Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine’s Day Thoughts

Having had the good fortune to hear Malcom O. Slavin, PhD speak on Saturday, February, 12, 2011 to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, Inc., I came away with some thoughts on love previously relatively unconsidered. In particular, Slavin’s ideas on “adaptive probing” (probing, for example, to access and share an unarticulated fear of annihilation and death consequent to the existential awareness of our finitude and of our human need to make meaning), it occurred to me that the proclivity to probe others comes to the fore in love relations as well. The assertion of self interest through probing to know oneself better by better knowing the other is neither solely selfish nor aggressive. Indeed, it reciprocally requires of the beloved a capacity to allow awareness of the less accessible multiplicity of selves in order for the lover, too, to be able to face (though now, not alone) heretofore inaccessible sides of the self. Patient and therapist, too, cooperatively allow such access, beneficial to both.

In the clinical situation, this intersubjective, mutual probing requires that the therapist not hide behind ritual or role. Can the therapist and patient hold the tension created by emerging multiple selves? Can lover and beloved? Love is both selfish and altruistic. Love is the selfish quest for wholeness, through help from the other, the accessing of parts of one’s self by probing to know the multiple selves of the other. It is altruistic in its very probing, aiding, too, the other to know her/his own multiplicity better. Altruism (putting aside temporarily one’s own agenda or perspective) can deepen our sense of our selves in a way that can be powerfully creative and enlivening. In contemporary psychoanalysis, Relational theorists have, likewise, deepened the meaning of empathy into a two person experience with their recognition that otherness stimulates and nourishes growth of the Self.

Interrelatedness is necessarily reciprocal, and generates a tension between self and other. Just as light and dark require the other to define the one, poles of the dialectic necessitate the other, so each needs otherness and the other to better know the self. In the mutual sharing of both the hope to make meaning and the despair of mortality, what (content) is said is not particularly salient. Rather it is the connection to, and articulation of, the conflictisg needs between therapist and patient, or lover and beloved, that frees both to access a greater diversity in the experience of self. We aid patients in their accessing a more varied experience of themselves by opening our selves to broader and more spontaneous experience. So, too, do lovers mutually struggle to find one’s own subjectivity, and struggle with the subjectivity of the other.

Winnicott, though, reminds us that there is also always a private self that remains incommunicado. A lover, then, must tolerate the unknowableness of the other’s core self while simultaneously reaching towards knowing. Slavin, in his deeply philosophical probing of human experience, posits the evolutionarily adaptive function that this core self guarantees: a safe guarding of ourselves and our own interests when we simultaneously seek, sometimes through accommodation, surrender, or altruism and love, the enriched experience of self and other. Without this ever present tension between self and other, Slavin noted, human evolution would not have been possible, as we would, instead, be like ants, bees, or wasps, in a totalitarian utopian vision where individual needs and separateness disappear. Humans, in loving, find ways of negotiating each other’s differing realities and seek to accommodate without over accommodating. It is not a bad trade off.

Lycia Alexander-Guerra, MD

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