الرئيسية The Complexity of Connection: Writings from the Stone Center's Jean Baker Miller Training Institute

The Complexity of Connection: Writings from the Stone Center's Jean Baker Miller Training Institute

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In this important third volume from the Stone Center at Wellesley College, founding scholars and new voices expand and deepen the Center's widely embraced psychological theory of connection as the core of human growth and development. The volume presents an absorbing and practical examination of connection and disconnection at both individual and societal levels. Chapters explore how experiences of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and gender influence relationships, and how people can connect across difference and disagreement. Also discussed are practical implications of the theory for psychotherapy, for the raising of sons, and for workplace and organizational issues.
السنة: 2004
الطبعة: 1
اللغة: english
الصفحات: 308 / 321
ISBN 10: 1593850255
ISBN 13: 9781606232071
File: PDF, 2.25 MB
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THE COMPLEXITY OF CONNECTION

The Complexity
of Connection
Writings from the Stone Center’s
Jean Baker Miller Training Institute

Edited by
JUDITH V. JORDAN
MAUREEN WALKER
LINDA M. HARTLING

THE GUILFORD P RESS
New York
London

© 2004 The Guilford Press
A Division of Guilford Publications, Inc.
72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012
www.guilford.com

All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced, translated, stored in
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming, recording,
or otherwise, without written permission from the Publisher.
Printed in the United States of America
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Last digit is print number: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The complexity of connection : writings from the Stone Center’s Jean
Baker Miller Training Institute / edited by Judith V. Jordan, Maureen Walker,
Linda M. Hartling.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-59385-025-5 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 1-59385-026-3 (hc. alk.
paper)
1. Feminist therapy. 2. Group psychotherapy. 3.
Psychotherapy—Social aspects. 4. Interpersonal relations. 5.
Women—Psychology. 6. Interpersonal relations and culture. I. Jordan,
Judith V. II. Walker, Maureen. III. Hartling, Linda M.
RC489.F45C66 2004
616.89¢14—dc22
2003025344

In memory of Irene P. Stiver and
Alexandra Kaplan
with love and gratitude
for their essential contributions to our work

About the Editors

About the Editors

Judith V. Jordan, PhD, is the codirector and a founding scholar of the
Jean Baker Miller Training Institute of the Stone Center at Wellesley
College. She is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and
works as a therapist, supervisor, and consultant, offering hundreds of
workshops and conferences on the psychology of connection throughout
the United States and Europe. Dr. Jordan is a coauthor of Women’s
Growth in Connection (1991, Guilford Press) and the editor of Women’s
Growth in Diversity (1997, Guilford Press).
Maureen Walker, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with an independent
practice in psychotherapy and multicultural consultation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a member of the faculty and the director
of program development at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute.
Dr. Walker is the coeditor of How Connections Heal (2004, Guilford
Press) and has authored several papers in the Stone Center’s Works in
Progress Series. She is also the associate director of MBA Support
Services at Harvard Business School.
Linda M. Hartling, PhD, is the associate director of the Jean Baker
Miller Training Institute. She is also a member of an international team
establishing the first Center for Human Dignity and Humiliation
Studies.

vi

Contributors

Contributors

Margarita Alvarez, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical
School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Andrea Ayvazian, PhD, School for Social Work, Smith College, and
Communitas, Inc., Northampton, Massachusetts
Stephen J. Bergman, MD, PhD, Gender Relations Project, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston,
Massachusetts
Robin Cook-Nobles, EdD, Counseling Service, Stone Center at
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Antioch New
England Graduate School, Keene, New Hampshire
Cate Dooley, MS, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone Center
at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and private
practice, Newton, Massachusetts
Natalie S. Eldridge, PhD, Boston University Counseling Center,
Boston, Massachusetts, and Jean Baker Miller Training Institute,
Stone Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts
Nikki M. Fedele, PhD, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
private practice, Wayland, Massachusetts
Joyce K. Fletcher, DBA, Graduate School of Management, Simmons
College, Boston, Massachusetts
vii

viii

Contributors

Maryellen Handel, PhD, Tufts University School of Medicine,
Boston, Massachusetts, and Behavior Health Network, Concord,
New York
Linda M. Hartling, PhD, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts
Judith V. Jordan, PhD, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
Department of Psychology, Harvard Medical School, Boston,
Massachusetts
Jean Baker Miller, MD, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
Department of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine,
Boston, Massachusetts
Wendy B. Rosen, PhD, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts,
and private practice, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Irene P. Stiver, PhD (deceased), Jean Baker Miller Training Institute,
Stone Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts;
McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts; and Harvard Medical
School, Boston, Massachusetts
Janet L. Surrey, PhD, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts
Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, President, Spelman College, Atlanta,
Georgia
Maureen Walker, PhD, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone
Center at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
private practice, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Contents

Contents

Introduction

1

Judith V. Jordan and Maureen Walker

Part I. Deepening Our Understanding of Relationship
1 Toward Competence and Connection

11

Judith V. Jordan

2 Relational Resilience

28

Judith V. Jordan

3 Relational Awareness: Transforming Disconnection

47

Judith V. Jordan

4 Therapists’ Authenticity

64

Jean Baker Miller, Judith V. Jordan, Irene P. Stiver,
Maureen Walker, Janet L. Surrey, and Natalie S. Eldridge

5 Race, Self, and Society: Relational Challenges
in a Culture of Disconnection

90

Maureen Walker
ix

x

Contents

6 Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation
to Relational Transformation

103

Linda M. Hartling, Wendy B. Rosen, Maureen Walker,
and Judith V. Jordan

7 Racial Images and Relational Possibilities

129

Maureen Walker and Jean Baker Miller

8 Women, Race, and Racism: A Dialogue
in Black and White

147

Andrea Ayvazian and Beverly Daniel Tatum

Part II. Applying the Power of Connection
9 Couple Therapy: A Relational Approach

167

Stephen J. Bergman and Janet L. Surrey

10 Relationships in Groups: Connection, Resonance,
and Paradox

194

Nikki M. Fedele

11 Mothers and Sons: Raising Relational Boys

220

Cate Dooley and Nikki M. Fedele

12 Applications of the Relational Model
to Time-Limited Therapy

250

Judith V. Jordan, Maryellen Handel, Margarita Alvarez,
and Robin Cook-Nobles

13 Relational Theory in the Workplace

270

Joyce K. Fletcher

Index

299

THE COMPLEXITY OF CONNECTION

Introduction

Introduction
JUDITH V. JORDAN and MAUREEN WALKER

T

he primacy of connection in women’s lives is not a new idea.
The initial Stone Center model, which was called “self-in-relation,” began with that idea but has been evolving ever since. That evolution has
been a movement from a psychology of separation to one of connection, and it represents a profound change in our approach to understanding people. Putting connection at the center challenges core
beliefs of Western social, psychological, and economic systems. Connection is not a simple, cozy, or easy concept; viewed as the primary
organizer and source of motivation in people’s lives, it is powerful,
complex, and revolutionary, challenging some of the basic tenets and
values of 21st-century Western culture.
In 1991 five women (J. V. Jordan, A. G. Kaplan, J. B. Miller, I. P.
Stiver, & J. L. Surrey) published Women’s Growth in Connection. Four of
us had been meeting since 1978, trying to learn together, to break free
of some of what we felt were the damaging effects for women of traditional therapy. We began cautiously, some of us not quite taking our
own ideas seriously. But by 1981 we were writing papers to be presented at conferences, and we had found an institutional home at the
Stone Center at Wellesley College where Jean Baker Miller served as
the first director; we were literally coming into voice. Women’s Growth
1

2

Introduction

in Connection contained the essential early papers that were an effort to
better understand and represent women’s lives. We questioned the usefulness of a psychology that elevates and celebrates the separate self.
Self is a metaphor, a highly valued concept in Western culture, particularly in the culture of the 21st-century United States. The dominant
(white, male, middle-class, heterosexual) culture valorizes separation.
To the extent that relationships are emphasized, they are viewed as primarily utilitarian, as aids to the achievement of a separate self. Our
Western psychologies focus on individual personality traits, movement
toward autonomy, independence, success accomplished through competitive achievement. They underemphasize the importance of connection, growth-fostering relationship, and the need to participate in the
growth of relationship and community. The clinical practices that derive from these traditional developmental and clinical models typically
overemphasize internal traits, intrapsychic conf lict, and striving for
independence. Therapeutic practices ref lect the dominant culture of
separation and power over others.
By the time our second volume of papers, Women’s Growth in Diversity, was published (Jordan, 1997), we were referring to the Stone Center relational model. Connection, not self or even self-in-relation, was
now (and still is) at the center of the model. The Stone Center model
posits that connection is at the core of human growth and development. Isolation is seen as the primary source of human suffering. We
believe that human beings grow through and toward connection. The
path of human development is through movement to increasingly differentiated and growth-fostering connection; chronic disconnections
result from the unresponsiveness of important people in our lives.
When we are hurt, misunderstood, or violated in some way, when we
attempt to represent our experience to the injuring person and we are
not responded to, we learn to suppress our experience and disconnect
from both our own feelings and the other person. If, on the other
hand, we are able to express our feelings and the other person responds with care, showing that we have had an effect, then we feel that
we are effective in relationship with others, that we matter, that we can
participate in creating growth-fostering and healthy relationships.
Ultimately we feel anchored in community and we experience
relational competence.
Women’s Growth in Diversity emphasized the importance of connection as it also sought to move the model away from the biases of white,
middle-class, heterosexual experience, from woman’s voice to women’s
voices. Since publication of that book we have continued to explore
connection, especially connection across difference. We are concerned
about the suffering incurred at an individual level when people experi-

