There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
Frances Sommer Anderson, PhD, SEP
Attachment, Volume 11, Number 3, December 2017, pp. 223-241(19)
Veronica Csillag, LCSW
Emmy Grant: Immigration as Repetition of Trauma and as Potential Space Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 2017, Issue 4
Stefan R. Zicht, Psy.D.
In 1989, Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis became one of the first postgraduate institutions to offer specialty training in trauma. The Institute’s Trauma Treatment Center offers a two-year program leading to a Certificate in Trauma Studies, building on the success of more than 25 years’ experience educating mental health professionals in the theory and practice of intensive, psychoanalytically-informed psychotherapy with adults who have a history of significant early-life developmental or interpersonal trauma. Jonathan Kurfirst, PhD, faculty and supervisor of the Trauma Treatment Center, reflects on how psychoanalytic theory influenced his work at an inpatient psychiatric facility for over 30 years.
Many mental health professionals hold the opinion that psychoanalysis has no place in the treatment of “seriously disturbed,” institutionalized people. As a psychoanalytically trained psychologist, I worked at an inpatient psychiatric facility for children and adolescents for over 30 years. While any job of this nature has its share of bureaucratic and administrative nightmares, I look back on my career with a great deal of satisfaction. I attribute this to the fact that the breadth and depth of psychoanalytic theory gave me the tools, and more importantly, the perspective, to be a more creative therapist in such a difficult context. (more…)
Let’s Talk About Race – An Ongoing Dialogue
“As a relational analyst, the exchange inevitably touched on who we are in the room: our race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality…” In the second of our series on race, Tara Chivukula, graduate of Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, grapples with what it means to be considered the Buddha of Analysis.
The Buddha of Analysis
By Tara Chivukula, LCSW
Karen sank into the sofa, sighing deeply. Her shoulders slumped down as she looked up. Fixing a determined gaze on me, she announced: “You’re my Buddha.”
I paused, and considered her words: the note of possession. The exclusivity. And finally, the Buddha. The tone of her voice was affectionate, authoritative.
This wasn’t the first time that Karen had proclaimed me her Buddha. In prior sessions she had called me Swami (an honorific that contained, at least for me, latent associations to a charlatan). We had analyzed in the transference her choice of words and her choice of me, a straight-identified Indian-American woman as her therapist. Buddhas were serene, peaceful, sexually removed, wise. Buddhas didn’t deal with the romantic turmoil that plagued mere mortals. After all, the real Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama had abandoned his royal post, his wife and son for a life of asceticism. In Karen’s eyes, she was the seeker, and I the found.
As a relational analyst, the exchange inevitably touched on who we are in the room: our race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality. As a professional queer-identified woman of Jewish parentage in her 30’s, Karen experienced an upbringing that intersected with my own in many ways. We were both women raised in upper-middle class homes in suburbia and socialized in a patriarchal culture. However, Karen dealt with bigotry for being both Jewish and queer. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. She struggled with issues of sexuality and identity.
My parents were part of a wave of professional immigrants welcomed into the U.S. after implementation of the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act. The Act abolished the national origins quota system (to no more than 20,000 visas per year from any one country) that had been in place restricting Asian immigration to the U.S. Upon arrival, they like many other immigrants and people of color, were subject to racism and discrimination in their professional and personal lives.
We hailed from cultures that were stereotypically clannish, family oriented, and focused on educational and professional achievement at all costs.
While such common ground was tacitly acknowledged, being a Buddha implied Otherness. My analyst silence deemed wise. My measured response deemed spiritual. The act of holding space in the consulting room deemed holy.
Karen, of course, was commenting on aspects of my personality. In contrast to the decidedly non-Buddha-like women in her life, I embodied an Orientalist trope—an inscrutable, wise, serene therapist residing in the office/dream space: static, frozen, fixed eternally.
As Edward Said notes in Orientalism:
The very possibility of development, transformation, human movement—is denied the Orient and the Oriental. As a known and ultimately an immobilized or unproductive quality, they come to be identified with a bad sort of eternality: hence, when the Orient is being approved, such phrases as “the wisdom of the East.”
