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An Expert Look at Love, Intimacy
and Personal Growth
An Expert Look at Love, Intimacy
and Personal Growth
Selected Papers in Psychoanalytic Social Psychology
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D.
Dedicated to Benjamin D. Gordon
Related books by Robert M. Gordon:
I Love You Madly! On Passion, Personality and Personal Growth
I Love You Madly! Workbook: Insight Enhancement about Healthy and
Disturbed Love Relations (2007)
Library of Congress Control Number 2007942193
Copyright © 2006, Second Edition 2008, Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D.
Printed and bound in the United States of America. All rights reserved.
Please contact the author for permission to copy sections of this book.
Educators may copy any single chapter for teaching purposes as long as
the educator properly references the book and author. State before the
section reprinted, “Reprinted with permission of the author Robert M.
Gordon, (2008) <put name of chapter here>, An Expert Look at Love,
Intimacy and Personal Growth (2nd. ed.), Allentown, PA: IAPT Press.”
IAPT Press, 1259 S. Cedar Crest Blvd., Suite 325, Allentown, PA
18103 For extra copies: www.mmpi-info.com, online bookstores,
www.atlasbooks.com, or call 800-247-6553.
I would like to thank Alla Gordon for her help in editing, and the orig-
inal publishers for permission to reprint the material for this book. I
rewrote and summarized most of the material.
Adopted with permission from Psychology Today: Horn, J. (1976).
“Love: The Most Important Ingredient in Happiness.” Psychology
Today, 10(2), 98–102 (a summary of dissertation by R. M. Gordon).
Adopted with permission from Brunner/Mazel: Gordon, R. M.
(1982). “Systems-Object Relations View of Marital Therapy: Revenge
and Reraising.” In L. R. Wolberg, & M. Aronson (Eds.), Group and
Family Therapy. London: Brunner-Mazel.
Adopted with permission from Security Management, and with
permission of Debra Kay Woolever Bennett: “How to Pick a Good
Apple,” by Debra Kay Woolever Bennett, and Robert M. Gordon, Se-
curity Management (1986), 101–103.
Adopted with permission, this is an edited version of Gordon, R. M.
(1993) “Ethics Based on Protection of the Transference,” which first
appeared in Issues in Psychoanalytic Psychology, 15(2), 95–105.
Adopted with permission, this is an edited version of Gordon, R. M.
(1995b). “The Symbolic Nature of the Supervisory Relationship: Iden-
tification and Professional Growth,” which first appeared in Issues in
Psychoanalytic Psychology 17(2), 154–162.
Adopted with permission, this is an edited version of Gordon, R. M.
(2001) “MMPI/MMPI-2 Changes in Long-Term Psychoanalytic Psy-
chotherapy,” which first appeared in Issues in Psychoanalytic Psychol-
ogy, 23, (1 and 2), 59–79.
vi An Expert Look at Love
Adopted with permission from the Pennsylvania Psychological As-
sociation: Gordon, R. M. (1997, February). “Handling Transference
and Countertransference Issues with the Difficult Patient.” Pennsylva-
nia Psychologist Quarterly, 20, 24.
And: Gordon, R. M. (2000, June). “Boundary: Protection, Limits
and Safety.” Pennsylvania Psychologist, 4–5.
Adopted with permission from Jason Aronson: Gordon, R. M.
(1998). “The Medea Complex and the Parental Alienation Syndrome:
When Mothers Damage Their Daughter’s Ability to Love a Man.” In
Gerd H. Fenchel (Ed.), The Mother–Daughter Relationship Echoes
through Time 207–225 .Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
Adopted with permission from the Pennsylvania Bar Institute: Gor-
don, R. M. (2002). Child Custody Evaluators: Psychologists or Detec-
tives? Mechanicsburg, PA: Pennsylvania Bar Institute.
Adopted with permission from Psychotherapy: Gordon, R. M.
(2003a, January). “Towards a Theoretically Individuated and Inte-
grated Family Therapist.” Psychotherapy (Moscow) 1, 18–24 (In
Adopted with permission from the American Psychological Asso-
ciation: Copyright © 1976 by the Educational Publishing Foundation
(American Psychological Association).
Gordon, R. M. (1976). “Effects of Volunteering and Responsibil-
ity on the Perceived Value and Effectiveness of a Clinical Treatment.”
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44, 799–801, and,
Gordon, R. M. (2005a). “The Doom and Gloom of Divorce Re-
search: Comment on Wallerstein and Lewis (2004).” Psychoanalytic
Psychology, 22(3), 450–451. Copyright © 2005 by the Educational
Publishing Foundation (American Psychological Association).
Adopted with permission from Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsyl-
vania: “Recovering Bodies A Crucial Part In Grieving, Dealing With
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. vii
Death” (1999), and “Judge Psychology by Results and Scientific Stud-
ies” (2005), both by Robert M. Gordon.
Adopted with permission, Gordon, R. M. (2006e). “What Is Love?
A Unified Model of Love Relations,” first appeared in Issues in Psy-
choanalytic Psychology, 28(1), 25–33.
Adopted with permission, Gordon, R. M., Stoffey, R., & Bottinelli, J.
(in press, 2008). “MMPI-2 Findings of Primitive Defenses in Alienat-
ing Parents,” American Journal of Family Therapy.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Love and Happiness 1
Chapter 2 Treating Love Disturbances 6
Chapter 3 Measuring Individual Traits 19
Chapter 4 Treating Others Well 23
Chapter 5 Medea and Parental Alienation 35
Chapter 6 Grieving Lost Love 60
Chapter 7 Personal Growth 63
Chapter 8 Lies and Defenses 79
Chapter 9 Integrating Theories 86
Chapter 10 Self-Esteem 101
Chapter 11 Children of Divorce 104
Chapter 12 Toward Healthier Intimacies 107
In Conclusion 119
Continuing Education (CE) 141
From over a span of 30 years, I studied and treated disturbances of
personality and intimacy with the expert’s tools of:
1. Case study,
2. Empirical research, and
3. Theoretical formulation.
I will tell you what I have learned about the nature of love, healthy
and unhealthy intimacy and how to bring about personal growth. For
this purpose, I rewrote and summarized some of my published papers.
I picked the most relevant and made them accessible for the student and
intelligent layperson. Much of the problems that people have are inter-
personal in nature (social psychological) and from unconscious factors
(psychoanalytic). This is why I call this collection of writings psycho-
analytic social psychology.
In college, my main interest was science, particularly theory build-
ing. I was curious about how scientists develop theories. Wondering
how we come to understand and explain things (epistemology) led me
to psychology, the science of the brain and mind.
As an undergraduate, I coauthored research on preventive mental
health with children, research on how people might have personal
growth in groups, and research on defense mechanisms. I learned that
the idea of change seemed easy, but defense mechanisms made change
I learned how we form our own naive psychological theories. We
rarely correct and update our personal theories of others and ourselves.
We often bring our biases into our intimacies. We tend to remain defen-
sive about our thinking even if it repeatedly leads to dysfunction.
x An Expert Look at Love
Despite their best intentions, even scientists bring their biases into
their research. In my second year of the Ph.D. program in psychology,
I did a study that showed how researchers could produce biased find-
ings. I found that I could manipulate a person’s perceived effectiveness
of a treatment. I gave all the subjects the same treatment for anxiety, i.e.,
People rated the treatment valuable or not, based largely on how I
recruited the subjects. “Effects of Volunteering and Responsibility on
the Perceived Value and Effectiveness of a Clinical Treatment” was
published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1976.
I demonstrated in my study that one could get the desired results
based on the motivations of volunteer subjects and using obvious self-
reports about the treatment.
Today there are too many biased studies “proving” the effectiveness
of short-term superficial treatments. They have problems of poor exter-
nal validity (real-life applications). Most people have symptoms be-
cause of their personality traits. Personality traits do not easily change
with low-dose treatments.
In contrast, in 2001, I published research on treatment effective-
ness. This time it was with patients with strong defenses, resistances,
and with long-standing complex problems. The treatment dose was
high with long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy. The treatment was
aimed at disturbed personality traits. The outcome measure was not an
obvious self-report, but a standardized psychological test (MMPI, Min-
nesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) that measures enduring per-
sonality traits. I wanted to measure personal growth in high-dose
psychotherapy. (I will share my findings in chapter 7.)
If our theories of life are biased, there is dysfunction. This is true
for all belief systems. This is true for people’s biased view of them-
selves and others. This is true for scientific research. So let us begin to
see how a scientist-practitioner can try to understand the problems of
love, intimacy, and personal growth.
Chapter 1 Love and Happiness
For my Ph.D. dissertation, I explored what made people happy and
why. My dissertation involved 13 experiments including developing my
own test of values (the REVIR test). I looked at both economic and inter-
personal resources and how their exchange affected one’s quality of life.
In 1976, Psychology Today (J. Horn) reviewed my Ph.D. disserta-
tion, Effects of Interpersonal and Economic Resources upon Values
and the Quality of Life (1975), in their article “Love: The Most Impor-
tant Ingredient in Happiness.”
I took a look at some of the main causes of happiness. I used Uriel G.
Foa’s resource-exchange theory. Foa (1974) brilliantly brought together
psychological theory and economic theory into a single model. He theo-
rized that the mind classified exchangeable resources into categories.
According to Foa, people exchange six main resources in their rela-
tions with others: love (warmth, affection), status (respect, esteem), infor-
mation (advice, knowledge), money, goods, and services (work, labor).
The main psychological resources that we can exchange are: love,
status, and information. The main economic resources that we can ex-
change are money, goods, and services.
Love and money are resources at opposite ends of the particular–
universal dimension. Love is the most particularistic resource. We ex-
change it with only a few carefully chosen people. Money on the other
hand, is universal; we exchange it with nearly anyone.
There is also the symbolic–concrete dimension. Status and infor-
mation are resources that are more symbolic and goods and services
are resources that are more concrete. Foa developed a mathematical
circumplex of psychological and economic resources along these two
dimensions (see Figure 1.1).
Resources at opposite ends of dimensions are less similar in a per-
son’s mind, and therefore less substitutable than resources next to one
another. For example, money and information are next to one another.
The credit card is between money and information. A credit card has
elements of both having monetary and information value.
However, money is at the opposite end of love and is not a good
substitute resource for love. Services are a more acceptable substitute
for love. For example, some parents can only concretely show love
through giving services (care giving).
In my dissertation research, I developed tests to measure how much
value a person placed on each resource, how much of each resource a
2 An Expert Look at Love
Figure 1.1 Foa’s model of psychological and economic resources along a
person had received as a child, how much a person was receiving
presently, and how happy the person was.
The REVIR (Relative Exchange Value of Interpersonal Resources)
test measures the value individuals assign to each of the six resources
Foa described, plus sex. Sex is a resource between love and services on
Foa’s mathematical circumplex. It can be closer to either love or ser-
vices depending on the degree of intimacy.
The REVIR test consists of 63 questions in three elements of life: work,
marriage, and wish. The type of work individuals would like to do and the
kind of spouse they prefer reflects values. I included questions on wishes to
let people express their values if social institutions did not constrain them.
The questions offer a series of choices among the seven resources.
In the portion of the test devoted to wishes, for example, each question
starts out: “If I had my choice between two wishes, I would prefer...”
Then there are 21 either/or choices, such as: “(a) to have financial se-
curity or (b) to have great knowledge and wisdom...(a) to have a life
of wealth and luxury or (b) to have a fulfilling sex life.” By the time
someone answers all the questions, he or she will have ranked money,
love and five other resources 21 different times.
Similar choices are presented in the 21 spouse questions and the 21
work questions. By adding the number of times a person preferred each
resource in the 63 choices, I came up with a score that reflects how im-
portant each resource is to an individual.
