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

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A Relational Reconsideration

In my personal attempt to untangle these rather tenacious resistances, I focus on two specific areas of countertransferential pressure that I believe

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to be related to our professional reluctance to explore the boundaries of the analyst's sexual subjectivity. First is the fact that an understanding of oedipal dynamics remains rooted in the soil of drive theory and ego psychology. As such the almost exclusive focus has been on the child's need to come to terms with the concrete impossibility of such desire. The renunciation of the incestuous wish, the implementation of ego defenses, the establishment of sublimatory outlets, and ultimately superego internalization itself all rest upon what Freud termed the “dissolution of the Oedipus complex.” As such the power of the experience itself, the symbolic significance of idealized oedipal love as it moves both parent and child to experiences of power, surrender, and physical desire, comes to be first circumvented and then overshadowed by the formidable task of moving beyond what are viewed as essentially phase-specific wishes seeking healthier forms of sublimated expression. Likewise, the erotic, bodily aspects of the oedipal experience, somatically encoded in a system parallel to the mental configuration of self and object matrices, is often ignored, summarily dismissed as belonging to the realm of primitive mental functions, significant only where “pathological states” prevail. The mental consequences of drive renunciation take precedence, therefore, over the actual experiences of relational frustration and gratification, as well as over the physiological, more purely erotic analogues of such experience, in the uniquely mutual throws of oedipal romance.

Clearly, contemporary analytic thinkers have expanded our notion of the complex processes unfolding in the experience and resolution of the classical oedipal configuration. Fast (1984), Benjamin (1988), Dimen (1991), and Ogden (1991), to mention only a few, all pose a phase of what might be called “transitional oedipal play,” in which the young child experiences primary identifications and erotic exchanges with parents of both sexes. Such a phase of boundaryless erotic and identificatory experimentation presumes that the child needs to experience what are too often viewed as incompatible polarities of gender-dominated potentialities before there can be a final consolidation of gender identity, a renunciation of what Ogden (1991) terms “bisexual omnipotence” and Fast (1984) terms “overinclusive gender definition.”

But even here, the emphasis is surely on the identificatory processes that set the stage for such renunciation and for the ultimate realization that, what we are forced to renounce in our coming to terms with gender differences may be rediscovered in the erotic discovery of the other. Missing, even in these expansive and bold reinterpretations of classical developmental theory, is that they still speak more to the mind of the developing child than they do to the body; and it is my belief that essential erotic experience occurs at the interface where mental and physiological

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experience comes together. I suggest that within this transitional arena wherein the child sorts out all that she is, all that she may yet come to be, and all that must ultimately be sought out in intimate and erotic contact with essentially different others, there is a physiologically based and somatically encoded substrate of experience that runs parallel to, but remains in most cases essentially dissociated from, the more cognitive, verbally encoded operations. It is my belief that the early template for both the adult's potential to experience erotic passion as well as the particular difficulties inherent in achieving such states of physical intimacy and desire is formed during this phase of transitional oedipal experimentation.

Let me elaborate. I am certainly not suggesting a return to the impersonal and endogenously organized drive theories of Freud. What I am suggesting is, perhaps, more in keeping with Fast's (1992) statement that “the basic units of experience are bodily interactions between self and other” (p. 396) or Bollas's (1988) view of the early object as “enviro-somatic transformer of the subject.” I suggest that as the child reconfigures her experience of what it means to live within her own body, as she comes to understand the separate subjective experience of the other because such preliminary trial identifications allow her to transcend her own physical definition, there will be a moment-to-moment, virtually uninterrupted flow of bodily states, in specific relation to each experience of self and other as they become internalized into increasingly more organized matrices of self and object representation, a separate yet parallel organization of self-experience, symbolically encoded in a language of somatic sensation and countersensation: arousal, hyperarousal, inhibition. I believe that it is misleading, an unfortunate derivative of drive theory, to regard this aspect of self experience to be important only in early development or where primitive mental states prevail. I also believe, however, that in our efforts to move beyond a conceptualization of sexuality based primarily on an organization of depersonalized drives, we have in large measure cast aside the reality that sexuality is still an outgrowth of shifting physical sensation as it occurs in relation to specific fantasied and interpersonal relationships. In fact I would suggest that this particular aspect of self organization and experience grows increasingly elaborated and differentiated with time and assumes a position of particular centrality in any attempt to understand the individual's erotic life—an organization of the experiences of self in relation to other in which love, shame, idealization, envy, and rage are not just words but systems of physical sensation, elusive, ever-shifting, and rarely, if ever, verbalized in normal interpersonal discourse.

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If we are to enter the clinical realm of erotic desire, confusion and inhibition, it would seem imperative that we gain access to this essential subtext of interpersonal relatedness as it effects both patient and therapist. Often this aspect of experience provides access to repressed and dissociated states of erotically charged experience, otherwise unavailable in the verbal discourse that dominates clinical inquiry. Yet, we are often taught to avoid such immersion in physicality, for the very reason that it is viewed as too primitive, too arousing, and therefore potentially too gratifying to the patient. We are taught to presume, instead, that silences are neutral, though we must know from our own life experiences that such meaningful and uncomfortable silences are the very foreplay of erotic enactments.

