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De-Idealizing Relational Theory: A Critique From Within

Read the introduction to this volume written by the editors

Self-examination and self-critique are the conduits to growth for psychoanalytic patients. Yet within the field, psychoanalysts haven’t sufficiently utilized their own methodology, or subjected their own preferred approaches, to systematic and critical self-examination. Across theoretical divides, psychoanalytic writers and clinicians have too often responded to criticism with defensiveness rather than reflectivity.

De-Idealizing Relational Theory attempts to rectify this for the relational field. This book takes internal dissension and difference seriously rather than defensively. Rather than saying that the other’s reading of relational theory is wrong, distorted, or a misrepresentation, the authors are interested in querying how theory lends itself to such characterizations. How have psychoanalysts participated in conveying this portrayal to their critics? Might this dissension illuminate blind-spots and highlight new areas of growth?

It’s a challenge to engage in psychoanalytic self-critique. To do so requires that we move beyond our own assumptions and deeply held beliefs about what moves the treatment process and how we can best function within it. To step aside from ourselves, to question the assumed, to take the critiques of others seriously, demands more than an absence of defensiveness. It requires that we step into the shoes of the psychoanalytic Other and suspend not only our theories, but our emotional investment in them. Each chapter critically assesses and examines aspects of relational theory and technique, considers its current state and its relations to other psychoanalytic approaches. De-Idealizing Relational Theory will appeal to all relational psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists. Read the introduction to this volume, written by the editors of the “De-Idealizing Relational Theory: A critique from within”, below.

Here’s a paradox: psychoanalysis is, above all, a process of self-reflection. We ask our patients to revisit their life narratives, to open them up to reflectivity, inquiry, dialogue, and new perspectives. Self-examination and self-critique: for our patients, this is the conduit to growth. Yet within the psychoanalytic field, we haven’t used our own methodology. We haven’t subjected our theories to self-examination. In fact, from its earliest beginnings, psychoanalysts have gathered protective circles around ourselves. Professional affiliation seems to require theoretical loyalty, and that loyalty oath seems opposed to critical self-examination. Inquiry, difference, and self-reflection: these have always percolated on the inside, but too often, they have been unwelcome. Eventually these inquiries yield theoretical schisms, which then occludes the ubiquity of theoretical mutual influence. Each subgroup (Freudian, Kleinian, Lacanian, Interpersonal, Self Psychology, Relational to name a few) has positioned itself against the perspective of the psychoanalytic other. As we explicated/illustrated the “rightness” of our particular position, we also identified the gaps/ limitations, or naivete of this alternative perspective.

As a result, much of our psychoanalytic literature is organized around two overlapping tropes. In the first, we find essays that provide clinical or theoretical support for the author’s particular point of view. In the second, we find essays that critique the theory of the psychoanalytic other. Both tropes tend to extrude difference; they are oriented to an idealization of the self and the devaluation of the other. We have had long arguments about who owns depth; who are the true inheritors of Freud; who practices ‘real’ psychoanalysis; who has mapped the human psyche, and whose technique is most effective. As we recycle these tropes, we recycle the contest for dominance.

Psychoanalytic schools tend to have a possessive, guild-like investment in a particular theory. This investment has made us adversarial to difference and critique whether they originate from inside or from without. Marginalized or attacked, those who differed were either disappeared (Ferenczi, Rank) or expelled (e.g. Jung, Adler, Reich). Historically, self-critique was not viewed as the conduit to dialogic growth. Instead it was framed as rebellion, antagonism, and hostility. When new ideas developed, they usually resulted in schisms, furthering internal suppression and hostile separations.

The relational orientation was, like all new paradigms, born out of this adversarial milieu. Our ideas tended to be framed in contradistinction to the work of the non-relationalist; we borrowed from and repudiated our origins. We, too, failed to examine our own theory from the inside out. We didn’t consider relational theory’s contribution in tension with its limitations. Those who did, or did it very much, were themselves marginalized.

