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Relational Theory: A Report

Notes on Connection
The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute
Fall Intensive Training
October 2 - 4, 1998
Wellesley, MA

                       Relational Theory

Presenters: Jean Baker Miller, MD; Judith Jordan, Ph.D.; Irene Stiver, Ph.D.; Janet Surrey,Ph.D.; Yvonne Jenkins, Ph.D.; Wendy Rosen, Ph.D.; Maureen Walker, Ph.D.


The Stone Center offers this as a model for therapy, but also offers it as an alternative to the way we think about relationships, and, if understood and applied in enough related disciplines, capable of evoking a substantial paradigm shift. This is my belief too, because when I encountered their work ten or fifteen years ago and attended to them and to others (Carol Gilligan; Belenky, Tarule et al.) everything changed dramatically for me in terms of the lens I use to view the world. 

It was pleasurable to sit down for a weekend and focus on relational things and to be given language to describe what my intuition already knew, to learn new depth concepts, and to engage in a level dialogue that allowed me to say, based on my own experience, "you've got this part wrong".

So here are fundamentals of relational theory in my own words mostly, but with the big concepts in theirs:

Perhaps the most important underlying assumption is that psychological development is motivated not by desire for separation, but yearning for connection. This is in complete opposition to other models of human growth and development, was first thought to have special application for women, and is now being researched and shaped to accommodate and understand men.

The theory has a few other underlying assumptions worth mentioning. The first is that "separate self" models of psychological development emerged primarily for two reasons: that men were the subjects being studied and men (perhaps) have a different natural developmental path, and that psychology really had a hard time gaining legitimacy as a discreet area of inquiry as it wasn't scientific enough. Psychology countered the assertion that it was illegitimate by modeling itself on Newtonian physics: separate atoms dancing around compelling and repelling forces, reinforcing the notion of "separateness" and (accidentally?) contributing to a cultural paradigm that holds "power over" by men. 

The Stone Center is clear: cultural and societal pressures and movement are the larger context in which application of this theory must be placed: one cannot understand or empathize with another without understanding how these larger "forces" have impacted upon an individual. 

For women, it is particularly important to understand multigenerational internalized oppression, and its specific flavor in the family and cultural context from which a woman emerges. I was surprised that the concept of "internalized dominance" was not discussed or even mentioned. They talk around it using the dynamic phrase "doing the work" which applies to coming into a true appreciation for diversity and understanding another's internalized oppression. 

Connection occurs in relationships where there is "mutual empathy". Mutual empathy is not empathy being shown back-and-forth, it is a "feeling with" between two people; two people joined with the quality of "mutuality". There is also, equally,  the notion of "mutual empowerment". Borrowing from material presented later in the course I'd say that an aspect of mutual empowerment is about being "listened into 'voice'". "Voice" has played and continues to play an important role in women's developmental theory... in this instance "voice" is a crucial element in "authenticity". Authenticity is the position of being genuine in our relationships, of revealing who we really are.

Jean Baker Miller posits that there are "five good things" about connection:

1/ Zest: increased energy or vitality
2/ Action: empowerment to act beyond the relational moment
3/ Increased knowledge and clarity about one's own and other's feelings
4/ Increased sense of worth (based upon another hearing and responding empathetically)
5/ Desire for more connection.

It is important to point out that the word "feeling" is being used here to describe feelings, thoughts and "feeling thoughts", or thoughts and attendant feelings: the full range of human expression.

The best thing about connection (for me) is that it has the effect of making a woman more than she was a moment ago. (The Stone Center said that, and I am pleased to find that a conclusion I came to long ago on the topic of "collaboration" has been confirmed.) The other important aspect of connection is that it is a process that continually recreates "power", not only in terms of "zest" but in terms of the dynamic between and within the relationship.

The relationship is described as "the space between" and is honored as much as the women who have co-created it.

Problems in relating can and will occur, and these are called "disconnections". A disconnection is or is produced by any relationship that is not mutually empowering or mutually empathic.

There are five bad things about disconnection:

1/ Diminished energy
2/ Disempowerment
3/ Confusion
4/ Diminished sense of self-worth
5/ Isolation and avoidance of relationships

I am struck that this reads, to me, like the main characteristics of "depression".

