The Complexity of Connection: Writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (Book Review)

Author:  Jordan, Judith V., Maureen Walker, and Linda M. Hartling
Publisher:  The Guilford Press
Reviewed By:  Marilyn Newman Metzl, PhD, Winter 2006, pp. 44-45

Relationships as Developmental Achievements

In this important third volume from the Stone Center at Wellesley College, founding scholars and new voices expand and deepen the center’s widely embraced psychological theory of connection as the core of human growth and development. In this integrative and extensive volume, the authors present a philosophical and practical examination of connection and disconnection at both individual and societal levels. The thirteen chapters included in this book explore issues of how experiences of race, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, and gender influence relationships, and examine the ways in which people can connect across disagreement and difference.

The book presents practical material in addition to philosophical theory, and discusses the implication of theory for psychotherapy, for the raising of sons, and for surviving in the workplace as an ethical and fully functional person. The scope of the projects that the center has historically supported is extensive, and covers a range of human behavior, including: recovery from sexual abuse, African American intimate partner violence, developing direct connections, bullying and harassment, empowering children of divorce, early care studies, after school studies, teacher studies, gender studies, women’s self esteem, men’s self esteem, and human rights. The impressive partnership of the Center for Research on Women and The Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College, has as its mission, shaping a better world through interdisciplinary research, action, training, and publications. This book seeks to explore deeply relevant and important issues, with a utopian vision of wisdom for working and living. Harriet Lerner, in her review of this book stated, “the theoretical and clinical wisdom in this book is stunning in its power to change the reader in some fundamental way, and to move the field of psychotherapy toward a more accurate, compassionate, and multilayered understanding of what hurts and heals in human relationships.”

In chapter one, Toward Competence and Connection, the yearning for, and movement toward, connection, following the Stone Center model, are seen as central organizing factors in people’s lives, and the experience of chronic disconnection and isolation is seen as a primary source of suffering (p. 11). When we cannot represent ourself authentically in a relationship, and our real experience is not heard or responded to by the other people, we must falsify, detach from, and suppress all authentic responses, and we learn that we cannot have an impact on other people in relationships that matter to us. The result of this is a sense of isolation, immobilization, self-blame, and relational incompetence. The quandary discussed throughout this book is the need to connect, to be competent, and to be creative, in a system that overvalues competition and individualistic goals, which fosters competition between individuals, thus resulting in conflict for people who are primarily relational.

The authors feel that the dominant myths of competence in our society coincide with the myths of masculinity (p. 13-14). The different view of competence, with the former being called instrumental competence and the latter called relational competence (p. 15) hypothesizes that the capacity to move another person, to effect a change in a relationship, or to influence the well- being of all participants in a relationship might be called relational competence. This capacity does not simply mean influencing another person, which might produce a sense of power, but considers mutual influence as formative. Jean Baker Miller stated, “In order for one person to grow in a relationship, both people must grow.” From a relational point of view, the quality of the impact on the other person in any relationship involves being in touch with ourselves. The author feels that it is by being in touch with our own feelings, and with our own hearts, that we touch the hearts of others and help people grow.

In chapter two, Relational Resilience, Judith Jordan writes that life subjects all of us to tensions and suffering, and that relationships as well as individuals are buffeted by forces that create pain, disconnection, and the threat of dissolutions. Thus, the capacity for relational resilience or transformation is essential. Movement towards empathic mutuality is at the core of relational resilience (p. 28). When people are unable to move from disconnection to connection, the resulting combination of immobilization and isolation might become a prison. The author discusses traditional views of resilience and proposes that the traumas of life can lead to an explosive desire to assist others, and that the movement towards helping others often becomes the key to the transformation of private pain and isolation into compassion, for the sustenance of all human beings (p. 39). It is of particular importance that the author stresses that we would not choose pain, but the valuable lessons learned by working through trauma, results in a wisdom that eludes those who maintain illusions about their own invulnerability and develops an awareness of the human condition and of our absolute need for love and support from each other.

The author describes ways in which relational resilience can be used in therapy by supporting vulnerability, and by assisting the patient to develop flexibility, relational confidence and awareness through the renegotiation and reworking of misunderstandings and empathic failures. Thus, therapy deals with a relationship in which the explorations of patterns of behavior are examined and the curative factor includes reframing relational awareness and resilience.

