Experiencing Love in Psychotherapy

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW



“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.

They must be felt with the heart.”


Helen Keller



Love As the Missing Fourth Dimension


With Rogers’ three dimensions as a foundation for describing a helping relationship, I would like to suggest a fourth dimension: namely, the presence of real connection (or what might be called love) as it occurs in the psychotherapy process. When therapists say that therapy is “all about love,” they are referring, in part, to the felt presence of connection between therapist and client in the moment to moment flow of the therapy session. After all, when therapists are behaving in a loving way, wouldn’t that also generate moments of love in our interactions together?


Acceptance and empathic understanding are necessary but not sufficient conditions for describing the deep feelings of connection that often occur in psychotherapy. It is true that moments of acceptance or empathic understanding can carry a level of intensity that would qualify as moments of real connection, but this is not always the case. We can be appropriately accepting and empathic without necessarily creating a moment of intimacy. The problem is that without a separate dimension to measure the level of connection, we are unable to fully explicate a crucial dynamic in the therapy process, and one that deserves to be better examined and understood. Surprisingly, we do not often discuss moments of connection, or referencing the Helen Keller quote, those moments between the therapist and client where something beautiful is “felt with the heart.”


In order to zero in on this dimension of connection or love, I suggest that we shift from an abstract view to one that examines the micro-moment interactions. While the feelings of love between therapist and client that build over time are crucial to the success of the therapy, looking at the micro-moments offers another valuable perspective that cannot be achieved if we only look at the long-term picture. Rather than ask whether we love the client or the client loves us, we might ask different questions: What qualifies as a moment of love? How might that be helpful? What role should these moments play in the psychotherapy process? And what implications does this have for the way that we practice?



A Definition of Love by Brother David Steindl-Rast


I would like to propose here a definition of love that is very applicable to the psychotherapy process and that is well suited for describing how feelings of love show up in a given moment. We know that love is there, but we do not have a specific way to recognize it, describe it, or understand its role. The definition of love that I propose is offered by Brother David Steindl-Rast in his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer:


“When we ask for characteristics of love applicable to each and all of its forms,  

we find at least two: a sense of belonging and wholehearted acceptance of that

belonging with all its implications. These two characteristics are typical for 

every kind of love, from love of one’s country to love of one’s pets, while 

passionate attraction is typical only of falling in love. Love is a wholehearted

‘yes’ to belonging.”


Brother David’s definition of love works well for describing psychotherapy experiences because it is both precise and inclusive. The word “belonging” seems more precise than the word “love” because it describes a particular kind of feeling that is easily recognizable, the feeling of belonging together. When we feel love for a pet, for example, along with that comes a feeling of belonging that is undeniable. The term is not used here to imply any kind of inequity, like a slave belonging to a master, but rather to convey a sense of the rightness of being together.


Brother David’s definition is also precise in that it gives us a particular criterion for assessing the presence of love in a given moment in time. Unless we feel “a sense of belonging and a wholehearted acceptance of that belonging with all its implications,” then the feeling is not love. It must be a wholehearted “yes” in order to qualify; it must be strong enough to reach that threshold. And, as Brother David says, the feeling of belonging is inclusive enough to apply to all of the forms that love takes, from love of your partner or children to love for a pet, country, friend, idea, piece of music or art, your home, a tree, football team, a poem, etc. Anyone or anything that can be joined through a sense of belonging.


In psychotherapy the feeling of belonging can happen in any kind of moment. The most obvious example would be a dramatic moment where a client reveals a previously unspoken truth that is laden with emotion and grabs us to the core. As a client speaks from a raw or vulnerable place, it often transports us to our own place of vulnerability, but in a way that feels tender and filled with compassion. A sense of belonging can also arise out of conflict or hostility, such as when a client is angry at you and as the two of you struggle with the anger it brings you closer together.


But moments of belonging are not only triggered by deep sharing, expressions of vulnerability, or dramatic interpersonal interactions. The feeling of belonging can be a moment of humor or spontaneity that takes us beyond our normal boundaries into a realm of togetherness such that we can’t help but smile. Or it can be subtle, such as the way it feels when the two of you greet each other or the feelings of connection in an animated intellectual discussion when the ideas just seem to flow. Any way the therapist and client are interacting in the therapy process always has the potential of being one of those special moments where there is the unqualified “yes” to belonging.



Martin Buber and the I-Thou Relationship


“Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a 

presence in the being of the other… Secretly and bashfully he watches for

a Yes which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one

human person to another.”


