By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
What is the Role of Love or Connection?
Carl Rogers has left psychotherapists with a wonderful legacy; when we review how he defined his key concepts of acceptance, empathic understanding and transparency it is clear that he was describing a real engagement at the deepest human level. He is asking a great deal of the therapist: to create an atmosphere of acceptance and empathic understanding, while at the same time taking the risk of being genuine. Rogers’ three concepts have served psychotherapists extremely well over the years.
At the same time, I imagine that many therapists have had an experience similar to mine. After my training in the mid 1990’s I was very clear about the importance of acceptance and empathic understanding but less clear about the role of genuineness (how far should we go in being genuine or spontaneous, for example) and less clear even still about the role of love or connection in the psychotherapy process. Of course I knew that the intimacy of passionate attraction was not appropriate, but what about the feelings and expressions of a more pure type of love?
We were taught to offer the client something that felt like unconditional love and that required great generosity, discipline and commitment on our parts, yet the loving feelings that might be generated in the process were not directly addressed. Because there was no official professional terminology for describing this fourth dimension—that of connection or intimacy—I was left with some confusion and even guilt about whether real connection or a pure type of love was a legitimate part of psychotherapy. Should therapist and client connect on a deep level, something that might be called a level of the heart or soul, or would acceptance and empathic understanding be best achieved with some professional distance?
Love as a Taboo Topic
Most experienced therapists have probably come to the same conclusion I have, that real connection in psychotherapy is not only appropriate but also desirable; in fact, I believe that the majority of psychotherapists would agree that psychotherapy is “all about love,” particularly longer term therapy. What we mean by that is not so much that the explicit goal of therapy is to help our clients experience more love or to love better, although that is often the case. Rather we are referring to love as something that can be experienced by the client and the therapist in the psychotherapy relationship and as part of the psychotherapy process. I am not speaking here about being “in love” in a sexual or romantic way; that is a whole separate topic. My focus is on the feelings of a pure type of love that are often generated in psychotherapy and are frequently an important part of what makes it successful.
The problem is that the entire concept of love in psychotherapy has not been embraced by our professional institutions, which is probably understandable in light of the potential danger and controversy involved. The concern is that therapists, particularly beginning therapists, will become overly zealous and create too much intimacy or the wrong type of intimacy with their clients in the name of love. But this means that the topic of love is often ignored in the training of psychotherapists, nor does it play a big part in our ongoing intellectual or support communities. The beneficial aspects of love in psychotherapy is a topic that rarely gets debated or analyzed.
It follows that many therapists have a strong sense of the importance of love in their work. And I imagine that for many therapists our practices have evolved over the years to include more love. Yet because the word “love” is not accepted as a professional term, there is a facet of our work that goes underground. As a result, some of the beauty of the pure love that we experience in the psychotherapy relationship, along with our sense of the healing power of that love, may not be fully recognized or made explicit. This can leave therapists without the validation and inspiration that might come from feeling free to share our experiences with the larger therapeutic community.
I believe that love is too important a topic in psychotherapy to be ignored or considered politically incorrect. The most challenging part of the learning curve for psychotherapists may be that we are forced to grow as people so as to be more capable of generating a pure type of love in our interactions with our clients. And in order to do this, one of the skills that we must hone over time is the ability to balance moments of intimacy and real connection (that could be called love) with our professional roles and all that that entails. Rather than ignoring the topic of love or connection in psychotherapy, we may be better off as a profession if we take on the challenge directly and teach beginning therapists more about how to achieve this delicate balance—how to maintain professional boundaries while letting our genuine selves and feelings flow through more spontaneously where that is appropriate.
And the first thing to emphasize, of course, is the difference between a pure, selfless type of love and the more romantic or passionate love. As therapists, we do not want to fall in love in a romantic way with a patient. And, if that happens, our professional boundaries should prohibit us from acting this out sexually or allowing our feelings to interfere with our professional roles and the goals of the therapy. But there is always room in therapy for the pure type of love.
Pure Love versus Romantic Love
Love is a powerful word, possibly the most powerful word in the English language, even though there is tremendous confusion about how to define it. Or maybe it is because of its scope and power that the definition of love seems to elude us. With one word we are attempting to describe the pure, sublime kind of love that is “felt with the heart,” as well as the more tempestuous love of passion and romance that can start out as beautiful but can end up causing pain and disappointment.
For the purpose of this paper, I am thinking of pure love in its broadest sense, a love that goes beyond feelings for a particular person and can include love of our pets, our homes, aspects of nature, ideas, books, works of art, etc. In contrast to the often fickle romantic love of infatuation that can disappear as quickly as it comes and can prove to be unhealthy, addictive or painful, the pure love of the heart only enriches. It has no downside; unlike the high of infatuation, pure love does not produce equivalent lows or crashes. Instead of feeling like we are taking from a limited supply, pure love feels infinite–its supply seems to expand the more we experience it. It is as if we are adding to the world, enhancing it. Perhaps the pure version of love is best described in the Corinthians verse from the Bible that is a favorite at so many weddings but is always worthy of repeating:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast, it is
not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices
with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always
This type of love is something that many people come to recognize and increasingly prioritize in their lives, particularly as they get older and gain the wisdom that comes from experience, as they witness over and over again what ultimately sustains them and makes them happy. Much of what we are doing when we go to church on Sundays or follow a spiritual path or start a spiritual practice such as meditation is that we are looking for a structure, a way to help us get in touch with that element of pure love that many of us are fortunate enough to be able to access, at least under certain circumstances.
My purpose is to examine the role of the pure type of love in psychotherapy and hope that the reader will be able to make the distinction between pure love and a more self-serving, passionate love. I believe that most therapists will know the difference and that reading what I have written will make that distinction more clear.