By Robi Friedman

Transference in Group Analysis

First posted 6/4/2017


Humans transfer unconsciously their past experiences in close relations from early life and perhaps as late as adolescence to the here and now. This transfer includes cognitions, emotions, fantasies and patterns of relationship, which often seem ‘unrealistic’ or with a twisted perception. Counter-transference implies an unconscious reaction to the transference of a group participant.

Conceptual perspectives

Because the concept of Transference is inherited from psychoanalysis, where the therapist is supposed to be the object of the transference, its rather intra-psychic definition poses conceptual difficulties when trying to apply it seriously to group situations in which reciprocal influences abound. The question if something is “transference” and should be treated like an emotional or cognitive distortion or a “relation” is not clear. Foulkes (1955) thought there is a ‘classical’ transference and then there are b. ‘All relations in a therapeutic situation between doctor and patient or in a group”.

Further considerations when applying the concept of Transference to the GAG (Group Analytic Group): a. They seem to be differences of many kinds between the transference to the group therapist and transference to other members. B. the reactions from the therapists (they may be called Counter-transference) may be completely different than the potentially not elaborated responses from other group members. This last issue seems to be especially problematic in the choice of optimal therapy.

History of the concept

The usefulness of the concept of transference also preoccupied Foulkes, who changed his mind about the validity of the transference process in the group and how to work with it (Nitzgen, 2008). Even in the same book he fluctuates from: “…oedipal reactions and transference neuroses are less obvious and less concentrated on the therapist in the group than in the individual psychoanalytic situation. Yet they are often clear enough…” up to after having argued against the possibility of the formation of the transference neurosis.

In 1957 in Group Psychotherapy: The Psychoanalytic Approach Foulkes and Anthony, to: “In the unconscious phantasy of the group, the therapist is put in a position of a primordial leader image… He can actually be said to be a father figure”. Foulkes (1964) thought later that individual transference neuroses could be recognized, analyzed and worked through in the group analytic situation, especially by referring to the transference to the total group situation, and not confining it to the therapist (1968, p. 180).

Transference could be recognized in three significant areas of relations. (1) the area of the immediate treatment situation (or transference in the wider sense); (2) the immediate current life situation (in married people, often the partner; in younger patients, their parents and their fiancée, etc.) in short, the ramifications and reverberations in the current life network, and (3) the reminiscences and recollections brought out by the treatment process which allows us a dynamic recognition of the patient’s childhood constellation and reaction (personal group matrix)”(p.245)

Treatment and Process in the GAG

Foulkes (1964) emphasized the…. ” transference to other members of the group…which are….of particular interest” (p. 245). Acknowledging that “other patients react, of course, as themselves, not as trained transference screens and receptors…” he without question saw this as an asset, and later, in 1974 he thought that “Transference is the motor force in psychotherapy. It has an almost magical, as if it was more intense than any other relationship” (p. 274).

The way to treat transference is not causing a regression, which he thought is done by placing transference interpretations at the center of the analytical process, as the Kleinian tendency was.

Transference processes are one of the four ‘levels of communication’ in groups, which are renamed by Schlapobersky (2016) as ‘domains’ or a space where a ‘reality’ happens. The other three levels of communication or domains are the ‘real’ or ‘personal’, the ‘projective’ (and the ‘introjective’), and the ‘primordial’. As in many other instances, Group Analysis suggests to treat relational and emotional phenomena like transference as communication, and the tendency seems to be to address mainly the small t, showing transference between group members. The Transference to the conductor (large T), which differs in quality from the “t” as well as his countertransference (which is also considered as being different) is mostly neglected and considered regressive. Most interestingly the therapist’s countertransference is treated since Heiman (1950) as the main instrument of understanding the unconscious meeting in therapy.

Attending to t rather than to T seems to be a Group Analytic dilemma – which should be debated. Foulkes himself seems to have thought that ignoring T was more in line with the GA philosophy. This approach must have deep influences on the authority of the conductor and his ability to work through his relations with the group’s members.

