Couple and Family

Alessandro Bruni

Chorós and Oikogénia
Elements differentiating groups and families
in the psychoanalytical approach


The author highlights neglects and methodological issue implied in the activation of the analytic funciton in contexts other than dyadic psychoanalysis. Through anthropologic ans mythological suggestions he propounds a clear distinction between the natural family and the peer group and discusses their differntial aspects. He introduces the metaphor of "original vacuum", develops a critique of grouo models common to both structures and presents a metatheoretical model of the "peer group". From all these issues he extracts some suggestions for collective supervising settings.

Alessandro Bruni

Associate member of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society
Trainer at the Italian Institute for Group Psychoanalysis
Viale delle Milizie 2, p.t. int. 1 - 00192 Rome-Italy
tel. +39/6/3200171 - fax +39/6/5828303

(the original italian version of this paper was published on Interazioni, n.1/96, Franco Angeli ed.)

		"I don't know "us" and I don't think that we know "us" either,
		 because - whoever we are - we have not met before."
							(W.R. Bion, 1977)
0. Introduction

Among the therapeutical situations where the "psychoanalytical function" has been neatly applied and put into context, special interest can be devoted to the psychoanalytical treatment of families and couples, on the one hand, and of the small analytically oriented group on the other. The "transfer" of a function from one context to another should be subject to some methodological caveats, that are often neglected and impair the efficiency of the function itself.

Methodological neglect most often takes the form of lack of understanding of the most peculiar meaning of analogy. Wilfred Bion reminds us that the crucial aspect of analogy is the relation and difference of the two terms implied (Bion, 1970). This difference constitutes the space of valuable unknown that expands the area of survey and research.

Non understanding this crucial point often leads to bad habits: e.g. by frequently using the phrase "as if" the analytical relation is often equated to the mother child relation, almost forgetting that the patient is not a child and the analyst is not a mother.

In more general terms, we risk to think that if thanks to psychoanalysis we developed analytical "skills", this means we own a device that can highlight directly and automatically anything appearing and any new context where we find ourselves. This undue attitude inevitably turns the rigour of our work into the foolish fantasy to possess an overordinate and ideological Weltanschauung for interpreting the most varied human activities such as politics and art extra moenia with highly debatable results that clearly dim the reputation of psychoanalysis.

From the theoretical point of view, this methodological vice feeds the habit to extrapolate models, concepts and theories deriving from the dyadic psychoanalytical context to other contexts without the mentioned caveats.

But we should rather ask the question in the following terms: starting from a general theoretical tradition strongly related to the experience of personal, "dyadic", analysis, what is the "analogue" form analysis can take in such different and complex contexts such as the "polyadic" context of families or groups?

With this paper I would like to discuss these methodological questions and pay special attention to some features of families and groups seen as polyadic structures in order to stress the differential aspects relevant for the definition and optimisation of the therapeutic setting and of the very analytic function.

1. Can we "export" transference?

Concepts such as transference, countertransference and projective identification were generated by the features of the dyadic patient-analyst relation. Their validity derives from the fact that this relation provides for one single communication interface between the two participants, except for a few accidental situations. The psychoanalytic significance that differentiates these concepts and other inquiry methods, such as the behavioural methods, is guaranteed by these very peculiarities of the analytic relation. There the analyst participates with his mind and also with his unconscious, i.e. that unreachable area where the crucible of all constructions and deconstructions is located and where the premises for insight are found. I can say a patient has a projective identification on myself only when the various messages I receive from him intertwine in the intricacies of my unconscious generating a state I recognise as the one described by the concept of projective identification. We know that in psychoanalysis things become more complicated when the receiver of projective identification is not ourselves but a person in the external world the patient is telling us about. In this case we can try to reach our goal through our own identifications, that however undermine the significance of the operation.

