Relational Psychoanalysis

Relational psychoanalysis is a relatively young psychoanalytic approach which, although it has its own characteristic concepts, cannot be understood as a distinct school. Its approach is integrative and plural. It takes up concepts from other psychoanalytic schools, as well as contemporary feminist, queer, and postmodern discourses.

Jay Greenberg and Stephen Mitchell coined the term “relational” in their work “Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory”, published in 1983. Here they formulate their intention to combine interpersonal psychoanalysis, which goes back to Erich Fromm, Clara Thompson, and Harry Stack Sullivan, with object relations theory. The aim is to counteract to the limitations of individual psychoanalytic approaches—such as the tendency to disregard inner psychological conflicts in the interpersonal approach, the underestimation of social relationships in drive theory, or the inadequate consideration of sexuality in object relations theory—with a complementary perspective. The Freudian perception of the drive is rejected by relational psychoanalysis as monadic; instead, the concept of the “relational matrix” as the primary structure of relationships becomes the focal point. The unconscious is not perceived as consisting of repressed drive representatives; rather, it is constituted of non-integrated fragments that have their origin in relationship experiences.

Relational psychoanalysis is not about one-sided interpretations or the mere disclosure of repressed content but about understanding the dynamically developing intersubjective relationship, which also becomes apparent between analyst and analysand.

Stephen A. Mitchell (1946 - 2002, New York City)

The foundation and further elaboration of the relational approach in psychoanalysis is mainly associated with the name Stephen A. Mitchell. Coming from a political, secular Jewish family, Mitchell first studied cultural studies and philosophy before receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1972. He completed his psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute in New York, which was founded by Erich Fromm, Clara Thompson, and Harry Stack Sullivan in 1946. Opposing every form of orthodoxy and normativity within psychoanalysis, Mitchell argued throughout his life for a variety of theoretical and practical approaches. His attempt to place the relationship matrix at the center of psychoanalysis also led to a critical revision of the analyst’s position in particular: the analyst is no longer an external, judgmental, interpretative observer, but always also a co-constituent of the psychoanalytic setting.

Picture: Stephen A. Mitchell, Courtesy Margaret Black-Mitchell

Avgi Saketopoulou: Relational Psychoanalysis

Avgi Saketopoulou, Dr., is a psychoanalyst in New York City. She trained, and now teaches, at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and several other analytic institutes. She serves on the editorial boards of The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, and Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and writes about gender, psychosexuality, race and consent. Recent publications: Holding futurity in mind: therapeutic action in the relational treatment of a transgender girl (2018) and The Draw to Overwhelm: Consent, Risk and the Retranslation of Enigma (2019).


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