Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: What's Love Got to Do With It? Part Two

How the "love cure" can help heal your "love wound"

Posted Oct 21, 2011

Part One of this posting focused on the problem of love from the patient's side, and its central relevance to his or her symptoms and complaints. In Part Two, we take a look at how the healing power of love can facilitate the patient's treatment.

Psychoanalysis, the prototypical form of psychotherapy pioneered and developed by Sigmund Freud and his protégé, C.G. Jung, has been called both the "talking cure" and, curiously, the "love cure." The love cure. In fact, Freud himself once said, in a letter to Jung, that "psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love." What did he mean by this strange statement? Let's consider how and why love, even today, plays such an essential part not only in psychoanalysis or depth psychology per se, but in any successful psychotherapy.

Providing psychological, spiritual or familial love is, of course, a different matter. At its best, therapeutic love on the psychotherapist's part may be most closely compared to amor platonicus (platonic love), agape, philia or storge, the nurturing love parents feel for their offspring. But eros, which Plato spoke of as a "great daimon," is perennially potentiated in both parties. How to provide such therapeutic love without overstepping the physical or romantic boundaries is part of the art of psychotherapy. How psychotherapists deal with the unexpected and unbidden appearance of eros, in themselves or their patients, in the transference or counter-transference, can make or break the treatment outcome. (See also my prior post on the power of termination in treatment.)

Psychotherapy--any form of psychotherapy--is primarily a relationship between two people. But it is a totally unique kind of relationship, unlike lovers, family or friends. Psychotherapists, especially psychodynamically-oriented therapists, are trained to make deliberate but limited and proscribed use of love's potent power to help patients heal. To heal from what? Almost always, patients suffer, fundamentally, from having been insufficiently or inappropriately loved (and this, paradoxically, can include being loved too unconditionally or excessively) during childhood, adolescence or adulthood. They suffer from what we can correctly call a "love wound," which manifests itself in many if not every aspect of adult life: from low or hyper-inflated self-esteem (e.g., as in depression, pathological narcissism and sociopathy) to poor sense of identity and self-worth (as in borderline personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder, for instance) to difficulties with intimacy and professional relationships, to the inability to love others as they are and life as it is. And it is only love--the right love at the right time--that can cure or heal this festering "love wound." No amount of technical tricks, to paraphrase the mature Jung, cognitive restructuring or pharmacotherapy will do. In fact, it could be argued that the real healing factor in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or even, to some extent, psychopharmacotherapy, is the loving, supportive, caring, non-judgmental, empathetic relationship in which these popular treatments are provided. And this is corroborated by research suggesting that all forms of therapy (including pharmacotherapy) are effective primarily (or, at least in part) because of the special relationship between clinician and patient. But applying this alchemical love cure appropriately and efficaciously can be very tricky indeed.

For what patients receive from the psychotherapist is not necessarily the love they want. It can never be a physical expression of love. Nor should it take the form of verbal flirtation or romantic interchanges between therapist and patient. For this--while it may be what the patient wants from the therapist or vice-versa--is not what the patient truly needs. Therapeutic love cannot be sexualized or romanticized, though such feelings frequently find their way into the consulting room. When they do so, the key, for both patient and therapist, is never to act on them. But, at the same time, not deny them. To acknowledge, honor and reflect upon these passionate feelings, but not to impulsively act them out. Talking openly about such transferential feelings is essential for the patient and to the process. But not in same way lovers talk. And such direct talk is not considered constructive in the case of erotic counter-transference on the part of the therapist, who has a duty to either manage it so it doesn't derail treatment or refer the patient to a colleague. So erotic love can and sometimes does interfere with treatment. Especially when it takes possession of the psychotherapist and won't let go. But, more often than not, when properly handled, love provides the basic curative power in therapy. Love in psychotherapy, as in any healthy, mature relationship, is a two-way street: Love (or libido, as both Freud and Jung used the term, though Jung's definition was far broader) flows from the psychotherapist and back from the patient. So it is not just the love provided by the therapist that matters, but the love returned by the patient that is ultimately the healing factor in treatment. Remember (see Part One), many (but not all) psychotherapy patients suffer from an inability to love, a blockage in their willingness to open their hearts, commit to and care deeply for another. To let down their defenses. To be themselves. To risk being rejected, hurt or abandoned. For patients suffering from such "intimacy inhibition" or "love phobia", much of the psychotherapy session is spent actively or passively, almost always unconsciously, fending off such loving feelings, much as they do elsewhere. But why? Especially since love is what they really want?

The psychotherapist's offering of non-physical or platonic love to the patient is what encourages, stimulates and enables the patient to gradually reciprocate in kind. To open up to love. To tolerate love's anxiety and ambiguity. To risk letting love happen, to experience it, to allow the vulnerability of intimacy. To relinquish control and be more receptive to love. For the patient, romantic, sexual or, as Freud referred to it, erotic transference, is powerful, impassioned and, when recognized for what it really is and handled properly, transformative, since it is typically a manifestation or expression of the core love wound caused by imperfect parental relationships. Transference (which can also sometimes turn negative and nasty) is the royal road right into the very core "love wound" complex. But becoming more receptive to love means being willing to gradually and painfully tear open the old love wound. This core love wound typically contains a repressed reservoir of rage, grief, hurt and sadness from the past, all of which must be slowly allowed to surface, flow and be consciously felt. But it also holds immense libidinal energy in the positive sense. This libidinal energy is daimonic, which is to say that it is uncannily powerful, and can be both destructive and creative. If the erotic transference can be handled properly, without dismissing, denigrating or rejecting it, while at the same time firmly maintaining clear and consistent boundaries, this newly liberated libidinal energy or love from the patient can be redirected out into his or her life beyond the therapist's office. For now, the patient has once again experienced love, at least to some degree, albeit in the relative safety and security of the sacred container or temenos of psychotherapy. Once the patient regains or reawakens to this vital, child-like capacity to love, to care, to open oneself to another, or, in a more spiritual sense, to the existential reality, tragedy, suffering and beauty of life and death, he or she is prepared to try doing so in that great big world beyond the secure yet constricted womb of therapy. He or she is ready for love. And for life.