Introduction

3

ence a sense of personal isolation, immobilization, and not “mattering”
in the world. But we also care deeply about the effects of disconnection
at a societal level, the ways that power differentials, forces of stratification, privilege, and marginalization can disconnect and disempower individuals and groups of people. The exercise of power over others
(dominance), unilateral inf luence, and/or coercive control is a prime
deterrent to mutuality.
Mutuality involves profound mutual respect and mutual openness
to change and responsiveness. It does not mean equality. When it comes to the therapeutic relationship, it does not mean blurring of the
roles of therapist and client. As Jean Baker Miller once said, “In order
for one person to grow in a relationship, both people must grow.” This
involves intersubjective, cognitive–emotional change; there is a certain,
although different, vulnerability for both participants. Although we ultimately believe safety lies in building good, growth-fostering relationships and not in establishing separation from and power over others,
building authentic connection is predicated on tolerating uncertainty,
complexity, and the inevitable vulnerability involved in real change. It
is far from easy or being perpetually “nice.”
Women’s Growth in Diversity brought a phenomenological focus to
the experience of women whose voices had been historically marginalized from the mainstream writing about women’s development. The
inclusion of these voices was intended to challenge our assumptions of
a powerful mythic norm that would define “woman” as a white, economically privileged, able-bodied, and heterosexual female. Unchallenged, this norm becomes a standard against which all women’s experience is interpreted and evaluated. Therefore, the extent to which any
individual woman conforms to this norm becomes almost by default
the measure by which she is deemed worthy of notice or fit for connection. The publication of Women’s Growth in Diversity was therefore a
critical step in the evolution of the model, one that emphasized the
significance of cultural context to human development.
In this third volume of Stone Center papers, readers will see a further shift from the relational model to relational–cultural theory
(RCT). This represents our growing awareness of the impact of culture.
It follows from increased recognition that relationships do not exist as
atomized units—separate and distinct from the larger culture. Indeed,
relationships may both represent and reproduce the cultures in which
they are embedded. Accordingly, theories about human development
must answer the question: What purpose and whose interests does the
theory serve? The history of psychological theory is replete with evidence of complicity with cultural arrangements and power practices
that divide people into groups of dominants and subordinates. One ex-

4

Introduction

ample of this complicity was the proliferation of psychiatric diagnoses
in the 19th century ascribing certain “personality traits” to African
slaves that supposedly made them susceptible to “rascality, episodes of
running away and disregard for owner’s property” (Thomas & Sillen,
1972). More recently, feminist theorists (Broverman, Broverman, Clarkson, Rosenkranz, & Vogel, 1970; Gilligan, 1982; Jordan et al., 1991;
Miller, 1976, 1987; Miller & Stiver, 1997) have noted how the traditional theories of psychological maturity tended to overpathologize
women as inherently needy, overly emotional, and dependent. Rarely
was there any attention to the social structures and power arrangements that circumscribed the relational roles designated for women in
a gender-stratified culture. When “personality traits” are attributed to a
subordinate group and pathologized, psychological theories help to
justify and preserve the culture’s power stratifications. In sum, the shift
from self-in-relation to RCT signifies an intentional focus on the social
implications of theory development.
Through exploring connection and disconnection at both the individual and social levels, we begin to understand how the political becomes psychological/personal and vice versa. Connections form or fail
to form within a web of other social and cultural relationships. As we
more deeply understood the central role of culture and power differentials on relationships, we felt the model’s name needed to signal this.
To place culture, alongside connection, at the center of the theory
is to break a critical silence. First, it acknowledges that social and political values inform theories of human psychology, including those that
valorize separation and autonomy. Relational–cultural theory does not
pretend to be value neutral. RTC recognizes that to feign value neutrality is to perpetuate the distortions of the stratified culture in rather
predictable ways. First, theory itself becomes exempt from social scrutiny and takes on an aura of truth. Second, such hierarchical “power
over” theories control how all members of the culture are defined and
known. Third, it does this by tending to degrade or pathologize the experiences of marginalized people. Fourth, it tends to overvalue and
privilege the perspectives of people who are culturally dominant.
Miller (1976) and others have pointed out that as one gains dominance
in a culture of stratified power, enabling supports and connections are
rendered invisible. By placing culture at the center of the model, RCT
strives to make visible the multilayered connections that belie the myth
of separation (Miller & Stiver, 1997).
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

Introduction

5

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.
By bringing a phenomenological focus to cultural context, a more
complete and accurate picture of human experience and possibility
emerges. Without such a focus, the experiences of both the socially
privileged and the socially disadvantaged are subject to distortion. A
brief example might illustrate this point.
“Sarah” was a late-middle-aged white woman who had just completed her graduate degree in history. As she spoke with her counselor
about her career prospects, she began to bemoan the fact that she
lacked a “spirit of adventure.” As if to prove her point, she recounted a
media story she had heard about a young woman who was described as
having dropped everything to travel to another continent to study and
write about tribal naming practices. As the conversation progressed,
Sarah’s counselor encouraged her to consider the contextual factors
that informed her career path and to speculate as to whether there
might be meaningful differences between her own situation and that of
the “adventurous” younger woman. Sarah had started graduate school
following an economically devastating divorce. Although she did not
bear economic responsibility for her grown children, she did assist in
providing resources and caretaking for her aging father. Sarah began to
see that she did not suffer from lack of ambition or adventurous spirit,
but rather that her relational context—including the changing nature
of her relationship with her father and her socioeconomic status—
required exquisite attunement to contingencies and complexities of
life. She also began to see the irony in a story that would applaud individual pluck and ambition, when an intricate web of relational supports
must be in place before someone could “drop everything.”
The illusion of separation and the mistaken belief in autonomy
contribute to the denial of the basic human need to participate in the
growth of others and to being open to being moved by others. And yet
the power to move others, to find responsiveness, to effect change, to
create movement together is a vital part of good connection. How
power is defined and expressed is crucial. For instance there is the
power to name, to shame, and to define another’s value or lack thereof,
the power to distribute resources. If this power is expressed unilaterally, it reduces the strength and power of the other person or group of
people who do not hold this power. As it is held onto and denied to
others, it creates disconnections and disempowerment. Inequalities in
power distribution occur in families, in therapy relationships, in work
relationships. At a societal level, unequal distribution of power among
groups—those largely defined as marginal by dominant center groups—

6

Introduction

is rampant and the source of pain and disconnection among the
members of the marginalized groups.
The complexity of connection and of relationships arises from unequal power, from working with difference, or from trying to manage
conf lict creatively. RCT recognizes that all relationships are punctuated by disconnections, misunderstandings, and conf lict. Connecting
in a real, growthful way with others is not always harmonious or comfortable; we all experience fear, anger, and shame. We move away to
protect ourselves, particularly if we are not met with empathic responsiveness or if we feel we do not matter to the other person. But when
we can renegotiate these inevitable disconnections, the relationship is
enhanced and personal feelings of well-being, creativity, and clarity
increase.
The path of connection is filled with disconnections, the vulnerability of seeking reconnection, and the tension around needing to move
away, possibly to hide in protective inauthenticity. But we believe there
is a powerful force behind the movement toward connection, a yearning for connection, a desire to contribute to others, to serve something
larger than “the self.”
In this volume we turn toward the complexity of connection.
These papers ask: How can we create a radical new language of connection and fully appreciate the fundamental contribution of relationship
to human development? How can we appreciate the power of “controlling images?” Described so powerfully by Patricia Hill Collins (1990),
these images are often about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and are imposed by the dominant culture to disempower and
marginalize subordinate groups. This volume seeks to examine how
cultural stratification along multiple social identities shapes developmental experiences and relational possibilities. Specifically, many of
the authors explore how experiences of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and gender affect the development of authenticity and mutual empathy in relationship. In previous volumes, we have elucidated
the relational consequences of interpersonal disconnection, describing
it as a primary source of human suffering. As we further examine the
complexities of connection, we will explore the thesis that a “power
over” culture is itself an agent of disconnection that, left unchallenged,
effectively diminishes the relational capacities and confidence of all its
members. For example, because unilateral power breeds fear, it also diminishes the relational capacities of those who hold power over others.
When the purpose of a relationship is to protect the power differential
(maintain the gap between those who hold privilege and those who do
not), it is highly unlikely that authentic responsiveness can unfold.
Indeed, authentic engagement and openness to mutual inf luence may
be viewed as dangerous practices.