If we wish to export these concepts into polyadic structures while maintaining in our mind the mentioned features, we fall deep into trouble. In a polyad the number of dyads relating its members in biunivocal mode shows a non linear increase according to the following equation:

				x (x-1)
			y = ---------------
For example, in a group or a family of 8 persons we have 28 communication interfaces among all members. If and only if within a group it is possible for the analyst to identify a transference with the mentioned features, in particular if it takes place between two members of the group, he should however have a multiple split mind, more or less like a fly's eye that can look in any direction through its thousand eyes, in order to exclude driftings and interferences on the transferor and on the receiver of this hypothetical transference. Even if this were possible, it would not however keep account of the fact that a group is more complex than the simple sum of its parts.

I developed this argument almost obsessively because I want to focus on the methodological fallacy of using these concepts outside the dyadic psychoanalytical relation. All this notwithstanding there are quite a number of models that make reference to multiple transferences and countertransferences and to the possibility of an individual analysis in a group. (one at a time I imagine!) Anyhow, the sorceress of transference cast her spell on us and we risk to use it anywhere. This is a typical example of how the original and mysterious depth of a basic tool of psychoanalysis is impoverished and debased.

Working with groups the alternative is the radical one chosen by Bion: an analyst interested in learning from experience should develop totally new concepts starting from the direct immersion in the complexity of a group's mental field. Only later it will be possible to discuss whether these new concepts can be "equated" to the ones used in dyadic analysis.

2. Observational prostheses

The most predictable corollary of the criticised approaches is represented by the fact that through them the complexity of polyadic phenomena becomes utterly incomprehensible and requires the development of subsidiary tools for facilitating observation. Thus the group is confided to two therapists rather than one only, mechanical recording tools are used and observers are allowed in the setting.

I think that the introduction of these strategies, that certainly are valuable in experimental psychology, is not compatible with the setting of analytical listening and therefore destroys psychoanalysis itself. I wish to quote here Bion's radical stance on mechanical recordings:

"These last have the truth that pertains to a photograph, but the making of such a record, despite a superficial accuracy of result, has forced the falsification further back - that is into the session itself. The photograph of the fountain of truth may be well enough, but it is of the fountain after it has been muddied by photographer and his apparatus; in any case the problem of interpreting the photograph remains. The falsification of the recording is the greater because it gives verisimilitude to what has already been falsified."

3. Polyadic structures: families and groups

I imagine that it should be possible from an anthropologic point of view to distinguish the establishment of the family group seen as a psychological structure from the group as a collective operational unit, not always permanent, that is formed independently from kinship and appears in human activities as substratum of a group mind that can develop from very primitive to very sophisticated levels.

The "psychological" family comes quite a while later in evolution than the biological family in its strict relation to reproduction. Some forms of collective psychism appear quite early even in animals such as insects and birds, where the individual psychic differentiation is not so strong, given the lower complexity of their psychic apparatus. Each one of you may have been struck by the evolutions of a flight of starlings that seem to fly and make sudden revolutions in unison. Or think of insect colonies, like termites, where collective interaction patterns are seen that fit into descriptive computer models.

With this I mean to suggest that some forms of collective psychism could be considered prior to the birth of individuals, always in psychic terms, and therefore prior to families.

A beautiful suggestion of this concept comes from Greek tragedy, that we could consider a metaphoric reminiscence of the original vicissitudes of psychic birth. The collective structure of the "Chors" through dance and songs introduces the audience to the entrance of the protagonist and deuteragonist. The development of events unfolds then in the terms of an Oedipal triangle, the general pattern that can be found masked underneath all tragedies. From the psychoanalytical stand point we could then extract the following genetic sequence: group-individual-couple-family. To describe a family I used the Greek word "Ikognia", that etymologically puts together the psychological idea of the house fire (Ikos) and the term indicating birth and family (Genia).

On the other hand, a small group in the sense of a peer group often returns in human history in different situations and with different values, always intertwining with hierarchical asymmetrical levels. We can think of cenacula, art groups, literary salons, explorers' groups, study groups, scientific teams, but also adolescent gangs or elderly groups, churches, freemasons' lodges, mafia groups and so on. In each one of them, in a different way according to the group's goals, the usual vertical hierarchy of human life is intersected and enriched, positively and negatively, by the advantages offered by the horizontal and synchronous unfolding of that peculiar creativity deriving from the activation of the group's mind. This aspect of a small group's psychic life is completely different from what characterises a family organisation.

