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The Uninvited Guest

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A fascinating and imaginative book combining psychoanalytic theory and literature - in particular classic plays about marriage and married couples - to help couples therapists as they piece together their clients' histories and stories during the therapeutic process. A profound yet accessible guide of interest to clinicians and non-clinicians alike.

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1. The Winter’s Tale: marriage and re-marriage

ePub

Let’s begin with a tale, a tale of hateful jealousy and suspicion, as well as, one might say, a tale of remarriage. But why begin there? Not all of the couples who seek therapy by any means suffer the kind of jealousy and doubts that plague Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Nor would I suggest that the experience of couples in therapy can always be described as a process of “emerging from narcissism towards marriage”, to reiterate the subtitle of this book. Juxtaposing these states, narcissism and marriage, in polar opposition may seem puzzling. And yet that is just what I mean to do throughout this book, to set in opposition narcissism and marriage, in ways perhaps familiar and unfamiliar. Adapting Bion’s notation, we could then picture “narcissism ↔ marriage” as a fundamental human tension.

By marriage, I mean to emphasize the passion for and dependence on the intimate other. By narcissism, on the other hand, I do not mean a preoccupation with the self, a kind of self-love. Rather, I mean to point to a kind of object relating in which there is an intolerance for the reality, the independent existence of the other. Narcissism in this sense is in fact a longing for an other, but a longing for an other who is perfectly attuned and responsive, and thus not a genuine other at all.

 

2. The false-self couple: seeking truth and being true

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In The Winter’s Tale we have a vivid portrayal of how the couple relationship can become, or perhaps inevitably does become, a setting of intense emotions in which truth itself becomes precarious. In the face of Leontes’ certainty that Hermione has been false to him, all protestations to the contrary are swept aside, whether from Hermione herself or from Leontes’ own courtiers. Indeed, Apollo’s oracle too is dismissed by this husband who knows he has been betrayed, betrayed by his wife, betrayed by his childhood friend, betrayed by his loyal minister. And Shakespeare presents this perversion of truth as an attack on the newborn child, the mother’s baby, as well as an attack on the mother herself.

When questions of truth take centre stage in therapy with couples, one is rightly cautious. We hardly ever encounter these questions in a mood of gentle inquiry. Most often they accost us with an angry, accusatory tone. “Tell me the truthl” seldom feels like a genuine invitation to a constructive coming together in a marriage. And, in therapy, seeking the truth can easily be confused with claims to be in possession of the truth, which in turn feels contrary to a mood of exploration.

 

3. The gathering of the transference

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You might say that the development of a psychoanalytic understanding of the couple relationship began with the beginning of psychoanalysis itself, and thus with the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud. It is true that the couple in which Freud took the greatest interest was the analyst-analysand couple; at least, it was the couple relationship that he explored in some detail. However, the development of a psychoanalytic approach to psychotherapy with couples begins much later. I am tempted to claim that the first couple psychotherapy session was described in 1949 by T. S. Eliot in his play The Cocktail Party—a somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that I will present in subsequent chapters. How psychoanalytic the “therapy” described by Eliot in that play is, the reader will have to decide after reading my commentary on it.

In a more sober mood, I want to acknowledge the work of two of the pioneering institutions in the application of a psychoanalytic approach to therapeutic work with couples: the Family Discussion Bureau (FDB), as the Tavistock Marital Studies Institute (TMSI) was originally known, and the Marital Unit of the Tavistock Clinic. Both of these units still exist, although only the TMSI has instituted a formal training and qualification specifically in psychoanalytic marital psychotherapy, and in consequence there is now a Society of Psychoanalytical Marital Psychotherapists (SPMP) which carries forward this tradition. The Marital Unit in the Adult Department of the Tavistock Clinic includes some experience with couples as part of its adult psychotherapy qualification. Since I do not intend to take a descriptive historical approach here, the reader who wishes to look back may want to consult Psychotherapy with Couples edited by Stanley Ruszczynski (1993) as well as Marital Tensions by Henry Dicks (1967) for an appreciation of the work and thinking of these two sister organizations, although there is no history as yet which includes the story of the SPMP.

 

4. Duet for one? Two people or a couple?

ePub

Having had this report of the first two sessions with Mr Webb, the reader may be a little uneasy about the marital dimension of the work. What distinguishes these sessions from initial sessions with an individual patient? One essential boundary of psychoanalytic psychotherapy with couples has to do with the psychic reality that the analytic work is with two people linked in a particular intimate and powerful way. It is important to keep that in mind even in this early way of working in which each marital partner was seen individually. Before we explore this issue of boundaries in couple psychotherapy, perhaps we ought to meet Mrs Webb.