As a sign of this supposed wisdom, near my Union Square office, a number of yoga studios have proliferated over the years. The emphasis on “Eastern spirituality,” pseudo or not, is strong. Buddhism is in vogue. Sankskrit words/concepts like karma, dharma, moksha, and samsara trip off the tongue. The message is clear: The East rejects materialism in favor of spirituality, religion, yoga, and self-knowledge/growth. This one-dimensional view did not square with the complexities of the India I knew. As Gita Mehta wryly notes of this exchange between East & West in Karma Cola:
The seduction lay in the chaos. They thought they were simple. We thought they were neon. They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial. Everybody thought everybody else was ridiculously exotic and everybody got it wrong.
On the other hand, I could not deny that Karen was also commenting on those aspects of me that were essentially unknowable, unreachable. She had repeatedly despaired of the lack of truly being able to “know” me though some self-disclosure had been made over the years we’d been working together. She admittedly worried that one day I would reveal myself to be the “mess” that she knew most women in her life were. That is, emotionally volatile & deceitful. In some ways, unacknowledged, she preferred the racist trope to the sexist. In doing so, she kept safe from those destructive aspects of myself she was afraid to know (one could argue that I was afraid to know) and protected the men (her father) in her life who had failed her. She rendered me a man—A Buddha who had abandoned the material world.
I often wondered if I were not Indian-American, would Karen have called me a Buddha or Swami? Or did my personality, not to mention my profession, make such a comparison inevitable? After all, most people initially found me hard to read. As analysts we are very often more observer than participant, hidden away in asymmetrical relationships. It was hard to tell.
I wondered too, how much I had colluded in this perception. Had I unconsciously adhered to a Buddha-like persona? W.E.B Dubois coined the idea of a “double consciousness,” a term describing the psychological challenge faced by African-Americans ‘of always looking at oneself through the eyes’ of a racist white society and attempting to reconcile their race/ethnicity with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.’ This struggle to deal with a multi-faceted conception of self was something Karen and I undoubtedly shared.
Reflecting on our dyad from a relational standpoint, I noted feeling boxed in—unseen by her comment, as though I was an idea or an ideal that she needed me to be: unchanging and static in my steadiness. A feeling of despair ensued where I imagined never quite being known by her. And I understood that very likely she felt this way in her life—that I, like her primary caregivers, would never quite know or understand her. And she felt boxed in by her need to please and fulfill expectation.
I began to realize that I was not the only Buddha in the room. A Buddha symbolized some shameful aspects in her—static, passive, unchanging, never roused to anger—that Karen had projected onto me.
By opening up the discussion and considering the myriad meanings of a word, the opportunity for greater freedom and spontaneity arose, a welcome and necessary outcome for the both of us.
*Names and other details have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.
Double Consciousness. (March 31st, 2016). In Wikipedia: Retrieved: April 23, 2016, from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_consciousness
Mehta, Gita (1979). Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House.
Tara Chivukula, LCSW is a graduate of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis. She is in private practice in New York City.
For years, psychoanalytic institutes have been struggling with how to develop a more multi-culturally diverse Institute culture – in their candidate pool, faculty, and curriculum. In this light, John Turtz, PhD, Co-Director of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, reflects on his personal responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book and National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me. He references psychoanalysis’ “history of exclusion” and discusses the need for psychoanalysts to struggle with these difficult issues around race.
Reflections on Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
By John Turtz, PhD
Hatred is an ordinary human experience that has extraordinary results.
Kathleen Pogue White, Ph.D.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015), an African-American writer and journalist, has written an extraordinary book entitled Between the World and Me. It is a masterpiece in the form of a letter to his son. Coates writes of the subjugation of the Black body by the powers that be in white America. He writes about the social construction of race, stating, “But race is the child of racism, not the father” (p. 7). I recently listened to Coates read this letter himself in the audiobook version; this is a beautiful recording. The letter to his son is as much poetry as it is prose. It is, from my perspective, simply magnificent, and it led me to the following reflections.
The philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas has written about the importance of “the Other.” Colin Davis (1996), a scholar of twentieth century French literature, wrote, “The thought of Emmanuel Levinas is governed by one simple yet far-reaching idea: Western philosophy has consistently practiced a suppression of the Other” (p. 1). Through various means such as empathy and domination, we try to make the Other a part of ourselves. We attempt to eliminate the difference and assimilate the Other into the same. Levinas, on the other hand, focuses on the radical alterity of the Other and on how the Other simply cannot somehow be reduced to the familiar sameness of the subjective self’s personal domain. In fact, the subject is born only in recognition of the Other’s radical otherness.
The Lacanian psychoanalyst, Bruce Fink (2007), in a book on psychoanalytic technique, has written about the difficulty in listening and truly hearing and experiencing otherness. He writes, “We tend to hear everything in relation to ourselves” (p. 1) and “Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other” (p. 2). Fink then advises, in a similar vein as Edgar Levenson, “Stop trying to understand so quickly” (p. 6). Our tendency is to listen for the familiar, thereby making false assumptions that we then take to be fact.
Listening to Coates read his letter to his son made me even more aware of my own deficiencies in my attempts to deal with my own internal struggles around race and otherness. Lacan has asserted that inauthenticity leads to a power hierarchy (Ehrenberg, 1992, p. 83), and postmodernists have examined the nature of binaries and how they too lead to hierarchical power structures. We therefore need to move toward greater authenticity in dealing with race issues and toward the deconstruction of binaries with regard to race. Psychoanalysts of color, such as Kathleen Pogue White (2002) and Kirkland Vaughans, and white analysts such as Melanie Suchet (2007) and Neil Altman (2004) have initiated the difficult and challenging but essential dialogue on race issues. It is crucial for all psychoanalysts, I believe, to struggle to a much greater degree with these issues. Psychoanalysis itself has, since its origins, been a mostly white, often Jewish, culture with a great history of exclusion. Is it no wonder that we have a difficult time attracting people of color to come train with us? There are no easy answers (that’s perhaps the understatement of the year), but we must continue the struggle begun by analysts that have been courageous enough to sail into these stormy waters.
The American dream has generated a lot of trauma. From the Trail of Tears to the shackling of African-Americans in chattel slavery for centuries to Black men hanged by white men hiding behind white sheets or shot in the back by police officers empowered by the culture of whiteness, there is a deplorable side to America. It’s so much easier to not see what there is to be seen, to pretend that this is all in the past, to pretend that I am not at all responsible, to avoid otherness, and to hide from others as well as from myself what I feel are unacceptable aspects of myself.
I do not consider myself to be innocent. My hope is to struggle with these issues in a more open and authentic manner moving forward. Though it may be myth, it is told that Martin Luther said, “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!” Whether true or not, it is a beautiful expression of hope and the human spirit. In this spirit, I hope to work toward greater awareness of my own “not me” aspects, struggle to get to know these aspects of myself in a more intimate way, and thereby struggle to deal more constructively with that deeply ingrained white mask of privilege, power, dominance and subjugation.
Altman, N. (2004). Whiteness Uncovered. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 14:439-446.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Davis, C. (1996). Levinas: An Introduction. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Ehrenberg, D. B. (1992). The Intimate Edge: Extending the Reach of Psychoanalytic Interaction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Fink, B. (2007). Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Suchet, M. (2007). Unraveling Whiteness. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 17:867-886.
White, K. P. (2002). Surviving Hating and Being Hated. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 38:401-422.
John Turtz, PhD is Co-director of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis and Director of the Couples Therapy Training Program at the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is in private practice in Manhattan and Larchmont, NY.
In recent years, many psychoanalytic institutes have opened their doors to non-clinically trained professionals holding a Master’s level degree or higher. Manhattan Institute has welcomed Licensure Qualifying Program candidates from a broad range of fields including writing, publishing, biology, and law, individuals who bring to their training unique perspectives on psychoanalysis. Here, first-year LQP candidate Justine Duhr, MFA, reflects on how the connection between reader and text is not unlike that between analyst and analysand.
