Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Women in Love*

By Kevin Murphy,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

What would you say to a woman who repeatedly gets herself into relationships in which she is exploited? Or what would you say to a woman who is cheated on repeatedly by the same partner? Or what would you say to a woman who knows she has an emotionally abusive partner but still believes it is her best hope of love?
It would make you wonder, wouldn’t it? And I don’t mean make you wonder about these particular women. Rather it would also make you wonder about the position of women generally.
There are many, many women who are intelligent, educated, independent and living contemporary, liberal lifestyles who yet operate on an almost old-fashioned model of what it means to be in a relationship. They find themselves playing curious second fiddle to their partner. And yet in their more public life, if anyone suggested they take up the same position with regard to career, society, or education, they would instantly oppose such a move and rightly so.
Why is that? I ask because we are at the tail end of a revolution in terms of women’s position in Western culture, one that has seen a great deal of the unfair, unequal and undemocratic practices of previous generations completely abolished. Yet now, at a time of greatest freedom and opportunity, we find a great many women occupying a paradoxical position. They enjoy the right to display their femininity as powerfully as they wish – in varied lifestyle and career choices – and yet despite this some can still display profound uncertainty around their position within emotional relationships.
Now obviously there are women who remain impervious to these issues and who can rise above most interpersonal obstacles through sheer force of will. They are interesting too but we might consider them another day. For the moment, it remains a conundrum that so many women can ‘appear’ strong and resilient and yet find themselves on the receiving end of disrespectful and undermining behaviour. And while most who find themselves in this situation can articulate what is going on, few find themselves able to do much about it.
I was reminded of this while reading an article by psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller** in which he sought to apply some deep theoretical notions to this area. Key to any psychoanalytical understanding of the different positions that men and women take up, is the idea that women occupy a rather special place in terms of the road they take to adult maturity. Not for them the rather uniform developmental path that exists for men. Instead, contemporary psychoanalysis sees something of a healthy incompleteness in the path that girls take to becoming women. That’s not to say that women are incomplete, far from it. It is an attempt to show that women are to be found, because of this incompleteness, on the side of the infinite, emotionally unbounded and yet sharing in a connection to enigmatic forces, whereas men are pretty much a finite set.
What this means in reality is that when it comes to love, women are directed at much, much more than a satisfaction of bodily pleasures, although that is important too. There is something of a ‘beyond’ at work to which they intuitively respond.
And if men, by contrast, are pretty much a finite set well that makes them ideal for forming armies and churches and nations and all those other institutions that centre around distant, and not-so-distant ideals. The women we are referring to, on the other hand, have a greater understanding of the here and now, the importance of ordinary things, the basics, the necessity of speech in the conduct of love relationships, the place of human-ness, love and mystery.
But how does this impact on the place some women, such as those suggested above, find themselves in their relationships today? Well, according to the contemporary theory of sexuality, the first action at work in keeping women ‘stuck’ in these kinds of situations is this very thing. Their sense of infinite-ness is one that orients them towards love as a quantifiably different thing from men’s love, a love that, as outlined above, is based on a living, demonstrable, almost tangible sense of itself. This is their way of evaluating the ultimate success of a relationship.
The second action at work is that the person they choose to remain ‘stuck’ with will have, from the outset, represented an ideal so powerful that they will find themselves emotionally invested to a degree they would not have imagined possible. This unconscious ideal will have formed around a great deal of the experiences of the woman’s past life, the figures in it who were important to her, the values they will have represented and these will have combined with her own inner forces driving the imaginative constructions that place the man in this ideal position.
The third action usually at work is the absence of satisfaction, a desire not met, a dream unfulfilled in the relationship but, paradoxically, with the promise of it happening always just out of reach. We are never more hungry than when we are given the promise of food and likewise our desire remains strongest when it is not wholly satisfied.
This is the contradiction of our times. Freedom is available to most women in the developed world, a freedom fought and struggled for, and one that is allied to financial, intellectual and emotional independence. Yet some women, despite partaking in these new freedoms, find an older regime is at work within them when it comes to love relationships.

*The next blog will appear on Tuesday 11th May, 2010.