From this standpoint psychoanalytic psychotherapy of couples and families and a small psychoanalytic group become new and more sophisticated anthropologic evolutions, as far as they intersect the mind's psychoanalytic function with these two basic human structures.

I think that the study of structures and families' and groups' complex communications phenomena started in the 1950's contributed to enrich psychoanalysis with a peculiar sensitivity to relational aspects with fruitful consequences on psychoanalytical conceptualisations.

All this notwithstanding and albeit the fair need to adjourn in a fruitfully mutual way the confrontations of psychoanalysis and the most qualified acquisitions of neurosciences and epistemology, I do not agree with the presently popular trend in psychotherapy to destroy some of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis starting from concepts deriving from contexts and observational methods provided with an at least doubtful compatibility with psychoanalytic listening. On the other hand, without denying the importance of becoming more and more aware of the complexity of the analytic relation, some of the most recent "findings" were already present, without much ado, in the thinking and clinical practice of some great past and present analysts, such as Freud, Ferenczi, Balint, Winnicott, Bion and Searles, just to name a few.

This new epistemological awareness clearly leads us to consider with greater attention the fact that the description of psychic structure depends also on the relational context it is immersed in. From the neuropsychological standpoint this dynamics is enhanced by the specific features of homo sapiens's neo cortex that allows for highly plastic and open virtualities in the development process. But we should not forget that at underlying levels the reptile brain and the talamic and cortical brain of mammals are still active. Therefore, the relational aspect does not cover the whole mental field and prevents us from eluding the task of identifying the overall invariables of the psychic apparatus and personality.

Returning to our central issue, it was the impact with polyadic psychic structures that allowed to perceive the "field" effect of a given context on each individual part of it. The concept of field (Baranger and Baranger, 1969; Corrao, 1986) can be used in an even stricter sense and we can thus speak of a bipersonal, family and group field.

4. Family as a polyad

Working with families (and couples) therapeutic intervention intersects a pre-existing "natural" relational reality that encloses and transmits complex intertwinings and biological and psychological drifts, within which the parental couple, be it damaged, lacking or excessive, however plays a real and fantasmatic central role.

I am not a specialist in this field, but I think I can say that the choice to face the complexity of a family with a therapeutic couple seems quite appropriate, as long as it represents an introspective attitude aiming at reactivating and tuning in with the polarisations of a "natural" parental couple. The therapeutic couple (a man and a woman), in this case, can be considered as an "analogue" of the analyst working with the patient in the dyadic relation.

The object of analytic work within the family shall take into account the polyadic matrix underlying it that here finds its patho-biographic and transgenerational history (Chiozza, 1995, Neri, 1993, Faimberg, 1993, Kas, 1993). This transpersonal dimension participates in a complex way in multiple layers, biological, protomental and cultural, and presents itself as a determining background polarity on which the figures of members and their relations stand out. In the psychoanalytical work with families too it is possible to suggest the use of a "binocular" perception in an "analogue" way to what has been suggested for the analytical group (Bion, 1961). But here the "difference" in analogy is stronger as the members' responses are more rigidly linked by the ever present and active structure of natural kinship relations.

This could be the reason why the very likelihood of analytical work within the family could be questioned. Something would be lacking: that distance from natural situations that makes it possibile for psychoanalytical change to take place as it happens in dual or group situations.

For the psychoanalyst the risk is of finding himself in a ford between two unsatisifying options: he can either slip to a directive attitude, nearer to systemically and relationally oriented family therapy or introduce the analytical dimension through an improper and unacceptable use of the concepts of transference and projective identification.

This is why I think that the analytical function in working with families can find its rationale only in identifying a highly complex and specific study object. I think this could be the complex mythical, fantastic and fantasmatic network of transgenerational drift underlying and intersecting at various levels the "here and now" of the family. The work of the authors mentioned above provides valuable hints in this sense.

I talked of mythical, fantastic and fantasmatic because I mean to introduce different thinking levels:

A. The family myth represents that minimal cluster of more or less unconscious elements that can be traced as shared by all members.
B. Fantastic pertains to the acknowledgment of different fantasies and theories on the family structure that each person contains in his inner world.
C. Fantasmatic represents that protomental level that is most difficult to access as it is based on concepts such as "void", "full", "absence" and "excess", "negative", "symmetrical", "inverted", "somapsychotic" (Kas, 1993; Green, 1995; Bion, 1962; Faimberg, 1993).

