As part of the SPSI curriculum for the classes you’ve taken thus far, you’ve been exposed in some depth to traditional one-person psychoanalytic theories, including the original versions of drive psychology, ego psychology, self psychology and American and British object relations theories. Though these psychoanalytic schools of thought vary considerably, one thing they have in common is that they place great, if not exclusive, emphasis on the presumed internal workings and vicissitudes within the individual mind. All of these theories moved psychoanalysis in important directions: ego psychology toward an increased appreciation of the individual’s defense mechanisms, as well as (to some degree) the role the environment plays in shaping and influencing ego development; self psychology toward a greater understanding of a grandiose self, narcissistic injury, and therapeutic empathy or empathic failure; and, object relations theory, toward elaborating the inner object world, involving the interaction among internalized representations.
While some members of the traditional schools of psychoanalytic thought implicitly moved psychoanalytic theory toward a two-person psychology (especially W.R.D. Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Hans Loewald, and selected others), contemporary relational theories have taken the most decisive and radical turn toward a two-person model.
A major shift credited to the relational psychoanalytic orientation is that it moved psychoanalytic theory away from the near exclusive study of the individual mind or psyche, toward the interaction between two “real” people, the patient/client and the therapist or analyst. The term “relational psychoanalysis” was originally coined in the 1980s by Stephen Mitchell, Jay Greenberg and their colleagues at the Post-Doctoral Program at NYU. In this seminar, we’ll cover an array of authors that we view as representative of the relational tradition. Relational authors argue that personality emerges out of the matrix of early formative relationships with parents and other significant figures. An important difference between relational theory and traditional psychoanalytic thought is in its theory of motivation, which assigns equal if not more importance to the quality of relatedness between an individual and his/her interpersonal surround, rather than focusing on the vicissitudes of inborn instinctual drive.
Relational psychoanalysis is associated with such concepts as social constructivism (e.g., Irwin Hoffman, Donnel Stern); enactment (e.g., Owen Renik, Lewis Aron, Antony Bass) and countertransference (e.g., Epstein & Feiner, Karen Maroda ). What all of these authors have in common is that they tend to view transference and countertransference as co-creations carved out of the psychoanalytic dyad of patient/client and analytic therapist. Contrast this to traditional theories that view transference as residing within the patient, which is then projected or displaced onto the analyst. Also, while the earlier traditional analytic theorists tended to view countertransference and enactment primarily as “errors” on the part of the analyst, occurrences that would negatively affect the treatment process, relational authors view them—and indeed, the analyst’s subjectivity in generally—as inevitable, unavoidable, and potentially not a hindrance but an aid to the analytic process when properly worked with. That is, relational analysts are more likely than traditional analysts to view countertransference as the product of the analyst’s own ongoing subjectivity in interaction with the patient’s psyche. As such, it is a highly informative source of information about the patient and the analytic process per se. Those associated with the relational orientation tend to approach the work with a spirit of greater egalitarianism between patient and analyst. The relational style of interpretation aims to be experience-near, eschewing traditional interpretations that can at times be intellectualized, stilted, and/or authoritarian-sounding (e.g., see Stephen Mitchell’s writings). When treating patients/clients, relational psychoanalysts recommend a mixture of judicious and disciplined restraint and a degree of spontaneity on the analyst’s part. Relationally-oriented psychoanalysts decry the traditional sole focus on interpretation, cognitive insight, and free association; they believe that the analytic relationship itself has a large impact on the analytic process and outcome, and that interpreting its development is an additional “royal road” to the unconscious, along with dreams and one’s fantasy life.
The relational perspective and its interpersonalist precursors were the first major psychoanalytic approaches to be influenced by feminism and postmodernism. In addition, queer theory and postcolonial critique have influenced the evolution of relational thinking. Consequently, one of the defining features of relational psychoanalysis is an appreciation of the role of culture and subcultural differences in shaping mental life, one’s sense of self, and interpersonal relationships. Variables such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality are understood to be necessary considerations in theory building and conceptualization of an individual patient and the treatment process itself. Some authors make such consideration explicit, while for others it is implicit given the emphasis on the “matrix” in relational theory.
A word of context about the design of this course in its 2021 iteration. It can take three or more years of continual coursework in a “contemporary” institute—all of it devoted to the relational literature and its contributors– to fully understand, appreciate, and be able to apply this orientation’s thinking to one’s clinical understanding and practice. Here at SPSI we have only one dedicated course, of only 11 sessions, in which to accomplish a sturdy and substantive overview of all this material. So we have to be realistic about the constraints involved.
In part because of this, a few of the assigned readings on certain topics will be summary condensations (always, though, from the seminal thinkers themselves!) of the main viewpoints associated with the topic. These readings may not feel quite as gripping as others—for one thing, they may not dive into a particular clinical illustration–but we are assigning them in order to be sure certain bases are covered in your understanding. We are glad to offer additional, more targeted readings to help deepen your engagement with any particular theorist or idea, according to your personal level of interest—just let us know if you’d like further suggestions.
We may share some study questions with you in advance of the class sessions, to help organize and guide your thinking as you engage with the assigned papers throughout the trimester. If the readings end up feeling especially dense for a given week, we will decide and let you know a week or two in advance what to concentrate on for that particular class session.
We look forward to hearing your reactions to these readings and to our inputs as instructors.