Lessons On or About the Couch: What Sexual Boundary Transgressions Can Teach Us About Everyday Practice.

by Andrea Celenza, PhD


Extended Abstract

This paper addresses several conceptual ambiguities, contradictions, and vagaries that can play a part as either an unconscious backdrop or as a conscious rationale for sexual boundary transgressions.  The first revolves around the nature of transference, in particular, its real or unreal character. Second is a question of whether the violating analyst ever truly loved the patient, a question with which the victim-patient can wrestle for years in the aftermath.  Third, the essential function and nature of boundaries is addressed as a process that is continually renegotiated along the axis of self-other differentiation.  Finally, the fundamental dynamic of the relationship is taken up with the question, Who were the patient and analyst to each other?  The theoretical assumption of multiplicity belies this unidimensional query and reveals a collapse of complexity in the analytic temporal and spatial expanse.  It is hoped that the clarification of these fundamental concepts will at least give a moment’s pause before the slide down that destructive slope.  In addition, for those of us treating victims and/or analysts who have transgressed, these theoretical clarifications will help guide our work in resolving the many conundrums associated with the aftermath of this persistent and continually vexing problem.

Underlying the derivation of the concept of transference, and perhaps causing the schism between real and unreal dichotomous conceptions of it, is the axis of time and the phenomenal experience of temporality. Transference itself is a concept that telescopes time[1] – it is a description of the process whereby the past lives in the present, in contrast to a sequential, linear, chronological view of time.  The idea that what is past is past flies in the face of the work transference endeavors to perform. Neither do we live in the present in a way that discounts the reality of the past as past.  Questions are more aptly put, How does transference encapsulate the past such that it lives in the present?  What is the effect of transference on the present such that the past is continually revived?

With these conceptual clarifications in mind, we understand this real/unreal polarity to be a false dichotomy.  Transference (as in the history of our relationships and in particular, those that remain unresolved) is the lens through which we ascribe meaning to the present. In this way, transference defines what is real.  It is the eye that sees (Schafer, 1983).  We cannot step outside of it (in the analytic setting or elsewhere) nor experience reality without its structuring. Thus, there is no transference that is unreal and no mode of engaging where we do not call upon some historical antecedent for meaning and perspective.  Each relationship emerges and develops as some amalgam of dreaded old patterning along with hopes for new resolutions. What we refer to as ‘the transference’ is the particularly intense mode of relating induced by the analytic situation, i.e. those transferences that are structured around a power imbalance and that harken back to the earliest conditions of loving, desiring, and fantasy production.  It is the hope and dread of a new resolution to this particular old problem that psychoanalytic treatment aims to deconstruct.

Transference viewed through this lens is a shaping, a structuring that signifies, rather than a static phenomenon that might be deemed real or unreal. So it is not that the past, as encapsulated by transference, is unreal but that transference structures meanings of the present.  In this way, the past structures reality and signifies the present (and our dreams for the future as well).  It is a paradoxical phenomenology that telescopes time – the past at once structures and signifies the present which simultaneously constructs an imagined future as well.

The analytic task is to interpret the roots and meaning of these significations so that we may be freed of repetitive and neurotic (i.e. unhealthy) modes of engagement.  So it is not that transference is either real or unreal; indeed, transference is what signifies realness and what makes certain features of the present more important than others. We should more readily query whether these significations can be deconstructed or analyzed.

Psychoanalysis invites dreams of love. The dreams that emerge in the analytic setting are responses to the seduction of the setting, a seduction parallel to the primal seduction of the mother (Laplanche, 1997) because the analyst promises to maintain the boundary between analysis and external life.  As in all dreams (and all psychological phenomena), we understand transference on multiple levels, including the symbolic and the presymbolic, in some ways analogous to manifest and latent meanings.  The modes of thinking and being in analysis are also seductions to more raw, unprocessed and ‘real’ (in the sense of undefended) ways of being.  In the attempt to free associate, the analysand tries to disregard platitudes, social convention, and especially forms of minimization in favor of more bald, undisguised assertions of desire.   We could say that the analytic process is more truthful and, in that sense, edges closer to ‘real’ feelings than the typical evasions that characterize polite social dialogue.  The promise to hold social convention at bay (a promise made, responsibly guarded, and maintained by the analyst) opens the space for the analysand to express archaic, fundamental, and primal forms of desire.  “The analyst holds open the presymbolic space so that the symbolic space, the usual conventional and defensive kinds of semantic closure are avoided” (Morris, 2012, p. 9).  Most importantly, were this promise not made or trusted to be kept, these forms of desire would not emerge.

So, I think we can definitively say that transference love in analysis is more real than in ordinary life.  Thus, the question is not, Is transference love real or unreal? The question is more correctly put, Is the analysis of transference preserved? That is the promise and ethic.  I would take this one step further and say that it is not that transference love within the analytic setting is unreal, but that transference love within the analytic setting is an unhealthy form of loving.  It is a particularly intense and unprocessed form of love.  In addition, the asymmetric structure of the analytic setting evokes forms of desiring that parallel incestuous loving with all the embedded significations.  The resolution of the transference does not entail the recognition of it as unreal, but a living through this form of loving in order to put it in perspective, i.e. recognizing the meanings and how these are rooted in the past while mourning the losses inherent therein.

[1]See many authors’ (Freud, 1907; Laplanche, 1989, 1997; Civitarese, 2008; Harris, 2009) discussions of nachtraglickeit.


Psychoanalytic Psychology, 34(2), 157-162, 2017.

Link to Online Publication [request from library@bpsi.org].


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Ellen Pinsky, PsyD (2018). Mortality, Integrity, and Psychoanalysis (Who Are You to Me? Who Am I to You?). In Flirting with Death: Psychoanalysts Consider Mortality, edited by Corinne Masur. London and New York, Routledge, 2018, Chapter 8, p. 141-157.

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