Working on these three dimensions of the polyadic network it should be possible to identify and suggest, without fear of being contradicted, a complex configuration whose knots can highlight different and peculiar collective and individual events of the family constellation.

5. The groups as a polyad and the "original vacuum"

The analytical small group presents a peculiar "original" situation that makes it totally different from families.

In fact behind it there is a "historical void". Group members are not "bound" by kinship or friendship relations existing before the group formed. I believe that the importance of this "original vacuum" has not yet been fully understood.

The problem is partially blurred by the analyst because of the widespread practice of personally selecting patients and keeping them, for practical reasons, in an initial dyadic relation until the group is ready for take off. Thus a series of star relations centring in the analyst introduces and partially protects the patients from the impact of the new group experience. I will return later on this. Albeit this protective screen, however, a careful eye can always trace in the first session, even in the first events, the clear signs of a "cosmogenesis", the birth of a "cosmos", deriving from an original big bang created from nothing. Nothingness is almost unbearable for the mind, but the fact that it is even transpersonal, sitting in the middle of the room, makes it even more powerful as a generator of movement.

One can thus understand how the group polyad can change the original vacuum into an inverted force projected to the future and capable of unfolding synchronically its "hunger for existence" that can explain the self-centred vitality of the group, as well as the depersonalising phenomena observed and considered as difficulties in impact by some studies of the Psychoanalytical Research Centre on Groups Il Pollaiolo (Bruni, 1978; Jannuzzi, 1979; Correale e Parisi, 1979).

Reflecting on this original aspect I would suggest the idea that the "ontogenesis" of an analytical group should retrace the archaic stage of "phylogenesis", where we suppose for the first time a collective mind appeared and took off, whose image is evoked by the "Chors". The need to "embody" a leader, that the group's mind expresses with an intensity proportional to its immaturity, would contribute to feeding the developmental push to the psychological take off of the individual, evoked in the appearance of a "protagonist" god.

6. Hybridations in models of therapeutic groups

What discussed above suggests that the widespread habit of superimposing families and groups in the conceptualisations of psychoanalytical small groups is methodologically incorrect and confusing. Often the group appears forced by the model and setting to function "as if" it was a family, where the therapist or the two therapists act as parents and the patients play the roles of sons/daughters and brothers/sisters. I do not mean that within group work there are no relational and fantasmatic family-like configurations, since this happens quite often. Somehow each member tries more or less unawares to pour in, enact and relive in the group his own family "iconogram".

But the fact is that, if we stick the analytical function and apparatus to a family fac-simile, I think we drastically reduce the difference between groups and families, which is exactly what allows for the lysis and transformation of these iconograms, as they break down while being immersed in a relational mental field completely different and peculiar.

In a dream brought by a patient to the group we can see an example of this impact: "On a wide plain, were I could see a group of people, beside my mother and brother there was my house. I was threatened and assaulted by a small ogre that tried to bite me. I wish to hide in the house, but is as intricate as a labyrinth."

The work performed by the group on this dream allowed to trace in the representation some elements of the Minotaur myth and a problem concerning strategies of confrontation with an archaic and persecuting double. In the individual-centred version of the myth, the protagonist hero in the name of a group enters into himself and faces the monster with due strategies. Those who work with families know quite well that the failure in this feat explains the development and chronicisation of a scapegoat. In the impact with the group's mental field (the plain), the "geometric" structure of the personality's invariables is forced to a transformation that offers a new location to the internal objects and spaces: the monster can be ejected and turns out in a new external transitional space, outside the individual but inside the group, and the labyrinth becomes attractive for fleeing and finding refuge. The subsequent group work (other members brought fantasies and materials on the issue of the "double") allows for the completion of the transformation: the group makes present and introduces the ghosts, at times clotted into polymorph chimerical figures (as the sphinx) and then treads on them as a team of ghostbusters, brilliant return to the Golem myth. The topologic transformation of a circle in a doughnut or "toros" is a neat model for describing the impact of the group field on individual structure.

