Some Notes On Object Relations Theory (Revised With Additional Comments)

“The capacity to love is one of the most complex and evolved achievements a human being can attain, and many, many people never develop it.” ~Lucy Holmes

We may recognize that “Woman” is not a unitary identity, and we may continually test the frame of gender.

Proceeding deconstructively, we recognize that gender is both reified and elusive, rigid and porous, organized and self-contradictory, we may accept gender as paradoxical condition of our theory, “a transcendent analytic category whose truth, though false, remains central to thought; indeed, it constructs the very antalytic categories we would use to deconstruct it.”

In the psychic world, where such binary oppositions play a major role in organizing our experience, that frame reveals many conflicts and provides a background for many other differences.

Psychoanalysis has to retain some notion of the subject as a self, a historical being that preserves its history in the unconscious, whatever skepticism we allow about reaching the truth of that history.

Another aspect of the challenge to the subject’s encapsulated identity derives from an appreciation of the emotional transmission that occurs between any two subjects, indeed, of the primacy of affective exchange early in life. It also derives from a clinical experience that sees the analytic exchange of the expression not merely of an internal conflict between repression and unconscious wishes, defense, and drives but of the active search to find emotional resonance in the other – perhaps to evacuate mental contents or perhaps to represent and share feelings that cannot be borne alone. This relational perspective makes the analyst’s counter transference central not merely as a source of information but as unconscious communication that demonstrates the effect the patient can have, an effect that the analyst must process and return to the patient in more usable form. It makes of the analyst’s interpretation a relational event.

To illustrate the complexity of identification, I show how identifications work to allow the integration of difference, preserving rather than assimilating different self-positions. Thus girls do not achieve a coherent femininity simply through unbroken identification with their mothers but rather preserve the early longing for identification with their fathers – if only negatively, in the form of ideal love of masculinity. Likewise, one object relations theory questioned the idea that boys need simply to misidentify with mother, and argued that such disowned identification with mother reappear in feelings of loss and envy. To articulate this idea more sharply, women’s and men’s identifications are always multiple, and the upshot of relinquishing crucial “identifications with difference” is that difference is defensively incorporated into rigid representations rather than recognized in tension with commonality.

Several essays in psychoanalysis by Jessica Benjamin elaborate the implications of the idea that multiple identifications are formative for all sexual relations and that object choice and identification are not the simple inverse of each other. In suggesting that identification and object love do not break down a long the clear lines suggested by the oedipal model, that indentificatory love may be – perhaps should be – the basis of object love, question the superficial distinction made between heterosexual and homosexual choices. What appears consciously to be hetero or homo may not be so in unconscious fantasy: whether one seeks likeness or difference is not determined simply by the nominal gender of one’s partner. Nor do others appear to us simply as like or different; rather, they appear in complex combinations that reflect the multiplicity of our and their gendered positions.

Pornography is a particularly sharp form of the disjunction between fantasy and reality, between symbolic representations and real interactions. My interest in this essay was therefore to reach some understanding, beyond the mundane, about this disjunction between sexual fantasy and reality. Such an exploration must necessarily try to illuminate the sadistic component of sexual fantasy and thus reveal something about how aggression becomes implicated in sexuality.

Some feminist opponents of pornography say that its contents expose the truth about “the male compulsion to dominate and destroy that is the source of sexual pleasure for men.” Another theory suggests that “this defensive devaluation of women by men, which is already in place in the unconscious of six-year-old boys, is one reason that woman’s destiny seems to be her perpetual relegation to the position of the “second sex.” Some other feminist theories have commented on how homosexual males dominate the fashion industry. We see runway models, objects selected for advertising their work, possess the look of anorectics. It has been suggested that there exists in the psyches of these men “a compulsion to dominate and destroy a source of sexual pleasure for men.” Thus it can be stated by the simple facts, that these men’s actions encourage and perpetuate a belief in the female imago of woman as diminished and “less than” in a desirable state that effects their statures. 

A comment by one of the most serious of the feminists against pornography, Catherin MacKinnon, has stated the proposition that “violence is sex.”Violence is sex when it is practiced as sex.” Hence, “if violation of the powerless is part of what is sexy about sex,” we must take another look at sexuality.

Because men dominate, they are able to use sexuality as a means of perpetuating control. What sexuality “is,” and why it can be instrumentalized, remains mysteries. MacKinnon’s notion of how sex can be used seems to rest on the unspoken assumption that sexuality “is” a devil, a kind of irresistible temptation, an infinitely manipulable weakness – like hunger in time of famine, which can be exploited to get people to do anything one wants, rather than like appetite, which is cultivated and formed by fantasy.

So, what exactly allow sexuality to carry or transmit relations of power, violence, and destruction? What is this “thing” called sex? “The disjunction between fantasy and reality must be taken seriously if we are to begin to understand the complexity of sexuality and its inveterate association with violence and revulsion. The distinction between the symbolic meaning expressed by such a wish and its literal (re-)enactment, between the symbolic and the concrete, between experiences that can be symbolized and those too painful and traumatic to be symbolically processed.”