Relationships in connection are motivated by the desire to participate with other people, versus the desire for gratification by other people. Not "getting", engaging and being engaged by.

Repeated serious disconnections result in confusion, terror, rage. As a direct result of the experience of disconnection, we learn to leave important parts of ourselves out of connection in order to try to keep the connection available to us. This is known as the "central relational paradox".

Also this decreases our authenticity; our availability to be fully present in relationship. Decreased authenticity appears to effect a change in the quality of connection we can experience, but is a necessary, learned (although probably unconscious) strategy. This is known as a "strategy for disconnection".

                       Relational Images:

Relational images are "inner pictures that people create out of inner experience". They "define, describe, portray our notions of what happens in relationships and what to expect". They are "complex layers of pictures we've created and varying degrees of awareness of what they are".

In the process of forming our relational images, we construct meaning about ourselves. The fewer connections we have, the more we are making meaning for ourselves.

Deep yearnings for connection exist between mothers and daughters. If our yearnings for connection are met with disappointment, we develop strategies for disconnection. And the lightning rod for women is that relational image of mother we fix in our minds.

The relational approach demands that we position our mothers in the socio-cultural framework that bred her as mother. When that is done, her disappointment and discontent with father's "power over" position in the family is seen. Although felt acutely, mother does her best to transmit to us that this is natural and the "right way" of things. At terrible cost to her and to our connection, for in her desire to be a good wife and mother, mother hands us over to father for indoctrination in the ways of patriarchy. Mother is willing to make the sacrifice: indeed she must in order to live out her responsibility as mother under the "social contract" (my words) of the time. 

It is not uncommon for daughters to identify with the father's perception of mother. And it is so dangerous, because it sets up competition for rather than collaboration with the "necessity of sharing mother". Mother's deviation from "saint" is shaming for both mother and daughter, and this wound is a source of disconnection. We are "set up": there will be a flaw in this essential connection with mother and this will be the source of our self-loathing. And as we rail against mother's shortcomings, our "never-ending protest at the door of her heart" (not my words) gives us the appearance of separation.

Which does not solve or soothe or take care of our intense longing for connection, but does give us the facade of having made the necessary developmental movement toward autonomy/separate self.


There are "degrees of disconnection"

There are four schools of thought within the discipline of psychology that describe the reason for disconnection:

1/ pathology 
2/ genetically deficient
3/ culturally deficient
4/ ethnically diverse

The Stone Center falls into the latter, obviously. I am struck by "pathology" being described as "divisions in comparisons between groups" and think this bolsters my argument that psychiatric labels serve to further marginalize People Who into tiny camps of "this" or "that" and am grateful nearly to tears when Janet Surrey quotes:

             "Isolation is the glue of oppression".

Empowerment is seen as "openess to difference" and appreciation for the "value of difference" and is participatory. It is a process of "internalizing a positive perception" of another and/or of oneself.

A few notes on the process of relational therapy:

Basic guide: Always try to be aware of how connected and disconnected you feel from the client.

Change happens when the therapist feels with the person, and the person feels the therapist feeling with her.

What is really happening is that the person is bringing more and more of her authentic self into the relationship (opposite of the central relational paradox)

Consider the "movement" in the relationship: "what will move this relationship toward more mutual empathy and empowerment"?

Always honor the strategies of disconnection. The therapist must honor and empathize with disconnection. Labels are said to be (and this is a quote): "our special ways of hurting people".They disconnect. They are using "power over" and are not mutual.

The bottom line on disconnections is the assumption that:

         "No one will be with me if I am with myself." 

Strategies of disconnection are how we keep people with us; it is self-sacrifice in the service of connection (my words).

In this model, "counter-transference" (which usually means the feelings the therapist has toward the client, and depending on the model used are either used to inform the therapy process or give you an extra label) is defined as "anything that takes the therapist out of connection with the client".

Relationship is valued as a "place of authentic meeting" and is the "space between" that holds connections, disconnections, and re-connections. 

Assisting people in uncovering their strategies for disconnection in order to solve the central relational paradox and become more authentic in relationship with improved connection is the work of therapy in the relational model.