There is a conspicuous absence in the relational psychotherapy literature of an in-depth understanding of the wide range of developmental relational complexity possibilities.
Since the history and rich diversity of relational perspectives is well known, I will restrict myself to focusing on the range of emotional complexity possibilities thus far formulated–because a clear understanding of this richness can contribute to a mutual sense of belonging as both partners in the therapeutic alliance come to feel safe and “at home” with each other.
We now realize that the most complex phenomenon in the known universe is the human mind. Understanding this infinite complexity and expandability of mind, we now see the impossibility of the so-called “modern” approach to scientifically studying the “true nature” of the human mind. Rather, our contemporary studies must yield to a humbler “postmodern” approach that privileges the construction of various perspectives for listening and learning about aspects of our minds that interest us.
Relational listening perspectives seek to define a series of increasingly complex relational possibilities that evolve during the early years of life. For example, common sense and universal experience dictate that we listen and relate differently to an infant, a toddler, a three-year-old self-consolidator, and a five-year-old triangular relater. These listening perspectives make no particular assumptions about the nature or content of human mind except that human minds develop and expand in relational contexts.
Historically, early relational habits have been considered manifestations of insanity, mental illness, and primitive or extreme states of mind. We now know that living out early relational habits is universal but that those individuals who have had favorable genetic, constitutional, and environmental opportunities tend to develop over time an array of more complex relational habits that more or less smoothly assimilate earlier more troublesome relational habits.
As a child’s experiences expand, working memory establishes a series of expectations and habits based on the relational environment each child has been born into. As the child grows, highly idiosyncratic patterns of relational complexity become established in what one might describe as an array of increasingly complex relational possibilities. In average, expectable development, these successively more complex assimilations of relational achievement become more or less comfortably integrated and re-integrated. But in conditions that Freud first studies as “pathological,” various advanced verbal-symbolic relational possibility patterns are unconsciously blocked or stuck in time—i.e., “repressed.” Over the years we have come to think of earlier pre-verbal relational habits as “dissociated” or “unintegrated”.
Over the last three decades relational psychotherapy, neuroscience, and infant research have demonstrated clearly that the most important aspect of the human mind is the way in which human beings develop mentally through relationships that are and are not available to them throughout life—but especially in the earliest months and years of life–sometimes even extending downward to relational experiences that happened before birth.
We now know that the neurons and neurotransmitters of the brain and the entire nervous system actually migrate and organize themselves in the first year of life according to relationships that are and are not available. We also know that in the second year of life the brain systematically prunes out or jettisons neurons that are not a part of that primal relational scaffolding. The net result is that each individual human mind is relationally structured totally uniquely.
The relational listening perspectives that follow are based on developmental metaphors of how a growing child potentially engages and is engaged by emotionally significant others in interpersonal interactions that build internal habits, modes, or patterns of relational expectation and competence. These perspectives are not a developmental schema per se, but rather are intended to identify a general array of increasingly complex relatedness possibilities lived out each day by all people and that are troubling in various ways at various times to many people.
In my 1983 Listening Perspectives in Psychotherapy which reviews a century of psychoanalytic studies, four main watersheds of relational complexity emerged. Through a series of theoretical and clinical case studies contributed to by more than 450 therapists over a 50-year period in the Southern California area and collected in 21 published books, major advances have been reported in understanding and treating early “Organizing” (psychotic/bipolar/spectrum) and “Borderline” (character-disordered) relational habits using an intersubjective/interpersonal/relational listening approach.
What follows is the barest schematic of the four developmental levels of relational complexity development. An elaboration of each complexity level is in the appendix.
RELATIONAL COMPLEXITY POSSIBILITIES
|Developmental Complexity Level
|IV. Independent 5-year-old triangular narrational relating was first developed by Freud and Jung.||IV. Transference: Interpreting triangular narrational repressions
|III. Self-consolidation relating was introduced by Kohut through the affirming, twinning, and idealizing of skills and talents by self-objects.||III. Transference: Selobject failures re-enacted
Countertransference: boredom and drowsiness
|II. Symbiotic or Bonding scenarios are considered in both complementary and concordant forms introduced by Racker, Mahler, and Kernberg.||II. Transference: Active and passive scenarios re-enacted
Countertransference: Reciprocal dissociated enactments represented in words or actions
|I. Organizing (psychotic, bipolar, spectrum) experiences studied by Searles, Giovacchini, Grotstein, and Hedges.||I. Transference: Terror of connecting
Countertransference: Connecting/disconnecting confusion
Each of these universal developments in the complexity of relational possibilities can best be considered not in terms of a developmental lock-step schema, but rather as one of four distinctly different ways for therapists to listen—in the broadest sense of the word—to any person’s characteristic relational habits at a given moment in time—and that includes those early relational habits of the therapist as well.
