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Excerpts from WOMEN IN THERAPY | By Harriet Lerner
Chapter 14

A Critique
of the Feminist Psychoanalytic Contribution

In this final chapter I will critique key aspects of feminist developmental theory. My primary task is to illustrate that much of feminist psychoanalytic theory remains narrowly mother-focused at the expense of recognizing both circular causality within families and interlocking family process. In addition, I will share my concern that feminists may unwittingly contribute to polarized generalizations about gender that exaggerate differences between groups while minimizing differences within them. Much of my own work, presented in this volume, is not above the criticisms I present here; indeed, many chapters in this volume provide an apt illustration of the very problems I will discuss.

It has been relatively easy for feminists to revise traditional psychoanalytic theory and, understandably, more difficult for us to view ourselves and our feminist sisters with a critical eye. I have undertaken the task, however, because I believe that feminist theory will fail to advance if we cannot articulate our differences and disagreements in a public forum where others can join in and respond. I believe that the enormous strength and integrity of feminism lies in its diversity and that we pay our greatest respect to feminist theory by carefully attending to it. It is in this spirit that I offer this critique.

Mother-Focus in Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory

Historians of motherhood remind us that since the industrial revolution, mothers have been glorified and blamed-either surrounded by an aura of romantic idealization or held up as a target of unmitigated denigration (Bernard 1974. Rich 1976). Psychoanalytic theory has both reflected and shaped popular culture in that explanations of individual pathology still remain a linear, backward “whodunit” game, which ends by pointing the finger in the mother’s direction. Whether the focus of psychodynamic attention is on the special qualities and sensitivities of the “good mother” (or “good enough” mother) or the pathogenic qualities of the “bad mother,” the implicit or explicit assumption is that mother is the infant’s and child’s environment, especially during earlier and more critical stages of development.

To say that mother-blaming remains a problem in our work is not to imply that psychoanalytic thinkers harbor unconscious hostility toward women as mothers that shapes theory and practice, although this, of course, may occur. The point is rather that psychodynamic theory has remained entrenched in an epistemological framework that assumes that what happens to a child is largely the product of who the mother is and what she does and does not do. This assumption has led to an intense preoccupation with maternal power and with the mother-child dyad. at the expense of a broader, more objective understanding of family processes and of how male and female children navigate the process of differentiation within the family.

For over a decade, feminist scholars have challenged mother-blaming by drawing attention to the larger patriarchal context in which mothering occurs. In shifting the locus of causality from mothers to culture, it is argued that pathological mother-child interactions stem naturally from women’s subordinate status and from the socially constructed fabric of family and work life. The feminist perspective has been invaluable in demonstrating that the mother-child dyad cannot be understood in isolation from culture and from the institution of motherhood as it has been defined by the dominant group culture. Rich (1976), in her classic book Of Woman Born, carefully articulates this crucial distinction between potential mother-child transaction and the distortions of this bond through motherhood as institution.

Although the feminist contribution on mothering is incalculable, it is nonetheless problematic. As late as 1982, Chodorow and Contratto noted that both popular culture and feminist theory remain preoccupied with fantasies of maternal power and perfectibility and rooted in irrational notions of maternal responsibility. Since idealization and blame are two sides of the same belief in the all-powerful mother, the authors view feminist theory as constrained by the fact that we have not moved far enough beyond the limits of our own primary process. “Feminist theories of motherhood have not been able to move further because. . . they are trapped in the dominant cultural assumptions and fantasies about mothering, which in turn rest on fantasied and unexamined notions of child development” (1982, p. 69). While feminists may view maternal behavior as a product of the mother’s entrapment within patriarchy rather than as a reflection of her own personal neurosis, the authors remind us that we still continue to see the mother and child as an isolated dyad existing within a magic or cursed circle.

Intrapsychic and Systemic Camps

While Chodorow and Contratto (1982) challenge us to place the two-way relationship between mother and child in the context of “manifold relationships with the rest of the world,” Chodorow’s own work (1978) does not reflect this broader, interactive view, nor (as I will illustrate later) do other theorists operating from feminist psychoanalytic perspective. The encapsulated unit of mother and child, or the oedipal triad of mother, father, and child, remains the primary, if not exclusive, framework of feminist observation and theory-building, so that the complexity of interlocking family relationships. is obscured from our view. While the recent shift has been toward a positive reframing of female development (Herman and Lewis 1986, Jordan and Surrey 1986), there has been little movement toward understanding mother-child interactions and the process of self-differentiation within the larger nuclear and multigenerational family context.

In noting that our models of development do not locate mother and child within an interactive web of other relationships, Chodorow and Contratto (1982) fail to mention the existence of well-developed systemic theories that avoid the reification of intrapsychic self apart from interpersonal context, and that elegantly demonstrate that the, mother-child dyad cannot be understood in isolation from the whole. It is important to point out that a family systems framework has nothing to do with whether a therapist sees one person individually or meets with a couple or family together, nor does it relate to whether treatment is short or long, symptom-oriented or in-depth. Systems thinking is, rather, an epistemological framework that rejects a linear, model of causality (whereby one family member is viewed as the “cause” of another’s problems or as having undirected power over the whole) and, instead, Views family members as elements in a circuit of interaction in which each member influences others and is in turn influenced by them. Understanding problems in female development and self-differentiation from a systemic framework necessitates careful questioning to elicit specific constellations of transactional sequences that deviate from normal family processes in ways that result in symptoms of dysfunction. One’s field of observation or inquiry is the reciprocal, repetitive, circular patterns maintained by all family members (including past generations), rather than the quality of mothering or the mother-child dyad.

