Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity (Book Review)

Title:  Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity
Author:  Mitchell., Stephen A.
Publisher:  Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 2000
Reviewed By:  Charles Spezzano, Spring 2002, pp. 48-51

Two themes arise immediately in the preface to this book, themes that guided Steve Mitchell’s writings since his initial solo book in 1988. The first theme is that of wresting. He writes that Freud “wrested” (p. ix) psychopathology from neurology. This is not simply a reference to Freud but also to Mitchell himself. In his books, Mitchell had been wresting various ideas and perspectives on human psychology from the margins of psychoanalysis and bringing them into the center, a new location that, he believed, better reflected their actual importance in the analytic process. The second theme, which dominates Relationality, is the work of Hans Loewald. Mitchell had become intrigued with Loewald’s work and had even discussed Loewald’s life and work with Loewald’s widow. He saw in Loewald a brilliant earlier interpreter of the combined intrapsychic and interpersonal human experience to which Mitchell contributed throughout his writings. Opening Relationality with, in turn, a brilliant elaboration of Loewald’s work, Mitchell furthers, in each chapter, an agenda he shared with Loewald. This agenda was to show the constant intertwining of the intrapsychic and the interpersonal in development, unconscious mental activity, and clinical work. In pursuit of fulfilling this agenda, Mitchell’s book also includes illuminating chapters that draw out the theoretical and clinical implications of the writings of Fairbairn and Bowlby, to create what, tragically, turned out to be the last version of the relationally grounded theory of psychoanalysis he had been evolving in a series of books from 1988 through 1997.

In 1988, in his first solo book, Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis, he began to show the conviction that many clinical situations and problems could not be understood nor resolved unless certain ideas about development, mind, and therapeutic action were brought from the margins of psychoanalytic discourse onto center stage. Steve found these ideas wherever they existed in each psychoanalytic theory and integrated them with a courage and brilliance that made what he called relational psychoanalysis a generative base of thinking and arguing for an entire generation of clinicians.

In 1993, in a book titled Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis, he put forward the argument that psychoanalysis is a process involving, most fundamentally, the progressive and regressive excitements and anxieties of both analyst and patient. These states of mind mesh and clash constantly in the clinical situation, as the members of the two-person analytic team balance fantasies of analysis being a place where the limits of human relating can be dissolved and fantasies of analysis showing itself to be a despairing illusion. As Mitchell continued to develop the notion that what he called relational psychoanalysis was a composite, a kind of family with a cast of theoretical characters that belonged together but didn’t necessarily get along harmoniously in every way, he added that, across all these theories, the waxing and waning of tension and reconciliation, hope and dread, between patient and analyst is the medium of change in clinical work.

In that 1993 book, Steve foreshadowed what was to remain a central interest of his for the rest of his life - the nature of analytic knowledge and authority. His thinking on this subject reached a peak in his 1997 book, Influence and Autonomy in Psychoanalysis. Among the questions that matter now to psychoanalysts none outweighs the one Mitchell took up in 1997: how, paradoxically, whatever shred of autonomy each of us has in creating ourselves as human beings might be enhanced by a treatment in which we expect to be influenced by the authority and knowledge of another person. He demonstrated a breathtaking capacity to open up the theoretical labyrinth that had been constructed in the psychoanalytic literature to address this and related questions and to illuminate the clinical situations in which they trouble us as both clinicians and patients.

In the book under review here, Mitchell joined his own theorizing skill with that of Fairbairn, Bowlby, and Loewald to synthesize an integrated approach to organizing psychoanalytic experience. He starts with Loewald’s notion of a primal and viscous sensational/affective flow of experiences. Our minds organize these experiences according to “different principles, varying organizational structures” (p. 58), that Mitchell called modes: the mode of nonreflective behavior, the mode of affective permeability, the mode of self-other configurations, and the mode of intersubjectivity. “These organizational schemes emerge sequentially over the course of development, but they also operate simultaneously in adult experience on a continuum from consciousness to unconsciousness” (p. 58).

Mitchell’s modes are sort of a combination of stages and positions. They emerge sequentially, but they remain lifelong ways of organizing experience, especially affective experience. So, it seems worthwhile and to the point of the book being reviewed to consider in some detail Mitchell’s theorizing about affective experience. With regard to this topic, Steve and I had conversations over the years in which it became clear we held the same views on some issues and different views on others. The substance of the key agreements and disagreements can be found on page 61, where an aspect of Steve’s writing style is also illustrated:

“Early in life, and on the deepest unconscious levels throughout life, affects are evoked interpersonally through dense resonances between people, without regard for who, specifically, is feeling what. Questions like, Who started it? and Who did what to whom? Are often useful to ask at other levels of organization. But these questions tend to be meaningless when intense affective connections are involved, as in strong sexual attraction, terror, murderous rage, or joyous exhilaration.”