To uncover the personal history behind these preferences, I devel-
oped a Resource Income Survey (RIS) to identify which resources in-
dividuals had received most in childhood, which they are receiving
currently, and how happy they are.
I had to validate my tests. In doing so, I found that I had to make cor-
rections to an early version of the RIS based on the preliminary results.
I got lopsided results to the question, “How much love did you re-
ceive as a child?” Most people claimed that they received a lot of love.
(Later I found in my clinical work that people have trouble perceiving
how much they were loved.) When I changed the question on my test
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 3
to, “How demonstrative was your mother in showing love?”—I re-
ceived more varied responses.
I administered the REVIR and RIS tests to 346 students. The full
and part-time day and evening students at Temple University provided
a wide range of age, ethnicity, and economic backgrounds.
I found that love correlated most closely with happiness, followed
by the two other particularistic resources, services and status.
How much any one resource affects happiness depended partly on
how well it worked with other resources in contributing to a person’s
happiness. For example, I found that much of the happiness derived
from sex results from its association with love.
I found that love was responsible for three quarters of the effect all
resources had on the students’ happiness, with services, feeling finan-
cially secure, sex and information accounting for the rest. Beyond that,
additional money, status, and goods have no real effect on happiness.
Poverty brings suffering that only money can cure. However, after
people are living within their means and paying their bills, additional
riches have little lasting effect on enduring happiness. It seems that
well-off people eventually habituate to their wealth. The riches are too
different a resource to compensate for any problems with intimacy.
I found little relationship between people’s family incomes when
they were a child and how much they valued money as adults. How-
ever, the amount of love an individual received in childhood had a
strong effect on the current valuation of both love and money.
If the students received little love as children, by adulthood they de-
fensively learned to devalue love as a reliable resource. Those who
came from families in which love and money were both scarce placed
the least value on love.
Students who grew up in love-poor families valued money much
more than those who received a lot of love as children. This was true
whether their families were poor or were well off.
4 An Expert Look at Love
It seems that when money is scarce, people learn to concentrate their
energies on financial survival. Students from affluent but love-poor fam-
ilies, on the other hand, may learn to value money as a substitute for
love, as a means of security, or as an indication of their personal worth.
I found that adults who felt they were not receiving much love cur-
rently, usually overvalued goods as a resource. It was as if they felt that
they would get more immediate gratification from the possession of an ob-
ject than from an intimacy, which they grew to associate with frustration.
If this materialism is an attempt to compensate for a lack of love, it
is not likely to work. People who placed a high value on money and
goods tended to avoid the intimate commitments that are most likely to
give them the love that they need. It is also important to distinguish be-
tween the use of things as substitutes for relationships versus the
healthy enjoyment of the finer things in life. The rejection of money
and materialism does not make one noble or loveable. The point is that
no amount of money or goods can substitute for the happiness that
comes from a healthy love relationship.
Money or goods were the most common substitutes for love, but
some people use information (ideas) instead. The overintellectualized
individual may find it easier to manipulate ideas than to deal with emo-
tions and intimacy.
My research showed that love is by far the most important resource
in people’s lives. It relates most to happiness. Love plays the biggest
role in forming values that guide life choices and lifestyles. The data
supports the importance of childhood experiences in the quality of life.
Someone who experiences a shortage of love in childhood is likely to
have unhappiness as an adult, and might develop beliefs and defenses
that perpetuate the unhappiness. How then do we treat this cycle of un-
happiness based on childhood traumas with intimacy?
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 5
Chapter 2 Treating Love Disturbances
“Systems-Object Relations View of Marital Therapy: Revenge
and Re-Raising” was my chapter in the 1982 book, Group and Fam-
ily Therapy. It was a required paper as part of my psychoanalytic train-
ing at the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health in New York City. I
was interested in theory building. A layperson might think that a fact is
worth more than a theory. This is not so in science. In science there are
no facts, but findings and theories. A good theory organizes findings
into a useful big picture. With further research, former “facts” may be-
come errors, and a better theory emerges. Theories that explain and pre-
dict are the ultimate aim of science.
I was interested in integrating two theories, family systems theory
and object relations theory. Family systems theory helps us understand
the interaction between people. Object relations theory helps us under-
stand what is going on inside a person. I felt this combination would
provide me with a better way to help people with intimacy disturbances.
The family is a social system that runs on implicit rules. When the
boundaries, roles, alliances, and how things are done in the system are
dysfunctional, it affects the intrapsychic (internal emotional) system
within the developing child.
The family system is also the result of the interacting personalities
of its members. The family system and intrapsychic system of the
members regulate one another. The therapist can intervene at the level
(family or intrapsychic) based on the patient’s accessibility and not the
therapist’s theoretical preference.
Concrete and defensive people might not be able to self-reflect
enough to work deeply on their intrapsychic conflicts. Therefore, inter-
vening in the family system might help even defensive individuals be
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 7
I found in my dissertation research that love brought the greatest
happiness. If people did not have enough love in childhood, they later
were self-defeating in getting the love they needed. Why does that
problem continue, and what could be done about it?
I found in that the psychoanalytic area of object relations, people
unconsciously repeat their past attachments for better or worse. People
tend to regress in intimacy and express attachment issues and conflicts
from childhood. We have the choice to unconsciously repeat the past or
learn from it and break self-defeating patterns.
Lewis Wolberg wrote in the editors’ summary of my chapter:
The author discusses how a combined systems and object relations
approach can provide valuable insights into many marital interactions.
Since intrapsychic and interpersonal systems are isomorphically re-
lated, interventions at one level can often effect changes in others. Sys-
tems theory is useful in conceptualizing short-term therapy aimed
primarily at symptom relief and for those individuals who are not gen-
erally responsive to insight; object relations theory is more pertinent for
conceptualizing interpretive interventions. Interpreting distortions of
the spouses in terms of their original family situations, as well as in vivo
confrontations with their original families, can help to detoxify dys-
functional marital relationships.
A committed intimacy activates unconscious conflicts. It also pre-
sents an opportunity for working out these conflicts. Tremendous en-
ergy is detonated in the process. Individuals may use a variety of
intrapsychic mechanisms to regulate the degree of tension they can tol-
erate. Higher-level defenses such as humor, sublimation, and suppres-
sion help intimacy. Primitive defenses (denial, projection, projective
identification, splitting, etc.) hurt intimacy.
The degree of structural maturity of a person determines the
amount of tolerance one has—that is, the differentiation and integra-
tion of ego-states (parts of personality). When the ego-states work to-
gether, there is less intrapsychic conflict.
8 An Expert Look at Love
Likewise, a social system can tolerate tensions based on its degree
of differentiation and integration of its members. Systems that are in-
flexible and maladaptive have primitive defenses (acting out, scape-
Since the system is more than the summation of its parts, a systems
therapist observes how the system as a whole deals with tensions cre-
ated by changes in membership, boundaries, communication patterns,
roles, power, and alliances.
I look at the structural integrity of units (ego-states within person-
ality and the individuals in a family). This structural integrity can go
from a healthy integrated complexity to a chaotic and rigid system in
both the person and the family.
A major theoretical question has been the locus of pathology and
the level of intervention. Pragmatically, this would lead to the issue of
where the intervention should then be aimed—at the individual or the
I feel that psychopathology is best represented as a continuous
process of interacting units from intrapsychic to social realms isomor-
phically linked to one another.
Each system must eventually adapt to the other; therefore, an inter-
vention at one level can affect changes at another. I feel that a continu-
ous model allows for interventions at either the intrapsychic or the
social level, depending on the most accessible level of intervention.
Some people work very well with insights. They are able to evolve
their view of themselves and others. They can use insights to become
more objective and have less of the distortions that hurt intimacy (trans-
ference of the bad object and projection of the bad self). It is possible
to use these insights for personal growth.
For others, insight is not as effective. However, changing the exter-
nal structure in which they are embedded can have an effect of symp-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 9
In systems thinking, a symptom can provide a homeostatic func-
tion. A person’s symptom may be seen as a role function necessary for
systems operations. If the system changes in a way that no longer re-
quires that role, the symptom may vanish. The therapist may wonder,
“Why does it make sense for this person to have this symptom at this
time? What is its function for the current social system as well as the
In thinking in terms of social systems, the therapist would ask,
“How can this symptom be substituted with something that is less
costly and still maintain the operations of the system?”
A symptom can function as an attempt to regulate the degree of ten-
sion in an interpersonal system. A symptom can be used to escalate or
de-escalate tensions. Examples are:
1. Triangulating someone into the marital dyad, such as original
family, friends, lovers, or children,
2. A “sick” or “bad” child becoming the focus of attention, diverting
the issue from marital tensions,
3. A “sick” or “bad” spouse becoming the symptom bearer for the
4. Distancing by excessive working and obsessional diversions.
These symptomatic sets can be used to create distance and diffu-
sion in order to cool down the relationship. These same symptomatic
sets can also be used to escalate the tensions. Although a third party can
act as a support and a stabilizing influence in a marriage, the presenta-
tion of an interfering parent or lover can create an immediate threat to
the same system.
A “sick” or “bad” person may defocus the marital problems, but
may eventually tax the emotional resources of the martial system. Ob-
sessional working and diversions may be used to create a tolerable dis-
tance from a difficult spouse. However, this may eventually provoke the
avoided spouse to pursue more and create more problems.
10 An Expert Look at Love
A person in the pursuing role may fall in love with someone who is
enacting a distancing role, precisely since it is safe to pursue an indi-
vidual knowing that he or she will create a needed distance.
The pursuing spouse may be secretly longing to conquer the reject-
ing parent, while the distancing spouse may be reassured in his or her
ability to escape the impinging, absorbing mother.
These roles may flip-flop back and forth, with both spouses uncon-
sciously colluding to regulate the degree of tolerable intimacy. Regard-
less of what people consciously state that they want, the degree of
tolerable intimacy was set in childhood. It was set in the interaction of
the original family system along with the person’s innate temperament.
For example, individuals with borderline (immature) personality
structures may demand intimacy, but they will unconsciously drive
others away with their insatiable demands. Narcissistic personalities
may demand intimacy for exploitive needs, but feel entitled to not
Children with normal temperaments, but who were embedded in
cold families may later long for closeness, but find ways to be self-
defeating and unconsciously repeat their unhappy childhood.
Rigid systems defend against change, but change is inevitable.
Change can come when a strong spouse gets sick, or a child grows up
and leaves home. An insecure spouse can grow and become more
A sudden shift in roles often releases a great deal of tension, which
can bring the system into crisis. The therapist working at the level of
the system can use the crisis to help the system become more flexible
The system’s structure may vary in its:
1. Degree of permeability or rigidity of the boundaries; i.e., how
emotionally accessible are the parents to the children?
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 11
2. Differentiation versus enmeshment, i.e., how much independence
3. Degree of stability, i.e., the degree of commitment and identifica-
tion of members with each other, and
4. Alignments or alliances, i.e., who sides with whom and over
The system’s operations may vary in terms of the rapidity and rigid-
ity of its patterns of doing tasks. A family system may be observed in
its patterns of operations in the initial session by the therapist posing
the question, “What seems to be the problem?” The family members
typically place blame on one another.
One can observe how roles are assigned and enacted, what issues are
acknowledged, how problems are handled, how communications oper-
ate, how bids for power are negotiated, and where the alliances exist.
Rather than being caught up in the content of issues, which often
varies and becomes extremely confusing, the family therapist looks
first to the pattern of how issues are brought up and handled.
Communications, particularly metacommunications, act to main-
tain the structure of a system. Don Jackson (1964) noted that individu-
als are constantly commenting on their definition of a relationship
implicitly or explicitly.
Poorly differentiated families have rigid rules about what can and
cannot be discussed. When an unacceptable issue is brought up—one that
is believed to be a threat to the stability of the system or its operations—
the statement is handled by a stereotypic pattern or set of rules.