Chapter three, Transforming Disconnection, explores autonomy and self-sufficiency models and examines how consciousness of separation is at the core of the human condition. Disconnection from others is considered one of the primary sources of human suffering. Various schools of psychoanalysis are discussed and examined, with the conclusion that individuals frequently have habitual ways of reacting to particular situations, which render them vulnerable to disconnection. One goal of therapy is to explore these disconnections and transform them into struggles for connection. The chapter concludes with the suggestion that getting to know our own places of disconnection is an important means of developing a compassionate attitude toward our own needs, our tendencies to disconnect, our yearning to connect, and our many imperfections on the journey to connection (p. 63).

It is noteworthy that this volume follows Jean Baker Miller’s original conception of continuous searching and interpretation and is referred to as “works in progress.” Chapter four delves into the question of the therapist’s authenticity, stressing that the therapist should never use therapy to meet his or her own needs. The therapist’s emotional presence is considered to be an important source of information for the client and is a resource for growth in the therapy relationship (p. 67). According to Jordan, the engaging and authentic quality of treatment gives the therapist important information about the impact of the client on the therapist.

Chapters five, six, and seven provide a profound theoretical understanding of voice and racism, with the observation that people on both sides of the racial question may experience distortions, and require assistance to delve into their prejudices and to develop their ability to think relationally. Chapter six considers the issues of shame and humiliation as powerful factors that can disrupt connections, resulting in profound isolation. The authors propose that power and privilege are always at the core of these issues, regardless of the focus. Issues of sexual orientation, race, and gender are arenas for shame enactments, which can result in disconnection (p. 125), with empathic possibility seen as the only antidote. The question posed in this chapter is “How can we stay open and responsive in the face of shame?” Protected vulnerability and prudent trust are presented as prerequisites for a safe therapeutic environment. The basic question explored in this section is how a group that has less power, and is given less respect by the dominant group, can still manage to maintain dignity, particularly by resisting the attempt to be silenced or shamed.

Part II of this book, Applying the Power of Connection, proceeds to explore couples therapy in an attempt to develop the concept of “we” in relationships and addressing the relationship itself as the patient to be presented. Chapters seven and eight address the question of racial images and relational possibilities, and of women, race, and racism. Time limited therapy and therapy in groups are presented in chapters ten and twelve.

Chapter eleven is dedicated to utilizing this model to understand boys and men, with the final chapter (thirteen) exploring recent work utilizing relational thinking in the workplace and in organizations. The authors state that their goal in writing this book is to enable the reader to find resilience and a sense of possibility. The concept of RTC is utilized throughout the book and is contrasted with other forms of therapy. The basic ideas of religion, marriage, child rearing, and gender identity come into question when we consider organizing our social institutions around a concept of connection rather than separation, a concept of exploring how we are similar rather than how we are different. Another basic question explored in the book is “what makes for change in therapy.” The authors question how concepts learned in the treatment room can be applied to effect social change and produce a commitment to learning responsiveness in a world that is increasingly disconnected, violent, filled with fear, and where community needs are obscured by individual greed and incompetence. If connection is established, we are able to feel a commitment to connection, and in turning to connection we feel hope.

This book is well thought out and provocative, and raises as many questions as it answers. This book is suitable for those whose minds can tolerate both possibilities and uncertainties, but would not be suitable for those readers who are firmly tied to a particular philosophy of treatment. In this volume, practical considerations are explored, such as periodic counseling (p. 264) and short-term therapy (p. 265). Presenting problems are found to shape the treatment, with no “one way” of looking at things being suitable for all people. Focus is placed upon process, with the strong statement “the primary therapeutic ingredient in the relationship is the working alliance between the therapist and the client” (p. 266). The authors feel that whatever the course of treatment, it is important to be aware of life cycle shifts and transitions, and feel that issues raised during the course of treatment are best addressed in a relational, empathic, and validating manner (p. 261). Subsequent to the meeting of goals, clients will be more likely to return to a developmental path and fulfill their optimum potential while adjusting to new shifts and demands (p. 261). However, the danger is always present that people’s coping strategies will become paralyzed and they will renew old coping patterns because in times of stress people resort to what they know best (p. 262). This excellent and informative book provides a thoughtful and thought-provoking map for the growth of our patients and for ourselves.

Reviewer Note

Marilyn N. Metzl, PhD is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Kansas City, MO and is a faculty and supervisor with the Kansas City Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysts.

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