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Mental Health Topics Articles- Part XXX
Between the Disclosure and Foreclosure of Erotic
Can Psychoanalysis Find a Place for Adult Sexuality?
Jody Messier Davies, Ph.D.
In this article I explore the concept of a postoedipal adult sexuality and its role in the erotic transference-countertransference processes seen in psychoanalytic treatment. This concept challenges the fundamenlal assumption that, whenever erotic feelings enter the psychoanalytic space, the analyst always stands in the role of the oedipal parent. It suggests that clinical choices made from within an oedipal model often fail to recognize certain significant developmental changes. An extended clinical example is provided.
If psychoanalysis is, as Freud suggests, "the impossible profession," then the topic of this discussion--"the analyst's sexuality"--is certainly "the impossible topic" within that impossible profession. For a century now, since the time Breuer fled Vienna and the passionate professions of his patient Anna O (I have a patient who prefers to call her "Anna Uh-oh"), psychoanalysts have contorted themselves, their patients, and their understanding of the psychoanalytic process in an attempt to minimize, disavow, project and pathologize the sexual feelings that emerge between the analytic couple in the course of their emotionally powerful and most intimate encounter with each other.
I believe that it is only now that we have come to view countertransference as simply one more route into the human experience (be it that of patient or analyst) that we can begin to wonder whether Breuer ran from Anna or from himself, from her sexual feelings or his own, and whether we have all, as a profession, been running from these feelings ever since. In this article, I try to slow Breuer down, to ask him to reflect upon why and where he is running. It is clear that his
countertransference makes him want to run. It ousts him from the symbolic realm into the realm of verbally unencoded action. There is simply no potential space in all of that panic and physiological arousal for quiet self-reflection; for parceling out and deconstructing the different aspects of his reaction; for experiencing, understanding, and reorganizing them in a way that renders them safe enough to be sustained and explored within the analytic endeavor.
But the very creation of this relatively "safe place" in which the patient can first experience and then explore becomes clearly predicated upon the analyst's capacity to sustain and tolerate the complementary and concordant countertransferential responses (see Racker, 1968) specific to passionate desire in the analytic relationship. Such a "holding" (as redefined by Slochower, 1996) of the erotic countertransference has not been easy for us to manage as a profession. There are those among us who would choose to believe that such feelings do not exist, that the analyst's sexual and erotic responses to a patient are always pathological, always derivatives of unresolved oedipal and even preoedipal struggles, always evidence of the analyst's need to return to treatment for further analysis of these issues. There are also those (most recently, Gorkin, 1985; Maroda, 1991; Gabbard, 1994) who would refrain from pathologizing the analyst's response, seeing it as important countertransferentially derived information to be understood and processed but never shared or openly explored between patient and analyst. These writers see erotic countertransference as somehow fundamentally and intrinsically different froth any other form of analyst responsiveness--a form that is simply off-limits, outside the boundaries of appropriate analytic discourse. Finally, there are those, myself among them (Davies, 1994; Knoblauch, 1994, 1996; Slavin, Rachmani, and Pollack, 1998) who have argued that judicious and tactful disclosure of the analyst's sexual response in particular clinical situations can facilitate a demystification of infantile conflicts and a
deepening of analytic inquiry particularly where the patient's disavowal of his or her own or the analyst's sexual subjectivity becomes a substantive resistance to unraveling the transference-countertransference situation. Here the argument goes that putting the unspeakable into words is to be preferred to the unconscious enactment of a secretive, shame-ridden process. Speaking specifically about erotic countertransference, I wrote in 1994 that
experience that seeks to avoid meaning can lodge itself well within the unconscious or unformulated experiences of either the patient or the analyst. Where via projective identification and other projective mechanisms, meaning is subjected to such defensive extradition, it becomes incumbent upon the analyst to represent actively--even embody--that aspect of the split off internal self and object world of the patient that so elusively defies acknowledgment and integration. It becomes a part of the analyst's essential function to recognize and maintain such disavowed experiences until such time that the patient can know them and integrate them without the threatening precipitation of debilitating anxiety and psychic regression (p. 1681.
Regardless of our personal preferences in working with the erotic transference- countertransference process, however, it is clear that our response as a profession to the issue of erotic countertransference has been to do something with it; to hide it, to show it to others, to think about whether to hide it or show it to others. In uncharacteristic fashion, it has made us all, as Breuer, want to act; it seems to possess an uncanny ability to keep us all from doing what we all do best--understanding its intrapsychic, interpersonal, and developmental significance; what it means, in the first place, when such erotic experience infuses the analytic space.
Consider the following clinical material.
I had known David for a long time. We had been working together, three times a week, for approximately seven years, and it was clear to both of its that our work together was approaching a termination phase. So much had changed that it was hard to remember where we had begun, but it was clear to both of us that we had been to hell and back with each other and that neither of us would be the same again for having made the journey. David's father had died in an automobile accident when he was three years old; David had been both fathered and sexually abused by his mother's brother throughout most of his early childhood and latency years. This uncle dominated David's mother, whom he also supported financially, and David and I had often wondered about the exact nature and extent of their relationship with each other. Mother was often depressed and always narcissistically preoccupied. In the prioritization of her love and attention, she let it be known that David's uncle would always come first. As our work progressed, it became unmistakably clear that she had been given ample opportunity to recognize the reality of David's abuse but had refused to do so.
Within the transference-countertransference play of the analytic space, each of these personas took its turn as the focus of analytic attention--the unavailable and unseeing mother, the abusing uncle, and the dead and idealized father. I was most often held in the position of an idealized combined mother-father seer-protector ... the mother who saw and understood, the father who protected and empowered, the doctor who listened and healed. At other moments in the foreground of more negative transferential enactments, I could become the victimized child, the neglecting mother, the abusing uncle. Mother, father, child, doctor, abuser, savior; everything but woman. "Woman" I had begun to think of as the "anti-transference." The incestuous whore/mother woman, I could never be allowed to become. She hovered in the background of our work, sexual, predatory, out of control, and frantically excluded.