These metacommunications, which are never overtly spoken, are
implicit in the operations of the system, and consist of intricate patterns
of rules in which all content is subjugated. An example of this is, “No
one say anything definite, so we do not have to acknowledge something
we wish to avoid.”
Family members may express conflicting messages and double
binds, which are used to confuse and mystify. They may nonverbally
12 An Expert Look at Love
communicate tensions to other members of an alliance, but if this is chal-
lenged overtly, it is disowned, disqualified, or mystified. Sluzki, Beavin,
Tanopolsky, and Veron, (1967) classified types of disqualifications:
1. Evasion—change of subject,
2. Sleight-of-hand—whereby the response to an issue is so confus-
ing that it is lost, and
3. Status disqualifiers—whereby an issue is discounted because the
other is in a position of superior knowledge.
Additionally, nonverbal disqualifiers can be employed, such as fa-
cial expressions and silence.
These system defenses do not succeed in reducing conflicts. These
avoidances end up producing symptoms that make sense when viewed
in the context of the system.
From a systems theoretical orientation, the person’s internal confu-
sion fits the external realities. A person will have internal chaos since
it is futile to make sense, when making sense leads to disqualification,
invalidation, and rejection.
Interpretations may not be absorbed constructively, since they
would become diffused, as would any other content. When the thera-
pist enters the system, a healthier element is introduced. This begins to
put pressure on the system to make accommodations. The therapist can
build up selected members of the system, reinforce boundaries between
generations, and strengthen the marital subsystem. As the system be-
comes better organized, it can deal with content with greater clarity.
Psychoanalytic theories such as object relations are historical and
developmental, unlike systems theory. However, psychoanalytic theo-
ries and system theory share the belief that the whole is dynamic and
more than the sum of the parts. They share the concept of a dynamic
homeostasis that protects itself with resistances and defenses.
A therapist intervening at the system level does not work through
the resistance, but manages it. This can be done by bargaining with the
system and using paradoxical tasks.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 13
At times, a therapist can bargain with the system, in exchanging one
symptom for a less costly one.
The therapist might not evoke strong resistances with an acceptable
bargain. For example, the therapist might suggest to a hostile spouse,
“Instead of saying such nasty things, what if you vented a valid com-
plaint in a very loud voice?” Volume may be less harmful than vicious-
ness, but still allow for aggression.
In a paradoxical assignment, the symptom could be described and
then prescribed as a task. The individual may even be asked to pretend
to have the symptom, and to have the individuals involved in the symp-
tom react in their stereotypic fashion. This serves to provide the system
with a way to continue problem solving or relieving tensions without
the threat of radical structural change.
When a person is asked to pretend to have the symptom, that per-
son gains power without having to bid for power by being weak and
having an uncontrollable symptom. The symptom is now something
that he or she can choose to do. Additionally it puts the symptom in the
control of the healthier conscious ego with its discretions and adapta-
tions. The person might then ask, “Why am I trying to solve this prob-
lem in such a self-defeating manner?”
An effective paradox and reframing is at best an excellent psychoan-
alytic interpretation, since the unconscious often works paradoxically.
For example, the therapist might ask a passive-aggressive spouse to
become even more passive-aggressive. For example, “Since you are not
allowed to acknowledge your anger, you have unconsciously chosen to
be ‘peaceful’ in a provocative manner that infuriates others. You are
also helping your partner avoid depression. When you infuriate your
partner, she, for a while, no longer needs to turn her aggression inward
as depression. She can scream at you instead of at herself. Your assign-
ment for the next two weeks is for you both to consciously, each day,
play out your unconscious roles with one another. Steal the power from
your unconscious and take charge of the inefficient ways you try to help
14 An Expert Look at Love
This paradoxical assignment puts the person in a positive double
bind. If the person does the homework by enacting the symptom, they
are cooperating with treatment. If they refuse the assignment, they are
moving toward the therapeutic goal of change. This can be used to get
around resistances and reduce symptoms.
If individuals are insightful, then psychoanalytic interventions can
lead to deeper changes and personal growth. Object relations theory al-
lows for a much greater understanding of interpersonal relationships
based on early attachments and the internalizations of relationships.
The locus of pathology in object relations theory is housed in the
internal world of bad objects. Guntrip (1969) stated that neuroses are
basically defenses set up to deal with internal bad objects.
These internal bad objects act gyroscopically to seek out others
who fulfill our wishes and fears. Individuals seek to fulfill these expec-
tations by seeking those who provide sufficient reality justifications for
their transferences (unconsciously transferring emotional associations
from parenting figures from childhood) and projective identifications
(putting one’s own emotions into another and provoking them to expe-
rience those emotions).
Guntrip stated that the depressive personality is still raging inter-
nally against the rejecting and frustrating internal bad objects. The de-
pressive personality is afraid that hate will destroy the needed object
and turns the hate toward the self.
The schizoid personality fears that not only hate, but also love will
devour and destroy. (Kernberg  would use borderline personal-
ity in this formulation.) The schizoidal core of personality is constantly
oscillating between the fear of being engulfed and devoured by the ob-
ject and losing the object. This puts the person in a conflict between
the objectless world of nothingness, or the death of being absorbed into
Guntrip believed that this results from a relationship with a mother
who is alternately narcissistically impinging and rejecting. (Addition-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 15
ally, a child’s temperament can also be a factor.) The emotional frustra-
tion proves too much for the primitive ego. The pristine ego splits into
the central ego, which copes with external reality. The internal ego is
left with the world of introjected objects.
The internal ego is further divided into the libidinal and anti-libidinal
egos. They internally struggle between having needs and wishing fulfill-
ment, and negating needs and refusing fulfillment.
These internal dynamics are played out in marital relationship as
one spouse secretly hopes that the other will act to reject and deny
needs according to internal anti-libidinal wishes.
Finally, the split-off and regressed ego goes into cold storage, and
this regressed ego, which Winnicott (1955) refers to as the “true self,”
awaits a new love object or idealized parent figure to whom it can at-
tach and grow.
All this draws off enormous energy from the central ego’s ability to
invest in the external world. In the infant’s frustration at trying to mas-
ter the external world, the child seeks to internally represent the frus-
trating needed object, as if to inoculate him or her with small dosages
of the bad mother. However, the introject is too toxic and becomes a
fifth column or internal saboteur. The introject becomes further split
into the libidinally exciting, the libidinally rejecting, and finally the ide-
This idealized object is projected back onto the external object. The
external object can then be pursued with less momentary anxiety. The
infant can feel secure. This idealization is at an enormous cost, for it
maintains the internal split of the immature aspects of the bad objects
that are later projected onto one’s spouse or child.
The idealizations are best maintained outside the realm of intimacy.
The idealized love object aids biologically in the mating desires im-
plicit in marriage, but quickly turns to bitter disappointment.
Guntrip describes the schizoid’s dilemma of not being able to be in
a relationship when the external object becomes noxious, but not being
16 An Expert Look at Love
able to be out of it for fear of losing the needed and valued object. This
in-and-out program may be reflected in the moving in-and-out of a re-
lationship, changing of partners, or anything that promises an alterna-
tive to commitment.
Fantasies and infatuations with others are another way of preserv-
ing a sense of freedom from absorption into a devouring object. The
schizoidal fear of being smothered, possessed, or absorbed leads to a
greater fear of a positive loving relationship than of a negatively hos-
tile one. Anger, disappointment, or disinterest presents a rationale for
distancing out of a relationship and into safety.
Splitting of the needed object generally attempts to stabilize the in-
ternal world as well as the social world. To be “in” with the spouse may
mean being “out” with one’s friends, parents, or children. This repre-
sents an often-dangerous cost that psychotherapy hopes to resolve.
In the psychoanalytic relationship a person’s idealizations, devalu-
ations, black-and-white splitting of issues, disappointments, and fears
become the focus. The person can develop a realistic ambivalence to-
ward the therapist and then his or her parents. A realistic ambivalence
(seeing all sides of a person) to one’s self and intimates represents a
higher order of structural maturity.
For healthy love to occur, a person must evolve from primitive con-
creting feelings of splits of all good and all bad objects. People need an
existential emotional acceptance of humanity and its limitations and re-
Dealing with our family of origin both as internal objects and as real
people, can help us love better. Yet people are surprisingly protective
of the systems from which they originate despite their complaints.
Framo (1976) maintains that dealing with the real external parental
figures tends to loosen the grip of the internal representations of these
bad objects, which have been transferred and projected onto the spouse.
Framo particularly stresses the need to acknowledge the love that may
have turned to hate through disappointment.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 17
The existential awareness of what can no longer be gotten from a
person’s parents and accepting them for who they are, helps an individ-
ual to go on and to invest in his or her spouse.
I suspect, however, that the key factor is working through the patho-
logical idealization of the family of origin. All individuals retain an un-
conscious and defensively maintained idealization of their families,
even the most embittered individuals. They often unrealistically wait
for a healthy family reaction.
Within the context of therapy sessions, individuals can more objec-
tively observe the original family’s operations. They have a greater
sense of the frustrations and hurts that came about and that give mean-
ing to their oversensitivities and fears within the context of their mar-
riage. The costly idealizations of their family of origin means
displacing the bad object onto a spouse or child. By understanding the
feelings that arose from the original frustrating love object, the inten-
sity of the transferences and projective identifications (provocations)
onto the spouse can become diminished.
Falling in love can be a hoped-for rejoining of the idealized but lost
early love object. However, personality is still embedded in the origi-
nal system. Thus, the spouse becomes the target of the unfinished hurts
Marriage is a natural institution where individuals can regress. I try
to turn the destructive regression into an opportunity for personal
growth. The feelings in the relationship are often unconscious repre-
sentations of emotional history and a person’s internal object world.
I ask patients to differentiate to what extent their feelings are com-
ing from their patterns and history and how much of their feeling are
based on what the spouse actually did. Too much emotional reaction to
a trigger can become a hint of transference, projection or projective
The degree of affect often puts the situation into perspective.
Spouses will find it easier to be empathic, once they reduce their dis-
tortions of the other.
18 An Expert Look at Love
Marriage can be viewed within the contexts of both object relations
theory and systems theory. Object relations theory provides the under-
standing of the unconscious distortions and defenses that become in-
tensified in a marital situation. The marital partner represents the
internal, idealized and bad objects. Marital tensions arise out of the
spouses’ intensified cyclical transferences, projections, and projective
identifications onto one another.
Systems theory views the locus of pathology between the spouses.
Individuals are embedded within systems, and they will compromise
their maturity by producing symptoms in order to stay emotionally
within the original family. They will reenact these symptoms within the
new family of procreation.
The combined view of systems and object relations theories allows
for a wide range of intervention possibilities. The locus of the therapeu-
tic interventions should be based on the accessibility of the patients.
Psychoanalytic treatment for the more insightful patient will lead to the
most personal growth. The analytic intimacy gets to the level of emo-
tionally working through internal toxic objects.
The overall therapeutic goal is to change the marital system from
a destructive reinforcement of the internal bad objects, to an opportu-
nity to regress, exorcise toxic aspects of the self, and learn to love
Chapter 3 Measuring Individual Traits
One of the first things that a scientist does is to classify and mea-
sure. A good way to measure personality is with objective psychologi-
cal tests. “How to Pick a Good Apple” was written by Debra Kay
Woolever Bennett and me for the October 1986 issue of Security Man-
agement to explain in lay terms the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Per-
sonality Inventory) and its value for security screening.