Returning to our previous methodological and setting questions, I think that the choice of using a couple of therapists for a group is not adequate. If two silent observers are added, it comes out clearly that this apparatus is like a wedge introducing a firm and asymmetrical polarisation into the group. The analysing apparatus on one side, the analysands on the other! Unaware we risk to mix the setting with a highly persecuting mortar. We are very far from a chorus and a peer group!

Even where a single leader is chosen, often this "therapist-centred" polarisation is present in some models based on the original theories of S.H.Foulkes, who however has the merit to have been the first to think of the group as a whole (Foulkes, 1948). I refer to the difference between "vertical" transferences, that are said to be activated by members toward the therapist, and "horizontal" transferences present only among patients.

A dream of a patient comes neatly at this point: "In a room two persons feeling cold sit near a fireplace trying to warm up. Downstairs many persons dance wildly as if they were in a disco."

The leader, who has organised his work on a complex interpretation of the patient's dream, did not notice that this dream was a ready made interpretation of the group's state (G. Corrente, 1996), it already signalled an affective difficulty in the two leaders in feeling part of the group and implied a critique of the setting.

The tendency to move the group to a family setting seems to be a frequent temptation also in Bionian colleagues who are well familiar with the idea of a group mind. The stage of a "brethren community", for example, presented as an advanced level of group functioning and the nearest to a peer group (Usandivaras, 1984; Neri, 1993), is also influenced by this attraction as far as it suggests to the therapist to take up a more or less explicit older brother function in lieu of the missing father. So, once more, one of the innumerable pictures of a family romance is taken as a descriptive model of the therapeutic group.

7. A "virtual" peer group

With this term I would like to designate a metatheroretical model of analytical group with the clear intent of satisfying the need for transferring the asymmetry of the analytical function to the group as a whole.

In this model the analyst's major task is to be trained for activating an experience where the analytic self interpreting function of the group can emerge and be maintained. Hopefully this task should be learned and shared symmetrically by the other group members.

The major task of group work should be to make this skill easier and easier to learn and share for all group members.

The term "virtual" indicates a trend, a goal that can never be fully achieved, but that should be aimed at as a limit for x tending to infinite.

Conducting a group requires the analyst to give up, more than ever, the role of "assumed knower" and "sole interpreter". He needs to signal and "animate" the interpretive elements that the whole group can produce, modulating the communication choices and acknowledging the leadership that each member can happen to take up. He should also be willing to become, as all other members, the object of group inquiry and debate. In wider terms he should be really capable of exercising those maieutic, creative and mythopoietic skills that qualify a person as member of an analytical peer group (Romano, 1996). In more general terms, we can say that he should learn from group experience.

It is quite difficult, even for an analyst practising individual psychoanalysis with advanced epistemological tools, to put this attitude into practice. On the other hand, in our experience, group practice thus oriented returns to individual analysis a consistent benefit in terms of high ductility to share the analytic function with the patient.

If the conductor does not understand this opportunity for making his position symmetrical with the centre of the group, he makes the depersonalisation anxieties hyperbolically material and turns the uncanniness of the original void, i.e. the transpersonal existence of the group's mind, into a terrifying and unliveable object. In other words, if the analyst fears this experience, he shall try to take in himself this terrifying object in order to control it and will create a strong polarisation between himself and the rest of the group.

This kind of encumbrance explains why some analyst build their settings as if they were military camps, while others suggest models and ideas that tend to control and harness their impact on the group, thus reducing its psychoanalytic potential. Both choices are usually accompanied by warnings stressing the risk for "psychosis" inherent to group experiences.

The creation of a psychoanalytical setting originates from the asymmetry of patient and analyst, i.e. the demand for analysis and the supply of analytical function. Clearly this asymmetry is not cancelled by the provision of a place and time for experiencing, i.e. "hosting" a group and defining the terms of the initial contract: these conditions alone are not enough for creating a psychoanalytic group. I mention this because I was made aware that transferring on a group the asymmetry of the analytical function and suggesting to the conductor to try and make his position symmetrical to the group's centre could be considered as a dangerous abdication and simplification of the conductor's role, exactly the opposite of what I mean (C. De Toffoli and B. Bonfiglio, 1996).