Introduction

7

True to Jean Baker Miller’s original conception, the writings emanating from RCT are still referred to as “works in progress.” These
ideas have evolved in a relational context characterized by responsiveness and mutual creation. As a group we revisit, rethink, and question
our own formulations with the same curiosity and, at times, uneasiness
with which we address other models
We have published more than 100 works in progress and many
books. Our group has been changed by time and sadly the deaths of
one of our founding members, Irene P. Stiver, and of our very early important contributor, Alexandra G. Kaplan, Both of these colleagues
were crucial to the growth of our ideas and practices. Despite our personal and professional grief at these losses, we continue with new core
contributors, new directions, and new energy. The coeditors of this volume, Maureen Walker and Linda M. Hartling, are two of these very
treasured and core voices.
Part I of this volume, “Deepening Our Understanding of Relationship,”
begins with new theoretical contributions that seek to apply a relational rather than a separation model to competence (Chapter 1), resilience (Chapter 2), and relational awareness (Chapter 3). These chapters challenge the notion that resilience and other characteristics
attributed to individuals are really internal, individual traits. Chapter 4
examines therapists’ authenticity. Chapters 5, 7, and 8 specifically address an RCT theoretical understanding of race and racism. In a culture where race is a central stratifier, those on both the dominant and
the subjugated sides of the racial divide are likely to experience significantly distorted relational expectancies and possibilities. Chapter 6 examines how shame and humiliation can disrupt connection and lead to
isolation; the privilege–power dimension is always at the core of this inquiry, whether it be about race, gender, or sexual orientation. How
does a group with less power, given less respect by the dominant
groups, maintain a sense of dignity? How do marginalized people resist
the forces of shame that are directed at them to disempower and silence them? Moreover, as with other social stratifiers, the experience of
race and racism also affects how one interprets other aspects of a
complex cultural environment.
Part II of the book, “Applying the Power of Connection,” RCT is
applied in Chapter 9 to couple therapy, work that depends on establishing a “we” relationship and addressing the relationship itself. Our more
recent work with groups and time-limited therapy is included in Chapters 10 and 12, respectively. In Chapter 11 we also look at the ways in
which this model helps us better understand boys and men. The book
ends in Chapter 13 with our most recent application of RCT to the
workplace and organizations. How can we rethink the place of relation-

8

Introduction

ship in the workplace, making the invisible strengths of connection
visible and validated?
We hope that readers who know our earlier work will find a deepening of understanding in this volume. For those of you new to this
work, we hope you find resonance and a sense of possibility. We also
hope that questions will arise for all who join us in this journey: How is
RCT different from other models of therapy? What are the implications for organizing social institutions differently around a core belief
in connection rather than separation? We also continue to live with
these recurring questions: What makes for change in therapy? How can
we use what we learn in psychological practice and theory to facilitate
social change? Psychological theory and feminist practice in no way
have all the answers. The path of connection is filled with complexity,
contradiction, and uncertainty. In the face of the unknowns and the
humbling blindspots, we are dedicated to learning, to being responsive.
In a world that is increasingly disconnected, violent, and filled with
fear, where community needs are obscured by individual greed and
competition, we feel a commitment to connection. And in turning to
connection, we feel hope.

REFERENCES
Broverman, I. K., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., Rosenkranz, P. S., & Vogel, S.
(1970). Sex-role stereotypes and clinical judgements of mental health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 34(1), 1–7.
Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics
of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jordan, J. V. (Ed.). (1997). Women’s growth in diversity: More writings from the Stone
Center. New York: Guilford Press.
Jordan, J. V., Kaplan, A. G., Miller, J. B., Stiver, I. P., & Surrey, J. L. (1991). Women’s
growth in connection: Writings from the Stone Center. New York: Guilford Press.
Miller, J. B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.
Miller, J. B. (1987). Toward a new psychology of women (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon
Press.
Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Boston: Beacon Press.
Thomas, A., & Sillen, S. (1972). Racism and psychiatry. New York: BrunnerRoutledge.

Part I
Deepening Our
Understanding
of Relationship

DEEPENING
Toward
Competence
OUR UNDERSTANDING
and Connection
OF REL ATIONSHIP

1
Toward Competence
and Connection
JUDITH V. JORDAN

I

n the Stone Center model, the yearning for and movement toward connection are seen as central organizing factors in people’s lives
and the experience of chronic disconnection or isolation is seen as a
primary source of suffering (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey,
1991; Miller & Stiver, 1997). When we cannot represent ourselves authentically in relationships, when our real experience is not heard or responded to by the other person, then we must falsify, detach from, or
suppress our response. Under such circumstances we learn that we cannot have an impact on other people in the relationships that matter to
us. A sense of isolation, immobilization, self-blame, and relational incompetence develops. These meaning systems and relational images of
incompetence and depletion interfere with our capacity to be productive, as well as to be in a creative relationship. They inhibit our engagement with life and our capacity to love and to move with a sense of
awareness to meet others, to contribute to their growth, and to grow
ourselves. The need to connect and the need to contribute in a meaningful way, to be competent, productive, and creative, optimally f low
together. Yet, in a system that overvalues competition and highly indi11

12

DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

vidualistic goals, a system that pits the individual against society and
other individuals, the pursuit of competence and connection can be at
odds. Further, in a system characterized by competitive individualism,
the people who are more invested in relationship and community
typically will feel this conf lict more acutely.
The word “competence” has its roots in two Latin words: com,
meaning “together,” and petere, to aim at, go toward, try to reach, seek
(Oxford English Dictionary, 1971). It shares these roots with the word
“compete.” In fact, competition used to mean “to strive after [something] in company or together.” Much later did competition come to
mean “to be in rivalry with” or “the action of endeavoring to gain what
another endeavors to gain at the same time” (Oxford English Dictionary,
1971). Current notions of competence are saturated with images of
“mastery over” and competition. The verb “to master” suggests “to reduce to subjection, to get the better of, to break, to tame” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971). Evelyn Fox Keller (1985) notes that Western models of science are based on a “Baconian” model of mastery over nature.
The competition and mastery implicit in most models of competence
create enormous conf lict for many people, especially women and other
marginalized groups, people who have not traditionally been “the masters.” Rather than focus on the problem of these groups for being unable to fully participate in “the psychology of being a master,” perhaps
we need to focus on the problems of a system that replaces ability, confidence, creativity, and participation in growth-fostering relationships
with being the lone star at the top, dominance, being a master, and ultimately participating in oppression of those who are not fully invested
in the power that this model confers (Walker, 1998). Today I would like
to begin a reexamination of this system of competitively defined
competence and begin to suggest what Carol Gilligan (1990) calls some
strategies of resistance and transformation.
Most of the original work done on competence and competence
motivation was undertaken by Robert White (1959), who suggested
that there is an intrinsic motivation to be in effective interaction with
the environment and that all people experience a need to feel effective,
able to move or change things. The extent to which the environment responds to the efforts and actions of the individual determines the extent to which the individual feels competent or effective. When one is
not able to effect a change in one’s environment, one might experience
a sense of incompetence, or what Seligman (1972) has called “learned
helplessness.” The signs of learned helplessness are close to what would
be the opposite of Jean Baker Miller’s “Five Good Things”: a drop in
zest, decreasing clarity, withdrawal from connection, less self-knowledge, and a decrease in sense of self-worth (Miller & Stiver, 1997; see
also Miller, 1987).

Toward Competence and Connection

13

Competence, as traditionally defined, usually refers to mastery of
a task, the capacity to be instrumentally effective and competitively successful. Taking the individualistic road and “beating” others comes to
be seen as interpersonally strong, good, and competent. The irony is
that one’s sense of self-worth is rarely buttressed in any long-term way
in such a competitive system. As Morton Deutsch notes, “self-esteem is
more negative in a competitive system than in a cooperative grading
system. Winning doesn’t satisfy in an ongoing way and losing makes us
feel like losers. King of the Mountain doesn’t work” (1985, p. 399).
Furthermore, competition can damage relationships. Karen Horney
(1936/1973) noted such a system creates “envy toward the stronger
ones, contempt for the weaker, distrust towards everyone” (p. 161).
As Alfie Kohn (1986) points out, myths supporting the importance of competition suggest it is an unavoidable fact of life and that it
motivates us to do our best. A distortion of Darwin’s work on evolution
would have us believe that we are engaged in a competitive struggle toward the “survival of the fittest.” On the contrary, Stephen Jay Gould
states that “there is no necessary relationship between natural selection
and competitive struggle . . . [and] that success defined as leaving more
offspring can be attained by a large variety of strategies including
mutualism and symbiosis . . . that we could call cooperative” (Kohn,
1986, p. 21). Yet, our education systems and our systems of assessment
actively encourage this emphasis on winning, on being the best, and on
competence defined by competitiveness. Assessing a child in a play setting, Jean Piaget asked, “Who has won?” When the child responded,
“We both won,” Piaget continued, “But who has won most?” (1965, p.
37). What are we teaching? Separate-self models in traditional psychology suggest that we are self-centered, self-gratifying at heart, and that
competition is inevitable. The model of separate self, of autonomous
self, of self disconnected from others, contributes to a self that is free to
compete. Psychology’s elevation of separation and autonomy thus contributes to the ascendance of a competitive, individualistic, sociopolitical agenda. A psychology of connection, on the other hand, poses
challenges to the larger competitive system.
The dominant myths of instrumental competence, which largely
coincide with the myths of masculinity, include:
1. The myth that competition enhances performance
2. The myth of invulnerability
3. The myth of certainty, what I call the cultivation of pathological certainty
4. The myth of self-sufficiency (“I did it alone, so can you.”)
5. The myth of mastery (“I mastered it, I am the master.”)
6. The myth of objectivity

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

7. The myth of the expert
8. The myth of unilateral change (in an interaction, the less powerful person is changed)
9. The myth that hierarchy and ranking produces incentives and
that people assume their places in the hierarchy by virtue of
merit
10. The myth that power over others creates safety
11. The myth that rational engagement is superior to and at odds
with emotional responsiveness
Since women have typically performed differently from men in
areas of achievement, defined largely by masculine standards, women
have often been viewed as having “problems with competence and
achievement.” A whole theory of women’s fear of success was developed to explain this problem (Horner, 1970). When women opt out
of positions of leadership, leave positions as CEOs, the question is
asked: “What’s wrong with these women? Can’t they hack it in the
real world of competition?” How long will it be before we will say,
instead, “What’s wrong with our construction of competence and
success?” There has been one reigning definition that has emphasized competition, mastery, control, having an impact on the physical world, and it has notably omitted the world of relationships and
connection.
One of the reasons that the competitive ethic is aversive for so
many girls is that girls have learned a “double voice discourse,” representing what they want and paying attention to the needs of others at
the same time (Tannen, 1998). Girls and women typically care about
the impact of their feelings and actions on the other person. I have
called this relational awareness, being attentive to self, the other, and the
relationship. Boys tend to use “single voice discourse,” pursuing their
own self-interest without orienting to the perspective of the other
(Tannen, 1998). Women practice not only empathic listening, but also
empathic speaking. They use what I have called anticipatory empathy,
speaking and moving with an awareness of and concern for the possible consequences of their feelings and actions for other people while
also remaining aware of their own needs and the needs of the other
person(s) (i.e., relational awareness). I believe this to be one of the
greatest human capacities, involving significant skill; it can potentially
avert much harm and suffering. It contributes to building relationships
where neither person is at the center—relatedness is. Conversely, the individualistic way is to put the self at the center and in opposition to
society.
What I am proposing is that we need more than one way to con-

Toward Competence and Connection

15

ceptualize competence and we need to be very aware of the power of
context to shape a person’s sense of competence. We also need to question a value system that pits connection against competence, that
dichotomizes the two and does not see the possibilities and strengths in
the development of relational competence.