Martin Buber from “Distance and Relation”



Another way to define connectedness in a moment in time is the concept of “I” and “Thou” made famous by Martin Buber. The I-Thou relationship has repeatedly emerged over the years to explain or highlight aspects of the psychotherapy relationship, but it never caught on as a basic component of what is taught to beginning therapists, nor is it emphasized in today’s psychoanalytic institutes. Most therapists today know the term “I-Thou relationship,” but may not be familiar with exactly what Buber is referring to.


Buber describes a special connection that joins two people together and is distinguished from the ordinary interactions of everyday life, which he refers to as the I-It way of being. When we are preoccupied with accomplishing our goals, completing tasks and otherwise getting along in our lives, we see others as separate individuals who we either “use” or “experience.” But the I that speaks to a Thou suggests an entirely different kind of relatedness. These are moments of genuine meeting and mutuality, where we are no longer two separate individuals but move instead into a relationship that feels expansive, one where we experience the other person in a more heartfelt and complete way. In the I-Thou relationship we no longer see the other person as an object with particular qualities or characteristics:


“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word

I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of 

things. He is no longer He or She… a dot in the world grid of space and

time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle

of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless he is then and fills the 

firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else

lives in his light.”


Martin Buber from I and Thou


When we as therapists are experiencing our clients as Thou, we are transformed in that moment from our normal way of being in the world. This is not just an interaction where the therapist is using acceptance and deep empathic understanding to help transport the client to a different place. In a true I-Thou moment, the therapist is also transported. As Buber tells us, the person of the Thou “fills the firmament” and “everything else lives in his light.” The I of the I and Thou is different from the I of the I and It.


Most therapists would like to think that they are operating more in an I-Thou world than an I-It world with their clients. But I-Thou moments are more rare and transformational than something we could sustain on an ongoing basis. They often come unexpectedly; we cannot will them to happen. As much as we make an effort to see our clients in the fullness of who they really are, achieving true moments of belonging is not something that we have complete control over. In speaking of mutuality, Buber says, “It is a grace for which one must always be ready and which one never gains as an assured possession.” So therapists should not think of an I-Thou relationship as a way of being, but more as a moment of grace—an opportunity for which they can be prepared. 



A Different Way to Think About Love


Conceptualizing love as something that happens in moments in time avoids the more complicated issue of whether we would claim to love someone as an overall conclusion. I am reminded, for example, of couples who tell me, “We love each other, but we are not in love.” Now what exactly does that mean? I tend to hear this as equivalent to saying that they care very much about the other person’s well-being but do not have many (or any) moments of that “unqualified yes to belonging” that Brother David describes. For most of us, concluding we love someone probably means that there are enough moments where we feel that “unqualified yes” that the conclusion feels justified, even though we do not experience these moments all of the time (which would be impossible) or even most of the time.


For therapists, it may not be particularly useful to attempt to reach general conclusions about whether we love some or all of our clients. What is more relevant, I believe, is that we have enough moments of belonging with a client, and this provides a reference point for us. Then, even when there are many other competing feelings and moments that are decidedly not moments of belonging (as is true for even the most loving relationships), that reference point allows us to find the place within ourselves where there is love for that person.


To illustrate, moments of belonging with a client typically coexist with other moments where the feelings are not so positive, including moments of irritation, boredom, fear, indifference, anxiety, anger, insecurity, etc. There may be clients who we find challenging and who would probably not come to mind if we were asked to make a list of the top 10 people we would want to go out to dinner with. But we might identify many moments with such a client that felt unquestionably like love, moments that had that feeling of an unqualified “yes.” In fact, it is often the most difficult clients who can produce the most intense moments of love. In my experience this may have to do with the fact that they often force me to be particularly strong, to remain present instead of backing away in fear or a desire to distance myself, and these encounters can turn out to be very rewarding. More difficult clients often demand greater intimacy.


Similarly, a moment of love is often not characteristic of an entire session. I have one client where the sessions can feel uninspired, boring, flat, relentlessly negative, and yet there have been moments at the end of such a session where something in her body language or the way she looks at me seems to convey a kind of appreciation and understanding—that maybe she needs to keep me at a distance, at least for now, and when our eyes meet as she is headed out the door, I experience that unqualified “yes.” There is no doubt that, in that moment, we belong together. I feel a wholehearted acceptance of our belonging “with all its implications,” as Brother David says.


In conclusion, I would make the case that all we need is one real moment of belonging with a client to be able to find a place of love for them. That does not mean that we would necessarily want to actively pursue a friendship with them if we met in the normal course of our lives. (And although we may feel this way about certain clients, it should be noted that our professional boundaries discourage us from turning client relationships into friendships where we venture outside of the regular therapy setting.) But once we have experienced that sense of belonging with a client, we have the ability to draw upon that feeling, at least some of the time, in the course of the psychotherapy relationship.