Love in the Afternoon: a relational Reconsideration of Desire and Dread in the Countertransference



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Clinical Implications


Surely the response to this clinical material will in large measure derive from the model of therapeutic action held by the individual reader. Some will dismiss it outright, convinced that such involvement and revelation on the part of the therapist must point to serious unresolved countertransferential pressures. Others, more comfortable with the centrality of the analyst's countertransferential experience but nonetheless uncomfortable with the specific content of this vignette, might still accept it as a “last resort” kind of intervention, one that became necessary when the “safer” alternatives, alluded to earlier, failed to work. “You assume, then, that I could have no sexual thoughts about you.” “Why do you think you make that assumption?” “Do you ever think that I might have such feelings about you?” “Could you imagine a situation in which I might have such fantasies?” —these are all alternatives that come to mind with far less anxiety and dread than the path ultimately chosen.

Despite the reality that my choices in this case were dictated by a sense of clinical frustration and the failure of those alternatives mentioned above (as well as countless other variations on the theme), let me here play devil's advocate. I wish, for the moment, to take what might be considered the theoretical “high road” and consider, indeed, argue, the possibility that from the vantage point of a relational model of psychoanalysis, the ultimate course of events, in this case, represented one of the most therapeutic alternatives. Why is that?

If we work within a relational two-person model of psychoanalytic discourse and wish at the same time to hold onto the notion that psychic pain emanates at least in part from the irreconcilability of conflictual


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internal experiences, we are often impelled to shift the focus of our analytic attention, steeped as it is in illusions of neutrality, from the structural model of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious thought as it exists solely within the patient's inner world, to that of a mutually constructed, intersubjective playground of transitional potentialities where meaning can be constructed only in the throws of recognition, destruction, and perpetual interaction between two actively engaged participants.

Here it should become clear that experience that seeks to avoid meaning can lodge itself well within the unconscious or unformulated experiences of either the patient or the analyst. Where, via projective identification and other projective mechanisms, meaning is subjected to such defensive extradition, it becomes incumbent upon the analyst to represent actively—even embody—that aspect of the split-off internal self and object world of the patient that so elusively defies acknowledgment and integration. It becomes a part of the analyst's essential function to recognize and maintain such disavowed experiences until such time that the patient can know them and integrate them without the threatening precipitation of debilitating anxiety and psychic regression. Within such a scenario, the analyst oftentimes must speak the dangerously charged words for the first time.

When we ask the patient to take such a risk, to venture forth with a shared description of his physical states of desire, dread, and arousal, despite the threat of frustration, humiliation, and denial, the analyst's failure to embrace an equal risk can, as in the case described, serve to reinforce the patient's fundamentally masochistic assumptions, thus foreclosing again on the potential for enhanced intimacy and mutuality. When, because of personal or theoretically reinforced reticence, aspects of the analyst's unconscious participation in the therapeutic drama remain unexpressed and therefore unexplored, whole areas of the patient's unconscious experience may be kept out of a full participation in the interpersonal arena of reconfigured meanings.

In coconstructing with the patient a current interactive dialogue that seeks both to unlock the unconscious symbolic equations of the past and to create personal meaning where cognitive operations have failed, we hope to maximize the potential for newly constructed meaning within the present therapeutic space. When an awareness of erotic desire toward the analyst triggers the terror of either overwhelming preoedipal danger or the reactivation of an overly stimulating oedipal configuration and when such dangers are experienced somatically, because verbal encoding has yet to occur, awareness and meaning may first emerge in the counter-transferential experience of the analyst, including, as has been described in this case summary, all manner of physical sensation. Here the analyst


WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of the subscriber to PEP Web and is copyright to the Journal in which it originally appeared. It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever.
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must communicate to the patient that the body, dreaded though it may have become, also creates and interprets meaning, responding to such meaning even before these processes can be cognitively encoded. Only if both participants listen to the language of shifting physical sensation can the necessary process of symbolization proceed and the gulf between somatic experience and expressible cognitive operations be bridged.

It is, after all, only when such experience can be put into words, that it can be openly shared between two people. It is only when such erotically charged material can be spoken of, changed, modified, withdrawn, renewed, when it can become the substance of all forms of symbolic and illusory play; that the patient can both “have” and “not have” (Benjamin, 1993) the experience of oedipal success. Here the patient can revel in an experience of oedipal potency and desire, in an atmosphere free from any traumatic transgression of the incest barrier. He can learn to play with, and enjoy his sensuous, sexual desires without the threat of penetration, humiliation, or overstimulation. I believe that it is in the successful negotiation of this particular developmental paradox that a groundwork is set down, that will ultimately enable the patient to mourn successfully what cannot be, maintaining, at the same time, a hopeful investment in all that is yet possible. Here, the mutual pleasures of a fully reciprocated oedipal love can be experienced, enjoyed, and taken in as a permanent template for the mature love that will, with a little luck, ultimately fill the future.




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