For the first two years of our work, David was almost entirely asexual. He was usually deadened to all sexual desire, indeed, physically insensate--although on occasion he became hyperaroused to the point of overwhelming panic and psychic disorganization. When he did begin to experiment sexually, he could find no satisfying place. In relationships with men, he could become intensely aroused, but this sexual intensity was predicated upon the enactment of a sadomasochistic fantasy, reminiscent of his abuse, that in the long run became relationally unsatisfying. With women, David's relationships could be tender and loving but lacked the satisfying sexual energy that he had found with men. Most specifically, David would pursue women actively and anticipate them with great sexual longing, but he would become frightened and sexually shut down as soon as he experienced their sexual arousal and desire for him.
Therefore, it was a critical moment when, in the 10th month of the sixth year of his analysis, David unexpectedly and rather accusingly said to me one day, "Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I think you're flirting with me." I was caught off guard as much by the stn prising directness of David's expression as by the accuracy of the perception. Indeed, upon reflection, it appeared that my comments and manner were somewhat flirtatious. Was this behavior on my part new, or was David seeing it and calling my attention to it for the first time? The "antitransference" of analyst as woman seemed to be knocking at our door. The decision about whether or not to let her in hung between us. I was responding to David's sexuality ... he had finally made his way to mine. How to respond?
Before describing how David and I traversed the straits of this potentially transformative analytic juncture, I ask you to accompany me on a theoretical excursion--a deeper exploration into the meaning of this particular moment and of others not unlike it.
Although I am not blind to the dangers of openly discussing the analyst's erotic countertransference, I do believe that too much of our discussion about erotic countertransference has been defined; and therefore limited, by the "shoulds and shouldn'ts" specific to countertransference disclosure. As such, the "why-we-coulds and the when we-couldn'ts''--an elaboration of the finer nuances and textures of developmental process as it informs clinical decision making--have been precluded. In the body of this article, I want to shift the locus of discussion away from the obfuscating focus on erotic countertransference disclosure. I want to look more carefully at the developmental issues that structure our countertransference experience when it becomes infused with sexual feelings. Where within our developmental schema are erotic issues most likely to infuse the transference-countertransference process? And how will our clinical choices about the management of such disquieting experiences be influenced by our understanding of the particular countertransference space from within which such decisions are made? In so doing, I hope to create a transitional space of self-reflection and communicable concern between compulsive self-disclosure and precipitous foreclosure of this most difficult topic.
In the course of this article I suggest that a partial explanation of the almost phobic dread that infuses erotic transference-countertransference experiences in clinical work comes from the virtual absence of any articulated theoretical presumptions about the nature of normal adult sexuality and its manifestations in clinical practice. In our reluctance to address these issues, we have tended to conflate and confuse all forms of erotic energy and to assume, therefore, that they all require the same therapeutic stance--the patient who floods sessions with all forms of inappropriate erotic "assault"; the patient who eroticizes dependency needs to fend off the more terrifying prospect of preoedipal fusion; the patient who has been sexually abused and enacts an as yet unarticulated experience of sexual overstimulation within the transference-countertransference arena. These are only several of many, entirely different clinical situations, different manifestations of eroticism, evoking different countertransference reactions and calling for dramatically different therapeutic interventions. In this article, I address yet a different form of eroticism in the analytic encounter. It is that form of sexual aliveness that most often (though not exclusively) marks the termination phase of an analysis--that form of sexual aliveness that exists in an inextricably intertwined state of dialectical tension (see Hoffman, 1994) with the deepening intimacy and potential interpersonal space of successful analytic work. It is that form of sexual vitality that suggests that maybe the analytic work is nearing an end, that the patient is ready for the world, and that it is time for us to let go.
Perhaps because psychoanalysis was founded on the attempt to prove the existence and formative developmental centrality of infantile sexuality, we have all come to think about the sexual feelings that emerge between patient and analyst as if they are only about unresolved infantile desires, as if they, therefore, exist only for the patient and not for the analyst (who has presumably worked through such pathological derivatives), and, finally, as if successful analysis of these infantile conflicts will lead to the dissolution of this erotic interpersonal dimension of the psychoanalytic work. My own experience as patient, analyst, and supervisor suggests that nothing is further from the truth--that the sustained intimacy of the psychoanalytic process often leads to an erotic dimension that cannot and should not he automatically infantilized and pathologized; that such feelings can be as strong (or on occasion stronger) for the analyst as for the patient; that the effect of these feelings ranges from the intrinsically disquieting to the dangerously overwhelming and disorienting; and, finally, that the clarification of inhibitions or symptoms steeped in infantile conflict often leads to the rich efflorescence, not the disappearance, of passionate desire in the analytic relationship. Here there is a freedom to experience those aspects of sexual desire and erotic fantasy that are part of emergent self-experiences encountered for the first time within the relatively safe confines of the analytic space, experiences that had been neurotically foreclosed and therefore unelaborated in the past.
In what remains of this article I present some preliminary theoretical musings on the move from infantile to adult sexuality and on the technical implications of such a theoretical extension. In so doing, I challenge the implicit but almost universal assumption that, where sexual feelings infuse the analytic relationship, the analyst always stands in the transfrential role of oedipal parent. Although certainly a theory will not (in fact, should not) answer all of our questions, a theoretical dialogue on the nature of adult sexuality as distinct from oedipal sexuality, and the relative openness with which each can he explored in the analytic situation, may provide a necessary series of questions to which we can individually supply our own uniquely derived, but seriously considered, answers. In the course of this discussion, I focus on three areas:
1. The mutually idealizing nature of oedipal love, its lifelong function as eroticizing counterpoint to more object-centered, intimate adult relationships, and its relentless irresolvability, the tenaciously predictable way in which it finds its way into passionate love affairs, murderous grudges, and transference-countertransference stalemates.
2. The presence and function of a figure I refer to as the "postoedipal parent" (for other versions of this concept, see Bassin, 1997; Benjamin, 1998), a parent whose object functions and self-experiences are more grounded in the mutual recognition of experienced sexuality and intimate exchange and who must first nourish and then set free the child's emergent sexuality. I define the presence of such a postoedipal figure in transference-countertransference matrices involving the patient's struggle to experience the self as object of another's sexual interest.
3. Some thoughts on the necessary distinction between incestuous reenactments in the transference-countertransference process and the crucial recognition of the patient's emerging sexuality--a recognition that is usually implicit but may need to become explicit where particular developmental traumas have accrued.
