I would like to invite you to delve right in and explore the enigma of the art of couplehood and happiness. You may find you are one of those people who succeed in the practice of this universal art, or alternatively, discover you may resist it, unwittingly blemishing or spoiling your relationships with your children or spouse, or even with your co-workers, when part of a team.
Almost all of us enjoy love relations. Often these are ongoing relationships, like those between parent and child, but they may be of shorter duration with other partners. Repeatedly, we feel that love is bonding us. On occasion, it may be a play, a discussion or a professional interest that brings us together with others of a similar persuasion. Such relationships seem very banal and easy to create. In my book The Enigma of Childhood however, I wish to elucidate why it is so complicated to maintain a satisfying relationship, and how couplehood is an art, which, starting in infancy, continues throughout life in numerous shapes and variations.
What is it that arises in the mind of each of the partners, each a separate individual who, similar to their partner in some essential ways of being, nonetheless remains so very different? Partners may have a common desire to come together, yet each has secret yearnings foreign to their partner. Each hopes to fulfill his own familiar ‘brand’ of bonding in the relationship, often forgetting that his (or her) partner comes equipped with other nuances of bonding that may guide their needs. Thus, each is attracted to the familiar aspects he sees in his or her partner, yet resists their otherness.
How can the partners of such bonding safeguard their love so it remains a constant and secure basis upon which their jointness is built, respecting their respective divergences and otherness, withstanding the inevitable and sporadic conflicts of interest that may be sparked? This tension between “I” and “You” (what we psychologists sometimes refer to as ‘the self and the non-self’) accounts for why people who love each other (e.g., parents and children) have so many clashes, provoking emotional injury or even rage, their incompatibilities often threatening to destroy their love relations. The special capacity to preserve the basic love relations despite the otherness (an existential given) is what I mean by the art of couplehood.
This concept is one of my prime theoretical contributions in this book. It is linked to the concept of normal object relations, which I have elsewhere described as jointness-separateness (Solan, 1991). Jointness relations are woven between two or more separate individuals—baby and parent, spouses, or team members. Personally, I visualise each individual as embodied in a self-familiar space or shell, symbolising his fortress of separateness. From this self-space of separateness, the individual can partially emerge and connect with what he or she experiences as a familiar non-self—that is, another individual who has also partially emerged from his shell, and wishes, or is attracted to bond with the other. This bonding takes place in a virtual third shared-space, available as long as both partners devote themselves to their joining or jointness. There, in the shared space they create—a sort of dance ensues between them.
Each partner maintains his (or her) familiar rhythm while attuning to the emerging synchronization, adapts his own pace and moves to those of the other, tames his own approaching/distancing from the other—until both sense a common familiar proximity. The partners are engaged in an emotional, mostly nonverbal language where they are attracted by each other’s smell and glances, often touch each other physically and/or emotionally, both enjoying a language loaded with pleasure, love, and erotic or sexual sensations. They experience a sharing of intimacy, happiness and communication, and in their togetherness, may perhaps also alleviate distress, or pain or even rage. These separate individuals have managed to temporarily bridge their respective separatenesses by creating a shared emotional interest, a shared space.
Sometimes whenever partners manage to synchronize their sensations in the shared space, they may be drifting in a sensory infatuation, temporarily feeling as if the sense of boundary separateness between them is blurred. Thus, each remains momentarily unaware of the other’s presence in their shared space, as if there is no otherness (or self) there. This pure, emotional occurrence of transcendence that floods the space of the shared experience was defined by Freud as the feeling of happiness (Freud, 1915e, 1920g, 1930a). These transcendent feelings are engraved as memory traces that reverberate throughout the lifespan as one’s subjective data of happiness, and once experienced, will hitherto influence our longing to recreate such bliss with our children, and especially our spouse. When these memory traces are blocked or repressed by other destructive memory traces affecting the life of the growing child, such as those of experiences of abandonment, profound injury or trauma, we may find ourselves spoiling our love relationships.
Due to their fundamental separateness, the wellbeing found in the jointness of partners cannot be sustained indefinitely. Each reserves the freedom to either join their partner in a shared space, or withdraw from this jointness; they maintain their shared space, with its familiar bonding as well as with the familiar sensations of preparing for separation. Whenever the jointness-dance comes to an end, the partners separate and return, each to his or her self-familiar-space.
Throughout life we are moved by a longing to revive the longed-for blissful love and happiness that we first experienced in the shared space of jointness with our parents or caregivers, and in thus doing, alleviate our sense of solitude. I characterize these wished-for moments of elation as a mutual refueling by love, one that both partners need, upon facing both the otherness of the other, and when approaching separation. Thus, whenever we sense our own need to separate from the shared space, or that of our partner’s, we prepare ourselves for the impending separation—by means of a familiar ritual of separation, such as “See you later,” or “Bye-bye”, perhaps accompanied by a smile or a hug—a kind of refueling with love. Sharing this ritual before going to sleep at night or simply leave-taking the shared space, enables us to prepare for the associated distancing, and preserve, in our self-familiarity, the positive phenomenon of jointness, accompanied by the knowledge (i.e., basic trust) that generally we will rejoin again.
