Transference is “…a tendency in which representational aspects of important and formative relationships (such as with parents and siblings) can be both consciously experienced and/or unconsciously ascribed to other relationships”.1 Specifically, transference refers to the process by which the feelings that you had for someone (such as a parent) become directed to someone else (such as a therapist or psychoanalyst).2 The phenomenon of transference may be triggered when a new person resembles someone else, physically or in terms of their personality characteristics. Transference also occurs in everyday life.
For example, a few of my friends have displayed transference when dealing with their significant others. One in particular, who had been cheated on in the past, would transfer the feelings she had for her previous romantic partner to her current boyfriend. After finding out that he was going to be stuck late at work, which was quite often, she would secretly check his email and phone messages. Her feelings of mistrust, which were caused by her previous partner, led to trust issues with and resentment toward her current partner. This eventually created a rift between them. If experiences with the past can influence our future, how might this impact our relationships?
Our past relationships, and the feelings we had for a significant other, can transfer to a subsequent relationship, and ultimately have a profound effect on the new romantic relationship. When is such transference, from one relationship to another, most likely to happen? According to the social-cognitive model of transference,3 our mental representations of significant others are stored in memory and can transfer to a new person. This transference is typically triggered “…when the new person resembles the significant other.” 3
The assumptions regarding transference in this context are:
- it occurs in daily life, as well as in psychotherapy
- the content that gets transferred depends upon the specific person
- it occurs for all types of significant others, and not just for parents
- the feelings and content that get transferred may change over time3
In a classic study on the topic, researchers used an idiographic research method in which they first had participants generate sentences to describe a significant other (e.g. “My partner is very giving”). Two weeks later, participants were divided into two groups and were presented with a series of sentences describing one or several new target persons. In the experimental condition, participants were exposed to one target that resembled the significant other, as he/she was characterized in terms of the sentences previously provided by the participant. Thus, this hypothetical individual was constructed in such a way as to subtly resemble the participant’s own partner using positive and negative features from the first session.4 In the control condition, none of the targets resembled the significant other.
In both conditions, after learning about the new target person, the participants completed a series of measures, such as a recognition- memory test. This requires the participants to read sentences describing the target and rate their confidence that the statements present information that was previously given regarding this new individual. This requires them to be able to discriminate between the target, which may have resembled their significant other, and their actual knowledge of their significant other.
Overall, participants evaluated the targets resembling their own significant other more favorably if their impressions of their partner were positive. Targets that represented negative aspects of their partners were not rated as favorably. Additionally, the researcher examined the participants’ facial expressions when reading descriptors about the target person. Participants’ facial expressions were more pleasant when learning about a target that resembled a positive significant other rather than a negative significant other. These facial expression changes were not shown in the control, demonstrating that they were a result of transference.3
The transference process also influenced how participants’ viewed themselves. After learning about the new person in the experiment, each participant was instructed to describe him/herself. The researchers looked at how much overlap there was between the description of the significant other and the description of the self that was given. The researcher analyzed how much overlap there was and it was found that self-concept changed. The researchers noted that “…in relation to the new person, one becomes the version of self one is with the significant other.” 3 This change was greater in the experimental condition, in which the target resembled the participants’ significant others, which shows that when exposed to someone similar to a previous partner, you become the version of yourself that you were with that person.
Overall, this study shows that “… past experiences with significant others appear to have a broad and profound impact on present relationships, and transference is critical in this process as it occurs in everyday social relations.”3 Now you may wonder what implications this research has for us in our day-to-day lives. Armed with this information, it is important to reflect on how each relationship has impacted you, and in turn changed how you view yourself. It is also imperative to be cognizant that when someone reminds you of an ex romantic partner, you try not to let the past influence your present. On that same note, being overly optimistic about a new partner, based on past positive associations with an ex, may also be detrimental, as you may not accurately be judging the new relationship objectively. What this work really shows is that we are the sum of our experiences, and these experiences, good, bad or indifferent are profoundly impacted by the people with whom we surround ourselves.
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1Levy, K. N., & Scala, J. W. (2012). Transference, transference interpretations, and transference-focused psychotherapies. Psychotherapy, 49,391–403.doi:10.1037/a0029371
2Transference [Def. 2]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transference
3Andersen, S. & Berk, M. (1998). The social-cognitive model of transference: Experiencing past relationships in the present. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7, 109-115.
4Andersen, S. M., & Przybylinski, E. (2012). Experiments on transference in interpersonal relations: Implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 49(3), 370-383. doi:10.1037/a0029116
Dr. Marisa Cohen
Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.