Let me begin with the borders of the traditional argument that would fix the origin of erotic transference-countertransferance processes within the patient's unresolved oedipal struggles and would view the analyst's response as either counter to the patient's transference (in terms of an induced countertransference response) or as derived from the analyst's own neurotically unresolved oedipal issues. In traditional terms, the Oedipus complex is regarded as a rather straightforward, linearly organized developmental crisis around which the child moves out of an exclusive dyadic preoccupation with the mother into a more triadically organized relationship with parents of both sexes involving the enhanced integration of libidinal and aggressive/competitive strivings. Such movement involves the child's unconscious articulation of a set of explanatory fantasies that connote the nature of the "specialness" between Mommy and Daddy that had never been perceived before--what they do together and how it feels to be excluded from such mysterious yet intriguing goings-on.
The Oedipus complex at this stage also involves the differentiation of separate relationships with same-sex and opposite-sex parents. An especially heightened, compensatory romance that restahilizes the narcissistic injury of exclusion.... Can I be with Daddy in the same way Mommy is? ... Will Mommy admire me with the same looks she gives Daddy? From a historical vantage point psychoanalysis has always concerned itself with these questions--that is, with untangling each analysand's unique positing of a theory or series of theories about his or her own relationship to each parent and to the exclusive parental romance from which he or she is barred. This, indeed, was the transference neurosis par excellence. From such a vantage point, analytic cure lies in the frustration of such desire and in the clear, unequivocal unavailability of its object. The patient's opportunity to work through his or her own conflicts would be predicated on the analyst's ability to become the unavailable oedipal parent and thus help the patient to come to terms with the infantile, fantasied nature of these wishes.
This position has been most eloquently represented by Gabbard (1994), who provides an example from his own work:
I once treated a female who had been told by her analyst that he found her sexually attractive.... She told me for many months she could think of nothing else, and she ultimately terminated abruptly. It soon became evident that her analyst's self disclosure foreclosed the possibility of her mourning him as a forbidden erotic object that she could never have for herself. As a result she became stuck and unable to move on to new attachments ... [p. 2111.
In the concrete equation of analyst with oedipal parent, the particular clinical nuances of why the analyst chose to say what be said, how and when he chose to say it, and how he dealt with the patient's reaction, as well as a host of of her questions we might ponder, become irrelevant. From within a model of therapeutic action that equates analyst with oedipal parent, the sharing of any kind of erotic countertransference by the analyst can be viewed only as an oedipal parent sharing sexual desire with an oedipal-age child--a seductive acting-out that undermines the patient's already ambivalent strivings to relinquish ultimately unsatisfying infantile ties. Here the kind of occasional, implicit gratification of early unmet need states, which has become acceptable in almost all contemporary conceptualizations of the analytic process, is separated out from the more explicit gratification of libidinal strivings, particularly those of oedipal origin, at which point many (perhaps most) analysts would draw the line.
However, I believe that the history of psychoanalytic ideas would support the suggestion that technical prescriptions always evolve as our understanding of developmental processes and nuances becomes elaborated. With this in mind, I ask that we all remember that the Oedipus complex at this juncture of development is not about the experiencing of conscious, object-related erotic desire. Oedipus at this stage speaks to the impossible tensions between being wooed, admired, courted, and adored above all others and simultaneously being excluded, let down, found to be too small, wanting in some essential yet indefinable way. It establishes a compensatory romance of adoration and idealization designed to protect the emergent sexuality of the young child from the trauma of exclusion, but it nestles itself optimally in the protected domain of the exclusively fanciful and imaginary. The parent as object of oedipal desire is not a clearly separate sexual subject, but a romantic hero or heroine dramatically drawn.
Not only is the oedipal parent the idealized object of the oedipal child's emerging sexuality, but, for the parent, an adoring and idealizing oedipal child will surely become the embodiment of a perfect, idealized, adored, other-gendered self--the perfectly fantasized bisexual complement to the parents' gendered identities. As the father nourishes and supports those aspects of his daughter's emergent self that he has always found most attractive in women, as the mother encourages and coaxes into being aspects of her son's masculinity that she seeks in her sexual relations with men, this most passionate of love affairs will begin to burn with a particular form of narcissistic love--the oedipal child as the perfectly fantasized blend of who the parent would most desire and who the parent would most want to become in an imagined gender complementarity. It seems almost impossible to imagine that such a definition of what is exquisitely desirable in the other could be borne of anything but our most intimate innermost sexual fantasies, and that it will give rise to a kind of elaborated romantic eroticism fundamentally different from, yet inextricably intertwined with, that of our actual adult sexual relationships--a romantic elaboration that forever links oedipal child with oedipal "grandparent" (the parent's oedipal parent) in a passionate revival of fantasized perfection. Such fantasies will resurrect in the conscious and unconscious experience of the parent and in the parents' identifications with their children their own idealized and idealizing self-other templates constructed in relation to their own bifurcated oedipal love in which perfection reigns and ambivalence is passionately disavowed (see also Searles, 1959; Ornstein, 1983).
Like the oedipal parent in the throes of such passionate engagement, the analyst occupying such a countertransference position could be buffeted with the most intense and disquieting experiences of passionate, romantic fantasy and sexual arrousal. But also, like the oedipal parent, the analyst must realize that the erotic component she struggles with is developmentally uninterpretable to the patient occupying the complementary oedipal role. The three- to five-year-old child has yet to experience the physiological upheavals of puberty that will forever cast Oedipus out of the imaginary, mythical realm of romantic epic and into the real adult world of erotic desire and experienced passion. Indeed, the analyst's introduction of explicit sexuality (including any form of self-disclosure) in this context would represent an actual confusion of tongues, an imposition of her own agenda, developmentally premature and malignantly mystifying to the child or patient dealing primarily with fantasies of romantic grandeur and compensatory self-importance. Like the oedipal parent, we recognize a responsibility to implicitly participate in the more benign romance while containing the more explicitly erotic dimension. We draw firm boundaries around the necessary sexual innocence of the child or patient, and seek help in the management of our own disquieting emotions within the adult confines of supervision and consultation.
But the automatic equation of analyst with oedipal parent--which has so ineffably seeped into our collective psychoanalytic sensibility--implies that development (or at least the development of sexuality and neurosis) stops at this developmental vantage point. It fails to take into account our changing conceptualizations of adolescent development, burgeoning puberty, experienced sexuality, and the changing requirements of being --what I refer to in the rest of this article as the postoedipal parent.
