Have you ever been in a situation in which you didn’t like somebody because he or she reminded you of someone else? Or vice versa, that you felt attracted to someone for the same reason? This psychological phenomenon is called transference.
The term describes the process by which a person unconsciously transfers and reactivates old - often suppressed - feelings, affections, expectations (especially role expectations), wishes and fears from early on in life to new social relationships. Originally, these feelings may have been related to the parents, siblings, or other important people in one’s childhood, but they remain present in the psyche even when we are grown up.
Transference is completely normal, we all are subject to it. However, it can lead to significant problems and tensions in new social encounters.
In my work I meet a lot of people who appear to be almost jinxed by relationship patterns. Even though they know better, they still enter into relationships with partners who are bad for them. They are making emotional assumptions, relying on that one aspect of the other’s personality that emotionally appeals to them. At the same time, they are blind to seeing the real person beneath. It’s like being in an emotional time warp, always hoping that this time it will be better, that this time it will work out.
Transference can be a great stumbling block if you’re single and looking for a partner. If you’re always attracted to a certain “type” for instance and have had a string of unhappy relationships – or none - it could well be that – consciously or subconsciously - you transfer an aspect of a person in your past onto an actual or yet-to-meet partner. I remember speaking to a woman who had had a string of unhappy relationships with men whom she perceived as socially superior to herself. She was attracted by the power and status these men had and ended up heartbroken once the men broke up the relationship when they were no longer interested in her.
Transference can also interfere with your quest for a partner by producing stereotypes: one woman told me that she wouldn’t consider a partner with children, because her father had had a child with his mistress and she saw how her mother had suffered from that situation.
It’s hard to escape this phenomenon because it is manipulating our emotions. Yes, consciously we know that a person may be bad for us, but emotionally we’re wildly attracted by him or her. Or, on the flip side, we are not even interested in getting to know a person, because he or she has the wrong hair or eye colour or the wrong job.
So what can you do?
1. Be aware of your emotional reactions. Even though transference is often happening at a subconscious level, you can tell that something has been triggered because you have a strong emotional reaction. It can be useful to keep a journal to record these instances.
2. Subject your emotions to a reality check. Is your reaction reasonable? Have you been feeling like this before? In which situations? Are you reacting to one particular aspect of the other person and is this aspect influencing your view of the person as a whole?
3. Think critically of your past relationships. Are there any patterns? If you see patterns, write them down, if it helps you. You can also ask a professional to help you discover them.
4. Look for triggering cues. Once you have identified your transference patterns, look for triggering cues in new persons you meet or new situations that evoke them. Which behaviours, traits, experiences from your past trigger these cues?
5. Change your behaviour, gain control. Once you know your cues, you can change your behaviour and ultimately how you feel about these cues. Changing your behaviour raises your awareness and helps you from falling into the same trap over and over again.
Like many people perhaps, maybe you too tend to blame your ex-partners for failed relationships. This is called external attribution and is a vital emotional survival mechanism. Yet, the one thing your ex-partners have in common, is you. This doesn’t mean that you should blame yourself for the break-up. The question you need to ask yourself is rather: “Why did I allow that person into my life, why did I allow him or her to get so close?”
Once you change the way you think about yourself, not as victim, but as agent, and once you realize your patterns and why you follow them, you can break the vicious cycle and find the person who is right for you.
Claudia Neumeister is a psychologist and for 20 years she has worked as a head hunter for companies including Microsoft and Amazon. Two years ago, she founded a successful dating platform in Luxembourg.
In Live.Love.Luxembourg! she shares her most important experiences as a “matchmaker” and equips us with the secret weapons to succeed.