By Justine Duhr, MFA
“He opened the book; and as he did so it became not his own. He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive. The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay. The sunlight, passing his window, shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there.”
-from the closing lines of John Williams’ Stoner
It’s just past midnight on a Tuesday. I’m lying in bed with my dog on one side, a cooling cup of tea on the other. My husband is asleep, lightly snoring, having already embarked, no doubt, on tonight’s unconscious adventures. In the street below, it’s starting to rain. I can tell by the cling-clang of drops on the city’s metal and also by the new way sound seems to carry. A young woman’s playful shriek, a baby’s shrill cry, these sounds echo around the block and reach me finally, as if from a great distance.
I’ve just closed John Williams’ Stoner, just consumed the final delicious lines not for the first time nor nearly the last. Now I lie very quiet and very still with the book in my lap, feeling its precious weight in my hands, feeling the way I almost always feel upon finishing a novel: impossibly painfully irrevocably human.
That’s why I read, I think. In a highly collaborative effort of imagination and feeling, I connect with the story, the characters, the writer, and also with something deep inside myself.
Sandra Buechler in Making a Difference in Patients’ Lives: Emotional Experience in the Therapeutic Setting (2008) likens the role of the therapist to that of the poet. Buechler writes:
As analysts, our target, like the poet’s, is to evoke more than we say. This makes it more likely that phrases that resonate with the patient’s inner experience will be cocreated. The culture the patient and I have in common provides a dictionary that exists “outside” us. From it we create a kind of poetry by using highly evocative language. Layers of meaning come from experiences we have had with each other, or talked about. Like all poetry, its function, aside from giving us joy and helping us feel connected, is to prompt us to think just a bit beyond what we have already consciously known. (pp. 213-14)
Here we see the therapeutic dyad as a microcosm of the human experience, our perpetual search for connection, through the art of language in the case of psychoanalysis and poetry—and, I would argue, poetic prose. Just as patient and analyst work together to discover and examine the patient’s inner life (the cocreation Buechler points to), so too do author and reader collaborate to create an experience that is both illuminating and therapeutic in its own right. Through the act of reading we have the profound experience of connecting to something larger than ourselves.
In reading as in analysis, the experience is the thing. In interpersonal analysis especially, in which meaningful change depends so heavily upon the particular relationship that develops between therapist and patient, the experience is everything.
I remember one 11th-grade English class during which my teacher, Mr. Scott, busied himself at the blackboard drawing diagram after diagram: plot in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, character arc in Song of Solomon, symbolism in Song of Solomon, and so on. I had already by then fallen deeply in love with literature and, as was my habit in those days, had adopted my most recent read as my favorite. I felt defensive about the book, protective even, and silently rebelled against this rigid structure that I feared would explain my experience away. This can’t be what this book is about, I thought, surveying the tidy chalk lines that seemed to me like a death sentence. I wanted not hard knowledge, not facts, but acknowledgement of my feelings as I read this great work. I understood in my heart before I did in my head that charts and diagrams couldn’t possibly do justice to my experience, my personal connection with the novel, which was for better or worse uniquely my own.
I felt changed by Song of Solomon, and by countless reading experiences after—Housekeeping, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, The Lover, to name just a few. These encounters became part of me. I was altered by them, no matter that I didn’t know then and don’t know now and likely won’t ever know precisely how. Morrison, Robinson, Shelley, Dostoevsky, Duras, these authors and I worked together to create the unique reading experiences that conspired to make me who I am. I read, and their stories became entwined with my own.
In this way, reading keeps me connected. I read to know others. I read to know myself.
But what it is to know is, of course, not so simple. Knowledge, insight, and experience are fickle and fleeting. Illumination can obscure as much as it reveals, as Stoner’s sunlight that “shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there.” And so we keep trying, searching for connection, striving towards meaning, because we’re human and that’s what we do. Thankfully, in books and in analysis, there is no end of stories to tell.
Buechler, S. (2008). Making a difference in patients’ lives: Emotional experience in the therapeutic setting. New York, NY: Routledge.