How does the child-parent dyad and by extension the patient-analyst dyad get from point A to point B? What unique constellation of developmental privilege and restraint eases the developmental and therapeutic transition from one essential relational position to its more developmentally sophisticated heir? How, in other words, do we survive Oedipus and forge our way into the analytically virgin territory of adult sexuality? And, ultimately, what uniquely different countertransference experiences inform clinical decision making within each of these transference-countertransference positions?
Let me suggest that the universal tragedy of Oedipus lies in the paradoxical space between its singular perfection in the arena of romantic fantasy and its fundamental unrealizability in the light of day. From this vantage point--and this is most important--oedipal love is not forbidden; it is simply imaginary and must be recognized as such! It is borne of and nourished by the primary process; it exists in timeless space, eludes contradiction and decries realistic constraint. Such perfection is of mythical and magical proportion and can be maintained only by the unknowability, unrecognizability, and impenetrability of the object. As such, the process of moving from the oedipal stage of imaginary anticipation to the postoedipal stage of real, intimate, experienced passion involves mourning not an unavailable object but an incomparably perfect one. It requires a parent/analyst willing to revel in the uniquely intoxicating pleasures of oedipal idealization but also willing, when the time is right, to become a full participant to their painful but necessary undoing. Therefore, the optimal elaboration as well as the ultimate resolution of oedipal fantasy becomes predicated on the clear, secondary-process distinction between reality and fantasy--on the dawning recognition from both participants that oedipal love is a love to he dreamed of but never realized.
Countertransference difficulty emanating from an infusion of the erotic organized around oedipal dynamics involves, then, any or all of the following: an inability to contain the erotic dimensions of romantic love in a developmentally appropriate way; a fearful inability to participate fully in the pleasures of mutual oedipal idealization and imagination (see also Frawley-O'Dea, 1998); and, perhaps most significant, an unwillingness to relinquish the distinctively intoxicating pleasures bestowed on the parental object of oedipal desire. For I suggest that the analyst who sees resolution of the oedipal in the staunch unavailability and impenetrability of her stance maintains the patient's idealization, thereby locking her into, rather than freeing her from, the constraints of incestuous desire.
Almost all contemporary conceptualizations of adolescent development (see Mishne, 1986; Levy-Warren, 1996) stress the formidable task of integrating a powerfully emergent "sexual self" into the myriad other self-representations around which the child's mental organization is constructed. It is at this time developmentally that the adolescent constructs representations of self as the newly discovered center of sexual energy and desire--a self that exists in all forms of actual and fantasized relationship to significant others who respond or fail to respond to such emergent sexual strivings in an almost infinite variety of ways. Within this new scenario--where the erotic replaces the romantic and the body overwhelms the mind--it is of course the postoedipal parents who become the most essential and influential responders.
In keeping with a dyadic self-regulatory model of growth and maturation (Schore, 1996; Beebe, Lachmann, and Jaffe, 1997), 1 suggest that adult sexuality as it emerges in the postoedipal phase involves recognition (and not repression or dissociation) of the erotic as well as the confident capacity to manage and contain these experiences both in the realm of the interpersonal and in the realm of fantasy. My own conceptualization of this process involves a need to engage and balance certain dichotomous tension points endemic to sexual life--that is, a capacity to move fluidly between experiences of passive surrender and active pursuit; the capacity to supply and take pleasure from nurturing others as well as from the ambitious pursuit of self-interest and self-satisfaction; a comfort with heterosexual and homosexual forms of passionate excitement; and, as Benjamin (1988, 1995) has highlighted, a balance between a sadomasochism rooted in nonrecognition and one-sided idealization and the mutuality of mature sexual desire.
I suggest that Oedipus is not a complex capable of resolution but only the beginning of what will be a lifelong, postoedipal process of recognizing, containing, enhancing, elaborating, and ultimately enjoying one's sexual subjectivity in myriad situations and despite the many formidable obstacles that tend to disrupt and impede this journey. It stands to reason that such a significant developmental milestone will be represented in the analytic work by a significant shift in the patient's and analyst's transference-countertransference experience. I suggest that the postoedipal parent is in a constant state of experiencing, processing, and recognizing his or her child's emerging sexuality and that the child is most acutely tuned into the parents' ongoing struggle. Parent and child, together, must find a way to contain and manage the intensity of these feelings and fantasies, the experience and management of intense desire within the self, and the recognition of both the desire and its safe-enough containment in the experience of the postoedipal other. When all goes well developmentally, such processes are usually implicit and require little overt acknowledgment. Indeed, such overt acknowledgment can burden the process with an intensely anti-libidinal self-consciousness that is to be avoided. However, ruptures both momentary and traumatic do occur, and it is in these spheres where the parent's active participation and, by extension, the analyst's more active interventions (including, on some occasions, self-disclosing participation) may come into play.
Let me share with you such a momentary developmental trauma, one that occurred in my own family several years ago. I do this, because it was transformative for me in my understanding of emerging adolescent sexuality, the role of the parent in facilitating this emergence, and, by extension, the developmental implications for psychoanalytic process. But I do this also because it was the first thing to flash through my mind when David asked me if I had been flirting with him. The event that I want to describe occurred one evening when my older daughter, who was then about 12 years old, was playing "dress-up" in an attempt to entertain her then seven-year-old sister. My husband and I were involved in a rather intense discussion in, as this story would of course necessitate, our bedroom. My younger daughter twirled through the room in an age-appropriate lacy pink concoction that required little more than a happy nod in passing acknowledgment. But behind her came her sister in an outfit I still can't believe she put together from her younger sister's dressup box. She had piled her long dark hair on top of her head and had put on a clingy black jersey, slit up the side. The outfit was completed with black fishnet stockings, patent-leather high heels, and a red garter. I was astounded, but her father let slip an almost imperceptible but still subliminally audible gasp--a gasp heard loud and clear by his very vulnerable daughter/woman and her then immobilized but horrified mother. In a series of microseconds, meaningful looks of danger and confusion ricocheted spitfire around this now palpable triangle, and my daughter, crying hysterically, ran from the room. My husband and I sat in rather stunned silence. The scene had passed before us in a matter of seconds, but its significance was unmistakable. Unplanned and unformulated, I spoke first. "You have to speak with her," I said. "I know, but what in the world am I going to say?" he replied, "1 don't know, but we can't just leave it like this--you guys will figure it out . . . your relationship is strong." My husband left the room. I was glad it was him and not me, but I have to admit it took everything in me not to interfere . . . to leave them alone together to work this out. I lasted about 15 minutes before poking my head into the other room where they were sitting together laughing about something my daughter was relating. It was only several hours later that I got to ask my husband what he had said to work this magical transformation. "I told her the truth," he said, "that I had never seen her looking so beautiful before . . . in such a grown-up way ... that it had taken my breath away ... that I liked it... but that it was something I was going to have to get used to." "Did
she say anything?" I asked. "No," he said, "but she smiled the most beautiful smile." And then he smiled.
