People are taking to the streets with placards asking, ‘Where is the love?’ I want to ask it of our profession.
BACP Fellow Professor Brian Thorne wrote in 2005:1 ‘There can be few professions where loving and being loved and the experience of intimacy are part of daily life.’ After 17 years of working as a counsellor in the largest sixth form college in London, I am thankful for this daily experience of loving. And yet love is very hard to talk about openly in a professional context without feeling embarrassed, fearful of being thought naïve, or worried about being misinterpreted and considered unethical. Love certainly doesn’t feature in the list of competences required to work in the Further and Higher Education sector published recently by BACP.2 Love doesn’t have a place in a context where expert technicians deploy skills, make treatment plans and deliver interventions with measurable outcomes, based on goals and targets. Just when people all over the world are taking to the streets to ask ‘Where is the love?’, counselling, a therapeutic relationship permeated by love, is becoming more mechanised, dehumanised and instrumentalised.
It is time to listen to the people we work with: the people who come to us in distress because they feel unlovable or they realise they have never been loved, and who also yearn to know themselves as capable of loving. Day in, day out, young people come to me, wanting what I understand to be elements of a loving relationship: to be listened to with respect, to be taken seriously, to be understood, to be cared about, to be genuinely related to. They want me to trust their experience, and to do that I need to be able to trust my own experiencing, not to be fearful that, if I don’t follow the manual, I will be considered incompetent and unethical.
Of course, as a profession, we have to be aware that people do have harmful experiences in counselling, and we have to be ethically accountable, but the risk is that, by not talking about love, and by retreating from the person-to-person encounter, we are also harming our clients. Not talking about love won’t stop abuse happening. In fact, if we cannot talk about the strong, intense feelings and sensations that are inevitable for both counsellor and client in the intimacy of a counselling relationship, it may perpetuate it. Maybe the strength of our feelings frightens us off talking about love, or maybe we don’t want to enter into the unknown in the relationship, where we feel vulnerable and not in control. Maybe there are now so many counterfeit forms of love that it is too difficult to talk about it without misunderstanding. However, avoiding love won’t make counselling safer. If anything, I believe it can lead to unethical and unprofessional practice. It is time to reclaim love as central to the counselling encounter.
A theory of love
I first started thinking about a theory of love in counselling when I was reviewing with a young client our two years of working together. He said: ‘If you didn’t have the love for me, you wouldn’t do what you did.’3 I was shocked by his use of the word ‘love’, as what I had been bringing repeatedly to supervision in relation to this client was my sense of inadequacy, confusion, frustration, powerlessness, exhaustion and stuckness. However, he started me thinking how showing up week after week, not giving up, being there and believing in our potential as human beings are crucial aspects of loving. Loving in therapy is not only about warmth, flow and close connection, but also about being committed to the process of relating, with all its disconnections. I also realised that love is not a thing to be given and received but, rather, an emergent property of the relationship. With this client, being politically aware of the context in which we were working and facing the challenges of our differences and the power dynamics in the relationship were also key to the loving. He was a 17-year-old, working-class, Muslim-British, entry-level male student with a disability, and I am a middle-aged, middle-class, Protestant-Irish, university-educated, able-bodied, female professional.
I have developed a taxonomy of loving in therapy in order to identify and articulate, without shame or embarrassment, what I experience with my clients, and what they say helps them to carry on. I want to be able to talk openly and usefully about love to colleagues and counsellors in training. I have based this taxonomy on Rogers’ conditions for therapeutic change:4 that two persons are in contact and enter each other’s perceptual field, and that the client experiences the therapist’s unconditional positive regard (UPR), empathy and congruence. These conditions, working together in a relationship, can create a climate of love that sustains growth.
My work has led me to dig deeper into these conditions, rather than seeing them as merely the first step to establishing a rapport or alliance with a client before intervening to bring about change for them, make them happier, fix them, or help them adjust to oppressive, unjust systems. I like the irony of pinning love down in boxes in order to free us from the boxes of instrumental and mechanised relationships.
The taxonomy has four columns based on UPR, contact and perception, empathy and congruence, and five rows representing five aspects of relating: psychological (our mental and emotional ways of relating); transpersonal (what is beyond me and you, here and now); physical (the experience of relating as two embodied human beings); political (the power dynamic of the relationship involving not only our relationships to self and other but also to our contexts), and ethical (the underpinning values and qualities). Where these columns and rows intersect are the emergent elements that define and allow us to articulate love in counselling relationships.
A framework for love in therapy
|Dimension of loving||UPR (agape)||Contact and perception (storge)||Empathy (philia)||Congruence (eros)|
|Political||Equality and diversity||Mutuality||Solidarity||Justice|
Unconditional positive regard: agape
In person-centred therapy theory, ‘love’ became UPR as a way to articulate the ‘warm, positive’ therapist feelings within a therapy relationship in a way that the psychology profession would find acceptable. Rogers5 writes that this kind of loving is like the Greek concept of agape in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: a divine, generous, unconditional outpouring towards another.
