How Transference Ruins Relationships

transferenceTransference is a psychological phenomenon in which you redirect past feelings, fears, and wishes created by an earlier situation, on to a new person. You react to the person based on their resemblance to someone from your past, and your feelings about the person may or may not be an accurate assessment of them. Transference was first identified by Sigmund Freud, but has become a broadly accepted psychological process.

Meeting Someone New… or Old?

When you meet a new person and something they say or do reminds you of a person or situation from your past that negatively affected you, if transference occurs, you might be inclined to make assumptions about this person. Perhaps you think that the person has harmful motivations or will negatively affect you in the way you’ve been affected in the past.This causes you to react in ways that may not fit the current situation, even though you believe you’re reacting to the new person or situation.

Creating Misunderstanding

If you then make your feelings about the new person known to them and others, misunderstandings can occur. The new person may think you are judging them unfairly or prematurely. They may choose not to further interact with you or even react harshly towards you. Meanwhile, their negative reaction to your feelings causes you to believe your initial assessment of them was correct! As a result, even if you were on good terms with the person before, you both may begin to harbor hostile feelings towards the other.

In other words, your transference just ruined a possible good friendship or relationship, and you didn’t even realize it.

Stopping Transference

The best way to stop transference in its tracks it to bring your feelings into awareness and consciously suspend judgment until you have more information. Even if you feel that your first feelings are fitting — and you will — do not outwardly (or inwardly) react to them.

Instead, ask yourself where your feelings are coming from. What caused them and why did you respond to these causes the way you did? Have you felt this way before and why? Self-inquiry may lead you to realize that your feelings have less to do with the current situation and more to do with your past emotions, and save a relationship from ruin.

8 thoughts on “How Transference Ruins Relationships

  1. This is interesting, Alee. But here’s the confusing part: how can you tell if it’s just transference, or if the person really IS an a-hole? This may sound funny, but seriously, how do you know? Aren’t we hard-wired to recognize certain triggers and quirks in people’s personality for self-preservation?

  2. Hi Christelyn,

    It could be transference and the person still may really be an a-hole! They are not mutually exclusive. (even though this post is about the times when they tend to be) 🙂

    In any case, one way to recognize transference is to ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you are — what did the person say or do to cause you to feel that way? Are others reacting the same way to the person or have they reacted the same way in the past? And most importantly, have you ever felt that way before and with who? If you say to yourself, “Well, my ex who cheated on me was a huge Lakers fan and laughed with his mouth open just like this guy,” then it might be transference!

  3. One thing I wouldn’t do in any situation was tell the person that he or she has negative traits that remind me of a person from the past! I just think that’s unnecessary and creates bad blood between the two people… sometimes it’s best to just self-censor, while looking inward to see if you’re wrongfully judging someone based on the transference principle.

  4. Bunny, lol, yes, that’s a bad idea. Some people just tell another that they’re not fond of them or make it so obvious. But they usually think they have a legitimate reason for not liking the person and can think up reasons why if asked.

  5. I would like to know more about emotional transference relationships. I believe my ex wife suffers from this and I would like to know how to get her to open up.

  6. Transference must be rife, online, and in text-based relationships where all those subtle, evolved facial and body-language clues inform our reactions to a person – are they a threat? Harmless? Friendly? A potential partner? Lying is often picked up on this way. Sociopaths must think that Social Media was the greatest invention since sliced bread and the Priesthood….

  7. Hi Matt,

    I do believe the Internet and other text-only mediums (as well as phone conversations, to a lesser extent) may lead to more transference.


    I may do future posts on this topic.

  8. Transference, positive or negative, in relationships is inevitable. It’s an unconscious, continuous phenomenon. We do it all the time and with everyone – we’re probably more aware of it in its negative form because it feels uncomfortable. A positive transference feels fine. If you decide to try to disengage from the process of Transference altogether, rather than just tackle each difficult one as it comes up, it will be a lifelong task and you may never succeed. But each careful exploration/examination of your own feelings may certainly bring you closer to not letting this unconscious process govern your relationships.

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