“The Insider Study,” issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Com-
mission (NRC), reported that of eleven incidents involving a potential
threat to public safety during a three-year period, all were due to inside
In its continued interest to learn about the best way to hire the right
employees, the NRC commissioned a study. Psychologists F. D. Frank,
B. S. Lindley, and R. A. Cohen (1981) found the Minnesota Multipha-
sic Personality Inventory (MMPI) superior to the polygraph, personal
interviews, other psychological tests, and reference checks or recom-
mendations when the criteria for tests included validity, reliability,
compliance with legal issues, employee selection procedures, personal
effects on the applicant, and susceptibility to faking.
The MMPI is a true/false questionnaire that measures many com-
ponents of personality and is considered the best objective tool for as-
sessing psychopathology. The MMPI has over 10,000 research studies
spanning over forty years, including norms based on 50,000 medical
patients from the Mayo Clinic.
MMPI scores are based on how individuals choose to respond to a
pattern of items in comparison to how a known diagnostic group re-
sponds. The test was not constructed based on how psychologists
thought people would react to different items. For example, psy-
chopaths respond to certain questions on the Psychopathic Deviate
20 An Expert Look at Love
1I correlated 150 MMPI scales with my sample of MMPIs so that I might better understand what the many
scales measure. The results of this study is available at my online MMPI-2 interpretive guide at
scale of the MMPI in a characteristic way—they tend to deny things
about themselves in a manner typical of psychopaths. The MMPI es-
tablished norms for psychopaths and other groups.
Dahlstrom, Welsh, and Dahlstrom (1972) concluded that the MMPI
has “proven to be more dependable across situations and across patient
populations than human judges with different levels of training, differ-
ent diagnostic philosophies, and different kinds of clinical experiences.”
I (R. M. Gordon) saw the potential for using computerized MMPI
reports in 1980 when the microcomputer became available. I developed
reports that would generate objective decision rules for classifying test
profiles as “pass”, “fail”, or “indeterminate” security risk.
After investigating the best decision rules to utilize in the report, I
tested the predictive validity of these rules by comparing them to actual
case studies. I administered my MMPI report to 52 outpatients.
The MMPI authors, Hathaway and McKinley, developed the MMPI
for psychiatric inpatients. The original clinical scales are: Hypochon-
driasis, Depression, Hysteria, Psychopathic Deviate, Masculinity-
Femininity, Paranoia, Psychasthenia, Schizophrenia, Hypomania, and
In my computerized report, I added additional scales related to se-
curity risk. These scales measure: threat of suicide, violence, hostility,
addiction proneness, blocking evidence of personal error, authority
conflicts, resisting being told what to do, and poor work attitudes.
I also included positive personality factors such as intellectual effi-
ciency, ability to tolerate confrontations, and self-sufficiency.1
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 21
All testees were interviewed and rated on a scale of 0 to 3 where
0 indicated no risk and 3 indicated a definitive security risk.
The results indicated that all people considered a security risk were
detected—8 out of 52 (100% hit rate). The decision rules also passed
everyone who should have been passed. The decision rules produced
an overall hit rate of 84%.
It is important not to fail someone just because of any psycho-
pathology. However, indications of psychotic traits (poor perception
of reality, confused thinking, delusions, poor emotional controls) and
psychopathic traits (poor impulse control, hostility, addiction prone-
ness, poor judgment, irresponsibility) are clear bases for a failure.
Assuming that a failure is any sign of psychopathology (any ele-
vated MMPI clinical scale or indication of faking to look good or bad),
approximately 50% of laborers and 30% of office workers would fail
according to a sample of 3,300 nuclear plant workers. This would give
too high a fail rate (too many false positives). After a clinical interview,
a final fail rate should range between 1% and 5%.
Drs. Baird, Gerdes, Martenis, and I found that 132 out of 3,300
(4%) nuclear plant workers failed both the MMPI screening and subse-
This showed that although many people experience emotional
problems, few people could be considered potentially dangerous.
Personality states are brief. In contrast, personality traits result
from a combination of inherited temperament and childhood relation-
ships with parents. These personality traits usually endure for a life-
time. The MMPI measures personality traits that cause personal and
interpersonal distress and impairment. The MMPI in combination with
an interview is valuable in detecting possible personality traits that are
associated with poor judgment, mood disorders, impaired reality test-
ing, authority conflicts, hostility, paranoia, impulsiveness, and addic-
tion proneness. Although it is hard to predict who will be dangerous,
22 An Expert Look at Love
the combination of an MMPI and a clinical interview can scientifically
narrow the field and help to select reliable staff.
However, assessment does not stop at a single testing. The manage-
ment needs to have an ongoing recognition of emotional and stress
problems in others. Supervisors will need to refer workers for assess-
ment when they suspect an escalation of symptoms over time.
Chapter 4 Treating Others Well
Love is not enough to maintain good intimacies. We need to treat
each other fairly and respectfully or the love will fade. We reserve our
most courteous behaviors for guests, while we tend to regress to our
worst behaviors for those closest to us.
Over time, tensions build in relationships. Unfortunately, it is
human nature to put more weight on disappointments than apprecia-
tion. We seem to habituate to love and care, and remain over-reactive
to hurts. We often devalue and displace our frustrations onto intimates.
Of course, we have our rationalizations for this poor behavior.
However, the standard of ethics is not based on rationalizations.
The standard is best summarized by how you would want to be treated.
People who consciously try to live by a reasonable code of ethics tend
to have more contentment, better relationships, and meaning in life.
There are some basic universal ethical principles:
1. Do no harm.
2. Do good.
4. Respectfulness of other’s autonomy.
5. Honesty, fairness, and justice.
6. Reliability and responsibility to others.
Psychologists make this implicit and sometimes explicit in psy-
chotherapy. It is not so much what a parent says, but how that parent
acts that affects children. The same is true for the psychotherapeutic re-
lationship. The therapist needs to be a role model and create an ethical
frame around the treatment. The therapeutic relationship is corrective
24 An Expert Look at Love
“Ethics Based on Protection of the Transference” was published
in Issues in Psychoanalytic Psychology in 1993, after I presented this
paper as an invited address at the Washington Square Institute. I was
serving as a representative from Pennsylvania on the American Psycho-
logical Association’s governing council when we were debating and
voting on our revisions to our ethical code.
This revision of our ethical code for the tenth time since 1953 was
necessitated in part because more psychologists had entered private
practice. At first, our profession was dominated by researchers and not
I heard during my Ph.D. program and subsequently from most of
my colleagues, that there is no such thing as “transference and counter-
transference.” Yet as we debated a new ethics code, it was our own legal
advisers who warned us to deal with transference and countertransfer-
ence issues to help avoid ethical and malpractice problems.
The ethics code, despite the anti-psychoanalytic bias of most psy-
chologists, had evolved to become more like the psychoanalytic ground
rules. This revision reflects an unintended validation of standard psy-
choanalytic ground rules that are relevant to all treatment situations.
Freud (1915) described the ground rules of therapy and the bound-
aries of the therapist–patient relationship. The rule of neutrality is to
help guard against the analyst’s own problems, biases, and values from
interfering with the treatment (countertransference). This is respectful
of the patient’s autonomy.
The rule of abstinence is to deny any inappropriate gratifications in
the therapeutic relationship for either the therapist or the patient, so that
the therapeutic work does not get derailed.
Freud understood that psychotherapy involves a therapeutic rela-
tionship that was both symbolic and real. For this relationship to remain
therapeutic, the symbolic nature of it had to be protected. The patient
would unconsciously repeat problems in the relationship with the ther-
apist (transference). For it to be a therapeutic experience, the therapist
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 25
must allow the patient to use the therapist as a symbol and as a con-
tainer for all that is conflicted and unresolved. This transference of
emotional issues needs to be protected and analyzed.
Fees are not looked at as something apart from the therapeutic rela-
tionship, but a critical aspect of the treatment itself. A patient can un-
consciously communicate anger and power issues through payment and
scheduling problems. If a therapist misses this, it sends a message that
the treatment is only on the concrete superficial level of overt symptoms.
In the psychotherapeutic relationship, confidentiality and privacy
are not simply a courtesy as in medical practice. The holding of secrets
and forbidden issues are one of the most important factors in the treat-
ment itself. The deeper the treatment, the more this is an issue.
For the unconscious to feel safe to unleash its secrets, there needs
to be a very strict frame around the relationship. Extra-analytic contacts
are avoided to protect the symbolic nature of the relationship. I often
hear patients remember and reveal things they did not express in treat-
ments that just focused on their symptoms and did not have a strict psy-
No other psychotherapeutic treatment involves as many ground rules
as does psychoanalytically informed treatment. Cognitive-behavioral
treatments put the irrational thought at the locus of pathology. There-
fore, the relationship and the holding environment are not central to the
Psychoanalytic theory puts the locus of functional psychopathology
in early development and in the formation of a dynamic unconscious.
Relationships are a critical factor in the development of symptoms.
Personality is the result of the external interaction with parents with
the innate drives, affects, and temperament. The child forms good and
bad objects that are the internalizations of the perceptions of primary
Intimate relationships are central to analytic thinking. Along with
the psychoanalytic interventions (listening, questioning, clarifying,
26 An Expert Look at Love
confronting, interpreting, and reconstruction of the emotional past), the
therapeutic relationship itself may be the most important aspect of per-
sonal growth. The therapist needs to be the good container of the pa-
Since intimate relationships often cause problems, the psychother-
apeutic relationship needs strict ground rules. We all can regress in in-
timacy. We feel rage and passion in close relationships. Regardless of
the type of psychotherapy, the same forces are in operation.
Psychoanalytic theory has evolved treatment conditions that are as
inherently ethical as they are therapeutic. This is because psychoanaly-
sis is not a science of what is conscious and manifest, but what is un-
conscious and latent. The unconscious personality holds primitive
impulses that need to be integrated into a mature ego.
There is reason to expect problems when the relationship is limited
to only what is superficial. People will always try to repeat the sym-
bolic past in relationships. Psychoanalysis is based on this assumption
and acts to protect the symbolic nature of the relationship. This pro-
motes an ethical practice that is empathic with the needs and not the de-
mands of the patient.
Psychoanalytic theory assumes that the patient will demand grati-
fication from the relationship, but needs to work through the past in the
symbolic relationship. To protect this symbolic relationship is to pro-
tect the patient’s treatment.
Wallwork’s recent book, Psychoanalysis and Ethics (1991), argues
that Freud’s discoveries have made us aware that unconscious motiva-
tions may subvert moral conduct. In addition, those moral judgments
may be rationalizations of self-interest or expressions of hostility. He
quotes Julian Huxley: “The greatest change since 1893 in our attitude
towards the great problems of ethics has been due to the new facts and
new approach provided by modern psychology; and that in turn owes
its rise to the genius of Freud” (p. I).
Wallwork believed that Freud was critical of a hostile superego-
determined ethic. He did feel that Freud’s work supports an ethical the-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 27
ory based on a concept of regard for others, concern for the common
good, and individual rights.
Freud once commented that people might disagree with his theo-
ries by day, but dream according to them by night. Likewise, many psy-
chotherapists may be critical of Freud’s theories, but will have to
practice by his ground rules if they wish to avoid problems. The basic
nature of people does not change from therapy to therapy.
“Handling Transference and Countertransference Issues with
the Difficult Patient” was published in the Pennsylvania Psychologist
Quarterly in 1997. It was part of several articles I published over the
years for the Pennsylvania Psychological Association on the topic of
ethics and self-care. Most psychologists (and psychiatrists) did not
have their own insight psychotherapy as part of their training. Most
were not even taught about transference and countertransference issues
in school since it was considered a “Freudian myth” by the prevailing
behavioral and cognitive-behavioral academicians.
Subsequently, too many got into trouble. In this and other articles,
I explained psychoanalytic concepts to some psychologists who might
be anti-psychoanalytic. I warned that they could be caught in difficult
situations with patients if they do not at least learn about a psychoana-
lytic understanding of unconscious dynamics that occur in all treat-
ments regardless of their interventions.