Freud’s singular stroke of genius can be simply stated: When we engage with someone in an emotionally intimate relationship, the deep unconscious emotional/relational habits of both participants become interpersonally engaged and enacted, thereby making them potentially available for notice, discussion, transformation, and expansion.
Freud (1895) formulates that the most important features in the human environment are emotionally significant human relationships—that the human brain and the sense of “I” actually develop according to relationship possibilities that are and are not available to the growing child. Said differently, Freud asserts that human growth involves relationship experiences that the child is able to create with people in the outside world and that can connect with the physiological and emotional life within.
Freud’s enduring contribution is not so much about the nature of mind, mental development, or mental health per se, but rather about how to engage in an intimate relationship in which limiting emotional relatedness patterns brought forth from the pasts of both participants become enacted, expressed, and expanded in the present interpersonal setting.
Freud’s therapeutic technique sought to bring into enactment and expression–and then through intimate relating–to break down, analyze, dismantle, or work around those early learned but inhibiting or limiting relational habits. Then ordinary expectable emotional growth could resume its natural expanding course, and with it, the sense of being relationally safe and at home with the analyst and gradually with others.
APPENDIX: RELATIONAL POSSIBILITIES ELABORATED
Many trajectories of human mental development might be defined for study, but none are of greater interest to human life than how human relationship possibilities and habits are able to expand in complexity and consciousness over time.
This raises the question as to how expanding relational possibilities can become stopped, blocked, arrested, or repressed. And under what conditions can relational expansion be resumed? That is, how can we understand what the mind-altering process of psychotherapy might be about?
I. THE ORGANIZING EXPERIENCE
Infants require certain forms of connection and interconnection in order to remain psychologically alert and enlivened to themselves and to others. In their early relatedness they are busy “organizing” physical and mental channels of connection—first to mother’s body, later to her mind, and then to the minds of others—for nurturance, stimulation, evacuation, and soothing. Framing organizing patterns for analysis entails studying how two people approach to make connections and then turn away, veer off, rupture, or dissipate the intensity of the connections. The Organizing Experience is metaphorically conceptualized as extending from 4 months before birth to 4 months after birth.
II. THE SYMBIOTIC EXPERIENCE
Toddlers are busy learning how to make emotional relationships (both good and bad) work for them. They experience a sense of merger and reciprocity with their primary caregivers, thus establishing many knee-jerk, automatic, characterological, and role-reversible patterns or scenarios of relatedness. Framing the symbiotic bonding or attachment relatedness scenarios entails noting how each person characteristically engages the other emotionally and how interactive scenarios evolve from two subjectively-formed sets of internalized self-and-other interaction patterns. The symbiotic attachment experience is metaphorically conceptualized as spanning from 4 to 24 months—peaking at 18 months.
III. THE SELFOTHER EXPERIENCE
Three-year-olds are preoccupied with using the acceptance and approval of others for developing and enhancing self-definitions, self-skills, self-cohesion, and self-esteem. Their relatedness strivings use the admiring, confirming, and idealized responses of significant others to firm up their budding sense of self. Framing for analysis the selfother patterns used for affirming, confirming, and inspiring the self entails studying how the internalized mirroring, twinning, and idealizing patterns used in self-development in the pasts of both participants play out to enhance and limit the possibilities for mutual self-to-selfother resonance in the emerging interpersonal engagement. The selfother experience is conceptualized metaphorically as extending from 24 to 36 months.
IV. THE INDEPENDENCE EXPERIENCE
Four- and five-year-olds and beyond are dealing with triangular love-and-hate relationships and are moving toward more complex social relationships. In their relatedness they experience others as separate centers of initiative and themselves as independent agents in a socially cooperative and competitive environment. Framing the internalized patterns of independently interacting selves in both cooperative and competitive triangulations with real and fantasized third parties entails studying the emerging interaction patterns for evidence of repressive forces operating within each participant and between the analytic couple that work to limit or spoil the full interactive potential. This experience is metaphorically conceptualized as extending from latency, though puberty and throughout life