One might note here the importance of the fact that Mrs Webb was seen, in parallel individual sessions, by a therapist who would meet regularly with her husband’s therapist throughout the therapy. This reality shapes and informs the analytic work in a powerful way. He, Mr Webb, is always there in a unique way in all her sessions, “listening and watching” in a way that is not always literal (confidentiality being maintained for each partner) but is more than metaphorical—just as she, Mrs Webb, is there in his sessions.

 

5. Separations and the capacity to mourn

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In our final reprise here of the work with Mr and Mrs Webb in the 1950s, we return to a familiar theme in the analytic process, that most persistent issue of what therapists provocatively call breaks. Even the word itself hints at an unconscious assumption that anything good, desirable, nourishing, and so on should be continuous, without interruption. However, these experiences of disruption are in fact at the heart of the analytic process, precisely because they are moments that mark the therapeutic relationship as a real and not a fantasy relationship. Coming to terms with our own finiteness, and the finiteness of the other on whom we depend, is central to emotional development out of narcissism and towards the capacity to be in a relationship, a development that I am talking about as the evolving capacity for marriage. We are reminded of the end of The Winter’s Tale, where Shakespeare invites the participants in this story of development out of narcissism to reflect on the links between union and separation, between having a part and parturition. As Leontes says to Paulina, the woman who has brought them together:

 

6. That which couples bring to therapy

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The therapy with the Webbs has brought into focus some critical questions. For example, when would we encourage people to seek therapy individually and when, if ever, as a couple? Why indeed would one want to engage in the psychoanalytic process as a couple?

One of my aims in this book is to convey something of the stark temerity of an invitation to the psychoanalytic experience in the actual presence of the partner with whom one shares, potentially anyway, the most intimate of life’s experiences. It is possible to imagine that only someone who has experienced psychoanalysis as an analysand can appreciate how forbidding that prospect could be. It is forbidding, I suggest, not only for the couple, but in quite a profound way for the therapist as well. And yet the reality is that couples do seek out psychoanalytic therapy as couples and engage in the analytic process as couples, sometimes for four or five years.

In this chapter, I want to begin to explore the idea that certain forms of narcissistic relating lead to seeking therapy as a couple. Or perhaps I should say that a variety of circumstances may mean couples seek out therapy together, but certain forms of narcissistic relating make it possible for some couples to sustain participation in the analytic process as a couple. My query is whether or not that which couples bring to therapy, to paraphrase Henri Rey, helps us to make sense of what brings couples to therapy.

 

7. Couple stories and couple dreams

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One question that would illustrate for many the reservations they would have about modifying the psychoanalytic frame work in such a radical way as seeing a couple rather than an individual would be the puzzle about dreams. Whether or not one would still say, as Freud did, that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, dreams are still for most of us a central feature of the analytic process. Whenever I talk with couple therapists or counsellors about dreams, the consensus is that dreams play little if any role in the work with couples. And it is true, in my own clinical experience, that couples report fewer dreams than do my individual patients, But it is also true that I hear therapists in supervision and in clinical seminars reporting that their increased interest in dreams somehow seems to be complemented by couples increasingly telling them about their dreams.

What is interesting to me now after seeing couples for some years is that when I describe their shared stories as dreams, or sometimes more accurately as nightmares, they join me in that way of thinking about what they are trying so desperately to tell me. And, perhaps surprisingly, they sometimes link the stories with dreams they subsequently have, as if they recognize a quality in these stories that suggests a struggle with the meaning of their shared struggles, conflicts, hopes and disappointments. The symbols that we together begin to see as giving some meaningful shape to their conflicts arise spontaneously as much from their stories as from their dreams.

 

8. The uninvited guest

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Having become engrossed in an exploration of some rather technical and theoretical considerations, it is perhaps time to pause for a moment and look at another example of therapy with a couple as we did with the ‘‘Webbs” from the Marriage Book. This time I want to turn to what is perhaps the earliest recorded description of a couple therapy session. It is possible, in a sense, to identify the exact date and place for this first couple session—the 22nd of August 1949 in Edinburgh. In a way, of course, it is frivolous to link the serious therapy with often desperate couples, which we have been exploring in this book, with the portrait of a couple in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party who are brought together for a “therapeutic” session with a mysterious figure whom Stephen Spender described as “an eminence grise of the psycho-analytical world” (Spender, 1975, p. 203). The consulting-room is one thing, the theatre another, worlds apart. And yet…are they? Perhaps I can appeal to the reader’s generosity to indulge me this link for a moment before judging how serious or how frivolous is my use of Eliot’s comic poetic drama.

 

9. Hell is oneself, the others merely projections

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One of the most interesting remarks reported to have been made by T. S. Eliot about The Cocktail Party is that it constitutes his rejoinder to Jean-Paul Sartre’s biting judgement that hell is other people. An interesting thought. In an earlier version of Eliot’s play, he puts the following often-quoted lament in the mouth of Edward:

What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
One’s own projections.