RELATIONAL COMPETENCE
The capacity to move another person, to effect a change in a relationship, or effect the well-being of all participants in the relationship
might be called relational competence. This capacity does not mean simply inf luencing another person or having an impact on another person, which might produce a sense of power. From a relational point of
view, we look at the quality of the impact on the other person and on
the relationship. Does this change have value for both (or more) people
and the relationship? Does the relationship expand, grow, and become
more mutually empowering as well as contribute to the movement and
growth of others beyond this immediate relationship?
Another way of framing relational competence is to speak of the
ability to participate in growth-fostering relationships. This is the ability to “move” someone or a relationship in the emotional, cognitive,
and behavioral realm. The Latin root for “emotion” is the verb “motere
. . . to move” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971). It is in being in touch
with our own feelings—and with our own hearts—that we touch the
hearts of others and both people grow.
Relational competence involves:
1. Movement toward mutuality and mutual empathy (caring and
learning f lows both ways), where empathy expands for both self
and other
2. The development of anticipatory empathy, noticing and caring
about our impact on others
3. Being open to being inf luenced
4. Enjoying relational curiosity
5. Experiencing vulnerability as inevitable and a place of potential
growth rather than danger
6. Creating good connection rather than exercising power over
others as the path of growth
Relational competence occurs within a context of wishing to empower others and appreciating the life-giving nature of community
building, of creating strength with others rather than in isolation.

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

OBSTACLES TO RELATIONAL COMPETENCE
There are several obstacles to the development of a sense of relational
competence and many routes to the silencing of women’s relational
voices (Gilligan, 1982) and the disappearing of women’s relational ways
of being (Fletcher, 1996). As Beverly Tatum notes, “dominant groups
. . . by definition set the parameters within which the subordinants operate. They define a mythical norm” (1997, p. 23). Dominant groups
ensure their power advantage by directly and indirectly subverting the
competence and limiting the power of connection among the subordinate groups. Karen Laing (1998) noted, “Isolation functions as the glue
that holds oppression in place.” This is a profound truth. Undermining
the sense of competence and courage of a person or a group also
serves to keep oppression in place. Thus, to increase connection and a
sense of competence, particularly among marginalized or disenfranchised groups, threatens prevailing norms and power dynamics. It is a
revolutionary act.
The development of relational competence depends on being in a
context that is responsive to one’s voice and actions. Resistance to interpersonal inf luence is a major impediment to relational competence.
Nonresponsiveness is also a major component of the exercise of
“power over”; those in power are taught to resist the inf luence of others. Maccoby (1990) has noted this resistance to inf luence in 3½-yearold boys, and this resistance increases as boys grow older. In fact, a
defining characteristic of boyhood and manhood in this culture is the
capacity to resist inf luence, particularly from females. Studies have
indicated that between the ages of 3½ and 5½ all children show a dramatic increase in their efforts to inf luence other people (Maccoby,
1990). This may be a time when children are particularly focused on exploring the world of interpersonal competence. However, the ways girls
and boys attempt to inf luence others differ. Girls tend to make suggestions, whereas boys make more direct demands. Furthermore and
more important, in the two years before school, boys appear to actively
develop strategies to resist being inf luenced by others. While, in part,
these may be strategies of disconnection, I would suggest that they are
invoked largely because of the competitive ethos that pervades the
socialization of boys.
In a Western European system, in order to compete successfully
(hence, to be a competent male), one must not be vulnerable; one must
be armored. I believe denial of vulnerability is one of the greatest costs
of male socialization. It also places significant strain on relationships.
While girls are still effective in inf luencing other girls and adults, they
progressively fail to have an impact on boys. Eleanor Maccoby, in her

Toward Competence and Connection

17

classic review of these patterns, suggests that “girls find it aversive to
try to interact with someone who is unresponsive and . . . they begin to
avoid such partners” (1990, p. 343). Gender-segregated play groups become powerful socializing environments, with boys and girls learning
very different styles of interaction and play. Boys are more likely to interrupt one another, refuse to comply with others’ demands, and
threaten others. All-girl groups are more likely to express agreement
and pause to give another girl a chance to speak.
But in adolescence girls and boys move into mixed-sex pairings
and groups. The boys, armored to resist inf luence from others, meet
the girls who are organized around relationships and mutual responsiveness. Because the competitive, inf luence-resistant style is the socially privileged and dominant style, the girls’ more mutual and relational approach is seen as deficient, with very serious results for the
girls and for our total society, as Gilligan (1990) suggests.

OBSTACLES TO RELATIONAL COMPETENCE/
GENDER ISSUES
In primary heterosexual pairings women complain often of being
“stonewalled,” not listened to, not taken in, not having impact. A recent
study by Gottman, Coon, Carrere, and Swanson (1998) of married couples suggests that divorce is predicted most accurately in marriage by a
husband’s refusal to accept inf luence from his wife. Very succinctly
Gottman and colleagues note, “husbands do not want to share power
with their wives” (p. 12). The issue of avoiding inf luence is clearly a
power dynamic. To be denied the ability to inf luence another person is
to be disempowered and to have one’s relational competence
undermined.
It worries me that the nonresponsive neutrality of traditional therapies is similarly disempowering and undermining of the development
of a sense of relational competence for both clients and therapists.
Many therapists get caught in needing to appear to be the expert or
needing to appear to be perfectly warm, loving people. When they are
inevitably thrown off balance or feel vulnerable during some of the
therapy work, they sometimes attribute it to the “manipulativeness” of
the client or the client’s use of “projective identification.”
The traditional culture of therapy supports the following myths of
competence: therapists are the experts; change is unilateral; and the
person with power, the therapist, should be invulnerable or should not
be too emotionally responsive. In such a professional context, the therapist who believes in mutual empathy, the importance of being moved

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

and being emotionally present, may inevitably feel she is “doing it
wrong.” Furthermore, if she believes she has to be an expert, she will
often feel incompetent and fraudulent, particularly when she experiences uncertainty or needs to ask for consultation (which I consider to
be a clear sign of relational competence rather than incompetence). In
fact, serious difficulty occurs in therapy when therapists deny their
vulnerability and refuse to reach out for help from colleagues.
I have written about shame in the therapist, and I think much of
this is anchored in unrealistic expectations about how we should be
able to help our clients (Jordan, 1989). Managed care and increasing expectations for quick, clear fix-ups only add to the burden that many
therapists already feel. I think many of us spend much time struggling
with a sense of incompetence or that recurring feeling that “surely
someone else would be better at this than I am” (or maybe I should just
speak for myself).
Therapists’ sense of incompetence can become a major source of
disconnection. When I feel helpless and unable to bring something
useful to a therapy session, I often feel incompetent. I believe in the mystery of therapy, and I believe in staying open in vulnerability. Unfortunately, in therapy sessions that are particularly challenging or unclear,
the old voices of supervisors in my head, or what I call the rules of “the
general internalized psychotherapy culture,” demand I have more clarity and certainty than I do. In the face of my own internal critics, I begin to pull out of connection with myself and with my client. As I withdraw, I sink into a deeper sense of incompetence. The irony, of course,
is that in therapy the more I can move into being present in a relationship, the more effective the therapy is. Healing is about staying with,
providing an opportunity for connection, and bringing awareness to
patterns of disconnection. Stephen Levine noted, “Healing is to enter
with mercy and awareness that which has been withdrawn from in judgment and hatred” (1997, p. 17). While this sounds so seamless and easy,
in practice it is challenging and confounding at times! We struggle to
bring this attitude of compassion to both our clients and ourselves.
Further, unrealistic expectations of ourselves as human beings are
epidemic among therapists. A seasoned, exceptionally talented therapist I am treating noted recently that she spends most of her time feeling fraudulent with her clients. She stated, “If they knew all of the confusion and personal struggles that exist in my life, they would never
listen to me.” Struggling with these feelings myself, I said something
muted or stiff like, “I’m not sure we have to be relational experts in our
own lives to be decent therapists.” She, being quite attuned, scanned
my face and said, “Oh, I’m not the only one!” and we shared a moment
of ironic laughter.

Toward Competence and Connection

19

I know that when I am caught up in trying to preserve some image
of myself as “the good therapist” or “the psychologically healthy adult,”
I am likely, in fact, to be less present and less relationally competent.
Preoccupations with images of who we are or who we should be take us
out of authentic connection and close us down. This happens in and
out of therapy.

