The most accurate and powerful interpretations are those inspired by our counter-transference. Have they been touched by our emotions? Do we give birth to them painfully?
The answer to these questions brings us to recognise that our counter-transference (CT) is one of the essential springboards of our therapeutic care and the echo within us of the recent changes which have occurred in couples and families. The feeling of strangeness regularly bothers the analyst. Family therapy puts him in front of a structured group whose members fully master inter-functioning. They have several means at their disposal of triggering behaviours which tend to avoid changes. Being a stranger to the family group, the analyst feels gradually overwhelmed. The situation reminds him of the stranger within, of his unknown. Thus counter-transference implies some regression, going back to our childhood fears and impressions. We find ourselves feeling immature and sometimes under pressure. But we get over it through using analytical elaboration, among other methods, to overcome these unexpected reactions. This will be our interpretations’ platform. They will bear the marks of our personality. Consequently,
- Generally, CT implies a regression: we can see the most infantile outlines of our psychic functioning appear. We have possibly touched upon these outlines during our personal analysis, but sometimes it wasn’t enough to totally overcome our difficulties. Conter-transference seeps into the cracks, the wounds, the folds and the shady area of our psyche.
- CT is an answer to transference of families who give certain features to the analyst and « ask » him to feel these features, imagine them or act accordingly. The analyst identifies with what is « asked » of him. For example the family is often seeking acknowledgement: it begs us to acknowledge that it is capable of bringing up children and of living in harmony. Many of its members seem to fear that their forefathers and ancestors are blaming them: they haven’t done their duty, achieved their goals and the functions for which they got together. It is maybe because of this that we feel on our part like powerless children under the effect of the identification projected upon us by the family.
- c) The analyst has the feeling of being affected (to be concern) by the family’s difficulties, suffering and paralysis.
- d) The analyst can experience an identity deconstruction.
He has the challenge of being there while being unobtrusive, to be somebody but also the one designated by transference. His is a huge task: to be there and forget he is there at the same time. And on top of that, he is supposed to suggest interpretations without blocking the exchange, without smothering it; to be reassuring without making light of the difficulties. He reacts to the attempts made to affect him in reality while avoiding anger so as to highlight their fantasy dimension. He has to remain strong while receiving conflicting opinions, to show himself as liberal while making it clear that there are limits. He recognizes that being firm brings security and organisation, but also resistance: he will work towards using this as a springboard.
Blurred boundaries, surrender of identity status (M. de M’Uzan, 2005)
Discoveries in group psychoanalysis enable us to understand why the therapeutic process swamps us into a totally unpredictable reciprocity. Psychic functioning, when considered individually cannot explain what happens in sessions: when together, those who form the group develop a new psychology. For example fantasies which burst in during the collective move towards messianism (working hypothesis) has no equivalent in individual psychoanalysis (Bion, 1952 ; cf. M. Baranger, 1993).
In family therapy, even though all the members of the family know each other, some unusual psychic dimensions will emerge, because they find themselves in a new place with somebody they don’t know. From this new situation an original unconscious totality emerges, one aspect of which is a singular mentality.
Within us, the process of healing for families and couples brings about some unforeseeable experiences in relation to our past and our knowledge. Each session is different. The session will reawaken for the family anxieties linked to specific fears (situational anxiety; Eiguer, 1987).
It is through elaborating and then integrating his own feelings that the analyst will tackle the most thorny and current at the time family conflicts. CT is the revealer. Of course, the analyst wishes to do something, but in reality he is led by his psychic working where is also found his internal objects and links. He remains active/passive, echoing his patients while keeping in mind how important it is for them that he should establish his presence. The dilemma is not to be or not to be anymore, but to be a subject within the links which help create an echo in him of others who are different from him.
It is a questioning about the ultimate aim of analysis, the very meaning of his profession. The analyst exists inasmuch as he can be somewhat unobtrusive until he finds the way to change.
Resistance and strongholds
The analyst will occasionally be tempted to justify himself: he might trivialise the destructive projections, saying it is not important or that the family wants to test him. Or he could set up long term resistance, compromises or more or less perverse complicities.
I am tempted to mention here the differentiation between transference on the analyst and the analysis: the process and the meaning of PFT. That’s what we expect.
In short, shouldn’t we give the same interpretation we would like to give to ourselves or our family?
Concordant, complementary and supplementary counter-transference
I find it interesting to mention here CT variations described by H. Etchegoyen (1984), which belong to specific transference movements. He defines concordant CT as one which lines up with the patient’s own Ego movements, the analyst thus feels through identification feelings or fantasies at the same level as his own Ego. Complementary CT refers to representations concerning the patient’s objects
I would like to add to these two variations supplementary counter-transference. With this, the analyst feels an imperative need to transfuse his mental functioning to a patient who isn’t able to put to work his daydreaming, playing or subjectivation abilities.
