”
Sitting in sessions with Mr R, I feared my sympathetic nervous system betrayed me. I awkwardly fidgeted and blushed. My choice of words sounded (only to me I hope) like I was asking Mr R out on a date: “We really need to meet at least once weekly to make progress in psychotherapy.” Furthermore, Mr R frequently asked me to disclose personal information. He would ask, for example, “Is it hard to do your job?” or “Do you have children?” Temptations to self-disclose lurked around every corner. He was also curious about my countertransference toward him: “I wonder what you tell your supervisors about me. I sense I’m different from your other patients.” (Sounds a bit narcissistic, no?)
It was time for me to discuss these issues with someone else. For me, as for many, those who make up my normal support system do not have much experience from which to draw on the subject of erotic countertransference. After considering all the options, talking with my individual psychotherapy supervisor seemed the best choice. But, while contemplating the sharing of this situation with a supervisor, predictable questions arose: “Will my supervisor recoil in horror?” “Will he immediately call my training director and drum me out of the program?” “Will he direct me to a pathology residency?” “Will my face turn crimson?” And finally, “Am I ready to reflect on this part of my psychological makeup?”