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7.3: Human Relations and a Modern Perspective on the Psychology of Women

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    Despite the valuable contributions of women included among the neo-Freudians, and Horney’s suggestion of womb envy as a powerful counterpart to penis envy, theories on the psychology of women remained framed within a psychodynamic perspective. Until, that is, the 1970s, when Jean Baker Miller and a group of women colleagues created a revolution in our potential understanding of the psychology of women.

    Jean Baker Miller and the Stone Center Group

    In 1974, Wellesley College in Massachusetts established the Center for Research on Women, and in 1981, the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies was established. Working in collaboration as the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), the Center for Research on Women conducts a variety of interdisciplinary studies on matters related to gender equity, while the Stone Center focuses on psychological well-being and a comprehensive understanding of human development, particularly the psychological development of women. A wide range of information on the WCW can be found on their website (

    Jean Baker Miller (1927-present) was a practicing psychoanalyst who had already written one book on the psychoanalysis of women when she published Toward a New Psychology of Women (Miller, 1976). This book has been credited with nothing less than changing the very way in which we study the psychology of women. Since the earliest work of Sigmund Freud, women were seen as inferior, and so-called feminine attributes (e.g., vulnerability, weakness, emotionality, helping others; see Miller, 1976) were seen as psychologically weak. Miller and her colleagues at the Stone Center have worked hard to change that perspective. Typically working in collaboration, publishing collections of writing in books such as Women’s Growth in Connection (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991), Women’s Growth in Diversity (Jordan, 1997b), and The Complexity of Connection (Jordan, Walker, & Hartling, 2004), they developed a relational model of human development that focuses on connections, disconnections, mutuality, and empathy. Examples of how relationships can be damaged when one person seeks connection but the other person seeks to disconnect are all around us. Miller presented an example from a patient she identified as Doris. Doris was trying to share with her husband how upset she was after a day of finding it very difficult to deal with her colleagues at work:

    He listened for about ten minutes. That’s about his limit. Then he said, “Aw, don’t let the bastards upset you.” That’s just the sort of thing I suspect. It sounds fine and even supportive. But it really means, “Shut up. I’ve heard enough.” (pg. 100; Miller, 1976)

    More recently, as members of the Stone Center became increasingly aware of the role of culture in development, the relational model evolved into the relational-cultural theory (RCT)of human development (Jordan & Walker, 2004). The inclusion of culture in the theory should not be underestimated or taken for granted. Psychological theories are not immune from the bias inherent in societies that seek to maintain their hierarchical power structures. Western societies are highly individualistic, and when individuality is favored in our theories the result can be unfortunate:

    In a culture that valorizes separation and autonomy, persons with cultural privilege can falsely appear more self-sufficient and so will be judged as healthier, more mature, more worthy of the privilege the society affords. Those who enjoy less cultural privilege (whether by virtue of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status) will more likely be viewed as deficient and needy. They are more likely to be subject to systematic disadvantage and culture shaming. (pgs. 4-5; Jordan & Walker, 2004)

    Relational-Cultural Theory

    Miller established the foundation of RCT by addressing two fundamental differences in status and power that are part of human life: the differences between children and adults, and the differences between boys/men and girls/women. Children lack the privileges of adulthood, but this is temporary, and it is the role of parents and other adults (e.g., teachers) to help children grow up. In most modern cultures, women have typically lacked the privileges of men, and to a large extent that continues today. Since male/female differences are permanent, cultural phenomena usually develop in which men seek to maintain their power and status over women. This is the reason why psychology, a field traditionally dominated by men, has equated feminine attributes with psychological pathology (Miller, 1976). Curiously, not only men participate in this bias. Anna Freud did not challenge her father’s views on girls and women, Melanie Klein claimed to be closer to Freud’s point of view than even his daughter was, and Marie Bonaparte believed that women who do not accept the role defined for them by men would never be able to experience sexual satisfaction. It is not uncommon for a subordinate group to participate in this adaptive role, according to Miller, and as a result women may have gained their greatest advantage: the responsibility, and with it the privilege, of the intense emotional connection necessary to raise a child (Miller, 1976).

    Considering the primary object relation necessary for a child to grow and thrive, the relationship between a mother and her infant, a relationship in which the mother serves the child first, many feminine attributes take on new meaning. Vulnerability, weakness, helplessness, emotionality, participating in the development of others, cooperation, and creativity are all essential to giving oneself over to others, which is necessary to care for a baby, while at the same time allowing that baby to develop its own sense of mastery over the world and its own sense of individuality. Should it be surprising that women want to relate to other adults in the same way? According to Miller, one of the greatest difficulties men face in relationships with women is that men actually want to reclaim those very same elements of personality that men have delegated to women, and that gave rise to the woman’s defined role in society. In accomplishing this task, as women advance their own place within society, men will have to adapt their coping strategies (Miller, 1976).