Jay Greenberg is a prominent example, as will be discussed in the interview of him included in this volume. Relational theory lends itself to internal critique in a particular way. Embracing a constructivist and perspectival reconceptualization of the therapeutic dyad meant that the analyst was no longer the arbiter of truth and falsehood. The patient’s transference represents one – perhaps limited, but also potentially accurate perspective on the analyst, rather than a distortion of truth. This recognition required the analyst to consider the patient’s experience of the analyst’s subjectivity as a legitimate perspective.

This perspective was not to be dismissed as a displacement from the past. In the tradition of Ferenczi, and borrowing from our Interpersonal roots this re-conceptualization of transference means that the analyst must attend to and take seriously the patient’s critique of the analyst. In relational analyses it has become de rigueur for the analyst to consider how they have lent themselves to the patient’s criticism. The analyst asks: “What have I done that makes you view me in this way?” This query becomes a genuine expression of curiosity and interest. How has the analyst unconsciously participated in co-constructing the transference?

Bringing this clinical emphasis to bear on our inter-theoretical discussions and debates invites a more open point of entry for critiques of relational theory. We want, then, to ask the same questions about our theory that we ask of ourselves clinically. Rather than saying that the other’s reading of relational theory is wrong or distorted or a misrepresentation, we are interested in querying how our theory lends itself to such a characterization; in what way does our writing invite such a reading? How have we participated in conveying such an understanding to our critics? And when we greet internal dissension and difference, we might ask ourselves: “How is this dissension illuminating our blind-spot? How is this difference highlighting new areas of growth?”

Relational theory embraces critique as the venue for growth. However, despite a theoretical perspective that ought to welcome self-critique, relational analysts are no more open or receptive to critique than those from other psychoanalytic schools. We are not any less defensive or rigid about our own ideas. Our perspectival emphasis notwithstanding, we have not readily engaged in, or even considered, self-critique. We have not engaged with the perceptions or critiques of others. It is the theory that is an improvement, not the character of the practitioner or the character of our psychoanalytic ‘guild’.The mission of this volume is to implement our own model of inquiry by turning an eye on ourselves. In so doing, we hope to depart from our field’s adversarial construction of difference. We are seeking a more constructive cycle of inquiry and mutual dialogue. Rather than viewing self-critique as antagonistic and destructive, our intention is to be creative, respectful, and generative. Indeed, loving self-critique is essential to psychoanalysis’ theoretical and clinical vitality. We aim to avoid further suppression and schisms that foreclose dialogue and mutuality. To our knowledge, no psychoanalytic position has yet explored itself from the inside out. Here, we aim for a deepened understanding of our own theoretical position-both its limits and its potential. This kind of critique is not intended to represent a (partially defensive) justification or an elaboration of the rightness of our own position, nor to engage the other as an adversary or straw man.

This volume begins with two essays that take on and retrospectively critique our relational contribution to theory and practice. Joyce Slochower’ s expansive essay addresses the relational ideal, its implications, contri­butions, and clinical limits. Noting that the relational tum represented an overcorrection to traditional models lodged in notions of analytic asym­metry, certainty, and the baby metaphor, she explores the underbelly of this correction. Slochower suggests that our focus on the analysis of enactment and the mutative impact of analytic self-disclosure has created its own kind of clinical blindness. We sometimes fail to explore the problematic impact of self-disclosure and the mutual analysis of enactment. We are not always mindful of how the analyst’s own need for privacy and self-protection skews mutual engagement. Relational work similarly may skip over patients’ vulnerability and need for “alone” interiority, for an analyst who exercises restraint and comfortably owns her authority.

Slochower’ s relational holding model addressed much of this critique by introducing a more complex version of the baby metaphor into relational thinking while re-contextualizing holding as a co-constructed process. Contemporary relational ideas about self-state multiplicity, attachment theory, and relational co-shaping, have added to the complexity and layering of a relational holding model. Slochower reminds us that we remain (like all theories) vulnerable to caricaturing the other and obfuscating or sidestepping the limits of our own way of working.