The psychological aspect of this kind of loving would be altruistic, compassionate care for another human being, with no contractual requirement for a return on the investment – an economy based on abundance rather than scarcity.
The transpersonal would see the potentiality of the person, beyond what is present here and now: their Buddha nature or their divinity within. This loving acknowledges and accepts ourselves and the other with respect, awe and reverence for the utterly unique human beings we are. It affirms and confirms the other in their existence. Prayer, meditation, mindfulness and other disciplines enable therapists to develop their loving skills in UPR.
The physical manifestation of this kind of loving is tenderness, often experienced as irradiating heart warmth.
The political intersection is equality and diversity. We are all acceptable and of equal value as human beings, but also different, so need different treatment. Loving acceptance of a person as they are does not mean acceptance of the oppressive structures and behaviours that cause distress. This is not a passive, anything-goes kind of stance. As Martin Luther King wrote: ‘Agape... is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others”, which discovers the neighbor in every man (sic) it meets... Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.’6 The ethical aspect of this kind of loving is humility: recognising and acknowledging the complexities of our human strengths and frailties.
Contact and perception: storge
Storge is a Greek word for parental love – the kind of love that characterised my relationship with the young client I described above.
The psychological aspect of this loving is attachment: being open to being contacted and perceived; the struggle to perceive each other and come into each other’s perceptual field, and the process of connecting and disconnecting with another. It is the commitment to keep trying to come into contact with each other in spite of ambivalent, simultaneous feelings of wanting and not wanting, being separate and together, loving and hating, pulling and pushing. This is the ‘counter’ of encounter in the process of coming face to face.
Transpersonally, this kind of love is about interdependence, in that I am dependent on the other to know myself; I am helpless without the other. It is the South African term ‘ubuntu’: I am because you are. It is about ecological awareness of our interdependence on the human and other-than-human for existence and survival. This loving requires belief that the struggle for contact is worth it, in spite of real, here-and-now, incomprehensible difficulties, conflicts and pain.
Physically, this aspect of loving is manifested in nurturance: acts of kindness that are often remembered by clients as powerful, therapeutic and nourishing moments.
The political aspect of storge is the acknowledgment of the mutuality of interdependence – each is changed by facing each other and by the struggle of the encounter. There is a powerlessness in dependency on the other and a powerfulness in being depended on that is different for therapist and client. We cannot avoid the politics of interdependence: by existing, we impact on human and other-than-human, whether we want to or not.
The ethical qualities of this kind of loving are the courage, perseverance and stamina needed to withstand the struggle of coming face to face, taking the risk of depending and being depended upon, and having the resilience to live with the powerlessness and helplessness of the unknown.
Philia is the Greek word for friendship or companionate love. In therapy, the psychological aspect of philia is accompaniment – a deep understanding of another’s world, but alongside rather than in it, together but separate. Transpersonally, it is about what emerges in between – the co-creation of a unique relationship, a shared understanding and common purpose. I use the term ‘communion’ to describe this.
Philia manifests in resonance. Physically, we change each other through limbic attunement, altering each other’s neural pathways as we tune in to each other.
Politically, philia is shown in solidarity – through knowing the world of the other and acting from that knowledge. This is demonstrated when, for example, we advocate for a client, or challenge oppressive, unequal systems, discrimination and prejudice that cause distress. Activism is fuelled by the energy created from being alongside someone.
The ethical aspect of philia is wisdom: knowing what I know and don’t know, and using that knowledge with discernment to speak and act without harming the other. Wisdom is also about tuning into different ways of knowing: rational, intuitive, relational, and is based on lived experience, ethical frameworks and institutional policies.
Eros is the Greek word for passionate love and desire. The psychological aspect of this kind of relating is the desire for the right relationship: truthful relating with self, other and the world. It is a longing to belong, to find our ‘fit’ within the world. Most of my experiences in relationship are of incongruence, with a yearning for more congruence – a lusting for a fuller experience of the vitality of living.
Transpersonally, eros is a reaching out beyond self to other and a responding to the call of the other. Moments of congruence, or coming together, are moments of epiphany or flow, of feeling part of a life force. In Rogers’ own words: ‘... it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger. Profound growth and healing and energy are present.’7 Rogers refers to this as the formative tendency: ‘... an evolutionary tendency toward greater order, complexity, greater interrelatedness... as the individual moves... to a conscious awareness of the harmony and unity of the cosmic system, including humankind.’7 Creative, playful, joyful, transformative energy is released at these deeply congruent moments.
