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The 3 Unconscious Ways You Are Blocking Intimacy

Over the next three weeks, I’m deeply diving into the unconscious ways you block intimacy in your marriage.  This week we’re going to look at transference in relationships.  

When we think about having a breakthrough with a marriage that’s stuck, we usually focus on what is conscious, i.e. communications skills, improving our sex life to deepen intimacy and perhaps how to set better boundaries as a couple. 

That’s completely understandable.  Because the result is we start doing something tangible to make a difference in controlling the trajectory of our relationship. 

What is often missing, however, is the role of the unconscious.

Connecting with the unconscious

The unconscious mind is a potent force.  

Research shows us that we are pretty much unconscious most of the time.  Neuroscience suggests that we are conscious of only about 5% of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behaviour depends on 95% of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness.

When we do not give the unconscious a place at the table, we are missing out on perhaps what is our most powerful ally in making change and creating a stable, loving relationship. 

Forming a deep connection with your unconscious mind creates a solid platform from which you can foster deeper relationships with others and yourself built on compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. 

You don’t have to be a psychologist or psychotherapist to understand this! And perhaps you shouldn’t be because, trust me; this is not about being your partner’s therapist. No one likes that, and I guarantee you it won’t work. It will not go down well at all, and neither should it. 

This is primarily about understanding yourself, your story, how you are showing up in the relationship without even realising it and getting curious about how your unconscious contributes to the experience you are having in your marriage. 

Your partner can do their work when they are ready.  

Transference in relationships

So what is transference?

Sigmund Freud first described transference in 1895.  

In essence, transference is the desire to return to our past to clear up emotionally unfinished business, i.e. from our childhoods. 

Transference is entirely unconscious and relates to the experiences of unmet childhood needs. It doesn’t matter how long ago we experienced the loss. These unmet needs have remained unprocessed, and we hold on to them. In due time we look for other relationships to get those needs met. 

In other words, it’s as if we get a second chance. A young, innocent child part of us hopes things will work out the way they wanted them to all that time ago.  

Mistaken identity

And because transference is unconscious, what we do not realise is, as Psychotherapist David Richo puts it, that we are essentially involved in a case of mistaken identity, mistaking someone from the present for someone in the past.  

Another way of describing it is a form of displacement, the feelings we have about one person we attach to another.

Even though these unmet needs go back to childhood, most of us do not look to our parents to clear the backlog of emotions; we turn to our partners, friends, work colleagues or strangers in our current life.  

That said, transference serves a good purpose because what we are doing is attempting to heal what is still an open childhood wound. 

When we look at it this way, transference provides a helpful shortcut to working on our past. When we recognise it, it’s a force for the relationship’s good and an essential intimacy function.

The problem is that most of us remain unaware that we are transferring onto our partners what does not belong to them. 

Has your partner ever said to you:

I’m not your father!

I can’t live up to the standards of your mother!

Please don’t speak to me like your mother!

Don’t expect me to be your father!

What we didn’t receive as children

And it is almost as if we cannot help ourselves, and of course, to some extent, we can’t. When we enter adulthood with a deeper understanding of what we didn’t receive as children but know in our guts what we should have received, it puts us on the lookout in later life for someone to provide it for us.

That’s how transference happens.

The exact needs we look for in our adult relationships are the ones we desired in that original caregiving environment as a child.

And even if we are receptive to transference, we might feel more comfortable holding our present partners responsible for the actions of figures from our past. But then we want our cake and eat it, a partner with whom we act out our hurt while keeping hold of the loving image of the parent.

Childhood fairytales

An idealized attachment to a child’s story may mean that we are unwilling to confront the disappointment of how our parents treated us. That also means that we are still caught in the grip of a childlike parent-child dynamic. We haven’t individuated.

According to Carl Jung, individuation is the process in which you journey towards understanding your true self. It involves becoming the most integrated, whole version of your unique self as possible. Inevitably, part of this means separating from our young parental fantasies. 

Winnicott, who coined the phrase ‘good enough mother’, found that meeting the child’s needs just 30% of the time is sufficient to create happy, well-attached children. That doesn’t mean it is okay to be abused or neglected the other 70% of the time. But it does mean that our needs are not always met, and there are plenty of opportunities for those unmet needs to manifest.

In reality, most of the time, we either project onto each other our own beliefs, judgements, fears and expectations or transfer onto each other the traits or expectations that belong to someone else.  

Positive transference

When we are experiencing a positive transference experience, as is common in the earlier stages of a relationship, we are blinded to its impact.

If your father was cold and emotionally distant, you might be particularly touched by a new partner who shows moments of tenderness and attentiveness.  You are filling in the gaps by seeing the father that you wanted but did not have. We are creating an image of our partner that they will find difficult, if not impossible, to live up to at some point. 

In reality, this is a child part of you playing out a fantasy which will not serve you in the ups and downs of an adult relationship.

Positive transference is potentially just as unhealthy as negative transference when we see traits and behaviours in our partner that we dislike. 

Negative transference

We are more likely to become aware when we are in the grip of negative transference.

Perhaps your husband is not intervening in the way you would like and setting boundaries with his mother concerning your relationship.  You perceive her as interfering and seeking attention.  In turn, you feel angry and not a priority in your partner’s life or important to him.

While your partner may be conflict avoidant, what is also possible is that you are transferring feelings about a parent who did not protect you from the bullying behaviour of the other.  A passive parent who did not intervene when you were subject to inappropriate forms of discipline.  The unmet childhood need is attention – too much or too little.

Is this transference?

So how do we know if transference is happening?

Perhaps the most significant clue is repeated arguments about the same thing. They are repeated because your partner can’t really resolve the issue.  After all, it’s not theirs to fix.

The second clue is if your response to your partner is disproportionate to what has happened. This awareness requires courage, self-reflection and honesty. If we are stuck in ‘that wasn’t me.‘ mode, our enquiry will not get very far. Overreacting is a clue that some of the energy directed to your partner belongs elsewhere. 

This is particularly true when it comes to anger. When you regress to that childhood place, the thought of expressing anger to a parent can be terrifying, particularly if you are connected to your 7-year-old self.  In this case, unconsciously, anger is much easier expressed with your partner.

And, of course, an argument with your partner, which a hurt child leads, is usually met by another hurt child (your partner’s) or your partner responding in a way that reminds you on a more conscious level of a parent.  

Intimacy blocker

None of this deepens adult-to-adult, person-to-person intimacy. 

Transference is a barrier to connection and intimacy in your relationship as you do not see your partner for who they really are. 

It gets in the way of what Martin Buber called the I Thou relationship when you meet person to person. No one is acting, and no one is given a role to play.  When we find ourselves in the trip of transference, we can take back the mask. 

The reason why it’s helpful to consider transference when we are feeling stuck in a relationship because it allows us to take responsibility for our part.

To take back what we are seeing might not be there at all. 

Next week I’ll be talking about projection.

Over To You

If you’re stuck and curious about transference in your relationship and want a safe space to explore the impact on your marriage, get in touch for a clarity session.  I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. 

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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© Sandra Harewood 2022

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialise in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.

Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.