** ’Of Distribution Between the Sexes’, J-A Miller, in Psychoanalytical Notebooks, A Review of the London Society of the New Lacanian School, Issue 11, London, December 2003, pp.9-27.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Question of Sexuality

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

It’s easy to presume that when the word sexuality is mentioned nowadays that we are talking about homosexuality or transsexuality or some strident form of heterosexuality. Either way, the word conjures up some exceptional connotations.
Indeed the flip side of this is that the other kind of sexuality, the ordinary business of being a man or of being a woman, is beyond question.
But the 'ordinary' business of being a man, or of being a woman – an issue central to the whole notion of sexuality – is very far from being beyond question. At the heart of most problems that surface in the consulting room of therapists the world over is this very thing. I am not talking – as my presumption above might lead you to believe – about the question of whether one is a transsexual man or a gay woman. I am referring to the 'ordinary' question that has relevance for everyone as to ‘what kind of man or woman am I?”
I suppose I ask this question because a major international congress of psychoanalysis is taking place in Europe in June and it is going to bring speakers from all over the world who will give their ideas on these very topics. The 8th International Congress of the New Lacanian School is taking place in Geneva on June 26 and 27 and the theme – Daughter, Woman, Mother in the 21st Century - is very much around these ideas.
Psychoanalysis has, since Freud and latterly since Jacques Lacan, focussed a great deal of its attention on the issue of sexuality. In particular it has edged further and further into the notion of what it is to be a woman. Now any consideration of what it is to be a woman naturally brings you into considering what, equally, it is to be a man. Hence the focus, in the first instance, on these seemingly obvious issues.
But there is nothing obvious about them. What is it to be a woman? Or to be a man? We take the questions so much for granted that we don’t even ask them anymore. Why should the questions even be asked? A man has a penis and he loves women. A woman has breasts and a vagina and she loves men. Is there any more to be said?
If we move for a moment to consider those who offer a clearly different perspective on this question, where does it leave men who love men? Or women who love women? These men have penises. These women, too, have female genitalia. The object of their sexual attentions however is for people of the same sex. Are they any less men? Or women?
And where does it leave someone like Caster Semenya, the South African 800m Olympic champion who, according to latest reports, has male reproductive organs and yet is a woman?
Psychoanalysis has long said that biology does not determine gender. You can adopt a male position even with a woman’s body. One can equally adopt a female position with a male body. There are no guarantees when it comes to the sex that we evolve into. And although social conditioning does have a part to play in it, why has it not influenced the growing population of homosexual people around the world?
The answer, according to psychoanalysis, is that the more powerful determinant of what we decide we are comes from within. The recent biographical movie with Sean Penn as US activitist Harvey Milk is a case in point. During his life, particularly his political life, he had almost an entire society telling him he was wrong. And did it make any difference? No, it didn’t.
Because to have accepted what society was telling him – much as it is for anyone with a different sexuality – would have been to deny who he was; it would have been to deny the person that he knew and believed himself to be. To accept that, is to live each day as a lie. And since we only get one life, one has to ask how bearable can that be?
And that, interestingly enough, brings us back to my first point. The ‘ordinary question’ of what it is to be a man and the ‘ordinary question’ of what it is to be a woman suddenly becomes a much richer thing now. We are no longer dealing in clich├ęs anymore. It is no longer as simple as the man goes to work, the woman stays at home, the man plays golf, the woman has babies, the woman dresses pretty, the man acts tough, the woman uses her charm, the man uses his brawn, the woman is emotional, the man is not… The list goes on and on, added to over the centuries by various ideas about what makes a man and a woman.
Freud puzzled over the woman part of the question and didn’t quite answer to his, or anyone else’s, satisfaction. Jacques Lacan took up the challenge after him and brought it to a much more elevated psychoanalytic place. We choose our sex, at an unconscious level, and we choose it under the influence of our parents in the first instance. And that choice is not made until after puberty.
There is no instinct at work that tells us how to be a man and how to be a woman. We puzzle over it long after we have reached adulthood. To help us know what to believe we use whatever cultural sign posts are available and very often some of these are least helpful to us. Consider the body image issues that afflict people today.
Quite simply, as Jacques Alain Miller, Lacan’s son in law, has said, there is an absence of real knowledge available to us about what one must do, how one must live, as a male or a female. And it is from this perspective, from the almost ‘never settled’ position of our chosen sexuality, that we engage in relationships and adopt ideas about ourselves and live up to ideals throughout our lives.
In the context of the consulting room, it is not so much about having all the right answers, as having the broad theoretical framework with which to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Escaping the Phantasy