I agree that, during an unfolding interpersonal event (not to mention over the course of an evolving relationship such as an analysis), if we were to stop and wonder how it had come to be that the participants were talking in a particular way and feeling just the way they found themselves feeling, then we would have a hard time answering Steve’s questions. On the other hand, the issue of who is feeling what seems different to me, and it is specifically here that Steve and I each thought that the other became tricky in their thinking. I have kept insisting that feeling states are biological/psychological phenomena generated and felt by individuals, where Steve, as in the quoted passage, held to a relational matrix of feeling states that made even the question of who is feeling what an unproductive and misleading one to pose.

The trickiness (to me) of Mitchell’s writing style here is his stringing those three quoted sentences together as if they all made the same point. They don’t. They make two different points. One is about origins of feeling states, where I agree with Steve that telling the history of feeling state X would inevitably become telling a history of people and minds in interaction. The other is about the experience of feelings, where I argue that participants feel what each of them feels and it matters a great deal who is feeling what at any given moment. By contrast, Steve tended to emphasize affective contagion (which I agree is a common and well-researched phenomenon) and moments in which “Intense affects…tend to generate corresponding affects in others” (p. 61). In his effort to draw affect into his relational framework, he de-emphasizes moments when, for example, an excited infant’s excitement is not part of a state of shared excitement co-created with mother, but leads to anxiety in the mother. His clinical examples and various aspects of his theorizing certainly allow for this, but when he was directly using intense affective experience as a key building block in his theory, he tended to emphasize people co-creating affective states or making affective states possible in each other, rather than moments of affective disjunction when one person interrupts the flow of another’s affective experience and a relational breakdown occurs, a breakdown that highlights, often in a painful way, for one or both participants, their separateness as affect-generating agents. There is, in fact, a fascinating clinical vignette (pp. 66-69) in a subsection of Chapter 3, titled “Feelings in the Air,” in which Steve and his patient start out analyzing the patient’s confusion about where the feelings of love reside (in the air, as the patient starts out fantasizing, or in himself or in his lover). After exploring various understandings in which one or each person separately feels or doesn’t feel love and projects or takes in love from the other, Steve reports: “The more we explored the situation, the less useful was the effort to choose between the view that the love “in the air” was hers, which he was afraid of, or his, which he evacuated outside the boundaries of his experience of himself. We were speaking about an affective experience that could exist only if it operated in both of them” [p, 68., Mitchell’s italics].

Here Steve makes clear his clinical commitment to his theory of affects as largely, if not entirely, intrinsically shared, along the full trajectory of their origin and vicissitudes. Yet, for me, this leaves unanswered questions about other permutations of loving feelings in a scene involving two people such as the unrequited love of one person for another who does not feel love for them.

So, I end up retaining my disagreements with Steve with regard to certain aspects of his theorizing about affects, in which efforts he seems to me to try to recruit affect into his overall relational theory, even at times when affect doesn’t exclusively belong to that theory. I think the stronger parts of the book involve his doing what Loewald did--creating visions of development and clinical work that consistently evoke new reflections on my own clinical experiences, but also involve something Steve did constantly and Loewald did rarely--the creative and insightful reporting and conceptualizing of the thorny and complex clinical situations we all face and which Steve used to illustrate his equally unique and creative renderings of familiar theories (such as the Fairbairnian, Loewaldian, and attachment theories he weaves together into what turned out to be his final relational theory). Take, for example, the case of a woman, presented in Chapter 3, who was painfully and confusedly conflicted about the role she wanted sexual excitement to play in a man’s attraction to her. Steve tells her: “I think people, including men, sometimes like you very much for reasons over which you have absolutely no control” (p. 73). Viewed from one angle, he is teaching her, if not preaching to her, a piece of wisdom in which he believes. Viewed from another angle, however, we can see an ingenious interpretation of a specific anxiety. She worries constantly about the uncontrollability of other people’s affects when they experience her or interact with her. Defensively fantasizing the existence of a strategy that would allow her to control other people’s affects, she is tortured by such a strategy eluding her. In the months following Steve’s interpretation she becomes less tortured, less depressed, and better able to tolerate and enjoy men.

This interpretation doesn’t fit neatly into any particular major theory and that seems to me to be typical of the vignettes in the book. They appear in the context of an effort to illustrate a theory or a theoretical point but they mainly demonstrate Mitchell’s clinical style of creating with patients a continuous and timeless story, from their childhood up to a current life dilemma or into their relationship with Steve, about some basic human conflictual struggle. The life story ingredient of this clinical style is sometimes missed in accounts of Steve’s work because of his argument against a developmental tilt in psychoanalytic theorizing (1988). While one would not expect to find Steve talking about or talking to a patient about a baby part of the patient, he did often sum up cases in ways such as this: “A very crucial dimension of Robert’s analysis was learning about his tendency to draw others into repetitive enactments of his early relationships with his mother” (Hope and Dread, p. 118).