In the midst of blissful proximity, whether child or adult, we may suddenly react with intolerance to a sign of separateness by our dearest—as if momentarily threatened by the strangeness emanating from their ordinary otherness. This may occur for example, when one partner desires to continue the rapprochement while the other is already distancing himself; when one wishes to convey love, and the other, to express his current interests, injury, or anger. This spark of otherness may evoke in both partners emotions of vulnerability, narcissistic injury and pain that instantly risk reducing the perfect delightfulness to a mere “nothing”. Whenever we separate with hurt and anger (without reconciliation) we may suffer from the anxiety of object loss, abandonment, painful solitude, or wish for revenge.
How can we safeguard our relationships, even though the sense of strangeness hurts? How will we manage to maintain an emotional balance between proximity with our partners, and alertness toward their otherness, the sense of strangeness they evoke? This is the main dilemma and enigma we face.
When safely ensconced in our self-space, each of us tends to restore his/her self-familiarity-space of separateness by digesting our experiences, including those of pleasure and/or pain, and ‘load’ the shared experience with personal meaning. Sometimes, we remain ‘stuck’ in our sense of injury, perhaps blaming the other for our pains or experiencing them as a stranger or even monster. Alternatively, although flooded by painful feelings of strangeness, we may nonetheless choose to reconcile and renovate the basic love relations we enjoyed. But for a ‘tango’ to ensue, both partners must be able to renew their communication, allow mutual love refueling, and forgo their injuries.
Whenever our child spontaneously approaches us to refuel love, we are delighted. The small child does not wait for his parent to decipher his need for refueling, he is going to get it! After a while, he or she resumes their activity, confident they can return for more refueling. When an adult dares express his (or her) normal desire to be refueled by love, he is often inhibited, fears being emotionally vulnerable, perhaps even mocked or shamed, as he waits for his partner to decipher his needs and ‘prove’ his love.
What a paradox! If only we could let the hidden child within us show us how simple it is to refuel our love! It is so challenging to ‘immune’ the happiness and love and preserve it, so easy to destroy it, due to an intolerance of otherness. The art of couplehood relies on an incessant process of refining and taming, fueling and refueling, re-joining in partnership and separating from jointness.
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Freud perceived normal narcissism as “self-love [that] works for the preservation of the individual” (1921c). Other views consider similar ideas, but do not explain how narcissism works, or what it is programed for. I differentiate between healthy and pathological narcissism by the capacity (or lack thereof) to preserve, restore and re-stabilise one’s sense of one’s familiarity self, as well as to restore the familiarity of one’s partners and of one’s relationships with them. But how does narcissism work?
I imagine that most of us may easily admit how much we are attracted to the familiar and appreciate it, and conversely, may approach change and novelty with a modicum of suspicion, being alerted to, and tending to resist that which we find strange. From countless observations, I have discovered, to my amazement, the immense impact of this attraction to the familiar, the concomitant resisting of strangeness, and the facility with which we feel injured by the otherness of our dearest ones. We generally consider such emotional reactions as narcissistic injuries, focusing on their pejorative significance or pathological side. However, in my book I try to illuminate these emotional reactions in a new light of psychic health—which I refer to as healthy narcissism.
To illustrate the connection between the art of couplehood and healthy narcissism, I wish to emphasize that, to my view, the baby is born with an innate healthy narcissism, in part linked to a survival need of attraction to the familiar and the resisting of strangeness. Whenever the parents’ narcissism functions well, it allows them to respect the separateness of their baby and join him in intimacy in their shard space. In this way, the parents consolidate their offspring’s healthy narcissism by supporting his alertness to strangers/strangeness while concomitantly encouraging intimate relations of jointness-separateness with both parents, and even other caretakers. The various experiences in the shared space, are endlessly enriched by new shared interests of the individuals who join together, whether in love, play, communication or professional discussion. This consolidates the individuation and autonomy of each partner, and produces a sense of proximity or closeness.
For many years, I was intrigued by the notion that in parallel to the baby’s need for his parent-object he had another core survival-need—to sense his self as familiar, and to resist anything which he sensed as not part of his familiar self i.e., the ‘non-self’ he encountered. Thus, the baby preserves his self-space familiarity and separateness, while cathecting some figures (e.g., mother, father, siblings) as familiar non-selves. This basic survival need to some extent precedes his need to join the parent-object in feeding, proximity, intimacy and happiness. This resisting of strangeness begins at birth, and enables the baby (and later the adult) to be alert to the ‘non-self’ stranger (strangeness or otherness), while joining the familiar ‘non-self’ in intimacy.