[1.3.417-419]

Martin Browne, director of all of T. S. Eliot’s plays (except the unfinished Sweeney Agonistes), who, as he put it, assisted at the birth of each, claimed that Eliot said during rehearsal of The Cocktail Party that it contained his rejoinder to Sartre’s 1944 Huis Clos (Browne, 1969, p. 233). That may be, and we have only Browne’s account for what Eliot said. However, I think that it is just as plausible to read The Cocktail Party as Eliot’s exegesis of Sartre’s forlorn thesis, although it is likely that if it is an interpretation of Sartre it was an unconscious one. Eliot, whether consciously or not, had a remarkable insight into what it means for someone to experience other-people-as-hell

 

10. Making the best of a bad job

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At the end of the last chapter Edward cries: “Must I become after all what you would make me?” In the grip of his inner demons projected into the hell he calls his marriage, he can see no way out. In order to feel his hopelessness we need to see through his eyes the demons he saw. It is possible to play The Cocktail Party, I think, as such a tame drawing-room comedy that the audience misses a moment when it is possible to look into hell itself. Irene Worth, who played Celia in the original Edinburgh production of The Cocktail Party, reported that there was only one time that Eliot intervened during the rehearsals. It was in the rehearsal of the scene when Edward and Lavinia were quarrelling:

Eliot bolted up to the stage looking quite unsettled. “The wife”, he insisted, “must be fierce. Much more fierce. The audience must understand that she is impossible.” [quoted in Ackroyd, 1984, p. 294]

What do we imagine provoked this outburst? About whom was Eliot thinking? Lyndall Gordon, in her sensitive study of the characters in the story of the poet’s life, suggests one reason Eliot found it impossible to visit Vivienne for the whole of the seventeen years of her incarceration in a mental hospital: “Eliot never visited Vivienne in the asylum, not, I imagine, out of callousness, but because he must have feared the compelling power of her strong Welsh shriek” (Gordon, 1988, p. 148). Gordon does not document this suggestion, leaving us to imagine that it might have been the result of her intimate study of this couple plus perhaps evidence like this well-documented outburst at the rehearsal for The Cocktail Party.

 

11. A sado-masochistic folie a deux

ePub

In this penultimate chapter, I want to return to the theoretical structure that underpins the view of psychoanalytic therapy with couples that I have been describing as a struggle to emerge from narcissism towards marriage. By this point in the story, I hope the reader can entertain an understanding of narcissism in which the expression narcissistic object relating does not appear to be the oxymoron it might be in a different theoretical framework. That is, I am assuming a view of narcissism which sees it not as an object-less state, but rather as a way of relating. My aim in inviting the reader on a journey through The Winter’s Tale, the case study of the Webbs, and The Cocktail Party has been to discover how plausible it is to see in them portrayals of narcissistic object relating. When we turn in the final chapter to the picture that Shakespeare paints in his play Othello, we come, I suggest, to what might be described as the portrayal of the apotheosis of narcissistic relating. But before we look more closely at that most disturbing of interlocking couple stories, Othello and Desdemona, and Othello and Iago, I want to consider some more of the complexity of forms of narcissistic relating.

 

12. Termination: Othello’s version of Eliot’s “two ways”

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“ ¦ et’s begin with a tale, a tale of hateful jealousy and suspicion, I as well as, one might say, a tale of remarriage/’ With that JL-J invitation which opened chapter one we began this exploration of the developmental achievement I am conceptualizing as the emergence from narcissism towards marriage, or re-marriage, and its links with the psychoanalytic process in therapy with couples. The reader will be.aware by now that in a similar way I am proposing to end with a tale, also a tale of hateful jealousy and suspicion. It is true that Shakespeare’s play Othello is not, in any obvious way, a tale of remarriage. And yet in setting the discussion of this disturbing play as a counterpoint to The Winter’s Tale I mean to focus attention on the intimate link between endings and beginnings, separation and union, and, one might say, an idea of marriage.

In a word, I want to end our exploration of the psychoanalytic process with couples by thinking about endings in therapy in the context of the emergence from narcissism. Discussion of the process of and the criteria for termination inevitably takes us back to the most fundamental questions. My aim in this final chapter is to revisit the way of thinking I have been developing about the nature both of the psychoanalytic process and of marriage in order to consider how this might help us to think about the termination process itself. To do this, I want to return to The Cocktail Party, to the endings that T. S. Eliot proposes for his characters, his “two ways”. This will lead us directly into the images of Shakespeare’s Othello considered in relationship to The Winter’s Tale.

 

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