Lewis Aron’s interview of Jay Greenberg provides historical context for the development of relational ideas. In their conversation, Aron and Greenberg both reminisce about our early beginnings and describe how relational theory has developed. Aron probes the early collaboration between Greenberg and Mitchell, and explores their individual and differing perspectives and styles. As one of the original authors of the distinction between drive and relational approaches, what is Greenberg’s assessment of the later development of relational theory and practice? Does he think that the arguments he and Mitchell made in the 1980s remain relevant in today’s psychoanalytic world?

Emanuel Berman focuses on the press of party loyalty, inclusion, exclusion, and organizational divisions as they have played out in the psychoanalytic world and more particularly, within the relational orientation. Berman presents several cases, (one in considerable detail) that illustrate how these themes can shape (and skew) our clinical work. He examines how our relational ideals – egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, and our focus on interaction and intersubjectivity, may at times be counter­productive and even anti-therapeutic. Berman makes use of his deep knowledge of comparative psychoanalysis to question and challenge his own clinical work and use of himself as a relationally oriented clinician.

David Mark turns a lens on the relational theme of “radical” analytic equality. He explores how analytic self-disclosure can be misused in an attempt to mitigate a hierarchical analytic tilt. Self-disclosure can be used manipulatively and in a way that deepens and enriches the analytic relationship. Mark offers an incisive comparison and contrast of clinical cases by two leading relational contributors, Jody Davies and Philip Bromberg. He demonstrates how Davies, with her object relational leanings, highlights structural concepts, while Bromberg, with his interpersonal background, emphasizes a more phenomenological approach. Davies views enactments as generated in the heat of affective intensity in the transference-counter­ transference. Bromberg focuses on the immediate interpersonal relationship with self-states that are highly fluid and responsive to context. Mark shows that the analytic dyad achieves a momentary illusion of radical equality when they seem to step outside of the usual hierarchical structures of relating.

Steven Stem addresses the relational tendency to focus on repetitive clinical dynamics. He believes that this focus itself tends to create ongoing (though also useful)enactments. In Stern’s view, our theoretical superstructure – with its emphasis on enactment, dissociation, and shifting self­states — doesn’t sufficiently conceptualize our patients’ emotional needs and how to address them. Stem urges us to further integrate “forward edge” thinking into the relational paradigm.

Steven Seligman, Ken Corbett, and Robert Grossmark share a focus on the limits of an interactive relational approach that tends to sideline quiet, reflective therapeutic space. Seligman notes that, like every analytic orientation, the relational turn tilts us in a particular direction, which may limit the impact of other dimensions of analytic process. He wonders whether relational work pulls us into an interactive mode at moments when watching and waiting might have more therapeutic efficacy. Seligman recognizes that the analyst’s focus on countertransference, enactment, and self-disclosures can be transformative, but wonders whether we have tended to overlook the importance of “some of the more quotidian aspects of everyday analytic work.” Seligman reminds us that disciplined observation and quiet focus can be enormously powerful therapeutic tools; they create a sense of safety and recognition that can deepen the work.

Ken Corbett also critiques the excessive idealization of analytic spontaneity and discusses the analyst’s need for private, contemplative space. While there is no such thing as an isolated private mind, Corbett argues for private analytic space. Enactment, he agrees, is ubiquitous, but contemplative and containing modes are necessary for the analyst’s self-care, and we need to be free to question the absolute values of spontaneity and authenticity. All this relatedness, Corbett pleads, is killing us. For both the patient’s sake and our own we need private space for absorption, musing, reverie, dreaming, and silent listening. Robert Grossmark builds on earlier relational writing on holding and regression with especially vulnerable patients by invoking the idea of “the unobtrusive relational analyst” as an alternative clinical position. With patients who suffer from psychic deadness and areas of unrelatedness, who lack mentalization and symbolization, the more dialogic aspects of relational technique (featuring enactment and self-disclosure) are problematic. Drawing on the clinical sensibility of the British Middle Group, Grossmark calls for a technical approach that emphasizes mutual-­regression and unobtrusive presence.