We could argue about whether to regard my husband's intervention as a countertransference disclosure, for surely he was responding to our daughter's emergent sexuality much as I must have been unconsciously responding to David's. But, the more interesting question to me is whether such open acknowledgment of these sexually charged developmental changes has the effect of being incestuously overwhelming (as more traditional oedipal formulations would suggest) or postoedipally liberating (as I suggest here). It is my belief that such open acknowledgment involves a beginning recognition of the adolescent's emergent sexual subjectivity and of her parent's capacity to both recognize it and deal appropriately with his or her own response to it. To the adolescent, it also involves an experience of what it feels like to be the object of another's sexual response, particularly when that response feels appropriately contained and safely managed.
The problem with these developmental distinctions, of course, is that in clinical practice they are never so apparent in pure form. Oedipus or post-Oedipus, romanticism or eroticism, idealization and recognition are murky, often overlapping interpersonal experiences, interpenetrating and synergistic in their enhancement of intimate bonding. I do not suggest that we can always know, beyond a doubt, from which developmental, transference-countertransference position
we respond, but I do suggest that a simple falling back on the "shoulds and shouldn'ts" specific to what has been called "erotic countertransference disclosure" will severely impede our capacity to more fully know the developmental implications and interpersonal nuances of the countertransference positions we inhabit and out of which we make our clinical choices.
Let's return to David and me. "Forgive me if I'm wrong," he said, "but I think you're flirting with me." In this complex communication, my patient asked me to both pardon him for seeing something in me that he believed I did not want him to see, as well as to validate the accuracy of his perception so that he might more fully rely on his reality-testing skills in what for him had been a dangerous and frightening interpersonal arena. He implicitly asked me if it would again be necessary for him to gouge out his own eyes, so as not to see the other's frightening desire. Did I require this of him? Indeed, if l believed what I have said here--that the individual's capacity to leave behind the fantasied world of oedipal circularity for the more reality-based experiences of intimate sexual mutuality is predicated on the growing capacity to clearly distinguish between the real and the imaginary--I would be hard-put to legitimize anything but the most direct, unambiguous, and self-reflective response. To the extent that "seduction" involves disowned sexuality, a direct, self-reflective, nondefensive response would embody the most rational counterpoint to the sexually aggressive, predatory "anti-transference" mother--replacing her with a mother who could safely recognize her son's sexual appeal while managing her own erotic response and accompanying sense of impending loss. He would no longer be hers. She would set him free. She would allow herself to he "seen."
"I think you're right, " I said. "I hadn't been aware of it until you said something, but I was flirting with you."
"You're not supposed to do that, you know," he said, with a decidedly mischievous smile.
"I'm not?" I replied, now knowingly joining the play, which I felt he had initiated.
"Uh, uh," he responded, "you know, three quarters of those books behind you would say that you shouldn't he doing this."
"You're probably right," I answered. "So now you're telling me that I'm not only flirting . . . but I'm flirting with the forbidden. Do you think I should stop?"
David smiled engagingly, but his smile turned quickly and deeply sad. He became quiet. I wondered if I had ventured too far. "You're inviting me to play with you," he said. "We've played together in a lot of different places ... " His voice trailed off.
"This one feels much, much scarier," I suggested.
"I can't play here." he shook his head. "We better not go into this place."
"We could close the door on this place," I offered. "It would feel much safer."
"Maybe we'd better," he answered, but he looked so profoundly sad.
"You look so sad. You don't really want to close this door, I think. But you know it's intriguing. We've been to so many really truly terrifying places together, you and I ... the abuse, your reactions to it, your fantasies about it, your mother's depression, her involvement with your uncle. Isn't it interesting that this playful, flirtatious place should feel like the scariest one of all?"
He nodded in agreement. "It feels so hopeless ... so defeated ... to close that door. If l don't do this now, with you ... you know ... I will never do it."
"What if we do this," I suggested, "what if we don't close the door, but sit down just inside it, together? We won't go any further in .. . we'll just sit at the door and look inside and see if we can figure out what's so dangerous."
David's smile came back. "Okay," he said, "but not too fast."
"You go first and set the pace," I responded. "When you say stop, we stop. We'll check in with each other a lot and see how it's going.
There are times like this in our clinical work with patients when we tread dangerously close to areas of extreme vulnerability. We invite out patients, implicitly or explicitly, to reenter these traumatically mystified and disorienting interpersonal spaces with us in the more trusting context provided by the analytic process. With our words, we reconstruct the traumatic experience, evoking interpersonal situations that trigger memories, affects, and sensations. We construct an experience that is similar enough to capture the magnitude of the traumatic rupture but different enough, usually because of the safe confines of the analytic frame, to allow for a carefully paced renegotiation and metabolization of what had previously been traumatically dissociated and foreclosed. Such an invitation is paradoxical in that it coaxes into a kind of illusory transference-countertransference existence the very experiences it seeks to undo, often precipitating temporary iatrogenic intensifications of traumatic sensation, affect, and thought (Davies, 1996). But it also provides, I believe, the only physiologically, affectively alive arena in which to deconstruct the meaning schemas constructed from the perspective of a traumatically overwhelmed child, and to resignify them within the relatively safer context provided by the psychoanalytic relationship.
With this in mind, David and I began an exploration of this frightening and seemingly out-of-control sexual place. We did control it, did render it less frightening, less overwhelming. But, even within this context, David's emphasis returned again and again, like a good analytic patient, indeed like a good oedipal child, to his sexual feelings toward me. He wanted me. He couldn't have me. He was ashamed to want me, because wanting what he couldn't have made him feel small and impotent, foolish and asexual. Indeed, he couldn't want me because he couldn't have me, but he couldn't even want to have me any more insistently, because if 1 let him have me, I would he actualizing his incestuous desire. I would become repugnant to him. I would be unworthy of his wanting. The oedipal circle, a vicious circle. We went around and around. I thought of the women who had wanted David, how their wanting had frightened him and deadened his desire. The countertransference position of unavailable oedipal object seemed not to be freeing David from the relentless circularity of his incestuous preoccupations. He clung actively to the safe sexual unavailability of his "anti-transference" mother, but he also grew angry. "I feel like a stupid little boy ... I'm so tired of feeling like a little boy."