Justine Duhr, MFA, is a psychoanalytic candidate at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the Texas Observer, Publishing Perspectives, The Review Review, Whiskey Island, Fringe Magazine, and beyond. She owns and operates WriteByNight, a writers’ service dedicated to helping people achieve their creative potential and literary goals.
Click here for more information about the Licensure Qualifying Program at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis.
How do we talk about drinking with our clients? January is the perfect time to ask says Emily Damron, LCSW, graduate of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis.
January: A Perfect Time to Ask About Drinking
By Emily Damron, LCSW
“There’s no problem that can’t be made worse with alcohol.”
When I use this line with clients, they look a bit startled and then laugh with recognition. Like any good interpretation, this pithy saying from Alcoholics Anonymous makes its point without being preachy or judgmental. It often leads us into further exploration and reflection about the patient’s relationship to alcohol.
January is the perfect month for therapists to follow up, “How were your holidays?” with some questions about the patient’s drinking. Many people see the old year out with a bang, or with a binge, or with a series of binges. They wake up in the New Year with a massive hangover, a crateful of regrets, and a boatload of resolutions. Some discover their closest relationships are in a shambles and that they’ve gotten themselves into a mess they can’t remember, let alone sort out. Remorse and resolutions are why gyms are so full the first weeks of January. It’s also why newcomers appear at AA meetings with their “day counts” in the single digits.
Therapists are uniquely positioned to help their alcohol-abusing patients recognize the problem before they actually “hit bottom”. But historically, psychoanalysts have been leery of wading into the troubled waters of substance abuse (Freimuth 2003). “I know they have a problem, but I’m not sure how to talk to them about it,” they often say. Sometimes a therapist’s reticence has to do with not wanting to depart from customary techniques, such as following the patient’s associations, careful listening, and avoiding ‘leading the patient’ at any cost. “I don’t want to impose my agenda on them,” is what I sometimes hear.
Interpersonalists have an edge in this regard. Because of our comfort in asking questions, we can easily adapt the detailed inquiry to an assessment of someone’s substance use or abuse. We know from experience that if we don’t ask, the patient often won’t volunteer the data. But when we do, all sorts of useful information come out that can further the treatment.
God (or the devil) is in the details
There are two other obstacles to our conducting a detailed assessment of a person’s drinking or drug use. “I don’t want to come across as critical or moralistic,” therapists will say. Naturally, we all want to maintain an empathic stance with our patients. But I’ve found it possible to do this while sensitively exploring a person’s important, and often hidden, relationship to alcohol. The approach I use is to ask people to talk about their own concerns about their drinking, focusing specifically on harmful consequences they’ve experienced (Damron 2003).
For the last obstacle, “What questions should I ask?” there are several assessment tools that have enabled therapists, doctors, and other helping professionals to quickly ascertain whether a patient’s alcohol use has crossed over into dependence. Two of the simplest ones are the four-question CAGE questionnaire, developed by Dr. John Ewing (1984) and the 10-question AUDIT, which targets quantities, harmful consequences, and loss of control. Psychotherapists who have an already-established relationship with a patient who drinks or drugs will probably want to adapt these questions to their own way of speaking.
For example, when someone mentions loss of control while drinking, I’ll ask if this happened recently. If the patient alludes to a three-day binge, I’ll say, “Can you walk me through it? (i.e., what time did it start, how much did you drink, at what point did you fall asleep, etc.). Following up with, “Did anything happen during the binge that wouldn’t have happened if alcohol hadn’t been involved?” may highlight for the patient the way alcohol abuse is making them betray their own values. Such a realization can act as a powerful motivator for cutting back or stopping altogether (Frankfeldt 2002). In this way, therapists can assist in raising a patient’s “bottom”. A detailed inquiry about a patient’s substance use or abuse can last several sessions, and might even become an important and ongoing theme in the treatment.
If someone does come in this month expressing concern about how much they partied over the holidays, this would be the perfect time to start exploring it with them.
CAGE & AUDIT Questionnaires:
Damron, E. (2003). A Guideline for Understanding & Assessing Addiction. The Participant Observer: The Newsletter of The Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, 2:2, Spring Issue. 4 pp.
