Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Myths of Free Association and the Potentials of the Analytic Relationship

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Myths of Free Association and the Potentials of the Analytic Relationship

Article excerpt

The author challenges the traditional and still prevalent view of 'free association', arguing that it entails three forms of denial (also formulated in terms of corresponding myths): 1) denial of the patient's free agency; 2) denial of the patient's and the analyst's interpersonal influence; and 3) denial of the patient's share of responsibility for coconstructing the analytic relationship. That responsibility includes some degree of consideration of the analyst's needs. Sometimes, the patient's good judgment to that end may be reflected in what is automatically and mistakenly reduced to a form of 'resistance'. Attention to the patient's responsibility must be balanced against the effort to provide a uniquely safe environment for the patient's revealing of shame and anxiety-ridden feelings and attitudes. But the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis, ideally, includes the cultivation, through lived experience, of the dialectical interplay of self-expression, on the one hand, and caring relational engagement, on the other. Recognition of the patient's free agency does not preclude exploration of constraining structures laid down in the past. On the contrary, it deepens such exploration. At the same time, it opens the door to the possibility of explicit recognition, via challenge, criticism, or affirmation, of the patient's contributions to the analytic work.

Keywords: agency, alliance, co-construction, dialectical constructivism, dialectics, free association, free will, interpersonal influence, mutuality, recognition, resistance, responsibility

I am going to present some critical thoughts on 'free association' and 'evenly hovering attention' from a relational-constructivist point of view (Mitchell and Aron, 1999). The orientation that is generating my critique entails a combination of ideas that many relationally oriented theorists probably share, and ideas or points of emphasis that are more my own as developed under the rubric of what I have called 'dialectical constructivism' (Hoffman, 1998b). I will not be attempting here systematically to tease apart the common relational and the more idiosyncratic dialectical-constructivist perspectives, although some of the distinctive features of the latter may become apparent.

Free association is still one of the sacred cows of the psychoanalytic tradition; it is a term one tampers with at peril of his or her psychoanalytic identity. Can you claim to be a psychoanalyst if you do not 'believe in' free association? Kris declares, 'For me, the central point in psychoanalysis is the commitment to the free association method' (1996, p. 7). Similarly, with respect to the defining importance of the concept, Bollas, in what he feels is a position closely following that of Freud, states, 'Psychoanalysis can be said to be taking place if two functions are linked-the analysand's free associations and the psychoanalyst's evenly suspended attentiveness. I think of these functions as the Freudian pair' (2001, p. 93, original italics).

And yet, perhaps more than any other core psychoanalytic concept, to the extent that one moves from a one-person to a two-person perspective on the patient's experience, or even to a paradigm that aims to integrate those two, or from a positivist to a critical constructivist epistemological position, free association is a notion that must be redefined, and its operational, pragmatic application as a method must be rethought.

I want to call attention to a set of three fundamental features and implications of free association that-from a relational-constructivist perspective-constitute a series of myths that I believe entail various kinds of denial. I want to identify these myths and these forms of denial, and to suggest some alternative ways of thinking about the process. Along the way, either implicitly or explicitly, I will be addressing the complementary notion of evenly hovering attention. The three forms of denial (and myth) are:

1) the denial of the patient's agency (i. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.