Transference vs. Self-differentiation

Transference is a term used by Sigmund Freud to identify the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object” (Merriam Webster), especially a redirection toward a ones therapist. The idea is that a patient developed an emotional and psychological relationship with the therapist like that which he/she had with parents or another important person in childhood. If the therapist could retain an objective posture, Freud posited, the patient might be able to work out a troubling relationship in a new way. When, on the other hand, the therapist became engaged in counter-transference, i.e. engaged with the patient like the therapist did with an important person in his own childhood, little positive could be expected for the patient in dealing with troubling issues.

Dr. Michael Kerr of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family likens “transference” to emotional fusion, at least on a descriptive level. The difference is that transference is linked to Freud’s notion of the “unconscious,” and emotional fusion relates to the family system. According to Murray Bowen transference happens when unresolved emotional attachments with one’s family become lived out in other relationships, like that of patient to therapist, spouse to spouse, parent to child, or friend to friend. There is no good evidence that such transference in either formal or informal therapeutic settings addresses the underlying issues of unresolved emotional attachment in one’s family of origin in anything but a short-term and functional way. It is necessary, rather, for those seeking to address troubling issues in their current life and relationships with enduring results to do their work in the context of their families of origin.

Every person leaves home with a certain degree of unresolved emotional attachment to their parents or parental figures. Bowen states

The degree of unresolved emotional attachment to parents is determined by the degree of unresolved emotional attachment each parent had in their own family of origin, the way their parents handled this in their marriage, the degree of anxiety during critical periods in life, and the way the parents handled this anxiety. The child is ‘programmed’ into the emotional configuration very early in life, following which the amount of unresolved emotional attachment remains relatively fixed except for functional shifts in the parents….All things being equal, the life course of people is determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and the way they deal with this anxiety.(Bowen, M. 1994. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Pages 536-37.)

Bowen’s response to address this situation was what he termed defining a self, working toward individuation, or self-differentiation. The principles involved were as follows (Ibid., pp 439-43):

1. Work toward person-to-person relationships with as many persons in one’s family as possible. A person-to-person relationship is one in which two people can “relate personally to each other about each other” without talking about others or about impersonal things (triangling). It is particularly important, but also very difficult, for a person to be able to develop this kind of relationship with each parent, if parents are still living. For such work with parents a coach is highly advisable so that one doesn’t waste time in dead ends because one has made critical decisions based on emotionality.

2. Become a better observer and control one’s emotional reactiveness. These two things go together. Work to become a better, more objective observer of family relationships and interactions will reduce reactivity. One is encouraged to approach ones family and family events with as much of a “clinical” posture as possible, making connections and gathering information. The more one reduces their reactivity, the better observer once becomes. This posture will serve a person well in many other of life’s emotional situations.

3. De-triangle from emotional situations. The goal is to be in contact with an emotional situation involving two other people and oneself without taking sides, without defending oneself, and without counter-attacking when attacked. One should strive to have a neutral response. By neutral is not meant silent, for silence is most often interpreted as assent, or it can be interpreted in whatever way is most strategic by others in the situation.

In order to do de-trianling in one’s family one must seek to be present–and as neutral as possible–in one’s family when emotional issues are present.  Granted this is often very difficult.  At least one should strive to be less reactive and more neutral than the others involved.

There may be the temptation to be emotionally confrontive in order to accomplish a desired result, and to think of this as part of self-definition.  In reality, emotional confrontation is always reactive (unless it is chosen in an objective manner, which is exceedingly rare).  Self-definition grows out of a calm, objective position.


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