Freimuth, M. (2003). The Unseen Diagnosis: Addiction Assessment, The Psychotherapy Bulletin, 37: 38-42.
Frankfeldt, V. (2002). Complex Problems Require Complex Solutions: Donnie: A Life Apart, Harm Reduction Psychotherapy: A New Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Problems. A. Tatarsky, Ed., NY: Jason Aronson, pp. 137-159.
Emily Damron, LCSW is a graduate of Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis. She is a supervisor and is on the faculty at Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center, where she also founded the Committee on Psychoanalysis and Addictions Treatment. Ms. Damron is in private practice in Chelsea and Park Slope. She also provides individual and group consultations.
How does one treat a couple in a relational psychoanalytic framework? Wendy Greenspun, PhD, faculty and supervisor at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, explains how the relational turn in psychoanalysis allows us to bridge classical and family systems theories to understand the many influences on a couples’ relational functioning.
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts: The Complexity of Couple Therapy
By Wendy Greenspun, Ph.D.
How do we understand the complex nature of problems in romantic relationships? And what theoretical framework can help us navigate our clinical work with couples? In couple therapy, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Eric Fromm (1956) aptly stated that in a romantic relationship, one plus one equals three, similarly suggesting that basic mathematical assumptions don’t apply when examining couples. Couple treatment requires knowledge of how to understand each member of the dyad, with his or her unique history and internal world, as well as the complex system that they co-create and are embedded in together.
Classical psychoanalysts look at the couple relationship as a receptacle of ongoing transference experiences, with each individual distorting his or her perception of the partner in a manner consistent with the drama of early family life. For example, in my work with a (composite) married, same-sex couple I will call Joan and Joelle, Joan complained that Joelle was needy and dependent. Joan had grown up the only child of a single mother, who turned to Joan to meet her emotional needs. Such a parallel provided fertile ground for exploring how she responded to her partner based on childhood experiences. Elucidation of such distortions is often a necessary component of change, but not sufficient to address all relationship difficulties.
Family systems theorists, utilizing principles gleaned from biology, describe couples and families as forming their own unique systems. Along with structural components, such as boundaries, hierarchies and alliances, they elucidate ways that an individual can carry out certain functions for the system, and how partners mutually influence each other’s behavior. The systemic concept of circularity describes the vicious cycles seen in this mutually-determined process: Joan retreats because Joelle wants closer contact; Joelle wants closer contact because Joan retreats. Seeing how an individual’s behavior inadvertently brings about the unwanted response in the partner can open up new possibilities for intervention. Systems theorists also describe the notion of complementarity in couples: the more Joan is strict in parenting their son, the more Joelle compensates by becoming lenient. In its most extreme form, complementarity can lead to the polarization often seen in intractable relationship conflicts. Helping each member of the couple soften their stance can facilitate both moving closer to the middle. Yet a family systems approach fails to address the complex recreation of an individual’s internalized past within their current relationship.
The relational turn in psychoanalysis has allowed us to bridge the internal, unconscious focus of classical psychoanalysis with the external, behavioral focus of family systems theory by looking at the various ways a dyad co-creates a shared emotional system. Through this more comprehensive understanding, contemporary psychoanalytic theories allow us to address the myriad influences on relational functioning.
Unconscious mechanisms that recreate internalized object relations have been delineated by both object relations and attachment theories. Early object relations theorists who studied marital interactions (see Dicks, 1967) recognized ways that symptoms could be carried by one partner for the other. They began to explicate how the sharing or volleying of symptoms occurs via the process of projective identification, where an individual’s unwanted internal objects are projected into the other, stimulating the partner to behave in a manner consistent with the ejected object. In the case of my couple, Joelle expressed a lack of sexual desire at the start of treatment, but as soon as her sexual interest returned, Joan became anorgasmic for the first time. Understanding the nature of the projections and helping both partners better contain or metabolize the unwanted aspects of self provides a useful way to approach these often confusing dynamics. Attachment theorists describe how early parent-child experiences lead to an internal working model of relational security, which then becomes the blueprint for what individuals expect and respond to with their adult partners. Particularly relevant when attachment injuries, such as betrayals and losses, occur within a romantic relationship, the impact of the rupture can be understood with the exploration of early attachment experiences. For my couple, an episode of Joan leaving suddenly on a business trip led to an increase in Joelle’s clinging protests, an exaggeration of her insecure attachment behavior; conversely, Joan exhibited her avoidant style whenever she sensed distress in their connection.
