A Few Preliminary Thoughts on Relational Psychoanalysis (2017)

          In this short piece, I will explore some expository questions comparing relational psychoanalysis and Freudian psychoanalysis.  I will not be able to analyze these issues in sufficient depth; but I would like to raise some questions that I plan to address in subsequent writings. 

          First, if the basic unit of psychic reality in relational psychoanalysis is the relationship, can this be integrated or reconciled with Freud’s original proposition that psychic reality emerges through somatic libidinal energies driving the dialectic process in primal repression?  In Freud’s initial model which he began articulating in his 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud conceives of primal repression as this:  the body’s powerful energies seeking equilibrium (and subsequently pleasure) push towards representation and consciousness.  Representation requires some degree of repetition of the dynamic process of perceptive registration.  This process of representation which creates the basis for consciousness must simultaneously reveal and conceal, move towards and away, represent and repress, as bringing the representative content to the fore must push other sensory data out of consciousness.  This dynamic dialectic process is known as primal repression, and forms the basis of psychic reality. 

          This model emphasizes the somatic dynamics of the sensually embodied experience as libidinal drives.  It also emphasizes the role of repression in consciousness and psychic reality; repression and representation/consciousness are opposing dialectic branches.  The repressive unconscious is not just the nonconscious, or all the mental processes outside of awareness.  It relates to the model that psychic reality involves simultaneously concealing and revealing. 

          This model led Freud to the use of free association as a means to examine the dynamics of the repressive unconscious, to bring to speech the body’s sensations and to seek to partially liberate the mind-body from repetition compulsion which has its root in the dialectics of representation.  

          The relational model takes the relationship between two individuals as the basis for psychic reality.  Reality is formed by the interaction and communication between two persons in its own dialectical fashion.  An individual psychic life cannot exist in a vacuum.  Ontologically, one is from a mother, and cannot survive without this original object relationship; as Winnicott wrote, “there is no such thing as an infant.”  This forms the prototype for relational reality and a relational unconscious:  we seek human connection, communication and enact derivatives of our internal object world in each new relationship.  Relational analysis focuses on this enactive dimension and how humans consciously and unconsciously relate in this world which is inextricably imbued with language, culture and interpersonal interaction.  With its emphasis on mutuality and interaction in the treatment relationship, a relational approach analyzes the unconscious enactive dance between the analyst and the patient and forms its own dialectic, that of the synthetic interplay between the two persons’ subjectivities. 

          These models offer two very different notions of psychic reality:  in the Freudian model, the emphasis is on exploring how the body’s subtle energies impel the mind simultaneously towards representation and repression.  In the relational model, the body and its libidinal currents are deemphasized while favoring a focus on the energies, repetitions and interactions that take place between the two individuals.  While contemplating the implications of these two models, here are some questions which I have been exploring:

1 .What is a relationship?  It may seem like a simple question, but the meaning of “relationship” and what is necessary to constitute it is a complex question.  When asking a patient about her relationship with a sexual partner, my patient responded: “it’s not a relationship.  We are just hooking up!”  As banal as this exchange may seem, to me it raises the question of what types of interaction is necessary to constitute a relationship.  A further question arises in what constitutes an individual.  When does an infant that does not exist without a mother exist as an individual?  If individuality requires relationality, what is the role of the somatic experience in personhood?  If we are driven towards objects as Fairbairn proposes, are what we seek from objects not somehow rooted in the needs and desires of our embodied experience?  Relational psychoanalysis seems to fall short on responses to these questions, partially because it does not have a metapsychology to explore the subtleties of the questions: what is an individual? what is a relationship?  How is the mind related to the body in a primal, animal way that precedes the social experience ontologically, epistemologically and phenomenologically?  These are gnawing questions seated deeply beneath analyzing the dynamics of the social realities of “relationships,” as if they do not rely on an embodied experience.  

2. If the Freudian approach emphasizes evaluating the patient’s attempts at free association and the individual’s inherent repetitive resistances to fully free speech in the process, how does the relational approach evaluate a relationship? What makes a healthy or good relationship, and how can this be evaluated outside of a normalization which is invested in the cultural hegemony?  Can a relationship’s functioning be evaluated outside the tenets of our Western neoliberal capitalist socioeconomics?

3. If a tree falls in the woods and the person who hears it land is the only person left on earth, did it make a sound? This is the paradoxical question modified to fit the relational paradigm.  If the individual hears the tree with absolutely no relational context is there any potential for meaning.  This problem is hinted at in an episode of the Twilight Zone in which a bookworm who never gets enough time with his books is the only one to survive a nuclear holocaust.  Excited that he now has endless time to read, he stumbles and drops his eyeglasses which crack, rendering the man unable to read.  On the surface, the tragic irony is that he won’t be able to read.  But the latent ironic tragedy is that reading is meaningless in a world without intersubjectivity.

4. If relational psychoanalysis emphasizes mutuality and more symmetrically, what will be the future of the use of the couch and free association? One facet of the couch that is rarely mentioned is that it signifies radical asymmetry: the one who suffers is on the couch, and the one who takes care sits.  Lying on the couch without eye contact focuses on the intrapsychic experience, while face to face would seem to emphasize the relational.  Free association similarly also favors the asymmetrical roles as it is up to the patient to free associate and the analyst’s role to listen and sometimes intervene.  Will these practices be modified or even discarded as the practice of relational psychoanalysis evolves?