RELATIONAL COMPETENCE IN ORGANIZATIONS
Pressure to be the expert, the authority at the top dispensing wisdom,
is widespread. I would like to share another vignette about the pressure
to be “the expert” from the world of business. Laura is a woman in the
Stone Center’s study group that is exploring relational practice in organizations and institutions. This vignette exemplifies another way in
which relational competence can be completely congruent with and
contribute to effective work practices—competence and connection do
not have to be at odds.
Laura, who is a senior corporate vice president, noted that she
took a job managing a large engineering group whose technology she
knew only superficially. In her first week, the project team, many consisting of 10-year veterans with this product, was holding a meeting to
determine if the new product was ready to ship. She attended the meeting expecting to take a back seat. When she entered the room, the
meeting fell silent. All eyes turned to her. With a sinking feeling, she reports, she realized the decision would be hers—not because she had the
information to make the decision but because she had the positional
responsibility to do so! To avoid that responsibility would be to let the
group feel leaderless. To make the decision independently would have
been foolhardy if not impossible (although that’s what the situation
pulled for). So she outlined the process they would use. She would
make the decision and take responsibility if it turned out badly. But
first, she’d do some research. She went around the room asking each
person, “If you were in my shoes, what would you decide and why?” By
the end of the meeting she was able to make a decision, informed by all
the real decision makers, the project team (Woodburn, 1998).
In this example, Laura demonstrates the ability to move aside
from the expectations for expert, top–down leadership and the unrealistic expectations for an expertise she couldn’t possibly hold, and she
makes beautiful use of relational competence. She turns to the other
workers, the people with the relevant experience, and invites them to
take part in the process at the same time that she accepts her defined
task as the one who holds the responsibility.

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

Expanding our notions of competence, then, involves moving away
from the dissociated manipulation of objects or from an abstract intellectual exercise to an appreciation of relational competence and the capacity to make things happen for the good of the relationship and the
community. A part of this expansion is bringing into clear articulation
and focus that which gets devalued and “disappeared,” a term Joyce
Fletcher (1996) has used.
Relational competence, as shown by Laura, is not a function of
some intuitive, biologically given instinct that women possess. It involves vision, philosophy, emotional and cognitive skills, and the development of relational practice. There is relational problem solving in
which the power of dialogue, of asking for help, and of sharing uncertainty is openly acknowledged. Cooperative efforts, rather than competitive one-upmanship are encouraged. There is value placed on competence that is in service of the community. When we build relational
competence in organizations, we work to empower others and the project, the work, or the community, not just to assert self-dominance or
elevate individual needs (Fletcher, 1996).

RESISTANCE AND TRANSFORMATION
Operating within a system that overemphasizes certainty, competitive
success, and tough adversarial standards of conduct disempowers people who value connection and community; bell hooks (1991) speaks of
the power of the black women’s “oppositional gaze.” Tracy Robinson
and Janie Ward (1991), writing about African American girls, speak
about transforming the “resistance of survival” to the “resistance for
liberation.” They point to the importance of African American women
acknowledging the problems of, and demanding change in, an environment that oppresses them, thus transforming self-directed anger into
striving for justice. One approach to helping women and other marginalized groups is to foster awareness of the specific expectations and
standards of the dominant group and to explicitly critique and name
alternative values or ways of constructing reality. The shaming and
silencing strategies of the dominant group can be countered with this
consciousness along with the support of others who share this
awareness.
When I was helping to organize a women’s treatment program at a
psychiatric hospital, one of the early tasks given to us by the administration was to make an organizational chart of our program. All of us in the
leadership group knew what an organizational chart looked like, but we
felt that the usual box at the top, followed by two boxes down, and so on,

Toward Competence and Connection

21

did not fit the way we were trying to operate. So we put together an
organizational chart made up of intersecting circles. At the top of the
page we placed the patient council and advisers. We placed what we
thought of as the leadership coordinating committee at the bottom.
When we showed the chart to the chief administrator of the hospital, his first response was “Didn’t anyone teach you how to make an organizational chart?” When we responded that we were well aware of
what many people’s organizational charts looked like and that we felt
our chart did in fact represent our program, his next question was “But
who do we go to when we need a decision made?” We noted that we
had a committee that made decisions, in consultation with the other
groups. This was met with an exasperated, “Oh, ladies! . . . Who do we
go to when we want a final decision?” We persisted. Hence, we were
persistently treated as if we were quite incompetent leaders and quite irritating people. Together we held our ground. But when we were dealt
with alone (and that was a definite strategy of disempowerment by the
administration), each of us often felt more anxious and we would rush
back to the others to shore ourselves up.
At a recent conference on relational leadership, a woman in the audience noted she had been chided by a boss for being too interested in
“the soft stuff,” the emotional, relational aspects in her company. Initially she felt ashamed that she was not thinking about the really important stuff—the hard stuff—the real stuff. Then, when she thought about
it she realized “the soft stuff is the real stuff.” However, it is often the
unacknowledged, invisible, dismissed and demeaned stuff. It is the
stuff of relational competence.

AM I THE PROBLEM?
We need to develop critical relational consciousness and question social norms that devalue and undermine relational values. We need to
question situations that leave girls and women feeling much too frequently that “I am the problem.” Perhaps just asking the simple question “Am I really the problem?” would begin to free girls and women
from blaming ourselves and accepting the shame that the culture puts
on us for functioning in a way different from the dominant patterns.
bell hooks (1984) enjoins us to see the social world critically and to oppose ideas that disempower us and all women. We need to be critical or
resistant, not to disempower other people but to disempower the
disempowering ideas and values (hooks, 1989). We must be careful not
to focus only on changing the girls to increase their sense of connection and competence but, more important, to focus on changing the

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

systems within which the girls lose their voices, their sense of competence, and their real sense of connection with themselves and others.
I want to suggest several beginning strategies for resistance and
transformation. These might also be seen as antishaming strategies: (1)
naming the problem, (2) complaining, (3) claiming/reframing strengths,
and (4) developing communities of resilience and courage.

NAMING THE PROBLEM AND NOTICING WHO
MAKES THE RULES
Naming what is valued and privileged in any situation is essential.
Pointing to the fact that these standards and values are created by a particular community removes their absolute power. Developing critical
awareness of existing norms and practices is the first step to dismantling them. Alternate values and practices then need to be named and
encouraged. Whenever “outsiders,” however, are critical of the prevailing way of doing things and suggest changes, they are often met with
the disempowering response of “you will be lowering (not changing) the
standards.”
There could be nothing more transformative for the dominant
American culture than shifting from the myth of “rugged individualism” to embracing the centrality of connection. We need to develop an
ethic of empowering people who will in turn empower others to develop expanding circles of care and competence, a kind of “relational
ripple.” We need to exercise competence in the service of community,
to “uplift the community rather than assert individual rights” (Belenky,
Boyd, & Weinstock, 1997), to develop womankind and mankind (women
don’t object too vigorously to being lumped as a part of mankind, but
what man would stand for being called a part of womankind?). We
need multiple perspectives on competence; we particularly need to listen to people on the margin, the greatest social critics and sources of
new strength available to us. In the year 2000, 65% of entrants into the
workplace will be women and minorities. The margin will be the
center.

COMPLAINING
In transforming the knee-jerk question “What’s wrong with women?”
whenever women don’t fit in, we need to listen carefully to women’s
complaints. Complaining is one of the most important human capacities we can exercise to name injustice and seek change—if someone is

Toward Competence and Connection

23

listening (Jordan, 1997). Women’s complaints about many social systems, including the workplace, schools, and therapy, are not signs of
women’s weakness. Women and other marginalized people (e.g., people of color, gays and lesbians, the physically challenged) are the potential leaders for transformation of the existing disconnected and nonrelational social systems. But we are silenced when we complain
(“Don’t you women ever do anything but whine and complain?”). We
are criticized if we speak with a clear, firm voice ( I was called “strident”
three times on a panel by a male scholar who professes to be a friend of
feminism). You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. As
Beverly Tatum notes, writing primarily about racism, “racism is a system of advantage based on race. Someone benefits from racism or sexism. . . . The targeted group is labeled as defective or substandard in
significant ways” (1997, p. 23). In other words, oppression is a way of
making people feel incompetent. We need to complain. With encouragement from others, complaints become protest. When protest is supported by community, it becomes social action. When communities
join together to protest and take social action, social revolution is born.

MOVING OUT OF SILENCE
Mary Belenky and colleagues (1997) asked why do so many smart
women feel so dumb? How are smart women led to believe they have
nothing important to say? A very bright and articulate colleague was
commenting on her usual stance in a rather adversarial academic seminar with peers. She noted that whenever she starts to think about saying anything contradictory, she goes blank. Later, driving away from
the meeting, she recovers what it is she had hoped to say. I remember
sitting in agonizing silence in adversarial seminar after seminar in graduate school, unable to speak, fearful I had nothing to say. My silence increased after the only other two women in this nine-person program
dropped out at the end of the first year. I was told by a professor and
two fellow students that I was “wasting space” in the program because
as a woman I would never fully use this education. I was reminded of
my mother’s story when she bravely traveled across the country to apply in person for admission to medical school 50 years earlier. She was
told, “Why don’t you go home, find a nice husband, and raise a
family?” (She didn’t take this advice.)
One well-meaning professor of mine suggested I had a phobia
about speaking in public and lent me a relaxation tape and cognitive
behavioral workbook. I felt stupid and embarrassed, and tried hard to
improve myself. I, like my professor, felt I was the problem. I remember

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

another occasion when each person in our Stone Center theory group,
began to share our fears that we weren’t really smart, that our ideas
weren’t that new. As I listened to each of my colleagues, I could barely
believe my ears that these intelligent women had any doubts about their
competence, but as I uttered my own doubts and fears, spoke my own
conviction of incompetence, I felt as though I was speaking the deep,
dark truth.

CLAIMING STRENGTH
In an interdependent world, we need cooperation more than competition. Those who buy into the competitive, individualistic model often believe that those who urge cooperation do so because they do
not have the strength or the resources to “go it alone.” Naming the
strengths involved in relational competence, making these strengths
explicit and clear, is a first step. The skills of mutual empathy, connection building, empowering others, anticipatory empathy, and contributing to the community can be detailed and celebrated. We also
have to find ways to stay connected to our internal resources as well
as the resources in the world around us. This involves connecting
with external allies who can validate and support our truths as well
as push us to grow, as we encourage them to build their authentic
strength as well.

