Is Oedipus Still Necessary in the Therapeutic Room? Sexuality and Love as Emerging at the Contact-Boundary in a Situational Field1

  • Published 2009


While sexuality has been amply studied in psychotherapy as a fact of relationship, and its ethical norms defined, love is a concept which, though taken for granted, proves difficult to define, whether for the therapist or for the patient. I begin by defining first the therapist’s, then the patient’s love, and go on to set these feelings within the reference framework of the co-created contact-boundary in a given situation. I then explain how the perspective of the contact-boundary implies the surmounting of that pillar of psychodynamic conceptualization that we call the Oedipus complex. In conclusion, in line with Gestalt epistemology, I introduce the concept of the Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb, Ph.D., is Director of the Istituto di Gestalt in Italy. She is the editor of Quaderni di Gestalt (since 1985) and, together with Dan Bloom and Frank Staemmler, of Studies in Gestalt Therapy: Dialogical Bridges (since 2007). She is past President of the European Association for Gestalt Therapy (EAGT, 1996-2002), of the Italian Association for Gestalt Therapy (SIPG, 1987-2007), and of FIAP (Italian Federation of the Associations of Psychotherapy; 2003-2005). She has been a Gestalt therapy trainer since 1979. Susan Roos, Ph.D., served as action editor on this article. 1 This paper was originally presented at the Annual DVG Conference held in Berlin, May 18-20, 2007. Another version is forthcoming in the International Journal of Psychotherapy. 48 IS OEDIPUS STILL NECESSARY triadic field as an epistemological frame for the experiences of love and sexuality in psychotherapy.2 The Therapist’s Love Is what we feel for our patients love? Patients often ask: “Do you love me?” They find it hard to believe – especially in the initial phases of therapy, when they are still surprised at what the therapist is able to see in them – that the professional to whom they have turned, and whom they are paying, can really love them. They are afraid that the support given by the therapist to their positive aspects (in which they actually profoundly recognize themselves) is a technique, a trick of the trade, and not a genuine feeling. The result is that our profession is sometimes seen as a sort of prostitution: “Do I have to pay to be loved?” the patient wonders. We can distinguish between two kinds of love the therapist may have for the patient: one linked to the role and one that springs spontaneously from the situation. The love that is linked to the role of the therapist is an “institutional” love: the therapist is taking care of the patient. But to what extent is it possible to call this care “love”? The answer lies in the definition we give of our profession: is it a technique or an art? As Gestalt therapists, we answer without a shadow of a doubt that our profession is an art, and that therefore emotional involvement is an intrinsic part of the method of treatment. The therapist’s involvement is real, her/his feelings toward the patient are genuine, and it is on this concreteness that our treatment method is based. But can this involvement of the therapist be called love? In my view, the most fascinating answer to this question was given by Erving Polster (1987) in his book Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel, when he defined the treatment attitude of the therapist as a search for the hidden fascination of the patient; the therapist’s interest and curiosity regarding this concealed fascination revitalizes the patient’s ability to be interested/interesting. Health, for us, is spontaneous vitality, whereas neurosis is the desensitization of the contact-boundary, the lulling of the senses that makes us bored and boring. Polster adopts a language that is definitely divergent from Goodman’s: he translates in terms of fascination/interest/aesthetic attraction the concept of the vitality and spontaneity of contact between organism and environment, maintaining the hermeneutic reference to the concept of novelty, excitement, and growth in the human personality from the founding text (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951/1994) 2 Although I respect and have other times used the term “client” in my writings, I deliberately use here “patient” in order to define the context of a psychotherapeutic treatment. I am aware that this preference is in opposition to a development of the Humanistic value of the “client” as a peer partner. 49 MARGHERITA SPAGNUOLO LOBB This, for us Gestalt therapists, is a good way of defining the therapist’s love: the task of the therapeutic intuition and “love” is to rediscover the fascination the patient has concealed. We may say that neurosis is the consequence of the lack of loving light projected by the significant other. The healing love is a sort of spotlight illuminating the other’s beauty, a light that makes visible, in the relationship, the harmonic vitality inherent in the integrity with which the other is in the relationship, the intentionality of contact with which the other offers her/himself in order to adjust to the situation with all of her/his creativity and uniqueness. When the therapist wonders: “What really attracts me in this patient?” s/he is directing the spotlight of her/his therapeutic love in such a way that the patient can reawaken, as s/he looks at her/himself in this light, the sense of her/his own beauty, which implies the spontaneity of his/her being-there (Spagnuolo Lobb, 2003). Ethics of Therapeutic Love The therapist’s curiosity about the fascination that the other has blotted out in her/himself places therapeutic love within the ethical boundaries of the treatment role: esthetics is our ethics (Bloom, 2003). In speaking of “beauty” and “fascination,” we make reference to esthetic canons, those linked to sensory experience (Bloom, 2005). Some decades ago the therapist’s love for the patient recorded a certain confusion in the application of that human equality between therapist and patient upheld by the humanistic psychotherapies. The drive to go beyond the authoritarian mentality implicit in the concept of treatment which was then in force (and in psychoanalysis with the interpretative method) led many humanistic psychotherapists to cast off the incest taboo, which they saw as a rule imposed by an authoritarian system. The banning of sexual relationships in psychotherapy was confused with a rule that could be broken in the face of a different emotion. The problem was, of course, that whoever decided to break this rule – or any other – was still the therapist, who thus in turn became authoritarian, distorting the patient’s request. The fact is that the patient enters therapy in order to be treated, not in order to find a partner. At that time treatment was sometimes even identified, by both therapist and patient, with a narcissistic ostentation: the patient could be “the father’s chosen one,”3 while the therapist might decide not to put her/his faith in an ethical rule super partes, taking the responsibility of guaranteeing her/himself for the treatment relationship, although involved in it. If the bemoaned observance of an imposed rule 3 I am not going into here the question of distinguishing the gender of the therapist and the patient, since this might lead us away from my objective. 50 IS OEDIPUS STILL NECESSARY created a split between the spontaneous feeling of therapist and patient and a “must-be” linked to the role of each, the absolute rejection of rules in the treatment relationship led to a confused anarchy, whose victims were the abused patients and the image of the model. The professionalization of psychotherapy in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s – with the general acceptance of an ethical code – drew attention to the ethical respect for the patient’s request, and the use of sexuality in psychotherapy was finally banned in the psychotherapeutic relationship. The practice of Gestalt therapy has followed this evolution, to the great benefit of the patients and of the method itself. That said, this question must be answered: “What is the specific way in which Gestalt therapy regards sexual feelings and feelings of love?” We set these feelings at the contact-boundary, hence seeing them as functional to the relationship, and to the situational field which patient and therapist create. This aspect will be treated in more detail below.

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@inproceedings{LOBB2009IsOS, title={Is Oedipus Still Necessary in the Therapeutic Room? Sexuality and Love as Emerging at the Contact-Boundary in a Situational Field1}, author={SPAGNUOLO LOBB}, year={2009} }