If, ultimately, we presume a developmental progression from the physiological to the purely or near purely mental, if we view such states as out of control impulses or primitive modes of expression, there is another danger; here, the theory will in fact encourage a premature foreclosure of erotic experience rather than an enhanced capacity to contain the progressive elaboration of such experience as a normal substratum of increasing development and differentiation. We lose an entire aspect of self-organization and a different language by which we may come to understand highly conflictual aspects of the patient's relationships with significant others. Only by integrating these often dissociated aspects of experiencing self in relation to other, i.e., the purely physical and the purely mental, can we forge the much needed integration of mind and body so necessary in impacting upon the patient's capacities to experience erotic desire.

How, then, can we enable the patient to hold on safely to and sustain anxiety-ridden somatic states long enough to know those moments from within, from the subjective experience of both the self and the other, to incorporate into our psychoanalytic explorations an ego, a containing, symbolizing, knowing constellation of capacities that incorporates physicality and sensation as well as language and other forms of mental definition? Surely, we cannot as clinicians interpret the unconscious or unformulated aspects (Stern, 1983) of physical sensation, which we have not first enabled our patients to reopen and sustain. We cannot, as individuals, come to know an experience that we have not first felt. Nor can we integrate an experience of erotic desire until we have been able to explore it comfortably with another in an atmosphere safe from both intrusive overstimulation or silent humiliation.

The answer to such a question lies in what has been already described as the analyst's ability to move fluidly between her role as magnet for reenactments of past object-related experiences and her function as a

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container for both experiencing the old and facilitating the new. As patient and therapist together reimmerse themselves in specific object-related experiences of the past, the physiological substrata of experience described will certainly reemerge. As a full participant in the analytic endeavor the analyst must be willing to feel and process her own somatic states accompanying the interplay of self and object in the erotic counter-transference, as well as recognizing those states inherent in the patient's unfolding erotic transferences.

The second point of resistance to exploring the analyst's sexual subjectivity comes, I believe, with the unwillingness to view the parent and, by extension, the analyst as a full participant in the erotic oedipal situation. It is by now familiar analytic terrain to view Freud's renunciation of the seduction hypothesis and adoption of a belief in the centrality of oedipal dynamics as the cornerstone of formal psychoanalysis, one that turned the emphasis of clinicians from the realities of early sexual trauma to the vicissitudes of oedipal fantasies and configurations. This shift, however, had another, less explored result. It forever shifted the focus from that of the out of control parent, moved to extremes of traumatic transgression by experiences of aggression against, and erotic longing for, the child, to an exploration of the sexual fantasies and desires of children whose parents are cast in the immutable stone of dispassionate objects of desire. Any exploration of the analyst's sexual feelings for his patient, in the analytic setting, will reveal the repressive derivatives of this defensive shift, the parent/analyst as an active participant in his child/patient's erotic oedipal experience and the reactivation of the analyst's own conflicted oedipal struggles under the sway of this compellingly unilateral romance. How much easier to engage in a collusive denial of the parent's sexuality or, better yet, a defensive devaluation of such romanticized oedipal love as immature, idealized, adolescent, or pathological—easier yet when the analyst's own training analysis predated many of the changes in psychoanalytic conceptualization that enforced the value of renunciation and resignation over the symbolic powers of transitional play and the need to maintain certain essential paradoxes in the psychoanalytic situation (Winnicott, 1971; Ghent, 1992). Here the analyst can retreat to a defensive reliance on an asymmetrical, one-person model, which presumes to isolate the erotic fantasy life and related physiological sensations of the patient, as if such an experience could, in fact, be separated from the concordant and complementary fantasies and sensations of the analyst.

I would suggest that ultimately, though with careful timing, the patient must come to know the analyst as subject of her own erotic sensation and desire. When a traditional analytic frame is used defensively by the patient to shield himself from acknowledging the sexual

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subjectivity of the analyst, I would suggest that certain countertherapeutic boundary confusions ensue. The patient, not unlike the overstimulated oedipal child, bears the guilty weight of his own erotic longings, as well as the burden of maintaining in denial an awareness of the parent's reciprocal interest and involvement. When such confusion is then supported by the analyst's own, theoretically reinforced unwillingness to regard her sexual responses as a significant aspect of the countertransferential process, I believe that a perverse scenario, rather than an increasingly intimate one, is reenacted, at least in part on the basis of an almost universal defense against the awareness of the parent's own erotic fantasy life as it relates to that of the child. It is my fear that what masquerades as analytic neutrality may in many cases represent the reenactment in the transference of a countertransferentially induced gratification of the patient's eroticized masochism, rather than an enhanced capacity for intimacy and erotic mutuality.

Indeed Masud Khan (1979) introduces his first book, Alienation in Perversion, with the following: “The basic argument of this book is that the pervert puts an impersonal object between his desire and his accomplice; this object can be a stereotype fantasy, a gadget, or a pornographic image. All three alienate the pervert from himself, as, alas, from the object of his desire” (p. 9).

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