COMMUNITY
We should always remember that strength and competence grow in
context with ongoing encouragement and support. We generate resilience and courage in community. African American women speak of
“community othermothers” who help nurture community by listening
and encouraging others into voice. Given the right context, the right listening, I can be smarter than I am smart and in other circumstances I
am dumber than I am dumb. Bernice Johnston Reagon of Sweet Honey
in the Rock notes, “Black women have had to have the standing power
of rocks and of mountains—cold and hard, strong and stationary. That
quality has often obscured the fact that inside the strength, partnering
the sturdiness, we are as honey. If our world is warm, honey f lows and
so do we. If it is cold, stiff and stay put, so do we” (1993, p. 24).
Morrie Schwartz, quoted as he was dying, suggested, “The way you
get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote
yourself to your community around you and devote yourself to creating

Toward Competence and Connection

25

something that gives you purpose and meaning” (Albom, 1997, p. 43).
Stephen Levine noted, “Love is the only rational act” (Levine, 1997, p.
52). In order to transform a culture of disconnection into a culture of
connection we need to develop new images of strength, in which vulnerability, connection building, serving others, seeking justice, and being encouraged and emboldened by community as we build community are
at the core. The existing privileged models of success and competence,
which are characterized by defensive armoring and disconnection, are
not working. A woman at a meeting recently asked me if I knew what
gave the giant sequoia trees their strength. When I admitted I didn’t
know, she said they actually have very shallow roots but the roots of
nearby trees intertwine and support one another. These biggest and
oldest of trees, these images of power and strength, literally hold each
other up. (A follow-up call to Muir woods confirmed this.) We need to
move beyond models of resistance to models of transformation.
We need to shift the dominant images away from war making and
elevation of individual specialness to the creation and sustenance of
connection and community. There is nothing wrong with someone
who wants to give and serve and contribute to the growth of others.
There is something wrong with a culture that cannot appreciate and
validate the centrality of connection in the world.

CONCLUDING COMMENTS
Finally, I want to leave you with two playful images, two points, and two
questions, mostly borrowed from others.
The two playful images:
1. The expansive movement of relational ripples
2. A global singing group called the Resister Sisters
The two points:
1. Isolation is the glue that holds oppression in place (Laing,
1998).
2. The soft stuff is the real stuff.
The two questions:
1. Why do so many smart women feel so dumb?
2. Am I really the problem?

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

REFERENCES
Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with Morrie. New York: Doubleday.
Belenky, M., Bond, L., & Weinstock, J. (1997). A tradition that has no name: Nurturing the development of people, families, and communities. New York: Basic Books.
Deutsch, M. (1985). Distributive justice: A social psychological perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Fletcher, J. (1996). Relational theory in the workplace. Work in Progress, No. 77.
Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychology theory and women’s development.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gilligan, C. (1990). Joining the resistance: Psychology, politics, girls, and women.
Michigan Quarterly Review, 29, 501–536.
Gottman, J., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 5–22.
hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Boston: South End Press.
hooks, b. (1989). Talking back. Boston: South End Press.
hooks, b. (1991). The oppositional gaze: Black female spectators. In M. Diawara
(Ed.), Black cinema (pp. 151–170). New York: Routledge Press.
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In J. M. Bardwick, Feminine personality and conflict (pp. 24–49). Belmont, CA:
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psychopathology and personality (2nd ed., pp. 37–54). Philadelphia: Saunders.
Jordan, J. V. (1989). Relational development: Therapeutic implications of empathy and shame. Work in Progress, No. 39. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.
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Bell Tower.
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Miller, J. B. (1986). Toward a new psychology of women (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon
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Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child (M. Gabain, Trans.). New York:
Free Press.
Reagon, B. J. (1993). We who believe in freedom: Sweet honey . . . still on the journey.
New York: Doubleday.
Robinson, T., & Ward, J. (1991). A belief in self far greater than anyone’s disbelief:
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Gilligan, A. Rogers, & D. Tolman (Eds.), Women, girls, and psychotherapy:
Reframing resistance (pp. 87–103). Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press.
Tannen, D. (1998). The argument culture: Moving from debate to dialogue. New York:
Random House.
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Basic Books.
Seligman, M. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23, 407–
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Paper Series.
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This chapter was originally presented at the Learning from Women Conference sponsored by the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Hospital on May 1, 1998. © 1999 by Judith V. Jordan.

DEEPENING
Relationa
l Resilience
OUR UNDERSTANDING OF REL ATIONSHIP

2
Relational Resilience
JUDITH V. JORDAN

G

iven that life subjects all of us to tensions and suffering and
that relationships as well as individuals are buffeted by forces that create pain, disconnection, and the threat of dissolution, the capacity for
relational resilience, or transformation, is essential. Movement toward
empathic mutuality is at the core of relational resilience. When individuals move from mutually empowering and mutually empathic relationships (Miller, 1986; Surrey, 1985) into disconnection, they are often beset by a damaging sense of immobilization and isolation. They lose the
sense of a life-giving empathic bridge. In describing this loss, one client
spoke movingly of her identification with the elderly Alzheimer’s patient who was abandoned, without identification, by relatives at a race
track in Idaho—utterly alone, utterly helpless, unable to even name or
speak the horror.
When people are unable to move from disconnection to connection, the resulting combination of immobilization and isolation may become a prison, (not unlike Jean Baker Miller’s notion of “condemned
isolation” [1988]) and may contribute to psychological anguish, physical deterioration, and sometimes even death. Thus, we can no longer
look only at factors within the individual that facilitate adjustment; we
must examine the relational dynamics that encourage the capacity for
28

Relational Resilience

29

connection. Reframing our understanding of resilience in terms of a relational model has implications for both psychotherapy and social
change. Therapy, then, can be understood as largely an effort to explore and enhance the capacity for relational resilience. And in moving
beyond personal resilience to personal transformation and social
change, the relational context is central.

TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF RESILIENCE
Rutter, who has written extensively on resilience, views it as evident in
an “individual who overcomes adversity, who survives stress, and who
rises above disadvantages” (1979, p. 3). Block and Block (1980) refer to
“ego resilience” in contrast to a condition they call “ego brittle.” “Ego
resilience refers to the ability to adapt f lexibly and with ‘elasticity’ to
changing circumstances” (Dugan & Coles, 1989, p. 112).
Some researchers in the field of resilience have focused on factors
within the person, like temperament or personality. Suzanne C. Kobasa
has developed the notion of “hardiness,” which is thought to protect
one from the harmful effects of stress: “Persons high in hardiness easily
commit themselves to what they are doing, . . . generally believe that
they at least partially control events, . . . and regard change to be a normal challenge or impetus to development” (Kobasa & Puccetti, 1983, p.
840). On the other hand, “learned helplessness,” a condition studied by
Seligman (1975) that “results when people believe or expect their responses will not inf luence the future probability of environmental outcomes,” is seen as rendering people vulnerable to stress and depression
(McCann & Pearlman, 1990, p. 53).
Along these lines, some have suggested that girls develop “pessimistic coping strategies” that interfere with persistent problem-solving
efforts. This suggestion is based on studies indicating that girls’ expectations of future performance are affected more by past or present failures than by successes, a kind of ref lexive pessimism. Girls attribute
failure to internal factors, whereas boys tend to attribute failure to external factors and success to internal factors (Dweck, Goetz, & Strauss,
1980; Dweck & Reppucci, 1973); girls blame themselves more than do
boys and also take less credit for success; and studies indicate that college women are more self-critical than men in response to failure
(Carver & Ganellen, 1983).
In several studies of resilience, freedom from self-denigration
emerged as the most powerful protector against stress-related debilitation; mastery and self-esteem were also seen as important (Pearlin &
Schooler, 1978). In general, women have been found to be “lower on

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

self-esteem and higher on self-denigration than are men” (Barnett,
Biener, & Baruch, 1987, p. 319). Some have gone so far as to conclude
that much of psychological literature “depicts women as having been
socialized in a way that keeps them from developing resilient personalities” (Barnett et al., 1987, p. 319). But, as Carol Gilligan and colleagues
note, girls show an advantage in dealing with stress until they reach adolescence when they become more depressed, more self-critical and begin to move into silence (Gilligan, Lyons, & Hanmer, 1990). As they
write, “For girls to remain responsive to themselves, they must resist the
convention of female goodness; to remain responsive to others, they
must resist the values placed on self-sufficiency and independence in
North American cultures” (Gilligan et al., 1990, p. 11; their emphases).
We might well question how women’s sense of worth can remain intact
when the dominant culture denigrates the relational values that are at
the core of our sense of aliveness and worth.