The issue at hand is not whether systemic thinking is more “correct” than other perspectives. Rather, my point is that feminist psychoanalytic scholars treat family systems theory with a conspicuous “not-thereness.” The current feminist psychoanalytic literature still pays enormous attention to summarizing and criticizing the misguided notions of Freud and his followers, but glaringly omits the work of the Women’s Project in Family Therapy (1982), or for that matter the contribution of any systemic thinker or feminist family therapist. Since feminist theory is by nature contextual, it is remarkable that we have located the mother-child dyad in the cultural system but have leaped over systemic analyses of nuclear and multigenerational family processes. To accomplish this feat of illogic, we have relegated the intrapsychic and the systemic to discrete camps as if they were separable one from the other, which has left us locked in a narrow, linear perspective even as we strive to recognize the importance of interaction, flow, process, and context.

Linear Thinking and the Attribution Of Causality

A tendency toward linear and polarized thinking is our natural bent, feminist or not, and it is overcome only with difficulty, if at all. I was recently reminded of this fact while serving as a consultant to an experienced psychiatric team at a large eastern mental health center. The identified patient, Deborah, was in the second grade and presented behavioral problems at home. Diagram 1 (below) illustrates the triad of mother, father, and daughter that is evoked and reinforced by culture and seen frequently in clinical situations. As typically occurs in family structure, there was a distant marital relationship, a distant father-daughter relationship, and an intense, conflictual mother-daughter relationship. Of relevance to this chapter is a brief summary of how each team member assigned responsibility for Deborah’s symptomatic behavior and for the shape and form of family relationships.

The evaluating psychiatrist, who was ultimately responsible for the diagnostic formulation, viewed Deborah’s symptoms as a product of faulty mothering. His report documented the mother’s fluctuations from neglectful unavailability to over stimulation and intrusion concluding that “mother’s lack of attunement to her child’s affective needs has impeded the development of self-images, self and other representations, and ego ideal. Deborah’s symptoms worsened at a period of excessive maternal over involvement, which left daughter unable to negotiate separation-individuation without threat” Implicit in his formulation was the notion that Deborah’s mother had set all three sides of the triangle in motion; her overinvolvement With her daughter “pushed father out” (hence the distant father-daughter dyad) and evoked a growing marital distance. His report noted that mother’s problems could be traced back to her pathological relationship with her own mother.

The team social worker challenged the evaluating psychiatrist’s attribution of causality and presented an equally compelling argument that Deborah’s father was the responsible party. With carefully documented dates and family history, she illustrated that Deborah’s symptoms immediately followed the father’s depression and his concomitant emotional withdrawal from the family at the time of his own father’s death when Deborah was entering second grade. According to the social worker, Deborah’s symptoms served successfully “to the rope father back into the family” and reconnect him with his wife around parenting concerns when the marital distance (and father’s depression) reached threatening proportions. The social worker viewed the father not only as initiating and maintaining the marital distance but also as evoking mother’s overinvolvement with her daughter (“Father’s increasing marital withdrawal and absentee parenting caused mother to intensify her relationship with Deborah and to increasingly turn to her daughter to provide her with the emotional elements absent from the marriage”). Although not intending to attribute blame, the social worker’s formulation labeled father as the starting point of the three sides of the triangle.

To further complicate or enrich matters, a psychologist of biological bent offered a third perspective. Although Deborah had not become openly symptomatic until she started the second grade, she was, from his perspective, a difficult child from birth onward in terms of both affective and physical predispositions. The psychologist pointed out that infants and children bring their own stimulus value into a family and shape interactions as much as they are shaped by them. Because a difficult child places severe stress on a marriage, the marital distance was hardly surprising. Also, Deborah’s difficult behavior evoked maternal anxiety and over concern just as it pushed father away. In sum, the psychologist’s reading of early maternal-infant interactions led him to conclude that, “The daughter and not the mother is faulty in this case.” He noted that Deborah consistently had “elicited poor maternal responsiveness.” From this perspective, Deborah herself might be viewed as the primary cause of all three sides of the triangle.

It was not the intention of this team to judge “the one to blame” or to decide “who started it” in regard to this symptomatic child. As theorists and treaters, our focus is always on diagnosing and understanding rather than on pointing the finger at a particular family member. It should also be noted that this team functioned well, not only in light of their careful formulations but also in regard to their ability to openly articulate differences and to recognize that each team member presented a valuable point of view that contributed to a larger picture. My point in sharing this condensed and partial summary of an evaluation process is simply to illustrate how naturally we observe the territory that fits our map, and how easily we slip into linear, causal language that obscures the complex, circular, patterned ways in which relationship systems interlock

Feminist psychoanalytic theory of female development currently operates from the same epistemological framework held by the evaluating psychiatrist in the case just discussed. On the one hand, specific formulations of Deborah’s symptomatology and development might look quite different coming from a feminist thinker, who might view the mother-daughter interaction through a more positive lens (Herman and Lewis 1986, Jordan and Surrey 1986). Nonetheless, one is reminded of the famous saying translated from the French: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The territory that fits the feminist map is still the mother-child dyad, and causality regarding normal or pathological functioning still resides in this highly encapsulated unit viewed as possessing a life of its own.

To further illustrate this point. I will briefly examine two samples from the current feminist psychoanalytic literature. The first is a nationally acclaimed book by Chernin titled The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity (1986). The second is an article by Jordan and Surrey titled “The Self-in-Relation: Empathy and the Mother-Daughter Relationship” (1986), The latter recasts and reformulates current psychoanalytic thinking (including feminist theory) and presents a new “self-in relation” model of female development. Although these two works by no means capture the diversity of feminist psychoanalytic thinking, they are important and influential contributions reflecting both the strengths and the problems of the current state of theory-building and clinical practice.