Physically, eros in therapy is being aware of feeling attracted, or turned on, as sexual, embodied beings. For a therapist to deny or subceive this inevitable aspect of relating means to risk practising unethically. Acting on it also risks practising unethically. It is vitally important that we are able to be honest about eros in supervision and training so that abuse does not happen through our shame, fear or embarrassment about erotic desire and loving. Although there are external codes of practice that prohibit sexual touch between therapist and client, these are meaningless unless the therapist has their own, internalised ethical reasons for not acting on their sexual attraction. For me, because of the therapist’s own, inevitably unresolved erotic life and process, and because of the power imbalance inherent in the therapy relationship, acting on physical desire harms the therapeutic relationship and privileges one kind of loving over another.
Politically, eros describes the desire for right and truthful relationships with self, other and the world that leads to the desire for social and environmental justice. Finding your ecological niche, where you fit in the world, enables congruent, sustainable activism. Ethically, erotic loving needs the integrity of congruence between the inner, relational and ecological.
A love ethic
The erotic aspect of loving in therapy clearly demonstrates how unethical and abusive practice is located not in the love dynamic, but in the power dynamic. The lust for life of eros is not the same as a lust to possess, appropriate or dominate the other. These are all abuses of power, which may involve a lack of awareness on the part of the therapist of the inevitable asymmetry in their role-power. Likewise, philia, or empathy loving, can become manipulation and exploitation if it is not accompanied by agape, or unconditional positive regard love, where awe and respect for human beings are central. With empathy comes awareness and knowledge of the other, which calls for wisdom on the part of the therapist, in terms of discernment and an awareness of the powerfulness that comes with this knowledge.
The four aspects of loving I’ve outlined work together to maintain ethical therapy relationships. If, for example, I was talking to my supervisor about a relationship purely in terms of the erotic, I could helpfully ask myself where the other aspects of loving were in the relationship. Likewise, if there was no erotic there at all, I might be wondering whether, in fact, I was able to engage in a meaningful relationship with this client. I’m thinking of times when I’ve been depressed, yet carried on working, and, in retrospect, have realised my relationships with clients lacked the vital hope, joy and creative energy of eros loving.
Often my therapy relationships have a lot of the struggling kind of storge loving – the turning up and being there and not really knowing why, but having some faith that hanging in there is somehow worth it. Sometimes I experience huge tension between agape loving and eros loving: an open, receptive accepting alongside a yearning, wanting and longing for change. I am coming to see that it is these tensions, the interplay between these often-contradictory aspects of loving in therapy, that are at the heart of a love ethic in therapy relationships. So, there is the integrity of the truthful holding of tensions of eros, the courage in the struggle of contact of storge, the humility of the non-possessive agape, and the wisdom of the non-exploitative philia.
The most radical political and ethical impact of this multidimensional understanding of loving in therapy is that it is underpinned by an awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of human beings on each other and also on the animate and inanimate world of which they are a part. So, for example, erotic loving cannot be confined to a human dyad, as it is about transformative life force and energy, and desire for social and environmental justice; storge loving acknowledges our powerlessness to exist on our own, our inability to be self-sufficient and our struggles with our dependence, powerlessness and vulnerability; agape recognises difference and commonality, and philia is based on awareness of otherness and contextual knowing.
Having a framework to articulate a theory of loving in counselling relationships helps ensure the highest standards of professional accountability in a culture of suspicion and surveillance, where relationships are mechanised and manualised and therapist competences have to be quantifiable and measurable. As Dr Dean Ornish asserts, in his book Love and Survival, about the scientific basis for the healing power of intimacy: ‘If love were a drug, it would be malpractice not to prescribe it.’8
Suzanne Keys is student counsellor at NewVIc sixth form college, London. She is on the steering group for Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility.
1. Thorne B. Love’s embrace: the autobiography of a person-centred therapist. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2005.
2. See www.bacp.co.uk/docs/pdf/15731_ucl-competences_v4.pdf
3. Keys S. Disability, multidimensionality and love: the politics of a counselling relationship in further education. In: Proctor G, Cooper M, Sanders P, Malcolm B (eds). Politicising the person-centred approach: an agenda for social change. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2006 (pp167–182).
4. Rogers CR. A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In: Koch S (ed). Psychology: a study of science. Vol 3: formulation of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill; 1959 (pp184–256).
5. Rogers CR. Client-centered therapy. London: Constable; 1951.
6. King ML Jr. An experiment in love. (First published 1958). In: King ML Jr. A testament of hope: the essential writings and speeches (Washington JM (ed)). New York: HarperCollins; 1986.
7. Rogers CR. A way of being. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1980.
8. Ornish, D. Love and survival: the scientific basis for the healing power of intimacy. London: Vermilion; 1998.