What distinguishes Mitchell’s use of developmental theories was his assessment that even experiencing oneself as an infant is not the result of going “deeper” into oneself, nor are the needs one might become aware of, inside such a psychic state, infantile needs. Such experiences of oneself as an infant and the needs that emerge into consciousness (or into the transference-countertransference experience) along with them were not for Steve collapsible into their earliest manifestations. These experiences and needs, rather, were considered by Steve to be “expressions, at different developmental levels and through different cognitive and symbolic modalities” (Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis, p. 158) of fundamental relational needs that persist throughout life. So, while it has been a mistake to assume he didn’t think developmentally, it is true that he didn’t find useful those notions that lead some analysts to think, write, and interpret baby-ness with regard to experiences and needs.

Taking Steve’s own developmental point of view into account, it is not surprising that he ended up assembling the cast of Loewald, Fairbairn, and Bowlby as the lead characters in this book. Steve may have figured he needed a team to contend theoretically with the ego psychologists and Kleinians from whom he mostly typically differentiated his relational approach (see especially Chapter 4 of Influence and Autonomy in Psychoanalysis for the clearest and least contentious differentiating by Mitchell of his position from that of these two major schools of psychoanalytic theory), but, whatever his motivation, his choice of these three figures clearly reveals an attempt to create a solid developmental base for relational theorizing. He values Loewald for his conveying of the idea that each of us begins life as part of a primal affective density and a unified parent-child team out of which the “I” (or multiple selves), that each of us will experience ourselves as being, gradually emerges. He values Bowlby and attachment theorists not only for their capturing of the sufferings and conflicts that result from insecure and chaotic parental management of the parent-infant team but also for their capturing the interactive early development of the lifelong important capacity to hold in mind a coherent and organized life story within which to live (and thereby the developmental grounding by these Bowlbian attachment theorists of recent psychoanalytic theorizing about the inherent hermeneutics, constructivism, and narrativity of mind). Finally, there is Fairbairn. Steve didn’t simply recount Fairbairn’s theorizing in Relationality. He forced Fairbairn into a dialogue, as one might see in a movie where a character conjures up a holographic image of a dead father and constructs a dialogue with that character. Steve did this to some degree with every theorist he considered, taking some statement written by that theorist and then insisting that, if one meant what that theorist appeared to mean by that statement, then one (including the theorist himself or herself) would also have to believe, not believe, be led to claim, or agree or disagree with x, y, or z proposition of Steve’s. He did it especially with Fairbairn, whom Steve desperately wanted to show to have been, in spirit and basic beliefs, a committed foundational member of the relational way of envisioning development and mind and of playing the game of psychoanalysis. Steve ultimately values Fairbairn for his assessment of early life as not mainly a terrifying attempt to find in the world or construct in the mind objects with whom (or with which) to play out one’s libidinal excitement, aggressiveness, or death instinct derivatives, but, rather, mainly, at its inception, an attempt to join the human team. The infant arrives equipped with motor, sensory, affective, and cognitive capacities that are inherently for playing the game of life with other human beings. As contact is made and broken with these other humans, the infant is excited, aggressive, angry, and anxious. I would add that for Fairbairn, moments when the infant was libidinally excited were crucial (by contrast, Klein and her early colleagues such as Isaacs emphasized the anxious, enraged infant). In those excited moments the infant needed the other human (contact with whom had evoked the upsurge in excitement) to receive the excitement and get excited, in turn, about the infant’s excitement. It’s the infants basic welcome onto the human team.

Steve combined his readings of Loewald, Bowlby, and Fairbairn with his own four relational modes theory to create Relationality. The attempted combination is choppy and forced in places. There might have needed to be another book in which Steve flew solo without Loewald, Fairbairn, and Bowlby and just wrote and thought within his four mode theory. What does stand on its own, in this book, as in Steve’s earlier writings is a unique clinical style that combines Sullivan’s detailed inquiry (Mitchell asks probing and evocative questions in many of his vignettes), Loewald’s emphases on the interpenetration of fantasy and reality and the need for clinical flexibility, attachment theory’s finding of the trajectory from secure attachment in childhood to coherent making of meaning in adult life, and Fairbairn’s attentiveness to what the patient needs from the analyst (not need as an infantile residue or a phantasy/defense against primitive anxieties, but need as exemplified in a baseball double play, where the fielder who catches the ground ball needs another player to cross second base at just the right moment and make the what would otherwise be an isolated event into the double play) to emerge from his or her previously isolated and closed intrapsychic system.

As the last message from a brilliant and creative analyst to his colleagues, this book is an essential reading for all of us.

Reviewer Note

Karen Zelan has written extensively on the psychology of children’s learning. She is the author of Between Their World and Ours:Breakthroughs with Autistic Children.

Charles Spezzano is a personal and supervising analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. He is the author of Affect in Psychoanalysis, a contributing editor to Psychoanalytic Dialogues, and a member of the Editorial Board of JAPA. He has contributed articles to JAPA, Dialogues, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, and Contemporary Psychoanalysis.


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