If I were to develop an MMPI type “Lie” scale just for psycholo-
gists, two questions would be: “Did you ever have sexual feelings to-
ward a patient?” and “Did you ever feel like cursing at a patient?”
As with the MMPI Lie scale items, they mean different things in
different contexts. That is, therapists would have problems with im-
pulse and boundaries if they acted these items out.
On the other hand, I would not trust a therapist who said “False” to
any of the above. I would consider that therapist too defensive and in-
sightless about countertransference feelings to be a good therapist. I
would also fear that such a therapist will eventually become sympto-
matic, by acting out or burning out.
28 An Expert Look at Love
The countertransference feelings, that is, the triggering of the ther-
apist’s own conflicts while doing therapy, are common. The therapist
is a trigger for the patient, i.e., “transference,” and the patient is a trig-
ger for the therapist, “countertransference.”
In addition, when therapists get into trouble with difficult patients, it is
usually because they mismanaged the transference and countertransference.
I might ask myself why a patient is being seductive with me. Does
she have an impulse problem? Is she trying to get control over the treat-
ment? Is she trying to master Oedipal-developmental issues? What is
she repeating with me in action that she is not yet able to use with in-
sight and conscious language?
When I am feeling anger at a patient, I wonder why this patient is
infuriating me. Does he fear me? Is he trying to get me to reject him?
Was his need to fight with me his way of testing my ability to stand him?
I consider what feelings are being stirred up in me and how they
might be affecting my timing, tone, objectivity, and interventions. This
is using the transference and countertransference for better understand-
ing of the patient and me.
I had a psychoanalysis. I drove about 60 miles to Philadelphia,
4 days a week for 5 years. More than any part of my professional edu-
cation and training, my analysis has been the most useful part of my
ability to do good work.
When I am stirred up by a difficult patient, I can get to my issues
and self-soothe. I then can go back to my patient without acting out,
getting too upset, or saying something dominated more by counter-
transference than empathy. I can remain a good emotional container for
I am not saying that every therapist should have an analysis regard-
less of their personal theoretical biases. However, I do believe that all
therapists should know what triggers them, and know their areas of vul-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 29
nerability and conflict. This is necessary to do good work. I am not sure
how this can be done without some form of insight psychotherapy.
I have been working with psychotherapists for several years. When
they act out or start to burn out, it is largely due to the issues that are
stirred up inside of them, causing more symptoms than insight. I con-
sider it important for every therapist from time to time to have a men-
tal health checkup. Freud recommended that analysts return to analysis
about every five years. This should be regardless of the kind of psycho-
logical treatment the therapist is offering, since any treatment will suf-
fer according to the therapist’s blind spots and personal issues.
Therapists are the toxic waste dump of their patients. It is very
stressful, and therapists, like anyone else, use denial and rationalization
when they are needy and regressed. Many therapists were raised in the
role of a therapist within their family of origin, where they were ex-
pected to deny their own needs in favor of caring for others. Because
of this, many therapists do not directly feel their unmeet needs.
Therapists can get in trouble acting out their countertransference—
with sophisticated rationalizations. They can be caught in the powerful
web of the transference and countertransference dynamics, and end up
hurting people and destroying their professional lives.
The phenomenon of transference does not know a theoretical orien-
tation. In transference, we unknowingly transfer the past onto the pre-
sent. We all do it to some degree most of the time. Transferences are
particularly activated with differences in power, such as caregiver–
receiver, teacher–student, boss–subordinate type relationships. With
greater degrees of commitment and dependency, transference is stronger.
The helping relationship activates the powerfully conflicted
child–parent relationship, which is a powder keg of feelings. The pa-
tient does not care whether you are doing biofeedback, behavior ther-
apy, or psychoanalysis; you will get the same transferences. It just may
not be as overt as in analytic therapy. Nevertheless, the patient will still
go through the same periods of honeymoon idealization, then devalua-
tion, resistances, and acting out.
30 An Expert Look at Love
Just as children start out in love with their parents and by adoles-
cence become profoundly disappointed in them, so will our patients go
through similar stages of idealization and devaluation, and repeat the
same traumas with revenge.
When patients see us, they are also distorting us in terms of every-
thing that is unresolved in them and their past. This is regardless of your
interest in this phenomenon. A psychoanalytic therapist uses these dis-
tortions as the focus of the treatment. However, the nonanalytic thera-
pist gets the same reactions. These reactions, though not interpreted,
should be understood and managed for the sake of the patient.
I often assess psychologists who were in trouble due to a failure to
understand and manage transference and countertransference. They
commonly said that they never learned much about it in graduate school,
or learned that it was just applicable to Freudian theory. They thought
that if they did not believe in it, then they need not concern themselves
with it. That is like physicians saying that since they do not practice, as
did Louis Pasteur, they need not concern themselves with germs.
Some psychologists may not believe in transference and counter-
transference, but the malpractice courts do. Mishandling transference
and countertransference is often considered as an act of unprofessional
conduct by state licensing boards and is considered an issue of malprac-
tice by the courts.
While an analytic therapist would be expected to interpret and work
with transferences, the nonanalytic therapist is expected to understand
and manage transference. Managing transference starts with the ac-
knowledgment that all relationships are objective and subjective, real
and symbolic at the same time.
Your patients may stay with you through their distortions because
they sense the reality of your maturity, fairness, warmth, and empathy.
This may help them master their aggression when they need to hate you
in the transference. As an analytic psychologist, I let this develop and
then carefully interpret its meaning.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 31
However, if I were doing behavior therapy, I would manage the
transference aggression. I would do this by clarifying our roles, clarify-
ing the treatment, and clarifying the ground rules and goals of treatment.
A hostile patient might say, “You are using me, taking my money
and I am getting worse!”
The therapist needs to realize that while in the transference the pa-
tient has a diminished reality of the therapist. The therapist is perceived
as a dangerous object to the patient.
This calls for a reality clarification by the therapist. The reality clar-
ification serves to restore the reality of the person and role of the ther-
apist and the reality of the therapeutic work. This is the primary way
for any therapist to manage the transference.
In analytic therapy, this is an opportunity to go deeper into interpret-
ing an internal bad object. Otherwise, just restore the reality of your re-
lationship and go on with your work, whatever your theoretical
For example, the therapist might say, “You brought me your long-
standing symptoms, and asked for my help. Your symptoms will con-
tinue to wax and wane until you can better control them. I can try to
help only by your coming to these sessions, here in my office, and fol-
lowing our agreed plan of treatment. Now tell me more about what is
upsetting you. I will try to help you the best that I can.”
This clarification has the key elements of reminding the patient
(they forget) that you are a psychologist and that he or she is the pa-
tient. They came to you for help for their symptoms. You do some sort
of humble treatment. You are not their mother, father, bad self, or lover.
You clarify the reality of the roles, tasks, boundaries, and ground rules
You will need to frequently repeat this with patients who have poor
reality testing. You bring them back to the present from feelings trans-
ferred from their past child–parent relationships.
32 An Expert Look at Love
All therapists can benefit from understanding that the patient will
transfer feelings, memories, perceptions, and dramas from the past onto
them. Managing transference means reminding the patient about the re-
ality of the present therapeutic relationship. This will be a constant need
with the difficult patient. They would rather repeat the past with you
I am convinced that regardless of the type of treatment you do, the
more you understand transference and countertransference, the more
empathy you will have for your patients, and the more you will enjoy
your work, with less chance of trouble.
“Boundary: Protection, Limits and Safety”, was published in the
Pennsylvania Psychologist, in 2000. The therapeutic relationship re-
quires a secure boundary that is neither too rigid nor too permeable. For
example, when a patient gives a gift to the therapist, it can mean any
number of things in addition to being a simple gift.
The acceptance of a gift could communicate to the patient that the
therapy is on a superficial level, and the therapist is unempathic. Em-
pathy does not mean being nice. It is about accurately reading motives
that are unconscious.
Too rigid a boundary would be characterized by refusing something
like Christmas cookies, or refusing to acknowledge a patient in an ele-
vator. Either might cause more injury than insight. Too loose a bound-
ary communicates to the patient that acting out is the better way to
reduce tension, as compared to insight.
Parents need to provide both a physical and emotional holding of
the child that provides a sense of limits and safety. For Winnicott (1965),
the analyst’s protective environment, conveyed by strict ground rules,
allows the patient to test the limits and then feel secure to work on a level
of developmental arrests, rather than focus on superficial symptoms.
Patients need to have and test limits to grow. Boundaries help to
“childproof” the therapeutic milieu, so one is free to explore repressed
and disown parts of one’s unconscious self.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 33
Children need warmth, limits, empathy, emotional containment,
and protection in order to have personal growth, and so do patients.
Ethical Behavior within the Couple
Couples tend to regress in intimacy and feel entitled to treat each
other poorly. The basis of this behavior is usually rooted in immature
personality traits and unresolved issues with parents that get transferred
onto one’s partner. I developed a workbook to help individuals better
understand how their personalities affect their intimacies. In I Love You
Madly! Workbook: Insight Enhancement about Healthy and Disturbed
Love Relations (Gordon, 2007b), in the chapter “On Being Construc-
tive,” I discuss the use of apology and fair fighting:
The Use of Apology in Relationships
People who favor primitive defenses have problems with a true
apology. They regulate their self-esteem by externalizing blame. How-
ever, without an (1) insightful, (2) responsible, and (3) remorseful
apology, the relationship remains damaged and does not heal. Emo-
tionally immature people see an apology as a humiliation. However,
the act of apology is an expression of maturity. It has the power to help
All intimacies have aggression in them. The trick is to fight fair and
constructively by learning to:
1. Lodge a complaint in a factual manner.
2. State how you feel and what you would like.
3. Express your emotions such as anger in a mature fashion.
34 An Expert Look at Love
4. Stay on the topic.
5. Fight to be understood, not to get your way.
6. Negotiate needs, weigh evidence.
7. Never be mean.
8. Take time out if things escalate.
9. Apologize and admit that you are wrong.
10. Resolve fights quickly and get back to getting along.
Chapter 5 Medea and Parental Alienation
One way to abuse children is to use them for one’s own dysfunc-
tional needs. The children may be loved, but they are harmed by ex-
ploitive love. “The Medea Complex and the Parental Alienation
Syndrome: When Mothers Damage Their Daughter’s Ability to
Love a Man” was a chapter I wrote that was published in 1998 in the
book The Mother–Daughter Relationship Echoes through Time.
Dr. Gerd H. Fenchel ran a successful conference on the mother–
daughter relationship and later asked if I wished to contribute a
chapter to his book on the subject. That was the only type of family re-
lationship I did not experience and I felt that it was a mystery for me. I
did, however, have experience with the mother–daughter relationship
through my work as a court-appointed child custody evaluator and as a
I had seen the effects of a parent turning his or her (self-object)
child against the other parent without justification. It is not only cruel
to the alienated parent, but it produces lifelong harm to the child. It is
psychological child abuse.
I first presented on Parental Alienation Syndrome soon after Richard
Gardner published his first book on it in 1987. In 1987, I presented “Sug-
gestions on the Use of the MMPI in Child Custody Evaluations: Case
Examples of Detecting Paranoia in False Negative Profiles” at the 10th
International Conference on Personality Assessment in Brussels, Bel-
gium. I felt that Parental Alienation Syndrome involved paranoia.
Although Parental Alienation Syndrome is induced by mothers, fa-
thers, grandparents, and same-sex parents, it is far more common with
mothers. We are more likely to abuse the people who are most avail-
able and under our power. Men tend to abuse women, and mothers are
more likely to abuse their children.