Etchegoyen propositions bring minor differences. Identity deconstruction for the analyst happens mainly with concordant CT. It reflects the patient’s regression of Ego. Those three CTs are tributary to transference, to coincidences between each person’s problems and the issues at stakes at a precise moment of the treatment.
Specificity of family psychoanalysis
We shall try now to apply these ideas to improve family analysis. Transference-counter-transference takes on specific shades for each family and couple: for there meet family imagos, the meaning of the family, the myths specific to the family group as well as its values, goals, ideals and the particular nature of each person’s links and of their relationship.
At the beginning of the treatment, the analyst is not yet seen as someone close to the family group, but he can be an enemy, a cold scientist, the psychiatrist‘s spy or someone who recruits for a sect. But we don’t only get persecuting representations: the analyst can represent the doctor who saved a child’s life during birth, the nurse who looked after one or several small ones, the primary school teacher who first recognised the child’s worth (first stage of the transference-counter-transference process « the analyst seen as a stranger »; Eiguer, 1995).
As the process progresses, the analyst finds himself « submerged», « hit » by transference as if the family wished to include him in its archaic world, creating thus a certain indifferenciation ; similarities between him and family members are remarked upon, as well as between values and ideals. « We’re so similar. » This inaugurates the stage «the analyst seen as a “friend” or a member of the family ».
In the next stage, the analyst can be associated with an ancestor. Sometimes tutelary, sometimes a lout, he represents key figures for the parents. The other of the other. The notion of adoption starts working: the biological parent is not the same person as the parent who brings the child up. The analyst is then even more differentiated. He is given a distinct function, which enables him to complement the parent’s actions and therefore make up for their deficiencies, which have been admitted by then. That’s why I define this as the stage where « the analyst is seen as an adoptive parent ». The differentiations between the birth parent and the parent who brings up and shapes the child, the symbolic father are better understood.
This evolution does not exclude the feelings of conflict, jealousy, rivalry, the wish to exclude or even to kill, towards these others, whether one wishes to ignore these others or for such or such member of the family to voraciously assimilate their attributes.
Interpreting comes from awareness; it is not just an intellectual concept. And even if there is a certain formulation of interpretation, it still will be useful, inasmuch as it carries the analyst’s affects, his analytical work and his personal commitment. This supposes he feels affected (concerned) by it all and believes in it.
A twilight CT
The L. family includes two parents and two small boys aged 4 and 1, conceived through artificial insemination by donor. The father and mother weren’t sterile, but when the father’s sperm was in contact with the mother’s vaginal fluids, the spermatozoids would stop moving and become inactive. The request for PFT was caused by the fact that the elder child had developed severely aggressive and argumentative behaviour, as well as an eating disorder. After the birth of the first child, the father became listless and sad; he seemed to be depressed, while the mother was busy singing the praise of medically assisted procreation to all and sundry, especially the media. But her career stopped one day when a TV journalist said to her that donor insemination was just like sleeping with another man. At this she got up and slapped him in the face.
During therapy, we noticed some progress. A year and a half into the treatment, during a session, I had a strange feeling. The father and children were playing in a rather happy and inventive manner after having told me that they had all been to an amusement park were they had a lot of fun. The older child said proudly that he went on the «rollercoaster and wasn’t frightened». Looking at how the child and the father who hadn’t sired him, appeared at that moment, close in a way I had never noticed before, I was struck by the resemblance between father and child. And I wondered if he wasn’t the biological father.
The family members carried on talking and playing, while I, unable to listen to them, was carefully comparing the features of one and the other. They seemed « just the same »: hair, eyes, mouth… I was so convinced that I thought it might be useful to ask the parents for some details on the day and time when the insemination took place. I thought: they used the wrong test tube at the sperm donor centre. Or maybe the parents had made love just before and on that day the husband’s sperm had impregnated the wife. I reached the conclusion that his man wasn’t sterile.
I will never know the answer to this enigma apart from the fact that my counter-transference took in at this moment signs of an exceptionally powerful family communion.
During the session my mind wandered somewhat. Part of my associations came from mythology. Why mythology? I would learn why much later.
I remembered that many ancient heroes were born out of wedlock or adopted .This seemed to recall for me the issue of assisted procreation. Maybe this gave them twice as many chances to grow, be brave and strong, thus protecting them from dangers. I remembered Heracles… He had a twin brother, Iphicles, who was puny, modest and reserved. Officially their parents were Amphitryon and the beautiful Alcmene.
In fact, Heracles had been conceived by somebody else, the god Zeus. The story is a bit naughty: knowing that Amphitryon, gone to war, was actually on the front line, Zeus seduced Alcmene in a peculiar way. He metamorphosed himself in Amphitryon and went to see her. She was very happy to see her husband back home and welcomed him with enthusiasm. They made love. Then Zeus went away the following morning.
