Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love and Connection

If human connection is the solution, what is the problem?

Therapists have reluctantly concluded that the most effective treatment for mental anguish is human connection. Patients do not get better because they have gotten in touch with their feelings, explored their issues, or gained insight into their problems.

They get better when they forge a human connection with their therapists.

It makes you wonder why they need all that advanced training in psychology. Apparently, the therapist’s knowledge of psychology does not rate with his or her ability to connect on a human level.

Evidently, no therapist can connect with a patient if he is pretending to be a blank slate or a dummy.

If you are pursuing a treatment that prohibits human connection—I am thinking of Freudian psychoanalysis—it cannot help you.

I grant an exception for those psychoanalysts who do try to connect with their patients. I think, however, that they would be more honest if they did not claim that they were conducting Freudian analysis.

In an orthodox psychoanalysis the patient is lying on the couch, not exchanging looks or polite pleasantries with his analyst.

Effectively, he is being submitted to a very painful experience. He is being shunned. When a therapist refuses to converse, he is slighting, even insulting his patient. When a therapist ignores his patient’s physical appearance he is acting as though his patient is not there. Again, this is a form of shunning.

If there is a better way to undermine someone’s self-esteem, humanity has not yet invented it.

In one of her books about psychoanalysis Janet Malcolm told the story of a psychoanalytic patient who arrived at his session with his head bandaged. His orthodox Freudian analyst ignored the injury. He did not look at the bandage and did not ask what had happened.

I am not sure why this particular analyst believed that analysts should all be trained physicians, but he explained his rudeness by saying that a minimal level of courtesy would have blocked his access to his patient’s unconscious mind.

You may know that many of today’s psychoanalysts do not even claim to be helping their patients. They do not think that their treatment goal should be to produce therapeutic benefits.

In all fairness we should give them credit for honesty.

If psychoanalysis is systematic disconnection, it cannot tell us how people connect. How exactly do they?

Begin with the simplest and easiest form of human connection: eye contact.

Researchers at Purdue University discovered that when someone crosses your path and looks past you, as though you were not there, you will feel badly. If the same stranger acknowledges your presence by making eye contact, you will feel better because you will feel connected. See also this article from the Atlantic.

Those who participated in the experiment were all members of the Purdue community. Thus, they all had something social in common. I also assume that the researchers were exchanging friendly looks. Most likely, they were not giving people the evil eye.

If you live in a small community, one where everyone is assumed to be a neighbor, you will naturally greet people you know or know about during the day. Failing to make eye contact would be rude and insulting.

If you live in a big city, the formula works differently. When you encounter hundreds, even thousands of people during the course of a day you cannot connect with all of them. If you try to make eye contact with everyone on a subway car you will likely be seen to be strange.

If you make eye contact with one or two other people, you will have made a positive contribution to your own and the other person’s well-being.

Even though the research suggests that you feel slighted any time you are ignored by anyone, I doubt that you feel offended or shunned every time you walk down a Manhattan street and do not exchange greetings with the dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers you pass.

Their rule pertains to smaller communities, not to the great cosmopolitan metropolis.

In large cities people connect with smaller groups of people. They connect with the newsstand vendor, the doorman, the dry cleaner, the staff at the gym.

Also, they become members of smaller communities, like companies, congregations, clubs, and even taverns.

It is vitally important for your mental health and overall well- being that there are places where, as they said in the old television show, Cheers: "everyone knows your name."

Finding a place where everyone knows your name is far more therapeutic than years logged on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

Beyond eye contact, how do you connect with other human beings, in today’s sense of the term?

The research recommends civility, courtesy, and politeness.  It may feel superficial. It may feel mindless, but these good social habits create feelings of social connection. 

This means that if you are tempted to look through the dry cleaner or be discourteous to your doorman, you would do well to overcome the temptation.

Superficial gestures that establish a social connection are vitally important to a healthy life. On that the research is clear.

Notice that I have said nothing about true love or soulful longings. I have not emphasized the importance of deep, heartfelt conversations where you bare your soul to those nearest and dearest to you. I haven’t mentioned them because they are really obstacles to connection.

You cannot connect with someone when the two of you feel like you are one person. It’s like true love. If your goal is to feel so close to another person that you do not have to bother saying you’re sorry, then you have misunderstood what life is all about. 

It’s not your fault; it’s really the fault of a therapy culture that has been selling the idea that true love will cure what ails you.

I hate to say this on Valentine’s Day, but true love, for all its wonders, does not compensate for an impoverished social life. In fact, if your social life is impoverished, if you do not have a good group of friends and acquaintances, if you do not feel like you belong to different groups, you are going to end up being a lousy lover. You will be too needy, too demanding, and too desperate to function well within a romantic relationship.

True love, the intense connection that you have with a single individual, does not make you feel that you belong to a group. It makes you feel that you do not need to belong to a group.

Where would anyone ever get the idea that true love will solve all of their problems? From the therapy culture, I believe.

But, more particularly, from psychoanalysis. This prototype for much of what is called therapy tries to make what it calls the transference love between patient and analyst the most important relationship in the patient’s life. It also tends to downplay the importance of everyday life in favor of a focus on the ability to express deep feelings. 

To return to where we started: If connection is the solution, then what is the problem?

Anything that makes you feel disconnected, rejected, shunned, insulted, disrespected, ignored, or slighted is the problem.

Obviously, being ostracized will disconnect you from community. But, the research is pointing out that everyday rudeness contributes to our emotional difficulties.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of what therapists deal with falls under the category of social anomie. It exists when you feel that you are out of place, that you do not belong, that you do not know the players or the rules or even the game.

Gaining insight into why you feel disconnected does not make you feel more connected. If it makes you more conscious of being disconnected, it will make you feel worse.

How do you overcome disconnection and anomie?

The research does not offer guidelines, but it seems clear that you should begin by acting courteously toward the people in your life, beginning with those who are the least important.

If the standard therapeutic approach wants you to try to work out the difficulties in your romantic relationship, because true love cures all, this approach suggests that you should begin by establishing superficial relationships that will make you feel that you belong somewhere. The more you feel connected on a superficial level the better your love relationships will be.

How attractive do you think you will be when you take your true love out for a Valentine’s Day dinner and you start shouting at the waiter or the busboy. You may think you are being a hero; you are really acting like a fool.

Bad behavior, like bad table manners, detracts from the romantic atmosphere.

If you find today's post somewhat off the day’s burning topic, allow me to offer some extra advice that will help you to turn good manners into more intense libidinal longings.

You know all about the flowers and chocolates and about the romantic dinner. Now, if you really want to spice up your love life, try following the advice offered by Julienne Davis and Maggie Arana’s in their book: Stop Calling HimHoney and Start Having Sex.

Since the book is addressed to women, the authors advise women to stop using all of those silly terms of endearment and to start calling him by his first name. Joe is sexier than snookums or honeybun.

Of course, the advice works equally well for men. Men need to stop called women by those silly terms of endearment and start calling them by their first names. Camilla is a lot sexier than muffin-top.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always find it disconcerting when a couple repeatedly call each other "babe" or anything of the sort. PDAs make others in the areas feel an uncomfortable grossness kind of like they're being invited into the offending couples bedroom.