36 An Expert Look at Love
In my child custody evaluation work, I have seen many mothers
aggress against their children’s fathers by turning their children against
him. In the process, they do great harm to their children. When I work
with patients who were turned against a parent, they often have a great
deal of resistance. It is as if their whole house of cards would crash
down if they realized that they were wrong. The person’s core sense of
reality seems shaken; “If my mother lied to me about my father, then
can I trust her love for me?” Therefore, there is a great deal of resis-
tance to the awareness of having been brainwashed.
I believe that brainwashing by a mother is both more common and
more powerful than that of a father, since the child’s bond with the
mother is usually more primitive. Such brainwashing and alienation
usually leads to a lifelong problem with establishing and maintaining a
I will discuss the following topics: The mother–daughter bond, the
Medea Complex (the mother’s revenge against the father by depriving
him of his children), brainwashing (repeating the learned hostility) and
the Parental Alienation Syndrome (the children’s pathological wish to
please the “loved” parent by rejecting the “hated” parent). I will also
discuss the subsequent disturbed intimacies that the alienating child
suffers later in life, and a case history of three generations of Parental
I will bring together two separate issues: the Medea Complex and
the Parental Alienation Syndrome. I believe that the Medea Complex in
divorcing mothers is a frequent cause of Parental Alienation Syndrome.
The Mother–Daughter Bond
Mothers are more likely than fathers to be alienators and brain-
washers (Gardner, 1987). Mothers are more likely to take out their ag-
gression on their children. Selma Kramer (1995) refers to Steele’s
research (1970) in stating that children are more physically abused by
their mothers, and sexually abused by their fathers. Women may have
fewer means of expressing power, and therefore may use their own chil-
dren as scapegoats.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 37
The mother’s brainwashing of a daughter is particularly powerful
due to the daughter’s identification with the mother. Juni and Grimm
(1993), in their study of adults and their parents, found that the strongest
relationships were between mother–daughter and father–son dyads.
Troll (1987) found that mother–daughter relationships “appear to be
more complex, ambivalent and ambiguous than do other parent–child
Olver, Aries, and Batgos (1989) found that, “First born women had
the least separate sense of self and reported the greatest degree of ma-
ternal involvement and intrusiveness....Men showed a more separate
sense of self than women.” They also found that mothers were reported
to be more highly involved with and intrusive in the lives of their
daughters than their sons.
Gerd Fenchel (1998) points out that the mother–daughter relation-
ship is a primitive latent homosexual one that is intense and ambiva-
lent; one that requires first fusion, then separation for the proper
development to occur.
When the mother encourages her daughter to see her father as bad,
this can cause an Oedipal fixation in that the daughter may be attracted
to men who will mistreat her, or she may mistreat them. The daughter
will also have problems with separation from the mother and have prob-
lems with attachment and abandonment with subsequent love objects.
The son has his mother as his Oedipal love object, but is aided in
his separation from her when he must go to his father for his male iden-
tity. The daughter is more closely tied to her mother as both a primary
love object and source of her identity. Her Oedipal drive toward the fa-
ther fosters development in helping her to separate from her mother and
to master the outside world, which father represents.
If the mother devalues the father and sees separation as betrayal, the
daughter does not make that necessary break from her mother. The
daughter remains too attached to the parasitic mother. The daughter is
likely to become insecure, dependent, and have love disturbances.
38 An Expert Look at Love
Fathers are very important to their daughter’s feminine develop-
ment. Biller’s research review (1971) supports the belief that girls who
had positive relationships with their fathers were more likely to have
satisfying intimacies. When a mother poisons her daughter’s love of her
father, she is also damaging her daughter’s ability to maturely love any
man. The mother is programming her daughter to be her ego extension
without a will of her own, and to be with her and no one else, narcis-
Although both boys and girls are greatly harmed when they are
turned against a parent, the harm is often different. Studies indicate that
boys suffer the most harm when they are stuck with mothers who ex-
press hostility toward their fathers—the source of their male identity
In keeping with the theme of the mother–daughter relationship, I
will focus only on the mother–daughter bond in the Parental Alienation
Syndrome. Although the daughter’s self-esteem may not suffer as
much as the son’s may, her ability to deal with separation and mature
relationships with men is very deeply affected.
Wallerstein’s (1989) 10-year longitudinal study of girls from divorced
families found that the nature of the mother–daughter relationship, and the
daughter’s identification with her mother, were predictive of the daugh-
ter’s ability to have healthy relationships with men later on. Daughters
who identified with hostile mothers had the poorest adjustment.
A woman has two internal sexual love objects, the mother
representation—the original love object, and the father representation—
the later Oedipal love object. Both affect object choice.
A man has a narrower band of attraction. His love for a woman will
always be affected by his internal mother representation. He has his
mother as his ever-powerful love object. His father is a latent homosex-
ual love object and source of identification that does not play the same
gyroscopic object role as does the mother. A man will not marry a
woman like his father.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 39
A woman, however, will choose a man in reaction to her mother
and/or her father. If the daughter is turned against her father by a hos-
tile paranoid mother (which is often the case), the daughter has inter-
nally two core love objects, the hostile mother and the devalued father.
These internal objects will guide her love choices and her behaviors in
relationships with men. By picking, provoking, or by distorting, she
will try to repeat her emotional past with men.
At this point, I wish to make the important distinction between the
emotional past and the “actual” past. Our neuroses may be based on
real events as well as on false perceptions and fantasies. For example,
the child is traumatized by the belief and not the reality of the “hated”
parent. The child might consciously hate that parent, yet at the un-
conscious level, the child often secretly loves that parent, who was, in
fact, loving. The “loved” parent may be loved on the conscious level,
but feared and hated on the unconscious level.
A patient may start therapy claiming that she was traumatized by
her father. She may later realize in therapy that her trauma was based
on her mother’s exploitation and hostility.
Why would a mother do such harm to her own children? The story
of Medea may help us to understand such motives. The Greek drama
served the purpose to entertain and be therapeutic. Plays were to pro-
vide a catharsis for the collective unspoken traumas and pains of the au-
dience. These classic stories express most beautifully powerful human
conflicts characteristic of our universal psychology.
The Medea Complex: The Myth
Euripides wrote Medea around 400 b.c. It is a story of intense love
turned to such intense hate that Medea killed her own children to get
back at her husband for betraying her.
Medea was so madly in love with Jason that she tricked her own fa-
ther, King Aeetes, who guarded the Golden Fleece, and killed her own
brother so that Jason could steal the Golden Fleece. (Jason might have
40 An Expert Look at Love
done well to consider how she treated her father and brother before he
Eventually, Jason left Medea to marry yet another princess. Medea
planned her revenge. The chorus blames Aphrodite for causing all the
trouble, in having intense passion turns to hate. (The Greeks displaced
psychodynamics onto the gods.)
Medea offered the bride gifts of a beautiful robe and chaplet. When
Jason’s new bride put on the gifts, her head and body burst into flame
and she died a horrible, painful death. When her father embraced her,
he too burst into flames and died the same tortured death.
Medea then took her sword and killed their two children. The cho-
rus, amazed at the degree of Medea’s vengefulness, doubt that anything
can rival a mother’s slaughter of her own innocent children.
Medea escaped Jason with a dragon drawn chariot. She taunted
Jason by not allowing him to embrace or bury his sons. She rejoiced at
having hurt him so.
Fred Pine (1995) refers to Medea as an example of a particular form
of hatred found in women. “Medea’s internal experience is a compound
of a sense of injury—a sense that builds to imagined public humiliation
and a sense of righteousness....The righteousness implied here in
‘the wrong they have dared to do to me’ has struck me clinically. It is
a frequent accompaniment of hate and hate-based rage. I think it stems
from something self-preservative (‘I have been so mistreated that I have
this right...’) and some flaw in the super-ego, possibly based on iden-
tification with the child’s experience of the rageful mother’s giving her-
self full permission—and without subsequent remorse—to express her
rage toward the child” (p. 109).
That is, Pine suspects that for a mother to be so destructive to her
own children, she herself must have been exposed to her own mother’s
Jacobs’s (1988) paper, titled “Euripides’ Medea: A Psychodynamic
Model of Severe Divorce Pathology,” views the Medea mother as “nar-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 41
cissistically scarred, embittered dependent woman...(who)...
attempts to sever father–child contact as a means of revenging the in-
jury inflicted on her by the loss of a self-object, her hero-husband.” Ja-
cobs feels that the Medea mother is dependent and that she cannot deal
with the loss. Therefore, she holds on to the relationship with hate.
Medea certainly has a flaw in her moral reasoning. We know this
early on when she betrays her father and kills her brother to help Jason
steal from them. However, she not only kills his new bride and her fa-
ther, but her own children.
Medea’s love turned to hate is so passionate that she destroys that
which intimacy between them produced. The hate goes beyond her in-
stinctive need to protect her own children. Medea must make Jason suf-
fer more than she suffered for it to be revenge.
Jason: “You loved them, and killed them”
Medea: “To make you feel pain.”
The alienating mother’s rage is rooted in part in a wish to destroy
the child, whom she at some level resents being stuck with, and may
turn her rage into overprotectiveness as a reaction formation. She is un-
able to let her children separate from her. She tells them the harm that
will befall them when they are out of her control. The mother projects
her aggression onto the environment and then makes her children need
When the mother wishes to punish the father by turning their chil-
dren against him, she is also aggressing against the children. In her un-
conscious, both the husband and the children represent the same thing
(betrayal and potential betrayal), and destructiveness is wished on
In short, a mother who turns her children against their father prob-
ably has at least paranoid features within a borderline or psychotic per-
sonality structure (Gordon, 1987a). She cannot deal with the loss, and
remains tied to her (ex)husband in an intimate hate, and keeps her chil-
dren tied to her out of fear.
42 An Expert Look at Love
Brainwashing and Parental Alienation Syndrome
I agree with Gardner’s (1987) assessment that many mothers in cus-
tody disputes do some form of brainwashing. I have found that moth-
ers’ attempts to turn their children against their fathers in custody
disputes are common. I have also found that this is by far the most de-
structive aspect of divorce on children. I now consider parental alien-
ation of children as a form of child abuse, since it leads to enduring
Kelly’s (1993) longitudinal research of children’s post-divorce ad-
justment found that the majority of children adjust to divorce, and older
children express relief. Most symptoms last 6 months to 2 years post-
separation, and usually only involve adjustment disorders. (I discuss
this further in chapter 11, “Children of Divorce.”)
Only about 10% of divorcing couples with children fight over cus-
tody. Of this group, at least one parent often has hostile, egocentric, and
paranoid features. In a study of MMPIs given to parents in custody
evaluations, the MMPIs of the parents who lost the custody dispute had
significantly higher scores in Psychopathic Deviant (hostility), Para-
noia, and Mania (narcissistic and impulsive tendencies), than parents
who won the custody dispute (Otto and Collins, 1995).
Most children do adjust to divorce, except if a disturbed parent uses
them as a pawn to punish the other parent. This traumatizes the child, its
effects may be lifelong and often passed on generation after generation.
Gardner (1987) stated, “Although the mothers in these situations
may have a variety of motivations for programming their children
against their fathers, the most common one relates to the old saying,
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ . . . Because these mothers
are separated, and cannot retaliate directly at their husbands, they
wreak vengeance by attempting to deprive their former spouses of their
most treasured possessions, the children. And the brainwashing pro-
gram is an attempt to achieve this goal” (p. 87).
Gardner also feels that these mothers are aggressing against their own
children by brainwashing them against their fathers. “These mothers ex-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 43
hibit the mechanism of reaction formation, in that their obsessive love of
their children is often a cover-up for their underlying hostility...And
when these mothers “win,” they not only win custody, but they win total
alienation of their children from the hated spouse. The victory here re-
sults in psychological destruction of the children which, I believe, is what
they basically want anyway” (p. 87–88).