"I think we have to move a little further into this room," I suggested. "There's something you need to see that I think will help free you from feeling like a little boy ... but you don't want to see it ... you've never wanted to see it."
David's voice was urgent and angry. "Tell me," lie said. "You tell me. It's right there, I know it is right there. But I can't see it. Isn't that what you're there for? Tell me . . . please!"
Here I believe David was signaling me that he was ready to push further into this area of traumatic vulnerability. In fact, in this case, it appeared that he was imploring me not only to accompany him on this journey but to take the lead in beginning to articulate what his own unconscious agenda would not allow him to perceive. So, I continued.
"We started into this room together because you saw something in me." I tried, carefully, hoping David would catch on and go the rest of the way himself. But he sat silently, looking frightened. I knew I would fail him if I said either too much or too little. There seemed to be a shared sense of how tenuous this moment was. "You thought that I was flirting with you," I continued. "That's not about you being a little boy ... wanting the me you can't have. That's about seeing me respond to you as a man ... recognizing that I am a woman. What's so scary about this place is not that you can't have me . . . that's old hat .. . we've talked about that so many times before. The scariest thing about this place ... about playing and flirting in this place ... is that here in this moment, in this particular place and in this particular way, we can have each other as man and woman ... we have the potential to enjoy it and to each watch the other enjoy it. And that's a much scarier, much more grown-up thing for us to have to manage responsibly."
As I finished, David was smiling again, an enchanting smile that immediately made me think of my husband's description of our daughter's response to his so-called disclosure: "She smiled the most
beautiful smile." Perhaps, I thought, it is not the child in whom the Oedipus complex is resolved, not the child who mourns the unavailable oedipal parent, but the parent who mourns and relinquishes his or her exclusive hold on the oedipal child. Perhaps it is only in our role as parents or, in this case, as analysts, that we finally come to terms with what we can and cannot have--the haunting residues of our own oedipal longing that we nourish in our children and then set free for someone else, some more appropriate lover, to enjoy. This is a bittersweet moment, but, however hard-won, it allows our children, too young to mourn, to know the joys of safe play, to revel in the pleasures of the purely fanciful, to sustain desire for that which is impossible (because it truly is impossible) without the burden of undue shame and mortification. Perhaps that was why the impetus for David's move from the oedipal to what I call the postoedipal had to come from me. "You say it," David had said. "You have to do it ... it has to come from you."
I shared with David my sense that the place in which we could be man and woman together was, like the analytic relationship itself, a place of thought, not action; a place that could never exist in real time and space; an imaginary place unbridgeable with the real world. "You don't have to say all of this, you know," David scolded, his playfulness returning once again. "I know just what you mean . . . and I know just what you don't mean ... I'm okay with this ... I'm more than okay ... you did good ... now just shut up. Sometimes you can't leave well enough alone."
Clearly these words of reassurance, my emphasis on boundaries and fantasy, were necessary--but for me, not for David. From seven years of working together, he was able to take an awareness that I would respect his boundaries, that I would act with integrity, that I would struggle with my own needs and desires in a way that was not likely to impinge on his own. David was not a new patient. Based on the working through of many earlier, less traumatic reenactments, we had constructed a relationship in which the boundary between the real and the illusory, though playfully permeable, would stand firm when most needed.
Within the psychoanalytic process, I suggest that it is not our unavailability and impenetrable stance that free our patients from the perpetually infantilizing circularity of oedipal desire. Indeed, I propose that such unavailability and uncomfortable silence can, in certain cases of disavowed sexuality, become the ultimate incestuous reenactment, locking in transference-idealization, and thereby limiting real object choice to the realm of imagined perfection and inevitable disappointment. I believe that it is only in our willingness to relinquish the role of "adored other," to reveal ourselves to such patients as real, flawed and human, that we ultimately free them to seek better substitutes for what they have too long imagined to be our perfection.
We all have sexual desires on which we do not act--places in which such actions would be inappropriate and wrong. As adults, we can desire without the promise of satisfaction; we can want without having to possess. Perhaps this is the true legacy of Oedipus---the capacity to sustain desire for what we can never have. Perhaps it is only the gentle survival of such a harsh reality that allows us to risk the potential humiliations and rejections of real adult mutuality and sexual intimacy. But let us not become too "grown-up" in our erotic adventures, for we have all come to know, despite earlier claims, that our own analyses did not put an end to the intoxicating allure of such idealized and idealizing romance. Such fantasies, when allowed to flourish and elaborate themselves, enrich the intimacy of places in which we do act; they fill our lives with an energy and vitality that are invigorating, erotic, and playful. The contemporary analytic promise involves, I believe, not a resolution of the oedipal but an enhanced capacity to crisscross safely between what is only fantastically imaginable and what is more intimately, though vulnerably, knowable. It provides a well-cushioned container for the sobering reality that what is truly known is always imperfect. Perhaps, in the end, I am asking that we all remember that Oedipus was a tragedy. In allowing ourselves as clinicians and as a discipline to move past Oedipus into the postoedipal arena of adult sexuality, I am proposing that psychoanalysis need not end on such a note of frustration, renunciation, and despair.
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How Do I Love Thee?
Lori Gottlieb, Atlantic Monthly- March 2006
I 'd been sitting in Dr. Neil Clark Warren’s office for less than fifteen minutes when he told me he had a guy for me. It wasn’t surprising that the avuncular seventy-one-year-old founder of eHarmony.com, one of the nation’s most popular online dating services, had matchmaking on his mind. The odd thing was that he was eager to hook me up without having seen my eHarmony personality profile. I’d come to the eHarmony headquarters in Pasadena, California, in early October to learn more about the site’s “scientifically proven” and patented Compatibility Matching System. Apparently, the science wasn’t working for me. The day before, after I’d taken the company’s exhaustive (and exhausting) 436-question personality survey, the computer informed me that of the approximately 9 million eHarmony members, more than 40 percent of whom are men, I had zero matches. Not just in my city, state, region, or country, but in the entire world. So Warren, who looks like Orville Redenbacher and speaks with the folksy cadence of Garrison Keillor, suggested setting me up with one of his company’s advisory board members, whom he described as brilliant, Jewish, and thirty-eight years old. According to Warren, this board member, like me, might have trouble finding a match on eHarmony.