After this clarification I would like to show how even the asymmetry of hospitality is only partial and concerns material aspects, since at psychic level the analyst himself must be "hosted" by the group just like any other member.

Even the problems concerning responsibilities and dangers of maintaining group experience, like for example defining the limits of tolerable violence, should be solved, whenever possible, by the group as a whole.

Summarising, the faster the tendential symmetry of all members (analyst included) is established, the more the group can "light up", maintain at the centre of the room and use that inexhaustible power deriving from the "original vacuum" that presses the "multi-versed" group to develop through potentially unlimited figures. At times these figures exhibit such an amazing holographic cohesion (Bruni, 1986) that they can be well considered evidence of the existence of a "group mind".

The models compatible with this approach are certainly Foulkes's concept of matrix and resonance (1964) and Bion's formulation (1961) of basic assumptions, group work, group mentality and culture and the concept of value defining the quality of individual availability to share in and feed group states. Then some of the models suggested by Kas (1986, 1993) and Anzieu (1986) on the group's psychic apparatus. In Italy the better systematisation was produced by F. Corrao (1981) in his paper "Polyadic structure and gamma function", where dyadic and triadic interactions in groups are considered as functions of resistance.

The psychoanalytical concepts that do not lose their heuristic value in being transferred to groups are mainly the abstract graphs suggested by W.R. Bion: the container-contained relation (OO), PS-D oscillation, L, H and K links (love, hate and knowledge), the theory of transformations (Bion, 1962, 1965). I think it is not yet possible to establish a grid for group processes (and for psychoanalytical therapy of families). The combined use of these supple and lean Bionian concepts, together with his specific group concepts, represent, I think, a valuable toolbox for "testing" the innumerable phenomenological configurations that a group can take up (or identifying those pertaining to the family matrix). As a suggestive example I shall list some of the more general and easy to observe ones:

Condensing and dispersing
Integrations and disintegrations
Implosions and explosions
Polarisations and depolarisations
Appearances and disappearances
Restraints and field invasions
Inversions and overturnings

The model requires, however, according to Bion's more general suggestions, to give up the natural impulse for proliferation of many models in an "intermediate" position between the endless material realisations that a group can intersect and the more abstract generalisations that proved to be valid at clinical level. They can in fact become confusing if they are prematurely reified as reading keys for the group and encumber the conductor's mind, making the mentioned functions more difficult (Bruni, 1993).

In this sense I also find beneficial that the selection of group members be performed by a colleague. So that the analyst is not prejudiced by dyadic meetings and can share the experience of the group's beginning together with all the other members. From the patient's side this procedure entails the advantage of not evaluating in advance only the analyst but of experiencing a given group with a given analyst.The indispensable function of selecting patients while imagining their possible functioning in the group would however be performed by the colleague.

8. Polyadic super-visions (or meta-visions)

We can now assess the issues proposed with a visit to that analytical transformation activity indispensable for the transmission and evolution of our work called supervision, with specific reference to working with families and groups. I must say I never quite liked the term supervision because it sounds so much like "egoic enlightenment" and "supposed knowledge". Thinking of the metaphor of blinding suggested by Freud and taken up by Bion (1967), I would rather prefer the term "under-vision" or better "meta-vision" that connotes the metabolic aspect of this activity and reduces the asymmetry related to the setting. But I don't want to appear too iconoclastic and shall keep the term supervision. Obviously here I am concerned with collective supervision, where I hope that my previous comments on the usefulness of enhancing symmetry in group work can help to understand the following proposals on collective supervision settings:

Couple of family therapists with couple of supervisors
Group of therapists' couples with one couple of supervisors
Group of patient's parents with one couple of conductors
Group of group conductors with single supervisor

9. In-conclusion

Hoping that the hot and at times assertive tone of this paper does not give an impression of rigidity, I hope that my effort can invite to pay more methodological attention when trying to apply the analytic function to the endless contexts where psychic suffering is found.


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