Brainwashing is a conscious act of programming the child against
the other parent. However, Gardner went on to describe what he refers
to as Parental Alienation Syndrome. The concept of Parental Alienation
Syndrome includes the brainwashing component, but is more inclusive.
It includes not only conscious but also unconscious factors within the
programming parent, which contribute to the child’s alienation from
the other parent.
Furthermore, it includes factors that arise within the child—
independent of the parental contributions. The child may justify the
alienation with memories of minor altercations experienced in the re-
lationship with the hated parent. These are usually trivial and are ex-
periences that most children quickly forget.
These children may even refuse to accept evidence that is obvious
proof of the hated parent’s position. Commonly these children will ac-
cept as 100% valid the allegations of the loved parent against the hated
one. “All human relationships are ambivalent...the concept of
‘mixed feelings’ has no place in these children’s scheme of things. The
hated parent is ‘all bad’ and the loved parent is ‘all good’” (Gardner,
1987, p. 73).
Dunne and Hedrick (1994) in their research found that Parental
Alienation Syndrome (PAS) “appeared to be primarily a function of the
pathology of the alienating parent and that parent’s relationship with
the children. PAS did not signify dysfunction in the alienated parent or
in the relationship between that parent and child” This study supports
Gardner’s definition of Parental Alienation Syndrome as a pathologi-
cal reaction to a parent, and not a conflict arising out the real relation-
ship with real abuse.
44 An Expert Look at Love
Gardner also refers to factors arising within the child who con-
tributes to Parental Alienation Syndrome, such as the fear of losing the
love of the alienating mother, since “the loved parent is feared much
more than loved” (p. 90).
Additionally, Oedipal factors are sometimes operative in Parental
Alienation Syndrome. A daughter may resent the father’s new female
partner, and may identify with her mother’s jealousy and rage, and the
daughter may revenge by rejecting him.
Damaged Ability for Separation and Intimacy
A daughter has her mother as the primary love object. Then she
shifts to her father as the Oedipal love object. These two internal ob-
jects guide her attractions and patterns of intimacy.
If she had a rejecting father, but a healthy loving mother, the daugh-
ter will have problems in her relationships with men. However, she has
a good prognosis for overcoming this problem. If her mother was
healthy, the daughter has a firm base from which to grow.
However, if her mother has a Medea Complex, the daughter is more
likely to have a damaged ability to love maturely. Both her primary love
object, the mother, and her Oedipal love object, the father, are internally
driving her to self-defeating relationships.
To love a man is to betray her mother. She can only love as she has
been taught and shown. The daughter will find unconscious ways to un-
dermine relationships by repeating love dramas.
A person can unconsciously undermine love relations in three
ways: picking (object choice), provoking (projective identification),
and distorting (transference and projection):
Picking: Denise came from an upper-middle-class family. Denise’s
mother refused to let her father visit her after their separation when
Denise was five. By the time the court ordered shared custody, Denise’s
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 45
mother had alienated her against her father. Denise refused to go with
him. When she did go, the Parental Alienation Syndrome was so en-
trenched that she provoked fights so bad that eventually her father dis-
continued the shared custody.
She had seen very little of her father since, and remained very close
with her overprotective paranoid mother.
Denise and her mother were very symbiotic. Denise was also very
protective of her mother, sensing her mother’s need for her. When
Denise entered treatment at age 34 she had not been married, nor has
she been able to be in an intimate relationship with a man for more than
2 years. She only had chemistry for men who were of a lower social
class, who were rejecting or abusive.
She often suffered from depression and anxiety. She had trouble
separating from her boyfriends. Denise was attracted to men who rep-
resented her mother’s and her own image of her father as a “bum.” Her
attraction was also based on her attachment to her mother, who was ex-
ploitive and destructive to Denise.
These two love objects, her mother’s view of the father and the hos-
tile mother, both formed her attraction to men. Denise fell in love with
men who were in fact both her mother and her fantasized Oedipal
father—tainted by the mother. She alternately saw me as the overly
controlling mother or as the rejecting abandoning father.
I actively confronted her trivial complaints against her father as ev-
idence of Parental Alienation Syndrome. As she worked through the
hostile transference in treatment, she began to realize how her mother
had distorted her father, and how her mother had used and injured her.
Toward the fifth year of analytic treatment, Denise developed a
warm trusting relationship with me. She was then able to feel deep at-
traction to and fall in love with a kind and reasonable man. When she
felt irrational aggression toward him, she was able to use insight about
her past programming. Denise also reconciled with her father and en-
joyed a new relationship with him.
46 An Expert Look at Love
Provoking: Lora came to treatment for phobias and general anxi-
ety. She had little psychological mindedness, and at age 37, though very
attractive, had only rationalizations to explain why she had only short-
term unhappy relationships with men.
She spoke about men as a typically disturbed gender. Her parents
fought bitterly until their separation when Lora was 10. She lived with
her mother, who told her that her father was mentally ill and often
made fun of him. She saw little of her father, who she devalued as in-
effectual and crazy.
When Lora would be in an intimate relationship, she would tell him
that she was easy going and got along with everyone. This was far from
the fact. She had little self-reflection. She would find the most outra-
geous ways to provoke her boyfriends. Even the meekest would be pro-
voked to outrage.
At that point Lora would distort the events and project the blame
for the conflict onto the boyfriend. She would tell him that he had dis-
torted everything because of his personal problems, but that she could
love him anyway.
Lora would commonly enact this with me. I would interpret her be-
havior to her, and she would somehow rewrite history and complain,
“You are projecting your personal problems onto me. How can I get
better if you don’t have your own head on straight?”
Lora was able to repeat her emotional past by provoking conflicts
in her relationships. She resisted any interpretations of her own aggres-
sion, or that she was distorting men as crazy and ineffectual. Lora was
too tied to her mother to be objective.
She constantly tried to provoke fights with me. The transference
was stormy, and she remained provocative and insightless. She soon
dropped out of treatment, thinking that I was more disturbed than her,
thus repeating her usual pattern.
Distorting: Sue entered treatment at age 46, with two failed mar-
riages and many failed affairs. Sue’s mother was diagnosed with
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 47
schizophrenia and was hospitalized several times when Sue was a
child. Although her parents remained together, it was a very conflicted
She did not feel close to her cold father. Her mother was unpre-
dictable and was often paranoid about her father. Her mother viewed
Sue’s developmental stages as betrayals and guilt induced Sue for her
attempts at becoming autonomous.
Her mother was hostile to her father and men in general, who were
considered the sole source of women’s suffering. (Although I define the
Medea mother in the context of divorce, the Medea Complex can exist
in marriage, where the mother has the paranoid perception of her hus-
band as psychologically abandoning her. She will turn the children
against him and damage her children just the same.)
Sue was high functioning in her job despite her borderline person-
ality disorder. She is intelligent and functioned well in her profession,
and had some close friendships. However, she regressed in intimacies.
She became paranoid and depressed in her relationships with men.
She would become extremely jealous, demanding, intolerant of
separations, controlling, and would have fits of rage as a reaction to im-
aged insults. She would drive even the most tolerant men away, and
come to the conclusion that her mother was right all along about them.
She distorted the men in her life to justify her rage. She became like
her paranoid mother when she was with men. Although Sue in her six
plus years of treatment made great progress in her self-esteem and be-
came less likely to fall into deep depressions, she still had the tendency
to regress in intimacy. Like most borderlines, she stayed better compen-
sated outside of passionate relationships.
Sue’s reality testing remained good, except in intense committed
intimacies, where the pressure to distort men became overwhelming.
This distortion was rooted not so much in her relationship with her dis-
tant father, but more based on her terrifying relationship with her psy-
48 An Expert Look at Love
Distorting men allowed Sue to displace her unconscious anger at
her mother onto men. Sue feared expressing anger at her mother. Sue
also distorted men so she could eventually escape from terrifying inti-
macy. She feared that love would harm her, as did her mother’s love.
Sue projected her own aggression onto men. Destroying her relation-
ships with men also helped to keep her psychically tied to her mother.
People can repeat the emotional past by picking, provoking, and
distorting the love object to fit the internal unconscious love drama.
Although I have presented the ways that people repeat their emo-
tional past as three separate psychological mechanisms—picking, pro-
voking and distorting—they usually occur together. Individuals who are
more disturbed provoke and distort more than higher-functioning indi-
viduals, who mainly repeat their past object relations by who they pick.
I have found that those people who have been alienated against a
parent in childhood will have love disturbances. If they are to have a
chance at healthy relationships, they will need to work through their
love dramas in the therapeutic committed intimacy with the therapist.
Many nonanalytically trained individuals, not working with uncon-
scious distortions, take at face value the patient’s complaints and mem-
ories, and thereby reinforce the alienation and the love disturbances.
Working with only the conscious is too superficial to get to the damage
from early pathological attachment. Patients have a hard time putting
into language all that they felt and that their parents implied or acted
out. A disturbed parent uses language to rationalize and to distort real-
ity. Interpretations can make sense out of confused emotions. The ther-
apy also needs to be a holding environment with a good container. The
therapeutic relationship must be long and intense to achieve the neces-
sary personal growth.
Patients who have Parental Alienation Syndrome will frequently try
to “divorce” the therapist, using the same or similar complaints of the
alienating parent. The Medea mother is unconsciously feared and she
becomes a sacred cow. The adult patient will at first feel guilt at any
feelings of aggression toward the mother, and often blames the thera-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 49
pist for “creating” the aggression. The patient may project onto the
therapist the wish to blame and punish the alienating parent.
Once the patient emotionally accepts that intimacy with the thera-
pist is not dangerous, the patient will be able to take on their deeper
feelings about the mother, and work them through.
However, when working with children with Parental Alienation
Syndrome, the work is more concrete and reality based. Rather than
working through the transference, a form of “deprogramming” is nec-
essary. This is a deviation from the usual neutral analytic stance.
Young children idealize their parents as a source of self-esteem.
The therapist at first needs to protect this idealization. However the
therapist, after establishing a therapeutic alliance with the child, can
begin to point out “errors” that the mother made. The therapist then hu-
manizes the alienated parent through reality clarifications. Eventually,
the alienated parent needs to be brought into treatment with the child.
Sometimes the alienated parent and child(ren) need to go to a residen-
tial treatment facility away from the alienating parent. The goal is for
the child to move from splitting the world into good and evil, to devel-
oping the capacity for a healthy natural ambivalence in intimacy.
Three Generations of Parental Alienation Syndrome:
A Case Study
Richard was raised by two parents with Parental Alienation Syn-
drome. Richard’s mother and father were from divorced parents. Both
his mother and his father as children were turned against their fathers
by their mothers.
Richard’s wife was turned against her father by her mother. His
wife had Parental Alienation Syndrome, and later his wife turned his
children against him and they would develop Parental Alienation Syn-
drome. This is not coincidence. This is an example of how unresolved
issues unconsciously are repeated across generations.
50 An Expert Look at Love
Richard met his wife Kathy in college. Although Richard was at-
tracted to Kathy, who was from a different social and religious back-
ground, he nevertheless unconsciously picked someone who was
psychologically similar to his mother.
Kathy came from divorced parents. Kathy’s father was an alcoholic
and her mother was paranoid and provocative.
Her mother would provoke the father to beat the children. When he
would beat them, Kathy’s mother would act helpless and later align
with her children against the father. She constantly included her chil-
dren in her suspicions that their father was engaged in affairs. The
mother used these suspicions to justify her own affair, for which she felt
entitled. Kathy told her father about the mother’s affair, which ended
the marriage. They divorced when Kathy was a teenager.
Kathy had Parental Alienation Syndrome with her father after her
parent’s divorce. She remained tied to her mother, both hating her and
feeling dependent on her.