Steven Cooper explores the overarching principles of relational theory as influenced by other theoretical perspectives. Cooper views relational theory not as a systematic metapsychology or theory of technique, but rather as a broad meta-theory on a different level of abstraction as compared to single schools such as self-psychology. Cooper views Stephen Mitchell’s unique sensibility to be his emphasis on the analyst’s self- reflective participation. Cooper himself leans toward the use of object-­relations theory concepts to understand the stability and consistency of behavior, in addition to the contextual emphasis on the interpersonal school. Cooper also underscores patient and analyst’s need for privacy and a solitary space within the relational matrix.

Our volume closes with Lynne Layton’s explication of the socio­historical context in which relational thinking and practice is embedded. She significantly broadens our relational lens by underscoring the role of cultural and power differentials (race, class, gender, and sexuality) that inform and sometimes shape relational experience. Layton brings in the work of sociologists and existentialists and argues for an expansion of the relational perspective that includes its collective elements. Layton proposes a “relational ontology” that grounds theory in the identity possibilities available to the individual. She calls for our theory to move beyond not only a one- and two-person psychology, but beyond a three-person psychology, to include our social hierarchies and power relations in our identifications and disidentifications regarding sex, race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Layton makes the moving point that such work may not feel to us like legitimate psychoanalysis, but that it has the potential to make conscious aspects of our life choices of which we have not been aware. The problem that she pinpoints is that we as therapists are embedded in the same social system as our patients and so these relations may be difficult to identify. Layton’s essay locates clinical theory in a larger context and anticipates this series’ second volume, Decentering Relational Theory. In it, we continue to explore the interface and collision between different theoretical positions as they have shaped — or failed to shape — the relational school. Like the present volume, it also aims to be a model of growth in unity, one in which difference strengthens our field rather than dividing it.

This excerpt from De-Idealizing Relational Theory: A critique from within is published with permission from, and gratitude to, Taylor & Francis Group. Purchase your copy on the Routledge site here, or on Amazon here.

Dr. Lewis Aron is the Director of the New York University (NYU) Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He was one of the founders, and is an Associate Editor, of Psychoanalytic Dialogues. He is a co-editor of the Relational Perspectives Book Series (Routledge), a Fellow of the College of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (2016-2020), and he was a co-founder and is co-chair of the Sandor Ferenczi Center at the New School. Dr Aron is the editor and author of numerous clinical and scholarly journal articles and books. He is the co-editor, with Sue Grand and Joyce Slochower, of two forthcoming volumes: De-idealizing Relational Theory: A Critique from within and De-centering Relational Theory: A Comparative Critique.

Dr. Sue Grand is co-editor, with Jill Salberg, of Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Trans-Generational Transmission of Trauma and Trans-generational Trauma and the Other: Dialogues Across History and Difference. She is also the co-editor, with Lew Aron and Joyce Slochower, of two forthcoming volumes: De-idealizing Relational Theory: A Critique from within and De-centering Relational Theory: A Comparative Critique. Dr. Grand is a Fellow at the Institute for the Psychology of the Other and faculty at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

Dr. Joyce Slochower is a professor at the Department of Psychology, Hunter College & Graduate Center; faculty at the Steven Mitchell Center; and teaches at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC). She serves on the editorial boards of Psychoanalytic Dialogues and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Dr Slochower has published widely and is the co-editor, with Lew Aron and Sue Grand,, of two forthcoming volumes: De-idealizing Relational Theory: A Critique from within and De-centering Relational Theory: A Comparative Critique.

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