“Let me tell you why you’re such a difficult match,” Warren said, facing me on one of his bright floral sofas. He started running down the backbone of eHarmony’s predictive model of broad-based compatibility, the so-called twenty-nine dimensions (things like curiosity, humor, passion, intellect), and explaining why I and my prospective match were such outliers. “I could take the nine million people on our site and show you dimension by dimension how we’d lose people for you,” he began. “Just on IQ alone—people with an IQ lower than 120, say. Okay, we’ve eliminated people who are not intellectually adequate. We could do the same for people who aren’t creative enough, or don’t have your brilliant sense of humor. See, when you get on the tails of these dimensions, it’s really hard to match you. You’re too bright. You’re too thoughtful. The biggest thing you’ve got to do when you’re gifted like you are is to be patient.”
After the over-the-top flattery wore off—and I’ll admit, it took an embarrassingly long time—I told Warren that most people I know don’t join online dating sites to be patient. Impatience with real-world dating, in fact, is precisely what drives many singles to the fast-paced digital meat market. From the moment Match.com, the first such site, appeared in 1995, single people suddenly had twenty-four-hour access to thousands of other singles who met their criteria in terms of race, religion, height, weight, even eye color and drinking habits.
Nearly overnight, it seemed, dozens of similar sites emerged, and online dating became almost de rigueur for busy singles looking for love. According to a recent Pew survey, 31 percent of all American adults (63 million people) know someone who has used a dating Web site, while 26 percent (53 million people) know someone who has gone out with a person he or she met through a dating Web site. But was checking off boxes in columns of desired traits, like an à la carte Chinese take-out menu, the best way to find a soul mate?
Whether or not it seems right on an intuitive level is almost beside the point. After all, eHarmony’s selling point, its very brand identity, is its scientific compatibility system. That’s where Galen Buckwalter comes in. A vice president of research and development for the company, Buckwalter is in charge of recruiting what he hopes will be twenty to twenty-five top relationship researchers away from academia—just as he was lured away by Warren nine years ago. A former psychology graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary (his dissertation was titled “Neuropsychological Factors Affecting Survival in Malignant Glioma Patients Treated with Autologous Stimulated Lymphocytes”), Buckwalter had become an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, where he was studying the effects of hormones on cognition, when he got the call from Warren. “Neil knew I lived and breathed research, and he had this idea to try to develop some empirically based model to match people,” Buckwalter said when I visited him at his office at eHarmony. He wore a black T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, and had a hairstyle reminiscent of Einstein’s. “He wasn’t necessarily thinking, over the Internet—maybe a storefront operation like Great Expectations.” Relationships weren’t Buckwalter’s area, but he welcomed the challenge. “A problem is a problem, and relationships are a good problem,” he said. “In the research context, it’s certainly an endlessly fascinating question.”
With the help of a graduate student, Buckwalter reviewed the psychological literature to identify the areas that might be relevant in predicting success in long-term relationships. “Once we identified all those areas, then we put together a questionnaire—just a massively long questionnaire,” he said. “It was probably close to a thousand questions. Because if you don’t ask it, you’re never gonna know. So we had tons of questions on ability, even more on interest. Just every type of personality aspect that was ever measured, we were measuring it all.” Because it wasn’t practical to execute a thirty-year longitudinal study, he and Warren decided to measure existing relationships, surveying people who were already married. The idea was to look for patterns that produce satisfaction in marriages, then try to reproduce them in the matching of singles.
Buckwalter’s studies soon yielded data that confirmed one of Warren’s longtime observations: namely, that the members of a happy couple are far more similar to each other than are the members of an unhappy couple. Compatibility, in other words, rests on shared traits. “I can’t tell you how delighted I was,” Warren said, “when the factor-analytic studies started bringing back the same stuff I’d seen for years.” But could this be true across the board? I told Warren that my most successful relationships have been with men who are far less obsessive than I am. Warren assured me that’s not a similarity their system matches for. “You don’t want two obsessives,” he explained. “They’ll drive each other crazy. You don’t find two control freaks in a great marriage. So we try to tweak the model for that. Fifty percent of the ball game is finding two people who are stable.”
For Warren, a big question remained: What should be done with these findings? Originally, he had partnered with his son-in-law, Greg Forgatch, a former real-estate developer, to launch the business. Their first thought was to produce educational videotapes on relationship compatibility. After all, Warren had recently written his book, Finding the Love of Your Life. “We tried so hard to make videotapes and audiotapes,” Warren said. “I went into the studio and made lists. We came up with a hundred things singles need. But singles don’t want education; they want flesh! They want a person. So that’s when, in 1997, we said, ‘We’ve gotta help people find somebody who would be good for them. Some body.
To connect singles and create a data pool for more research, the Internet seemed the best option. Based on a study of 5,000 married couples, Warren put together the compatibility model that became the basis for eHarmony. “We got encouraged by everybody, ‘Get out there, get out there! The first person to market is going to be the most successful,” Warren recalled. But he insisted on getting the matching system right before launching the site—and that didn’t happen until August of 2000, during the dot-com bust. By 2001 he was contemplating declaring bankruptcy. “And then,” Warren recalled, “we found an error in our matching formula, so a whole segment of our people were not getting matched. It was an error with all the Christian people on the site.”
This is a sensitive topic for Warren, who bristles at the widely held opinion that eHarmony is a Christian dating site. The company’s chief operating officer, he offered by way of rebuttal, is Jewish, and Buckwalter, who became a quadriplegic at age sixteen after jumping into a river and breaking his neck, is agnostic. And while Warren describes himself as “a passionate Christian” and proudly declares, “I love Jesus,” he worried about narrowing the site with too many questions about spiritual beliefs. Which is where the error came in. “We had seven questions on religion,” he explained, “and we eliminated four of them. But we forgot to enter that into the matching formula! These were seven-point questions. You needed twenty-eight points to get matched with a Christian person, but there was no way you could get them! We only had three questions! So every Christian person who had come to us had zero matches.” Fortunately, a wave of positive publicity, featuring married couples who’d met through eHarmony and the naturally charismatic Warren, turned things around. Still, Warren said of the innocent mistake, “you kind of wonder how many relationships fall apart for reasons like this—how many businesses?”