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

What is it that goes wrong for us when, say, our relationships seem to end in disaster? Or when we repeat patterns of behaviour that are not good for us? Or when our lives are plagued by a sadness that we cannot understand? Or when we simply find it impossible to be ourselves when we meet a potentially interesting partner, sometimes to the point of avoiding new prospects? When I ask this question, I suppose I am asking it in the broadest sense of ‘what is it’ that goes wrong.
I was prompted into thinking along these lines while listening to Paris-based psychoanalyst and philosopher Jean-Gerard Burzstein who was in Dublin last weekend giving a lecture on behalf of the Association for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in Ireland (APPI).
Now most therapies might start looking for answers to these questions in the actual conditions of the complaint. So if it was to do with relationships, they’d immediately start looking at the way you view relationships and so on. If it was a repeating pattern, they’d begin looking at the triggers that make that behaviour swing into action. And if it was a lifelong sadness, they’d start examining the things that made you sad. Burzstein was in Dublin to remind his audience of psychoanalytic practitioners that while psychoanalysis might begin similarly, the ‘thing’ it looks for is entirely different.
As far as he was concerned, and I concur with his views, contemporary psychoanalysis operates on the basis that what goes wrong is something of a different order. People engaging in difficult, problematic, symptomatic, negative and unproductive patterns of behaviour are, even to an outsider, easily perceived as being ‘stuck’ . In psychoanalytic terms, however, this being ‘stuck’ is elaborated even further to include the notion of being ‘trapped’.
And what is it that people are trapped in? Well, to put it simply, we become trapped in ideas we have about ourselves and the world that we inhabit. Now it is not just a case of coming up with ideas that do not serve us well and then becoming trapped by them and in them. There is, according to Bursztein, a little more to it than that.
From the very earliest age our thinking becomes conditioned by what we see around us of our close family, particularly mother and father. This in turn gives us our main set of ideas about who we are and who or what we perceive ourselves to be. This process happens incredibly early in our lives and it happens at the imaginary level, often contrary to things as they appear in real life. We are filling in with our imagination what we are still incapable of understanding fully. This helps explain why good folk can sometimes produce confused kids. Equally it helps explain why sound adults can emerge from troubled backgrounds. But it also helps explain why in an age of relative peace, of greater sexual and personal freedoms, along with great strides in science and social progress, we have increased numbers of depressions, anxieties, phobias and addictions.
According to Bursztein, each of us develops a fundamental phantasy within ourselves. This is a core notion, if you like, about what our position in the world is in relation to our primary carers, usually our parents. It works invisibly, behind the scenes, informing our actions, our choices and our ideas. It can inhibit us, prohibit us and can see us doing the same thing over and over again with no positive results. It comes into being as our way of dealing with the realisation - that each and every one of us comes to very early in our childhood - about our place as either a male or female child of male and female parents. It is, in turn, determined by the nature of the adult people who are raising us, by our adaptation to the myriad developmental changes taking place, and by our capacity to accept the necessary ups and downs of the process.
Positive people are marked by a sense of resilience. They get that from an early age. People who can enter into successful relationships have a confidence about them. They also get that from an early age. People who do not spend their lives repeating patterns of behaviour are relatively free of the need to re-find something that was lost; they have accepted loss, whatever it might be, as part of the human condition and they move on. This too is learned at an early age.
For those people who are unable to live in this way, the fundamental phantasy is at work, strongly tying them to an unyielding and unhelpful set of convictions about themselves. Psychoanalysis does not work by simply telling someone that they must change their beliefs about themselves. Bursztein made the important point last weekend that it works by using the person’s own language to trigger and unlock the old meanings.
He called this effect, ‘retroaction’. The key to psychoanalysis is retroaction, in a sense. It is not speaking for the sake of speaking. It is the release of new meaning by an effect of going back. In the same way that each sentence we utter is only possible to understand when the last word has been spoken. We understand every sentence in this retro-active way. And so too with the experiences of our lives, like half-finished sentences our experiences are made clearer to us by the act of speaking them out, of finishing them in the dynamic presence of a trained other. And where is this retro-action being directed? Towards the fundamental phantasy, first in establishing what it is and then in allowing the person step away and free themselves from it.
Sometimes this happens without the person even realising it. I have written before about people saying they have no idea how they feel better after therapy but they do. For others it does not happen because they have been unable in their speaking to allow themselves get close to the simple experiences of their lives. By that I mean simply speaking about themselves.
But the act of speaking still remains the great liberator. It is not rocket science. But it is not simple either. It involves a continuous effort to overcome our own resistances to speaking, particularly about ourselves. Yet if we manage to allow ourselves the ultimate freedom, as psychoanalysis requires, to speak about ‘everything and anything’ that comes to mind, without censorship, without editing, then we are half way there.