    Now let us consider the essential elements of RCT. In RCT, the concept of object relations is viewed in light of connections vs. disconnections. People seek connections: family, friends, clubs, church groups, neighbors, the list goes on. Very few people live in isolation, and fewer still want it that way. But this raises a question about the meaning of the word “self.” If a woman’s experience is based on connections, do women develop a sense of self, and what is the nature of that self? Miller (1991) suggests that we don’t get caught up in technicalities regarding the words we use to define this construct, but simply accept an open-minded definition of self. It appears to her that boys do develop a more clearly delineated sense of self, whereas girls may develop a more encompassing sense of self. Women do talk more about relationships, but not because they want or need to be either dependent or independent. Women simply want to be in relationships with others, to be connected. Looking more closely at the meaning of being “dependent” in a relationship, Stiver (1991) suggests that women often adopt a role of apparent dependence in relationships with men in order to connect with them in a manner acceptable to the man’s gender role perspective. It does not appear to her that women are any more dependent in relationships than men, but when they do seek connection they do so by whatever means necessary. So when it is necessary for forming connections, Stiver considers “to depend” on another as part of an interpersonal dynamic:

    I would like to define dependency as: A process of counting on other people to provide help in coping physically and emotionally with the experiences and tasks encountered in the world when one has not sufficient skill, confidence, energy, and/or time. I have defined it as a process to stress that it is not static but changes with opportunities, circumstances, and inner struggles. (pg. 160; Stiver, 1991)

    Making successful connections involves two other important processes: mutuality and empathy. These closely related constructs come into play in meaningful relationships. Mutuality refers to both participants (or more, as the case may be) in a relationship being fully engaged in the connection. Each person is interested in and aware of the other, they are willing and able to share their thoughts, feelings, and needs, they do not manipulate each other, they value the connection, and they are open to change. Perhaps most importantly, they also experience empathy with other persons (Jordan, 1991a). Empathy, according to Jordan (1991b), is “an understanding of that aspect of the self that involves we-ness, transcendence of the separate, disconnected self.” Jordan acknowledges a connection between her views and those of Kohut, who considered empathy an essential aspect of the mirroring that helps an infant to first see itself through the eyes of another as it plays with its mother (see also Mitchell & Black, 1995; Strozier, 2001). Empathy is a complex cognitive and emotional process necessary for a sense of separateness within connection, and self-empathy is an important therapeutic construct (Jordan, 1991b). Interactions of such intimacy are not new to object relations theory, but are usually only considered in the context of the earliest relationship between mother and child. RCT considers mutuality and empathy as essential attributes of connections made by adults, particularly connections made by women. An often overlooked consideration is that mutuality and empathy need to be taught and learned. For example, Winnicott’s “good enough mother” does not simply appear when a child is born (Surrey, 1991).

    Discussion Question: Relational-cultural theory proposes that people seek connections in their lives, such as family, friends, church groups, clubs, etc. What groups do you consider yourself to be a member of, and how important to you is that membership? Do you, or people you know, consider the groups they belong to as more important than themselves?

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    According to relational-cultural theory (RCT), women seek connections in their lives, and support each other with mutuality and empathy. These attributes have helped women in their role as the primary caregivers for our children. However, as a cultural theory, RCT suggests that these so-called feminine attributes are the result of gender roles, not some inherent difference between males and females.

    The source of most suffering in life, according to RCT, is disconnection. An acute disconnection can often be recognized by the loss of energy in the moment. This may be followed by negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, or depression. There may be a heightened sense of self-consciousness and relational awareness may slow down, we may even become immobilized (Jordan, 2004). After repeated disconnections we may become fearful of turning to others for help and support, even when we need it most. This has been referred to as the central paradox of connection/disconnection. When we hurt someone we love, or are hurt by someone we love, the conflict often leads to withdrawal and the development of strategies of disconnection. As a consequence of this ongoing process, although we all share a desire to connect with others, those who have been hurt by loved ones believe that they can connect with others only if they hold back part of themselves when they try to connect. Within the context of RCT, this desire for connection, while holding back from it, is also known as the central relational paradox (Miller et al., 2004).

    This may very well be a significant factor in the fact that so many marriages end in divorce. Marriage is probably the most significant connection that adults in Western cultures choose to make, and so divorce would also be the most significant disconnection. There is certainly no easy answer for the high divorce rate, but an interesting possibility has been suggested by Harville Hendrix, who specializes in marital therapy. Hendrix (1988) believes that we choose a mate based on the unconscious recognition of characteristics they have in common with our parents, and that we hope through marriage to solve the psychological and emotional damage we suffered as children. In other words, we think we are connecting with our spouse, but we really want to reconnect with our parents. Unfortunately, this creates a false connection, a connection that cannot easily be resolved, especially given the apparently different communication styles of men and women (Gray, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2004; Vincent, 2006).