Today, eHarmony’s business isn’t just about using science to match singles online. Calling itself a “relationship-enhancement service,” the company has recently created a venture-capital-funded think tank for relationship and marital research, headed up by Dr. Gian Gonzaga, a scientist from the well-known marriage-and-family lab at the University of California at Los Angeles. The effort, as Gonzaga put it to me recently, is “sort of like a Bell Labs or Microsoft for love.”
An energetic, attractive thirty-five-year-old, Gonzaga thought twice about leaving the prestige of academia. “It seemed cheesy at first,” he said. “I mean, this was a dating service.” But after interviewing with Warren, he realized that conducting his research under the auspices of eHarmony would offer certain advantages. He’d be unfettered by teaching and grant-writing, and there would be no sitting on committees or worrying about tenure. More important, since his research would now be funded by business, he’d have the luxury of doing studies with large groups of ready subjects over many years—but without the constraints of having to produce a specific product.
“We’re using science in an area most people think of as inherently unscientific,” Gonzaga said. So far, the data are promising: a recent Harris Interactive poll found that between September of 2004 and September of 2005, eHarmony facilitated the marriages of more than 33,000 members—an average of forty-six marriages a day. And a 2004 in-house study of nearly 300 married couples showed that people who met through eHarmony report more marital satisfaction than those who met by other means. The company is now replicating that study in a larger sample. “We have massive amounts of data!” Warren said. “Twelve thousand new people a day taking a 436-item questionnaire! Ultimately, our dream is to have the biggest group of relationship psychologists in the country. It’s so easy to get people excited about coming here. We’ve got more data than they could collect in a thousand years.”
But how useful is this sort of data for single people like me? Despite Warren’s disclaimer about what a tough eHarmony match I am, I did finally get some profiles in my inbox. They included a bald man with a handlebar moustache, who was fourteen inches taller than me; a five-foot-four-inch attorney with no photos; and a film editor whose photo shows him wearing a kilt—and not in an ironic way. Was this the best science could do? When I asked Galen Buckwalter about this, he laughed, indicating that he’d heard the question before. “The thing you have to remember about our system is we’re matching on these algorithms for long-term compatibility,” he said. “Long-term satisfaction is not the same as short-term attraction. A lot of people, when they see their initial matches, it’s like, ‘This is crap!’” In ads and on his Web site, Warren talks about matching people “from the inside out.” Was eHarmony suggesting that I overlook something as basic as romantic chemistry? “When we started out,” Buckwalter said, “we were almost that naive.” But now, he added, eHarmony is conducting research on the nature of physical attraction.
“We’re trying to find out if we can predict physical chemistry with the same degree of statistical certainty that we’ve used to predict long-term satisfaction through our compatibility matching. In general, people seem to be attracted to people who share their physical attributes,” Buckwalter explained, noting that he has found some exceptions, like height preference. “There’s a lot of variability on that dimension,” he said. “A person’s height, it turns out, is not a consistent predictor of short-term attraction.” Meanwhile, Buckwalter’s team is in the process of testing new hypotheses. “We’re still convinced that our compatibility-matching process is essential for long-term satisfaction, so we’re not going to mess with that,” he insisted. “But if we can fit a short-term attraction model on top of that, and it’s also empirically driven, that’s the Holy Grail.”
Over at Chemistry.com, a new site launched by Match.com, short-term attraction is already built into the system. This competitor of eHarmony’s was developed with help from Match.com’s chief scientific adviser, Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, whose research focuses on the brain physiology of romantic love and sexuality. Chemistry.com is currently assembling a multidisciplinary group of psychologists, relationship counselors, sociologists, neuroscientists, and sexologists to serve as consultants.
The company sought out Fisher precisely because its market research revealed that although a large segment of singles wanted a scientific approach, they didn’t want it to come at the expense of romantic chemistry. “On most of the other sites, there’s this notion of ‘fitness matching,’” Fisher said from her office in New York City. “You may have the same goals, intelligence, good looks, political beliefs. But you can walk into a room, and every one of those boys might come from the same background, have the same level of intelligence, and so on, and maybe you’ll talk to three but won’t fall in love with any of them. And with the fourth one, you do. What creates that chemistry?” It’s a constellation of factors, Fisher told me. Sex drive, for instance, is associated with the hormone testosterone in both men and women. Romantic love is associated with elevated activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine and probably also another one, norepinepherine. And attachment is associated with the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. “It turns out,” she said, “that seminal fluid has all of these chemicals in it. So I tell my students, ‘Don’t have sex if you don’t want to fall in love.
Romantic love, Fisher maintains, is a basic mating drive—more powerful than the sex drive. “If you ask someone to go to bed with you, and they reject you,” she says, “you don’t kill yourself. But if you’re rejected in love, you might kill yourself.” For Chemistry.com’s matching system, Fisher translated her work with neurotransmitters and hormones into discrete personality types. “I’ve always been extremely impressed with Myers-Briggs,” she said, referring to the personality assessment tool that classifies people according to four pairs of traits: Introversion versus Extroversion, Sensing versus Intuition, Thinking versus Feeling, and Judging versus Perceiving. “They had me pinned to the wall when I took the test, and my sister, too. So when Chemistry.com approached me, I said to myself, ‘I’m an anthropologist who studies brain chemistry, what do I know about personality?’”
Turns out she knew quite a bit: Genes for the activity of dopamine are associated with motivation, curiosity, anxiety, and optimism. Genes for the metabolism of serotonin, another neurotransmitter, tend to modulate one’s degree of calm, stability, popularity, and religiosity. Testosterone is associated with being rational, analytical, exacting, independent, logical, rank-oriented, competitive, irreverent, and narcissistic. And the hormone estrogen is associated with being imaginative, creative, insightful, humane, sympathetic, agreeable, flexible, and verbal. “So I had these four sheets of paper,” Fisher continued. “And I decided to give each a name. Serotonin became the Builder. Dopamine, the Explorer. Testosterone, the Director. And estrogen—I wish I’d called it the Ambassador or Diplomat, but I called it the Negotiator.” Myers-Briggs, she says, “clearly knew the four types but didn’t know the chemicals behind them.”
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