Interpersonal analytic theorists posit less about specific unconscious mechanisms, but instead look at how early relational expectations get recreated interpersonally. Through a process of selectively attending to cues from the partner that conform to early relational experiences, then continuing to interpret as well as to subtly influence the partner to behave in ways that are consistent with those experiences, each member of the couple lives out her internal object world in the present interpersonal context (Goldklank, 2009.) With my couple, Joan was keenly attuned to any way that Joelle seemed dependent, and subtly questioned Joelle’s more autonomous actions, leading the dynamic between them to closely mirror Joan’s relationship with her mother. In a complementary manner, Joelle attended most to ways that Joan was dominant and critical like her father, and may have unconsciously invited such negative scrutiny through presenting herself as helpless or incapable. Interpersonal analysts may also look at ways individuals often choose a partner who embodies some important aspect of a familiar internal struggle.
Further developments in contemporary analytic theories have broadened our understanding of the complexities within relationships. Relational psychoanalysis has explicated the role of dissociative mechanisms in individual and couple functioning. Understanding the amalgam of self-states that each individual may bring to his or her romantic partnership can help each person make sense of seemingly disjunctive emotional reactions in self and other (Ringstrom, 2014). When Joelle felt unwanted by Joan, she became like an inconsolable child, consistent with her emotional experience following the early death of her mother. Recognition of this child self-state helped Joan react less negatively to Joelle at these moments.
Findings in neurobiology have supported the analytic notion of a shared emotional system in couples. Mirror neurons point to the ways we are wired to be responsive to others. Neuroscientists have also noted that the release of the hormone oxytocin during close physical contact in intimate relationships can provide an emotional regulatory function for both members of a couple. This knowledge helped Joan and Joelle learn to calm each other at the start of arguments by holding hands, utilizing this shared capacity for affect management.
We’ve also learned that one plus one often adds up to more than three. Extending the interpersonal and relational understanding of co-created systems to the larger social environment within which the couple is embedded helps to contextualize certain relational struggles. In my couple, delving into Joan and Joelle’s religious differences, as well the impact of being lesbian in a heteronormative culture, helped to deepen our understanding of factors that were adding stress to their partnership.
Indeed, the whole is significantly larger than the sum of its parts. Working with couples exposes us to the panoply of influences, past and present, internal and external, which inform dyadic functioning. With the relational turn in psychoanalysis, we have the theoretical framework and concomitant tools that allow us address the inherent complexities of treating romantic pairs.
Dicks, H. (1967). Marital tensions: Clinical studies towards a psychological theory of interaction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Fromm, E. (1956). The Art of Loving. NY: Harper and Row.
Goldklank, S. (2009). The shoop-shoop song: A guide to psychoanalytic-systemic couple therapy. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 45(1), 3-25.
Ringstrom, P. (2014). A Relational Psychoanalytic Approach to Couples Therapy. NY: Routledge.
Wendy Greenspun, Ph.D. is on the faculty of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis Certificate Program, the Adelphi University Postgraduate program in Marriage and Couple Therapy, and at the Training Institute for Mental Health. She is a graduate of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis Certificate Program in Psychoanalysis, and also trained at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. She is couple therapy supervisor at Columbia University Counseling and Psychological Services. She has published and presented extensively on couple treatment and violence in couples and families, and is in private practice in NYC.
Wendy will be teaching a course on couple therapy for the analytically-oriented clinician as part of MIP’s 4-week seminar series. This seminar provides 6 CE credit hours.
Click below to register for Wendy’s course “One Plus One Equals Three: Couple Therapy for the Analytically-Oriented Clinician.”