The Role of Control
In addition to the importance of hardiness and self-esteem, some have
noted that stress is most clearly buffered by the sense of control, a personality attribute (Cohen & Edwards, 1986). Although there has been
little observation of gender differences in the need to control one’s environment, it might be argued that a generalized need to be in control
may be more pertinent for men than for women (Pearlin & Schooler,
1978). A model of development that suggests there is a power/control
mode into which males in this culture are socialized and an empathy/
love mode into which girls are acculturated (Jordan, 1987) would imply
that different coping strategies would develop as part of these general
gender-related modes of being.
Indeed, studies have indicated that women’s coping styles are
more emotion focused (talking about personal distress with friends,
sharing sadness) and men’s styles are more problem focused or instrumental (taking action to solve the problem, seeking new strategies)
(Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). In line with a research bias that generally
overlooks complex context–person interactions, however, early studies
on this dimension did not actually assess the degree to which control
was possible in various situations. More recently, researchers have
noted that emotion-focused coping is adaptive in situations where one
actually has little control, and problem-focused coping is useful where
one can effect change. In general, it may be that women inhabit worlds
where, due to a lack of power, the possibility of changing things is unrealistic; hence emotion-based coping strategies may often make the
most sense (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). We have seen in the early 1990s

Relational Resilience

31

(in the Anita Hill case and in the public shaming of rape victims) that
awful forces can be brought to bear against women who begin to feel
they might actually have an effect on the system—particularly if the
patriarchal power system is threatened.
The “control hypothesis,” furthermore, takes as a given, it seems to
me, the notion that women really do control vast areas of our lives and
that this control protects us from an intolerable sense of vulnerability.
It further supports the “just world theory” (Lerner, 1980), that is, that
people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This notion
contributes to victim blaming (the rape victim must have provoked it)
and preserves the myth that misfortune will not happen to me if I behave according to certain rules. The overemphasis on control also reinforces the blaming of those in the system whose sphere of inf luence is
severely limited by established patterns of power.
Action arising out of emotionally focused coping is possibly more
characteristic of a relational model than a power model. Women’s consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s and 1970s have much to teach us
about this, as do the earlier suffragists, birth-control pioneers, and
more recently incest and rape survivors. As one survivor of therapist
abuse put it, “When I felt I was the only one and it was my fault, I fell
into a black pit. I felt isolated, self-blaming and utterly unable to do anything to make it better. When I can just remember to reach out and talk
to someone, both the isolation and sense of immobilization change.
And then actually, when I feel less alone and self-blaming, I find new
ways to act. It isn’t just talk or do, connect or solve . . . talking about feelings is doing and it helps me move into other action.”

Separate-Self Biases
In addition to an interest in intrapsychic or personality variables, such
as control, many researchers have pointed to the beneficial and protective function of social support in minimizing the destructive consequences of stressful life problems (Cobb, 1976; Dean & Lin, 1977;
Kaplan, Cassel, & Gore, 1977; Suls, 1982). In a study done in Georgia,
House, Robbins, and Metzner (1982) found that men with multiple social ties were two to three times less likely to die than men without
them. Recent literature on stress and resilience indicates that social
support can prevent low birth weights and premature deaths, and protect people from arthritis, tuberculosis, depression, alcoholism, and
other psychiatric illnesses brought on by disconnection and isolation
(Cobb, 1976). Beardslee and Podorefsky (1988) summarized the literature on stress and resilience, noting that relationships are protective in
a wide variety of risk situations. The approaches that emphasize con-

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

trol, self-esteem, and social support, however, are all characterized by
the bias of a separate-self model; that is, they look either only within
the individual for sources of resilience or, in a one-directional way, only
from the point of view of one stressed individual looking for support
from some other or others.
Few studies have delineated the complex factors involved in those
relationships that not only protect us from stress but promote positive
and creative growth. Thus many of the studies have simply counted the
number of “social supports” that exist for an individual undergoing adversity but have ignored the quality of connectedness; more especially,
few have looked at what interferes with movement into mutually enhancing relationships, or what hampers our capacity to transform potentially disconnecting experiences into movement toward greater
connection and mutual growth.

A RELATIONAL VIEW OF RESILIENCE
From a relational point of view, the focus of the inquiry might be:
What makes for relational resilience and mutuality and ultimately encourages the transformation from isolation and pain to relatedness and
growth? In exploring this, I suggest we need new models. I believe we
must make the following moves:
1. From individual “control over” dynamics to a model of supported
vulnerability
2. From a one-directional need for support from others to mutual empathic involvement in the well-being of each person and of the relationship itself
3. From separate self-esteem to relational confidence
4. From the exercise of “power over” dynamics to empowerment, by
encouraging mutual growth and constructive conf lict
5. From finding meaning in self-centered self-consciousness to creating
meaning in a more expansive relational awareness
I will now turn to these five ways of reframing our understanding
of resilience.

From a Model of Individual “Control Over” Dynamics
to Supported Vulnerability
In the personal domain, one must be willing to risk the vulnerability of
emotional responsiveness. Since we do not want to open ourselves to

Relational Resilience

33

unnecessary risk, we must learn how to judge when our trust and confidence in the other person is warranted and when it is not. If our experience has taught us to doubt other peoples’ trustworthiness, we will
have difficulty at the very first step of engagement.
The capacity to ask for and give support is an essential aspect of
most relationships, not just those defined as “helping relationships.” In
a state of stress, personal vulnerability increases, as does the need to
enter a more supportive relationship.
Women in particular are asked to “hold” vulnerability and then are
often scorned for it. Women are constantly told that we are more vulnerable in every way in a world that takes advantage of, rather than respects, vulnerability: “Both females and elderly individuals report feeling much more vulnerable to criminal victimization than do their male
and younger counterparts, respectively” (Perloff, 1983, p. 46). We are
bombarded by media evidence that women are endangered; the
statistics and lurid details on rapes, wife battering, and sexual harassment are daily reminders of women’s vulnerability to greater physical
strength and violence. Faludi (1992) suggests that currently we are all
being battered by the backlash against feminism. In this year of setbacks for women, I personally have alternated between feeling demoralized and completely inadequate to the task at hand, on the one hand,
and outraged at the injustices that have been allowed to occur, on the
other.
But vulnerability per se is not the problem. Awareness of vulnerability, in fact, suggests to me good reality testing. It is the disowned vulnerability that becomes problematic. An openness to being affected is
essential to intimacy and a growth-enhancing relationship; without it,
people relate inauthentically, adopting roles and coming from distanced and protected places. Open sharing of our need for support or
acceptance may be an essential factor in developing a sense of close
connection. Therefore, part of what we are trying to transform is the illusory sense of self-sufficiency and the tendency to deny vulnerability.
We need a model that encourages supported vulnerability.

From the Need for Social Support to Mutual Involvement
Social support has been studied largely in the context of buffering
stress or contributing to resilience following some particularly pernicious stress: “Having a confidant is one of the best buffers against the
negative health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, often associated with occupation-based stress and negative life events” (Barnett et
al., 1987, p. 358; Belle, 1982). A 1989 study at Stanford University of 86
women with advanced breast cancer found that those in support

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

groups not only experienced less anxiety, depression, and pain than
those who did not participate, but they also lived twice as long: 37
months compared to 19 months (Spiegel, 1991). While the researchers
focused on the support received, it is likely that both the giving and receiving of support, a sense of mutual involvement, led to these remarkable outcomes. Women are more likely to turn to others for social support than are men, but women are also more likely to be expected to
provide social support (Fischer, 1982). There are more reports of husbands being affirmed and better understood by spouses than of wives.
Among college seniors, loneliness is negatively correlated with time
spent with women but not with men (Wheeler, Reis, & Nezlek, 1983);
that is, for both men and women, spending time with a man is less
likely to alleviate the sense of loneliness than spending time with a
woman.
One of the dimensions of support that researchers have examined
is whether or not people ask for help directly or indirectly. Asking for
support directly, which ostensibly is the most effective, is also seen as
putting the person doing the asking most at risk—we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need. Studies have
shown that people tend to be the most direct in seeking assistance in
those relationships which are the most committed, such as marriage,
and tend to be more indirect (e.g., stating a problem without explicitly
asking for help) in relationships that are less established and reliable.
People also sometimes wish that another person would know what is
wanted without their having to state it directly; the care is considered
better when another person is tuned in to our unstated needs (Duck,
1990). Men, in particular, see having to make direct requests for help as
a threat to their notions of masculine self-sufficiency. In many ways
women, socialized to be empathic caregivers, are trained to pick up the
unspoken needs of others, particularly male partners. This makes
men’s dependency and need for support much less visible. Ironically,
however, when women need support in mixed-sex situations, they are
often with men who have not been socialized toward caring and attuning to unspoken needs. Given that the open expression of needs is seen
as weak, if women do express their needs more directly, they are often
belittled for their “neediness” or seen as demanding.
While empathic sensitivity to the unspoken needs of others is an
exceptionally important skill, it works for the good of both partners
only if it is mutual. In close relationships, we have the opportunity to
learn one another’s distress signals and intervene more effectively
when support is needed; but we can hope to make the direct expression
of vulnerability less toxic and threatening for all people. A portion of
the difficulty arises because we live in a cultural milieu that does not re-

Relational Resilience

35

spect helpseeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in
our inevitable need for support. The ethic of individuality and selfsufficiency still takes precedence over an ethic of mutuality.

From Self-Sufficiency to Relational Confidence
Acknowledging vulnerability is possible only if we feel we can reach out
for support. To do so we must feel some confidence in the relationship.
We must also have some confidence in our ability to create growthenhancing relationships as well as trust that others will join us in that
creation. A personal sense of worth or confidence ideally is not just
feeling good about oneself but also involves a sense that one has something to contribute to others and that one is part of a meaningful relationship. Self-confidence, as an expression of independent, detached
feelings of well-being, does not seem to fit women’s experience, just as
self-sufficiency does not seem a reasonable goal of human development. Rather, confidence in the other person (trust) and confidence in
the relationship, if it is mutual, serve to support a personal sense of
confidence and contribute more fully to a sense of well-being and possibility. Confidence in a relationship depends on mutual trust in the empathic response of the other and commitment to one another and to
the relationship; it also grows from reliability, a shared purpose of making the relationship mutually enhancing for both people, and a determination to honor and respect each other. A history of successful
resolution of injuries and hurts helps build this sense of confidence.

