Saturday, February 4, 2017

Benjamin’s and Atlas’ “Too Muchness” of Sexuality

[An example of one of the many papers discussed in our twice monthly Friday Relational Study Group]

Bringing together research on early attachment and affect regulation with ideas about adult sexuality, in particular “Laplanche’s idea of  sexuality as excess,” Benjamin and Atlas discuss how “excitement becomes dangerous.” They note that early failure of affect regulation and recognition by the mother in relationship with the infant impedes the later containment of the excess in adult sexuality.

Laplanche thought the adult’s love of the child was too big (excessive) for the immature child to assimilate, while Ruth Stein added that this unassimilable love created a sense of “otherness and mystery” in the child about the adult (and about sexuality in general). When there is failure of regulation and intersubjective recognition, mystery is conflated with mystifying, with its subsequent withdrawal into solipsistic fantasy. Benjamin and Atlas state “...aloneness with psychic pain is linked to failure of recognition, to overstimulation caused by inadequate or overwhelming responses.” Conversely, when the baby is satisfied, not just its hunger for food, but for recognition and soothing, the baby can engage in play with the mother instead of in fantasy.

This excess or otherness might be dealt with by being split off, or dissociated and relegated to “either transcendence or debasement.” [I wondered if this depended on whether “excitement [is] based on secure expectation of satisfaction” or on “unreliability of … satisfaction and soothing,” respectively.] Excitement, unsatisfied and un-soothed, is reminiscent to me of Fairbairn’s seduction by the bad object, what the authors refer to as “‘seduced and abandoned,’ or ‘excited and then dropped.’” This ‘too muchness’ can be experienced as inadequacy and is, thus, accompanied by shame.

Disturbed attachment, with its failure to regulate and soothe, can lead to aggression as well as to the later inability to tolerate sexual excitement. Freud’s idea of seeking discharge of (sexual) tension, Benjamin has noted elsewhere, is always dependent upon relational context, such as “how we register the responses of another and how the other registers us.”  The authors inform, “...recognition does not only gratify but organizes and creates dyadic coherence.” This will later be relived in the therapeutic couple.  

Benjamin, J., Atlas, G. (2015). The ‘Too Muchness’ of Excitement: Sexuality in Light of Excess, Attachment and Affect Regulation. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 96:39-63.

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