Hopper (2002) adds a group’s ‘collective’ transference to objects who the group hold in common, such as the conductor, the dynamic matrix of the group, various sub-groups, etc. The transference and countertransference to general, historical and group-as-a-whole issues, make up the co-creation of the “microcosmos”(Slater,1966).

Neri (1998) quotes Bejerano (1972, p.17) who specifies four transference objects:

  • The therapist (who functions as a father image: at archaic levels (as the infantile Super-ego or Ego Ideal)
  • The group which functions as a mother-image (Oedipal level) but even more as an archaic mother (the horde)
  • The others (lateral transference) as a fraternal image
  • The external world, as a place for the projection of individual destructiveness or productiveness. (In Neri, 1998, p. 20)


The fluctuating approaches to transference which are held in Group Analysis until today may be rather confusing and there are some who suggest to call them just ‘relations’ instead of ‘transference’. This seems to be also implied by Foulkes (1964) who believed transferences in group analytic groups should be negotiated in what he called a ‘continuously re-integrating network’. Maybe he described the vicissitudes of a transition between special ‘transference’ relations to just ‘relations’ in the ‘dynamic matrix’ of the group.

Pat de Mare (1972) preference of the term TRANSPOSITION’ instead of transference is thought provoking. De Mare thinks that the group-analytic participant is not imagining the analyst to be his father, or unconsciously forcing him to be his father, but perceiving the analyst to be felt like his father in the domestic setting. What is transposed from the past to the present is the whole setting or context that has been transferred from the past to the present or from another place to the present clinical place. For example, the group becomes one’s family of origin or becomes a school classroom, sometimes in a fairly concrete way. But the difference between a group participant who perceives the analyst as ‘being his father’, at one extreme, and another who perceives the same therapist being ‘like his father’, at the opposite extreme may not only be a question of transference, but rather of character structure. It’s not clear how transposition is used in clinical work different than ‘relations’.

When countertransference is felt ‘only’ responsive it may be used as a defence. When it is used as a primary response, after negotiation, it may be interchanged again with ‘relations’.


Bejerano, A.(1972) Resistance et transfert dans les groups. In: D.Anzieu, A.Bejerano, R. Kaes, A.Missenard and J.B.Pontalis(eds.) Le Travail Psychoanalytique dans les Groupes. Paris:Dunod.

De Mare, P. (1972) Large Group Psychotherapy. A suggested approach. Group Analysis 5: 106-108.

Foulkes, S.H. and Anthony, E.J. (1957). Group Psychotherapy: The Psychoanalytic Approach.  London: Karnac, 1984.

Foulkes, S.H. (1964). Therapeutic Group Analysis. London: Allen & Unwin. Reprinted in 1984,  London: Karnac.

Foulkes, S.H.(1968) Group dynamic processes and group analysis. In: Foulkes, E. (Ed.)1990, Selected Papers of S.H.Foulkes. Psychoanalysis and Group Analysis. 175-Karnac, London.

Foulkes, S.H., (1974): My philosophy in pyschotherapy. In:Foulkes, E. (Ed.),  Selected Papers.pp. 271-280. Karnac: London.

Foulkes, S.H. (1975). Group Analytic Psychotherapy: Methods and Principles. London: Interface, Gordon & Breach.  Reprinted in 1986, London: Karnac.

Hopper, E. (2005). ‘Countertransference in the context of the fourth basic assumption in the  unconscious life of groups.’ International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 55, 1, 87-

Neri, C.(1998) Group. Jessica Kingsley.

Nitzgen, D. (2008) Analysis Development by Adaptation. Notes on ‘Applied’ Group Analysis. Group Analysis 41(3):240–251.

Schlapobersky, J.R. (2016) From The Couch To The Circle:  Group Analytic Psychotherapy in Practice. London, Routledge.

Slater, P. (1966). Microcosm: Structural, Psychological and Religious Evolution in Groups.      New York: John Wiley and Sons.