But Hera, knowing that her husband Zeus had strayed again, managed to get the true Amphitryon back home on leave. Once again Alcmene was very happy to see him back… And he was also very keen to get her into bed. From these two embraces were born the twins Heracles and Iphicles. That’s the way the Greeks explained these two brothers ‘procreation: one mother and two fathers, a bit like me who had imagined a mistake done by the doctors who took the father’s sperm for that of the anonymous donor. My wish was very strong as if I really needed the father to feel that the children were truly his. He probably wished it too. Assisted procreation had disturbed him, and then sent him into depression.
But also, this occurred only when the process reached a point where the family members found themselves in a state of fusion and belonging as if each incorporated the identity of the other and made it his own. The resemblance I imagined between the father and older son appeared to be the consequence of these wishes for communion and narcissistic perfection where many mirrors sent out reflections. This is what I said in session. I was invited and we adorned our transference-counter-transference group with all the attributes of a superior destiny.
My CT led me to interpret the fact that their wish to get on perfectly could have a place there. I also adopted them by associating them to heroes… to old stories, to tales from my childhood, perhaps. The boundaries between reality and fantasy had become permeable, for the family members and they within me.
We were totally in the second stage of the process: the analyst considered as a friend of the family.
In fact, I suggested a construction more than an interpretation. Thus my CT found another life and possible use: by associating the couple L. with the meeting between Zeus and Alcmene, I introduced, so to speak, sexuality in the children’s conception and an illusion to maybe replace the cold reality of impregnation by an unknown sperm donor… Slapping the journalist, the father’s depression, the older child’s behaviour, all were hiding a dull suffering coming from these troughs in representation. I even had for an instant the feeling, based on certain memories that my father wasn’t the man who brought me up, but a friend and confident much loved by my mother.
We do accept more than previously that our mind is linked with that of the family, and that our identity changes without being too versatile. It is difficult to summarize an interpretation of these interpositions, transpositions and confusion of identity, which are specific to a counter-transference experience.
To interpret is almost an exploit in this context of darkness. We need to be lucid to express it. But, as Robert Musil (1927) said once, « At twilight, when it gets dark, that’s when we begin to see the light. »
Baranger M. (1993), Le travail mental de l’analyste. De l’écoute à l’interprétation, Revue fr. de psychanalyse, 57, 1, 225-238.
Baranger W. et M. (1961) La situation analytique comme champ dynamique, 1961, tr. fr. Revue française de psychanalyse, 1985, 49, 2, 1497-1522.
Bion W. (1952), Group dynamics, a review, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 33, 2 235-247.
Eiguer A. (1987), La parenté fantasmatique, Paris, Dunod.
Eiguer A. (1995), in M. Elkaïm (sous la direction), Panorama des thérapies familiales, Paris, Le Seuil.
Etchegoyen H. (1984), Les fondements de la technique psychanalytique
Graves R. (1958) Les Mythes grecs, tr. fr. Paris, Fayard, 1967.
Musil R. (1927) L’homme sans qualité. Tr. fr. Points Poche, 2011.
M’Uzan M. de (2005) A l’horizon, le facteur actuel, in Aux confins de l’identité, Paris, Gallimard.
“From counter-transference to interpretation.” The most accurate and powerful interpretations are those inspired by our counter-transference. Have they been touched by our emotions? Do we give birth to them painfully?
The answer to these questions brings us to recognise that counter-transference (CT) has been under pressure by the recent changes which have occurred in couples and families while it remains one of the essential springboards of our therapeutic care. Even the understanding of what is counter-transference has changed lately when it integrated the ideas of group and link’s inter-subjectivity. Being a stranger to the family group, the analyst feels gradually overwhelmed by it. He finds himself worried by the strangeness he is going through. Looking at it more closely, this reminds him of the stranger within, his own unknown. If counter-transference implies regression, we get out of it through the practice of analytical elaborations. This will be the springboard of our interpretations. They will bear the mark of our personality.
Furthermore, the analyst has the challenge of being there, while being unobtrusive; to be somebody but in the end the one designated by transference; suggest things without blocking the exchange; to be reassuring without making light of the difficulties; reacts to the attempts made to affect him in reality while highlighting their fantasy dimension; to remain strong while receiving conflicting opinions, to show himself as liberal while making it clear that there are limits. He recognizes that being firm brings security and organisation, but also resistance: he will work towards using this as a springboard. It is through integrating his own feelings that the analyst will be able to tackle the most thorny and current at the time family conflicts. Of course, the analyst wishes to do something, but in reality he is led by his elaboration work where his internal objects and links meet. He is active/passive, echoing his patients while keeping in mind how important it is for them that he should establish his presence. The dilemma is not to be or not to be anymore, but to be a subject of the links, echoing others who are different from oneself and allowing ourselves to change.
Translation by Marie-Christine Williams
 This case was presented in Eiguer, 1987, p. 165-168, it is the Leman case. The descriptions made here do not appear in the previous text.
 According to other versions, Iphiclès might be Nicippé’s and the king Sténélos’s child, stolen at birth and put next to the newborn Heracles (cf. R. Graves, 1958, part 2, p. 81 et sq.).