From “Power Over” Dynamics to Empowerment
and Mutuality
We must also learn to discriminate mutual from nonmutual relationships and discern which are the relationships that warrant our trust and
confidence and which are not. Such distinction involves finding ways to
evaluate when an interaction is mutually empathic and mutually empowering versus when it is imbalanced or governed by destructive
“power over” dynamics. Commitment to an ethic of mutuality is essential. In a relationship we must learn to notice both when we are “reaching” or “touching” another person and when movement stops.
When one person is in a position of “power over” another, there
can be little room for the kind of movement in mutuality that I am suggesting is essential to personal and relational resilience. “Power over”
by its very nature dictates the form of relationship; one person has the
ability to decide the rules for discourse and the direction that the relationship will take. The more powerful person also has the assumed

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

right to receive support from the less powerful, whenever needed and
on his/her terms. This system then is by definition rigid, not f lexible,
and decidedly not mutual.

From Separate Self to Involvement
Very important, the capacity to move beyond the isolation that can
both produce and accompany stress involves a movement out of narrow
self-consciousness into the awareness of being part of something larger
than the separate self, a “resonance with,” whether this be a relationship with another person, feeling part of nature, or some aspect of spiritual involvement. It is when we feel most separate from others and
from the f low of life that we are at most risk.
Some interpretations of the classic work on the type A personality,
which found an association between hostility and coronary heart disease (Friedman & Rosenman, 1974), have suggested that hostility increases one’s focus on the self, thus exaggerating one’s feeling of isolation and separateness. More self-involved patients tended to have more
severe cases of coronary artery disease, as well as a greater likelihood
of depression and anxiety (Scherwitz, Graham, & Ornish, 1985). “The
type A patient with more good friends had wider, less constricted coronary arteries than did the type A who was more typically alone” (Luks,
1992, p. 95). These data suggest that our emphasis on boundedness,
separation, self-sufficiency, and preoccupation with numero uno may
not only have adverse consequences for us psychologically but may also
be physically damaging.

From Self-Consciousness to Relational Awareness
The need to receive support, which is cited in most resilience literature,
is thus imbalanced if it overlooks the broader need for mutuality and
involvement—the capacity to extend one’s interest beyond self. What is
integral to a notion of relational awareness or relational resilience is
moving from the self at the center of motivation and awareness to a
broadening experience of “being with,” of being part of, of transcending narrow self-interest and self-concern. This does not entail
self-denial, but rather it is the movement from a paradigm of egoism
versus altruism to one of relational awareness (Jordan, 1987).

TRAUMA: A CHALLENGE TO RELATIONAL RESILIENCE
Traumas, particularly those caused by other humans (e.g., sexual victimization, war, or physical violence), create major disruptions in our

Relational Resilience

37

experience of relatedness and thus threaten our capacity for resilience.
“The role of others’ reactions is central to many conceptualizations of
victim response”(McCann & Pearlman, 1990, p. 33), whether they be
incest survivors not believed by parents or therapists, or Vietnam veterans returning to a devaluing or hostile populace. One definition of
trauma suggests that it is a “paralyzed, overwhelmed state, with
immobilization, withdrawal, possible depersonalization, evidence of
disorganization” (Krystal, 1978, p. 90). The survival skills of the incest survivor—dissociation, hypervigilance, isolation, and lack of trust—
all take a person out of connection; they lessen the possibility of successful use of support. Sroufe’s (1989) description of the anxious
avoidant baby who does not act as if she/he expects to be comforted by
contact with the caretaker certainly applies to those who have been violated by a supposed loving and protective caretaker. Where an abusive
relationship is defined as a loving relationship, the only outcome can
be severe mistrust. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “What
loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” (1872/1981, p. 427).
Furthermore, there is complete disruption of self–other–world
meaning systems in trauma. Epstein (1985) suggests the world is no
longer seen as benign but malevolent, lacking in meaning, and unjust;
others are seen as a source of threat, and the self is felt to be unworthy.
Janoff-Bulman (1992) observes that our basic assumptions about the
world are shattered in trauma. Rieker and Carmen (1986) note: “the
child’s task is to accommodate to a family in which exploitation,
invasiveness, and the betrayal of trust are normal and in which loyalty,
secrecy, and self-sacrifice form the core of the family’s value system” (p.
364). And Irene Stiver (1990) has written about this dynamic in dysfunctional families where when truth is denied and buried, shame, selfblame, and withdrawal are inevitable. The effort to retrieve some sense
of connection through surface accommodation and compliance leads
to an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.
Trauma therefore impedes movement in relationship. When in
trauma, we are inf lexible, stuck, bound to repetition. Little can be
learned interpersonally; we cling to those patterns that are familiar.
Withdrawal into mistrust and isolation is rampant. Some have suggested that, ironically, “those individuals who are most vulnerable may
be the least effective in eliciting support” (Ganellen & Blaney, 1984). A
description of a composite case will illustrate some of these points. A
young woman, survivor of repeated sadistic sexual abuse by her father,
uncle, and brothers, would typically become enraged when I failed her
in treatment (failures included asking a question that felt insensitive,
suggesting a consultation, and many other instances that indicated a
lack of understanding). These disconnections early in treatment often
led to her suicidal phone calls from undisclosed locations, with me feel-

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

ing anxious and angry because of her refusal to tell me where she was.
After some time in therapy, rather than communicating her distress
through self-destructive action, she verbally expressed her outrage
about our failures to connect. On one such occasion when I tried to
convey some apparently inaccurate understanding, she erupted: “Why
do you torture me? You act like you know it all.” I responded that I had
indeed made a mistake, that I did not intend to torture her, that I certainly did not “know it all”—far from it—and that I thought we both had
to look at the problem in our relationship created by this misunderstanding. She retorted, “I don’t want to hear how we have a problem
with our relationship . . . this is all your fault and you better own up to
it.” In her eyes, hurt equaled abuse. If I questioned that equation, I was
seen as trying to talk her out of her reality, something that her abusing
father did constantly. When these moments occur I have to hold the
tension of these differing perceptions: she feels abused and misunderstood, while I feel unskilled in my failure to understand. We experience
our interaction differently, although we can now agree that the misunderstanding and possible disconnection is troubling for both of us. Together we have to negotiate how we can “be with” these differences. I
have to actively support exploration of this disconnection and encourage the eventual movement back into connection at the same time that
I honor her sense of violation and her momentary need to move into
protective distancing. Sometimes I have to do this when I may also feel
like disconnecting. In this case, I “hold” the possibility for relational
resilience, a responsibility that I view as central to my work as a
therapist. As we move forward in our work together, this responsibility
will be shared more fully by both of us.
While some have stressed the sense of a loss of control and of
meaningfulness in victimization (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Seligman, 1975),
I think more particularly that in instances of trauma involving violation
by another person, we lose our trust in the goodness of others; we do
not see another human being who responds to us in an empathic, responsive, and caring way. With chronic abuse and secrecy, we lose even
our hope that there can ever again be a fully empathic, loving relationship with another person. It is not simply that what they do is beyond
our control. It violates our most basic need to be cared about and responded to in a valuing, loving way. In abuse, there is a profound disconnection, a violation of human relatedness and meaningfulness in relationship that cuts deep. Finding ways to reestablish the caring
connection or the belief in the possibility of love as a response to
vulnerability is essential.
Few who have been severely taxed or injured by trauma would
choose the path of suffering to accomplish growth. As Harold Kushner,
whose book When Bad Things Happen to Good People was in part a re-

Relational Resilience

39

sponse to the premature death of his beloved son Aaron, wrote, “If I
could choose, I would forego all the spiritual growth and depth which
has come my way because of our experience” (1981, p. 133). But working through trauma and severe stress can in fact lead to a deepening appreciation of the preciousness of life, a wisdom that eludes those who
maintain illusions about their own invulnerability; it also creates an
abiding respect for the power of human connection, accompanied by
an increasing awareness of our absolute need for the love and support
of others. Further, it can lead to an expansive desire to assist others
who are victimized or injured; the movement toward helping others often becomes key to the transformation of private pain and isolation
into compassion for the suffering of all human beings.

RELATIONAL RESILIENCE IN THERAPY
In therapy we fundamentally build a relationship in which we can explore and seek to understand patterns of mutuality, resilience, connection, and disconnection. I will brief ly point out the ways that the
reframing of relational resilience can inform our understanding of
therapy.

Supported Vulnerability
Often when people begin therapy the need for safety is paramount.
And at such times the movement into a place of supported vulnerability may be the most important work. Dependability, respect, care, and
empathic listening contribute to a sense of security.
In therapy, clients learn how to recognize when they need support,
what kind of support they need, how they can ask for it and from
whom. Clients become aware of those things that interfere with asking
for support or bringing themselves more fully into relationship—shame,
pride, fear, anger, split off experiences, inability to find trustworthy
partners, and so on. Where there has been doubt about the dependability of others, the therapist and client together try to build new relational images and expectations that include a sense of trust, commitment, and respect; we rebuild the broken empathic bridge; we explore
the tendency to approach or avoid others in response to problems so
that the client can begin to question automatic reactions in either direction. The mutual need to give support, to empathize, also grows as clients move beyond the initial heightened self-concern and painful vulnerability that accompanies the beginning of treatment. Ultimately we
need to create meaning and confidence in a caring human community
that we are both part of.

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DEEPENING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF RELATIONSHIP

Flexibility
After the initial phase in which the client begins to develop a sense of
trust in sharing her/his vulnerability, she/he becomes more f lexible
and increasingly differentiated and self-protective in decisions about
whom to trust and in what ways. Demos (1989, p. 5) writes, “Resilience
requires the ability to discriminate between situations and people and
select only the most appropriate responses from among one’s repertoire for each occasion.” As therapists, we encourage recognizing those
situations where disconnections may be protective versus those where
reengagement and growth is possible. When the possibility for mutuality exists, we try to help t