The manifold consequences of abuse, especially dissociative states, and the complexity that these consequences generate in the analytic process, especially in the transference-counter-transference, are finally receiving serious attention. In light of such efforts, it becomes apparent that what is presumably real is often the most difficult thing for the mind to take in and process symbolically – it is “hard to believe.”

With regard to homosexual pornography and fantasy of women by women, one of the psychoanalytic conclusion drawn in the psychic environment of some of these lesbians, is that there exists total rejection and repudiation of their former female caregivers. New theories in object relations suggest an approach “to delineate those dilemmas of gender that can be understood by reference to the issues of envy and loss, identification and repudiation, that object relations theory has foregrounded. . . . [and to recuperate] through symbolic representations the multiplicity of the over inclusive phase and preserving that phase, with its grandiose aspirations, alongside the oedipal and post oedipal differentiation of gender.”

In the psychoanalytic work of matricide by Amber Jacobs, Jacobs suggests that at the heart of the various disjunctions found in identity formation, including gender identity, lies the paranoid schizoid position, and from that position moving outward, like kaleidoscope in its versatility, we may be able to discern, using Jacobs’ theory as a guide, how the various forms of personality disorders and mental diseases take shape. The human race makes up a kaleidoscope of colour, and every life is a set of colours with distinct sequential cause and effect relationships, which forms the creation of the person in their very distinct styles, likes, and dislikes, behaviors and in-actions. Thus individuals are created and ultimately take shape, form, and a color all unto their own. Thus, we can witness, from the mild to the extreme, the most destructive results of the acting-out or rationalizations of unconscious phantasies in the social world, and the phantasy of male parthenogenesis wish, and also too, the female’s parthenogenesis wish, to be the single omnipotent re-creator of life.

When we raise a “subject” to the level of “object”, thus “woman as object,” as men have done in pornography and fantasy for years, we imply that this “object” is void of their own feelings, wants, desires, and wishes. This theory of an object void of its own independent needs and wishes is what lies at the root of theories on matricide, the dead mother. These psychoanalytic theories can be applied quite flexible in various areas in psychoanalytic workings of identity. It also becomes apparent that men alone are not solely responsible for the subjugation of women, but, so too, women also collude with men and one another in oppressing themselves.

To finish, a cured person is one who is capable of loving acts, which Bernstein defined as acts which do no harm to another (including self) and contribute to that other’s happiness and welfare. Loving acts cannot be motivated by narcissism because they require both a consciousness of objects and a concern for the needs of others. The foundation of a capacity to love is a deep sense of personal integrity, that I, as a person, am basically all right and worthy of love. This sense of self-worth is the resident of our earliest relationship with our mother when she gave us the idea that our ruthless need for her would not destroy her or make her withhold the milk we needed for survival. Maternal acceptance of the infantile delusion that mother and child exist in a bubble of symbiotic oneness and the mirroring she provides in her loving gaze at the infant, establish neural pathways in the brain of the developing infant that make the child perceive the idea that he is good and worthy of love as reality. When narcissistic patients enter psychoanalysis, the initial task of the analyst is to try to lay this basic foundation, literally create new neural pathways, by replicating and repairing the original symbiosis between mother and child. Early in treatment, narcissism must be joined. The analyst attempts to function like the pre-Oedipal mother, using techniques like mirroring and joining. Interventions which reflect back to the patient what he has just said or give him the idea that the analyst has the same feelings he has, symbolize the mirroring gaze of the mother looking into her newborn’s eyes. The contact function, speaking only when spoken to by the patient, recreates the earliest relationship in which the good-enough mother fed on demand and otherwise protected her infant from too much stimulation. In this symbiotic and nurturing environment, the narcissistic patient relives and reworks all the important developmental tasks of the pre-Oedipal period, gradually deactivating neural pathways that have held him back and activating new neural pathways of healthy functioning. He experiences a healthy omnipotence and safety which gradually establishes the basis of a feeling of basic integrity and acceptability which, the object world would be intolerable.

Inevitably, the analyst, like the mother, will disrupt this omnipotence by frustrating or disappointing the patient in some way. Psychoanalysis, with its time-limited sessions and a mostly silent therapist, is inherently frustrating and sooner or later, the analyst will make a mistake which disrupts the symbiosis. Though this rupture will probably make the patient frustrated and angry, it may take a while for the patient to know he is angry. He may instead use the narcissistic defense and attack himself for his inadequacies, but the good analyst, like the good mother, will offer herself as an object for discharge of is aggression. When the patient says he is worthless, the analyst will reply, “The problem is you have a worthless analyst.” In this maturational moment, the patient confronts the idea that objects are there and they are useful for the discharge and projection of feelings. In this first disagreement with the patient, which is not really a disagreement, but an invitation, the patient is given the enticing suggestion that objects exist and can provide a helpful port for all the uncomfortable and stimulating feelings that he would rather not feel. The sense that the analyst can act as a container for the patient’s primitive impulses, can accept, tolerate and process hate and aggression, is the first step on the road to developing a capacity to love. It is the analyst’s ability to listen to verbalized murderous impulses and survive them that initiates the long journey toward loving.



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