Transference Relationship

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The term transference relationship designates those aspects of the patient-analyst relationship involving the patient's previous object-relationships transposed onto the analyst (that is, the transference). The transference relationship thus constitutes the heart of the analytic situation, encompassing all aspects of the relationship between the patient and the analyst: the analytic contract, the setting of the analysis, counter-transference, and so on.

This notion was implicitly present as soon as transference was discovered, as early as Freud and Josef Breuer's Studies on Hysteria (1895d). Anna O., plagued by the fantasy of giving birth to a child of Dr. Breuer's, was entangled in a perfect instance of the transference relationship. The term itself, however, appeared very late in Freud's work, in "Constructions in Analysis" (1937d): "Our experience has shown that the relation of transference, which becomes established towards the analyst, is particularly calculated to favor the return of these emotional connections" (p. 258).

This remark demonstrates that for Freud the transference was a melting pot into which the analysand's earlier affective relations were drawn prior to being recast. Seen in this light, the transference relationship, determined first and foremost by transference love, has two aspects: first, a "piece of real experience" (1914g, p. 154), whose novelty is most important; and second, an element of repetition, for the transference also embodies the replaying of infantile sexual and affective relations. Sándor Ferenczi (1916) emphasized the link between the transference relationship and introjection: in the transference, the analyst is introjected by the patient as a new internal object.

The newness of the transference relationship is a significant factor in effecting change. The transference involves more than the patient's reliving an earlier relationship. The analyst's attitude and interpretations modify the patient's attempts exactly to repeat the past in the transference, thus allowing something else to take place. In some respects, the analyst plays the part of a new object, an object anchored in reality. The gulf between this "real relationship" and the "false connection of the transference" helps the patient to perceive his own mental impulses.

What many authors have described as a "real relationship" with the analyst thus stands opposed to the transference relationship. Ralph Greenson, for example, wrote, "I intend to use the term 'real' to refer to the realistic and genuine relationship between analyst and patientas opposed, that is, to unrealistic and inappropriate, albeit genuine, transference reactions" (p. 217). "In adults," Greenson added, "all relationships to people consist of a varying mixture of transference and reality. There is no transference reaction, no matter how fantastic, without a germ of truth, and there is no realistic relationship without some trace of a transference fantasy" (p. 219). So the real and transference relationships are somewhat interdependent. Similar considerations apply to the "therapeutic alliance" described by many authors, to Otto Fenichel's "rational transference," and to the "basic transference" evoked by Catherine Parat.

Elizabeth Zetzel's notion of the "therapeutic alliance," like Greenson's "working alliance," denotes a component of the analytic relationship, yet properly conceived, it should not be brought under the heading of the transference relationship, even though for many authors such an alliance is a necessary precondition of the development of the transference relationship. The transference relationship is predicated on the patient's ego being reasonable. The patient must be capable of working with the analyst to conquer the neurosis and the negative aspects of the transference. From a different perspective, Richard Sterba (1940) based the therapeutic alliance on the patient's identification with the analyst, thus giving it a fully transferential sense.

For Fenichel (1941), the transference relationship implies what he called a "rational," positive transference, which brings inhibited drives into play with the aim of the transference relationship. Fenichel's approach has much in common with Parat's conception of basic transference. The transference relationship, for Parat, "corresponds to the patient's cathexis of the person of the analyst, and is colored by feelings of trust. . . . This cathexis is founded on subjective elements which I have elsewhere described as projective, using the term 'basic transference' to designate a spontaneous, interhuman link with positive overtones which derives from the earliest attachments, as subsequently enriched by secondary experiences, as well as from objective elements perceived by the patient beginning with his first contacts with the analyst, be they gross or subtle. . . . The basic positive transference has a narcissistic libidinal origin" (1995). Parat stressed the kinship between such a transference cathexis and Freud's "narcissistic object-choice," thus more closely assimilating it to narcissistic transferences properly so called.

The capacity of the transference relationship to evolve is what makes it analyzable. In contrast to what occurs in everyday interpersonal relationships, where transferences tend to jell into more or less stable compromises, in the transference relationship the attitude of the analyst, who does not respond in kind to the patient's erotic solicitations but instead relates them to their oedipal prototypes, separately exposes the various avatars of the transferencepaternal, maternal, fraternal, and so on, corresponding to different periods of the patient's life. The analyst does not allow himself to be locked into one specific relational mode: he behaves at once as an object, drawing the patient's cathexis toward him, and as an antiobject, by interpreting the patient's transference onto him so that the transference image may unfold (Denis, 1988). To paraphrase Freud's metaphor (1915a, p. 169), the practitioner comports himself like the mechanical rabbit in a greyhound coursing: it is continually moving out of reach, thus ensuring the continuation of the race; were a real rabbit thrown amid the dogs, it would immediately be devoured, and the race abandoned.

Paul Denis

See also: Counter-transference; Negative therapeutic reaction; Object relations theory; Relaxation psychotherapy; Transference; Transgression.


Denis, Paul. (1988). L'avenir d'une désillusion: Le contretransfert, destin du transfert. Revue française de psychanalyse, 52 (4), 829-842.

Fenichel, Otto. (1941). Problems of psychoanalytic technique (David Brunswick, Trans.). New York: Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1916). Introjection and transference. In his Contributions to Psycho-Analysis (Ernest Jones, Trans.). Boston: Richard Badger. (Later U.S. editions titled Sex in psychoanalysis )

Freud, Sigmund. (1914g). Remembering, repeating, and working-through (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis, II). SE, 12: 145-156.

. (1915a [1914]). Observations on transference love (further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis, III). SE, 12: 157-171.

. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Greenson, Ralph R. (1967). The technique and practice of psychoanalysis. New York: International Universities Press.

Parat, Catherine. (1995). L 'affect partagé. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Sterba, Richard F. (1940). Dynamics of dissolution of the transference resistance. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 9, 363-380.

Zetzel, Elizabeth R. (1956). Current concepts of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37, 369-376.

Further Reading

Ogden, Thomas H. (1991). Analysing the matrix of transference. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72, 593-606.

Poland, Warren S. (1992). Transference: "An original creation." Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 61, 185-205.