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Relational Therapy and the Feminist Movement

June 10, 2011

The Personal Is, Indeed, Political

by Susan Gutwill

“First become a blessing to yourself that you may be a blessing to others.” -Samson Raphael Hirsch

For thirty years now, whenever I enter my office, I am grateful to be involved in my profession. I see relational psychoanalytic thinking and practice as a path of liberation, not only for individuals but for society, too. By developing the capacity for what I call “compassionate responsibility” for ourselves, we can better take on the work of social responsibility. This understanding — that it is neither “the system” nor “the personal” that alone needs to be changed, but that personal change equips us to be transformational agents in the world — is a core article of “faith” shared by feminism and Judaism, and it very much informs my work as a Jewish, feminist, progressive psychotherapist.

The dual emphases of relational psychotherapy — client-therapist trust and the development of the client’s story, as described very well by May Benatar in the last installment of this column (“Why Does Therapy Take So Long?”, Winter 2010-11) — were both strongly shaped by the anti-authoritarian movements for justice of my youth. The civil rights movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist struggles, and the women’s liberation movement all combined to make it possible for the U.S. to become a center of experimentation and renewal for psychoanalysis in the 1960s and ’70s. In Britain, Donald Winnicott, W.R.D. Fairbairn and others had established object relational theory and therapy, which at long last honored the fact that psychic life does not begin with the Oedipal period described by Freud, but with the psychic/somatic experience of maternal nurture. Yes, Freud and his immediate followers were the fathers of psychoanalysis — but the rise of relational psychotherapy was very much a product of the feminist movement’s questioning of “patriarchal” authority.

Throughout much of the 1960s and into the ’70s, college students were not only demonstrating on campuses but educating themselves as to why their movements were necessary. I studied sociology, but came to realize that social forces, for all their profound effect on us, could not completely explain the pain in our psyches. In consciousness-raising (CR) groups all over the country, women like me began asking ourselves why we were considered second-class citizens. Despite the cognitive clarity we gleaned in CR groups, in political action and in friendships, why did we still feel afraid of and guilty about our own desires? Why was it so hard to accept our hunger for recognition, for creativity outside and even inside the sphere of the nuclear family, for the right to express our anger, our sexuality, and our power? Why was it hard to express our desire to receive nurture and care, as well as our capacity to give, nurture and care? Our submissive behaviors, our inhibitions, our compulsions to please, blame, and condescend, our discomfort with our own bodies regarding both food and sex, our urges for mastery, our secrets about having been raped, molested, and having undergone unsafe abortion procedures — all of this shamed and infuriated us. In sharing our secrets and our fears, some of us finally realized that the struggle to rid ourselves of the oppression of women was not only a question of consciousness-raising, but of raising up the unconscious as well.

For that, many of us turned to psychoanalysis and Freud. We worked to understand the unconscious mind and its mechanisms for both expressing and hiding our longings and our rage. Freud’s patriarchal notions, however, could take us only so far. In his theories, psychic life begins with the Oedipal period and explains how boys become boys and girls become girls. The contribution of early maternal care, for better and for worse, was taken for granted. Despite his brilliant and essential contributions toward understanding unconscious defense mechanisms, for which all therapists are grateful, Freud couldn’t tell us all we needed to know about who we were, and about the kind of non-patriarchal relationships we required in order to get better. So our efforts turned toward developing a critical analysis of Freud, both theoretically and therapeutically.

I and many others turned to humanistic therapies, but also to the great theoretician of the other unconscious — the social unconscious — Karl Marx. By uncovering the political and economic forces underlying the capitalist system, Marx and Engels also uncovered the social relationships that accompanied that system. Capitalism, they observed, had created a split between public and private life. People no longer worked and earned a livelihood as a family; instead, men became wage workers while women, as reproducers of the labor force, went unpaid and denigrated. Even women who, of necessity, worked in the labor force went underpaid, since, after all, it wasn’t their “main job.” These elements of social unconsciousness were hard to recognize or challenge from inside capitalist society, until the feminist movement did both.

In 1980 I had the good fortune to be introduced to the newly founded Women’s Therapy Centre Institute (WTCI), where I trained and became involved at the ground floor. I had read Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, and now also studied her work on anorexia as a psychological and social condition. Orbach collaborated with Luise Eichenbaum to describe our theoretical and clinical work on gendered psychology. Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, Dorothy Dinnerstein’s work on the psychological basis for misogyny and the degradation of the Earth, and Jessica Benjamin’s writing on the need to recognize “the other,” were all part of the blooming of feminist psychoanalysis and relational psychoanalytic thinking.

Who better to contribute to such a serious critique of psychoanalysis than feminists, women skilled in the art of nurture and relationship-making? From the 1960s to the 1990s, feminists and relational therapists together overthrew the old ideas of the distant doctor healing his (usually) female “patients.” We insisted on the need in therapy for a two-way relationship, in order to create a “potential space” within which the patient’s story could emerge and develop. We also struggled with how the outside world became embedded not only in our social and interpersonal relationships, but also intra-psychically, in our own dissociated selves.

Feminists of my generation, while honoring maternal nurture (as Winnicott so beautifully describes it), also insisted that mothers, inevitably second-class citizens who rarely saw themselves as subjects in their own right, inadvertently reproduced patriarchy in their daughters and sons. While consciously wishing to free their daughters from its bonds, “good mothers” also had to raise us to develop the emotional antennae for nurturing others above all else, and to squelch our own rage and desire in the process. Boys, meanwhile, had to alienate themselves from their legitimate dependency needs and their relationships with the mothers who met those needs, and instead identify with fathers who were frequently distant and defensive, having been damaged by the same rules.

Feminist and relational psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners worked in the therapeutic relationship to help patients recognize and honor their human needs, throughout life, for dependency, interdependency and self-determination. And they had to create a non-patriarchal relationship in which to do so.

As I see it today, psychotherapy is a process by which we become freed from self-harm and open to love and creativity. Far from cultivating navel-gazing and narcissism, therapy enables us to get unstuck and less self-involved: to grieve about our pain and the harm we have done to others and to avoid being compulsively stuck in old, internalized, relational patterns (what therapists call “reenactments”). By confronting, with compassion, the relationships and incidents that have hurt us in our own lives, by taking command of our feelings and responsibility for our future behavior, we equip ourselves to take responsibility for the larger world.

Susan Gutwill has been a psychotherapist for thirty years. She is co-author of Eating Problems: A Feminist Psychoanalytic Treatment Model, and co-editor (with Lynne Layton and Nancy Hollander) of Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics. She teaches and trains with the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in New York City.