    So how do we resolve problems of disconnection? Relational therapy is based on the idea that a therapist can provide a relationship in which the patient can experience connection, mutuality, and empathy. In looking at the therapeutic approaches of people like Sigmund Freud, Winnicott, and Kohut, Judith Jordan (1997a) argues that the actual engagement in the therapeutic relationship is aloof and disconnected. She feels that an obvious and overlooked aspect of therapy is that the more engaged the therapist is the more one enhances the self, the other, and the relationship. Consequently, the therapeutic relationship can enhance one’s capacity to be more whole, real, and integrated in other relationships as well. This relational perspective, which provides the basis for relational therapy, is based on three principles:

    1. That people grow in, through, and toward relationships.
    2. For women in particular, connection with others is central to psychological well-being.
    3. Movement toward relational mutuality can occur throughout life, through mutual empathy, responsiveness, and contribution to the growth of each individual and to the relationship. (Jordan, 1997a)

    Once again we see the importance of empathy. Empathy involves more than just sharing the other person’s feelings, it stresses the capacity to “feel into” the other person’s experience (Jordan, 1997a; Mitchell & Black, 1995). Kohut emphasized the importance of empathy, as did the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. In contrast to empathy, the emphasis that has existed in therapy on the autonomous self as the “real self” can result in the creation of pathologically isolated individuals, individuals who feel self-sufficient, but who are really disconnected from others. Relational therapy does not focus on the self, but rather on relationships. To accomplish this goal, the therapist must be willing to respond to their patients in an authentic manner (Miller, Jordan, Stiver, Walker, Surrey, & Eldridge, 2004). If the therapist can convey to the patient that they are moved, the patient will be moved, knowing that her/his thoughts and feelings have reached another person, they do matter, and they can be part of a mutual experience. This is connection, and appears to be the key source of change in relational therapy (Miller et al., 2004).

    Discussion Question: Relational therapy focuses on providing an environment for the patient to experience connection, empathy, and mutuality. It requires an engaged therapist. What are your ideas about how therapy should be conducted?

    connections across cultures

    Janet Surrey and Eastern Perspectives on Human Relations

    Janet Surrey is one of the founding members of the Stone Center group, and for over 20 years she has been working to synthesize Buddhist mindfulness with relational-cultural theory and relational therapy. Most people think of mindfulness meditation as a solitary activity, but at its core is a desire to connect with the universal spirit that we all share. So, from the latter perspective, mindfulness meditation fosters a deep connection with others. Connecting with others is also at the core of relational therapy (with disconnection seen as the primary cause of suffering in life). Thus, the practice of mindfulness meditation can enhance the connections sought in relational therapy, and relational therapy can enhance one’s attention to the present moment in both relational therapy and in one’s everyday relationships.

    Of particular value for the therapist, the practice of mindfulness meditation can deepen one’s empathic skills. According to Surrey, during a mindfulness-informed therapy session the skilled therapist is attentive to their own sensations, feelings, thoughts, and memories as the patient is describing the same psychological phenomena. This helps the therapist to both experience the patient and attend to the flow of the relationship. Thus, the therapist can be fully aware of the shifting qualities of the connections and disconnections within the therapeutic relationship. Although therapists typically rely on verbal interaction, the practice of mindfulness offers a unique opportunity to experience a conscious silence. Just such a rare opportunity for silence in one’s busy life can be created in the genuine connection that results from a healthy and meaningful relationship (Surrey, 2005).

    Surrey is by no means alone in drawing connections between Buddhist mindfulness and either the value of relationships or relational forms of therapy. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has emphasized that human beings cannot live in isolation, our very nature is that we are social animals. Our communities, indeed our entire society, require us to live cooperatively. This cooperation is best accomplished through love and compassion. It is not enough, however, to care only for those who care for us. When we harbor negative emotions toward those whom we do not like, those negative emotions harm ourselves. Thus, the Dalai Lama considers it essential to cultivate equanimity, the ability to care for everyone equally, no matter whom they may be (Dalai Lama, 2001, 2002). Likewise, the widely respected Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.) stresses the importance of practicing mindfulness within a supportive group, and then extending the compassion that arises to all others (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995, 1999).

    Within the field of psychology, the well-known therapist/authors Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, and Steven Hayes, the founder of , have emphasized the importance of relationships with other people and the world around us, as well as how mindfulness can help to enhance those relationships (Hayes, 2004; Hayes et al., 1999; Kabat-Zinn, 1990). In addition, personal relationships appear to be particularly important for a variety of groups in American society, including: African Americans (Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Cook & Wiley, 2000; Taylor et al., 2004), Native Americans (Axelson, 1999; Trujillo, 2000), aged individuals (Belsky, 1999; Hillier & Barrow, 1999), and those who are dying (Kubler-Ross, 1969, 1983). Indeed, the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships has been identified as a vitally important human strength and an important aspect of well-being (Berscheid, 2003; Cantor, 2003; Cloninger, 2004; Sears, 2003). Thus, by examining cross-cultural factors that aid in developing and maintaining healthy relationships and, therefore, a healthy personality, we can continue to move toward a psychology that benefits us all.

    This page titled 7.3: Human Relations and a Modern Perspective on the Psychology of Women is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.