Just as I was mulling this over, a patient who suffered from an auto-immune disease in her mouth, came in for a consultation. I had the opportunity to discuss her case with her physician, a specialist in biological immunology. We discussed the psychic triggers and mainly the origin of her stress, which, we both thought, might contribute to her auto-immune symptoms. This was one of this specialist’s techniques for finding the appropriate medication/treatment for his patients, and I was amazed to hear him using terms such as ‘self’ and ‘invasion of non-self’ in order to explain our patient’s auto-immunologic symptoms. I was moved to hear his description of her auto-immune illness in a way I myself might describe her psychologic narcissistic symptoms.
How do I view the similarities between biological and narcissistic/emotional immune and auto-immune systems, you may wonder. The biological immunologist defines the job of the immune system as that of safeguarding the code of the human cell’s protein as familiar and constant, and of identifying foreign invaders with a different protein code (which may endanger the integrity of body cells) so as to block them (Dannenberg & Shoenfeld 1991). The concept of autoimmunity is regarded as the inability of the immune system to distinguish between self and non-self (George, Levy & Shoenfeld, 1996).
As an analyst, I was stimulated for many years to investigate the contribution of narcissism to the child’s emotional development. One of my main theoretical contributions in The Enigma of Childhood pertains to my considering narcissism as an innate emotional immune system mobilised for preserving the familiar sense of the self, that is, the code of the human self-space as part of the familiar and constant self (Solan, 1988, 1999). Narcissism operates through the principles of attraction to the familiar and the resisting of any alien stimuli, seen as strangeness, non-self or otherness, all of which challenge the familiarity of the self. Narcissism is also programmed, in my view, to befriend hints of familiarity concealed in the non-self otherness and in strangeness, and subsequently to ‘load’ it as familiar non-self (like with parents, spouses, friends etc.). Consequently , these familiar non-selves—whether from an internal or an external source— are absorbed into the self-familiarity, which makes room for them. Thus, the self-familiarity is enriched, its integrity strengthened. Whenever the emotional (narcissistic) immune system fails to resist the non-self-stranger and absorbs it as part of the self, narcissistic disturbances appear, such as the ‘false self’, and excessive vulnerability or even paranoid reactions—which can be defined as emotional auto-immune illness due to pathologic narcissism.
These two immune systems, the biological and the emotional, operate according to similar functional processes from the very beginning of life—namely, the attraction to the familiar and a resistance to strangeness.
Parenthetically, I wish to emphasise that the narcissism that I refer to as healthy and normative is no different from that previously described in the professional literature—I choose to elaborate its healthy and positive aspects.
In my book, I have tried also to take a fresh look at the functioning of the ego, including the important distinction between the regulatory characteristics of mechanisms of adaptation and defence.
I hope that in reading this introduction to my book, the reader will decide to familiarize himself with the child concealed within. The Enigma of Childhood traces how early psychic development is reflected throughout the lifespan, including adulthood, couplehood and parenthood. Each of us contains within himself the sum of layers of memory traces composed of narratives from significant relations dating from different stages of development, some of them conscious and others unconscious, some constructive, and others destructive. These childhood resonances, always present in our interactions with others, often colour our current experiences with a sense of familiarity, and guide us, whether with our partner or our children, and also, as psychotherapists, with our patients.
Ever since I’ve conceptualised how healthy narcissism operates, the proposed differences between the ego’s adaptation and defence mechanisms, and jointness-separateness object relations, my clinical work has improved greatly. I’ve realised that my interventions are better able to touch upon my patients’ conscious and unconscious emotional experiences and feelings. Especially, such interpretations can help them acknowledge and befriend their true self, disclose their hidden positive childhood narrative, which may have been blocked by resonations of destructive memory traces that interfered with their love relations and impeded their spontaneous happiness. Moreover, their sense of separateness, their decision-making process regarding their work, and the reconciliation with the otherness of their dear ones, as well as their participation in the art of couplehood, have noticeably improved.
Following this introduction to The Enigma of Childhood, I invite the reader to discover for him or herself the secret door provided in my book, which may lead to the solving of some of the enigma, perhaps by acknowledging that the capacity to be happy and loved depends, inter alia, on our ability to tolerate the otherness of our partners.
Dr Ronnie Solan trained as a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in Switzerland and in Israel, where she became a training and supervising analyst (child and adult). She currently works in Tel Aviv with children, adults and couples. For many years she lectured at the Israel Psychoanalytic Society in Jerusalem and in the Postgraduate Psychotherapy Section, Faculty of Continuing Medical Education, Sackler School of Medicine, Tel-Aviv University. In Switzerland she had the privilege of studying under some of the foremost psychologists and psychoanalysts of our generation, including Jean Piaget at Geneva University, and Prof. Rene Spitz at the Swiss Society of Psychoanalysis, Geneva. The Enigma of Childhood, her first book in English, is pubished this week by Karnac Books. The original version of the book (2007) has been widely acclaimed by the Hebrew-reading public.
To find out more about the author and the book please visit her website: ronniesolan.com
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