Although Kathy felt dependent on Richard, Kathy was unable to
feel love for him. Soon after they were married, Kathy accused him of
having affairs, and believed that he was the cause of all her fears and
insecurities. She, the same as Richard’s mother, never said that she
loved Richard. Richard rationalized this away as he had learned to do
in his childhood.
After 4 years of marriage, two unplanned pregnancies gave them a
daughter and then 2 years latter, a son. Kathy was overwhelmed by this
second pregnancy. She regressed and became even more hostile toward
Richard. She feared having children, and told Richard that she was
afraid that she might abuse them.
Richard took an active role with the children, but Kathy began to
interfere with his time with them. She would schedule activities during
the times he was to be with his children.
During his analysis with me, Richard was able to accept that his
mother was unable to love, and grieved the loss of not having had a lov-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 51
ing mother. When Richard worked through many of the issues of his
childhood in analysis, he was able to see how he had repeated his at-
tachment pattern in his choice of Kathy as a wife. He had grown to feel
deserving of love.
On their 11th wedding anniversary, he asked Kathy what she felt to-
ward him. She admitted after 11 years of marriage that she never loved
him. She said that she was unable to love anyone. She admitted that she
could only feel hate for him, but added, “Don’t take it personally.”
Richard then left the marriage. They had agreed to joint custody of
their son who was three and their daughter who was five. Richard
agreed to leave the martial home so as not to disrupt the children.
Richard naively thought that even though Kathy could feel only hate or
emptiness, somehow in the separation she would become a friend.
Kathy withdrew all their money from joint accounts, changed the
locks, and refused to let him see the children. Kathy told him that he
would have to go to court if he ever expected to see his children again.
By the time the court ordered home study 6 months later, the chil-
dren were brainwashed against him. He had always been involved
with his children, but now the children were clearly more distant and
cool to him.
The social worker who had done the home study had been recently
divorced. She wrote her report in favor of the mother. The social
worker had no understanding of psychodiagnostics or Parental Alien-
Richard petitioned the court to have Dr. Richard Gardner appointed
the court’s impartial evaluator. When Richard finally saw Dr. Gardner,
he told Richard that he was biased in favor of mothers having custody
of young children, since mothers’ bonds with children are stronger.
(Soon after, Dr. Gardner modified this belief.)
Gardner told him that he would have an uphill fight for 50% phys-
ical custody. Richard claimed that Kathy was paranoid and resented his
52 An Expert Look at Love
happiness. He said that he would present evidence of her turning the
children against him, actively working to destroy his reputation and his
professional practice, and her attempt to drive him out of town.
Richard provided evidence of Kathy lodging a false ethics com-
plaint against him to his local professional group, and spreading false
rumors to his referral sources to destroy his practice.
Richard played taped interviews of colleagues stating that his wife
was spreading false and malicious rumors about him. Dr. Gardner heard
the chairperson of the ethics committee confirm that Kathy made a false
Gardner asked the daughter, then 6 years old, why she had to move
from her home. The daughter replied, “Because my mommy was afraid
that daddy would come and destroy my home....He came over and
put marks on our car....Mommy said that she could never be happy
until he was dead....Mommy hoped that he was shot at the bank that
was robbed” (referring to a recent mass shooting at a local bank).
Both the daughter and the son described their father as immoral,
dangerous, and not to be trusted or loved.
Gardner observed in the sessions with the father and children, that
the father was warmer and interacted more comfortably with the chil-
dren and understood their emotional needs better than the mother.
Dr. Gardner eventually wrote in his report to the court that Kathy
showed signs of paranoid delusions, that she was a fabricator and was
brainwashing her children against their father. He also stated that if it
were not for the father’s prior frequent and positive involvement with
his children, the Parental Alienation Syndrome would have been com-
plete. He suggested that Richard have full legal custody and 50% phys-
In the years that followed, Kathy remained alone and did not get in-
volved with men. She continued to undermine Richard’s relationship
with his children. When his children reached adolescence, they refused
to see him or talk with him.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 53
Richard had been sending both the children for therapy. After three
years of both children not making progress in their therapy, Richard fi-
nally asked their therapist if he could be included in joint sessions with
Each child had a long list of secret complaints they had not verbal-
ized to their father. Consistent with Parental Alienation Syndrome, the
complaints were trivial, exaggerated, or false memories. The therapist
had inadvertently reinforced many of the children’s perceptions of the
father, taking much of their complaints of him at face value. (Some time
later, that therapist was fired. The employing psychologist told Richard
that the therapist hated her own father and had no relationship with him.)
The children’s therapist had not questioned the distortions or incon-
sistencies in their complaints. For example, his daughter claimed that
one Christmas when she was six, her father gave her coal for Christ-
mas. His daughter said, “You thought this was funny, I tried not to show
my hurt, but I was very hurt.”
The father firmly stated that this never happened. This denial was
evidence according to the children of their father’s defensiveness. The
therapist also thought that the father was being defensive. Richard gave
his daughter the phone number of his friend who was there at the time,
so his daughter might ask her if he ever had given her coal for Christ-
mas. His daughter avoided making the phone call because she needed
to maintain her negative view of her father and maintain her alliance
with her mother.
The father told the therapist that he was certain that he had filmed
the Christmas in question. In the next session, Richard brought a small
TV/video player. He first played a scene about an incident recalled by
his son that had occurred around that same Christmas.
His son claimed that Richard was brainwashing him against his
mother by playing a board game that he distinctly remembered 10 years
ago when he was 4 years old. The game was Richard Gardner’s “Talk-
ing, Feeling, Doing Game.”
54 An Expert Look at Love
The mother did not want the children to play the board game with
the father. The mother told the children that it was a game to teach them
to hate her. The board game, in fact, only encouraged the open expres-
sion of feelings without blame. His son internalized his mother’s per-
ceptions of the game and had false memories of it. After the mother’s
complaints about the game, the children refused to play any more such
board games with the father.
When his son saw the very scene that he described on the video
tape, he was first struck by how young he was at the time. He seemed
confused that not only did the incident not occur as he had remembered
it, but that his father was being supportive and sensitive to his feelings
to love for both parents. The recording clearly showed him and his sis-
ter enjoying their father at the time.
The Christmas scene recording showed both children excitedly
opening many presents and playing with new toys with utter delight.
There was no coal, no sadness.
Both children were amazed at what they were watching. They had
been certain of their vivid memories of 10 years ago, when they were
In that session, Richard’s daughter said that she might have remem-
bered it wrong. The therapist was furious at the father. She questioned
if this was the same Christmas that the children were recalling. The fa-
ther reminded their therapist that they were Jewish. This one Christmas
was celebrated at a Christian friend’s home during the time of the cus-
In the next session, Richard read the section of Dr. Gardner’s report
stating that their mother had brainwashed them against him.
He read about her paranoia about the board game, and some of the
blatant paranoid statements she had made. The daughter stated to her
younger brother, who was still struggling with his feelings, “What he
is saying is probably true. I know that now.”
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 55
The children began to have occasional brief visits with the father.
When the daughter went off to college, she wrote to the father that she
never loved him and did not wish to see him again.
Richard’s son wanted to work on their relationship in his last year
of high school. His son lived with him for a few months before leav-
ing for college. In retaliation, Kathy threatened to take the son’s money
and cut him off. Richard and his son grew closer during his son’s col-
Richard remarried. Kathy never got involved with anyone. Richard
has a close relationship with his son, but has no relationship with his
daughter. His son was able to have a long-term rewarding intimacy with
a sweet young woman. Richard heard that his daughter has serious trou-
bles with trust and intimacy similar to the mother.
This case illustrates that Parental Alienation Syndrome and the
Medea Complex can continue for generations. I do not think it can be
broken without working through the splitting of the all-good alienating
parent, and all-bad alienated parent and going through a grieving
process. Without these conditions, later love relationships will suffer
and the pathological relationships will continue for generations.
Research on Parental Alienation Syndrome
Since my chapter, “The Medea Complex and the Parental Alien-
ation Syndrome: When Mothers Damage Their Daughter’s Ability to
Love a Man,” was published, I have had several attorneys ask why I did
not also write a chapter about fathers inducing PAS in their children. I
remind them that my chapter was at the request of the editor of the
book, The Mother–Daughter Relationship Echoes through Time
(Fenchel, 1998), and had to be on the mother–daughter theme.
I also explain that PAS is unrelated to gender, but is more often
found with mothers since they are most commonly the primary care-
giver and therefore they have more psychological control over the chil-
dren. Richard Gardner (2002a) felt that as more men move into the role
56 An Expert Look at Love
of primary caregiver, the percentages are likely to even out. I did notice
that there was no empirical research on father alienators, only mother
alienators. Researchers were unable to find a sufficient number of fa-
ther alienators to study.
There are also two competing theories of PAS. Richard Gardner
(2002b) defined Parental Alienation Syndrome as:
a childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context
of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s
campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no jus-
tification. It results from the combination of a programming (brain-
washing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to
the vilification of the target parent. When true parental abuse and/or
neglect is present, the child’s animosity may be justified and so the
Parental Alienation Syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is
not applicable. (p. 3)
However, Kelly and Johnston (2001) suggested a reformulation of
PAS as a dynamic coming from the entire family system. They view the
target parent as often (but not always) contributing to the PAS.
I wanted to do research to test if both father and mother alienators
use primitive defenses (such as splitting and projective identification),
and which theory of the target parent was correct, Gardner’s (the target
parent as the unjustified target of irrational rejection) or Kelly and
Johnston’s (the target helping to provoke the PAS).
The MMPI-2 is the most frequently used test of psychopathology
in child custody evaluations. It is the most objective source of data on
the personalities of the parents who are litigating over child custody.
Therefore, I sought to collect a large number of MMPI-2s from cases
of both father and mother alienators, father and mother targets, and fa-
ther and mother control parents (who were also court ordered to have
child custody evaluations, but who had no signs of PAS).
Ideally, the best type of research would be to randomly assign in-
fants to potentially divorcing parents with borderline personality dis-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 57
2I would like to thank Ralph Rosnow, who suggested a method he developed with Robert Rosenthal, which
we used to statistically test our hypotheses. Their analysis allows the researcher to test complex nonlinear
predictions. Dr. Rosnow taught me research methodology when I was a Ph.D. student, and I am still find-
ing his wisdom priceless.
turbances and to a control group of normal parents. Such a randomly
controlled study would help us to be precise about the nature of the
cause-and-effect variables. However, even if it were possible to do, it
would be horrifically unethical. Much of the research in the social sci-
ences involves naturalistic studies (observing and measuring in a nat-
ural context) and archival research (studying measurements from
records) because we often study problems that cannot be taken into the
In order to help control for the many possible sources of bias in
archival research (such as “cherry picking” cases that support the re-
searchers’ ideas), we requested data from several forensic psycholo-
gists whether they used the diagnosis of PAS or not. We asked members
of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association’s (PPA) listserv and
PPA’s Custody Evaluators listserv to contribute MMPI-2 profiles from
parents who were court ordered to be evaluated for child custody. We
collected PAS and control cases from seven forensic psychologists from
different areas of Pennsylvania. The sample size was 158 MMPI-2s,
with 76 cases of PAS and 82 custody cases in which there was no PAS
(control cases). As expected from previous research, there are far more
mothers who are alienators than fathers. We used MMPI-2 profiles
from 31 mother alienators, 31 father targets, 7 father alienators, 7 mother
targets, 41 mother controls, and 41 father controls.
Again, to help control for possible bias, I asked two researchers
who had no background in PAS to help with the study. Ronald Stoffey
and Jennifer Bottinelli did the data coding and statistical analyses and
both greatly helped with the write-up of the study (Gordon, Stoffey, &
Bottinelli, in press, 2008).2
We found that mothers and fathers who were alienators had higher
(clinical range) scores indicating primitive defenses, such as splitting
and projective identification, than control mothers and fathers (normal
range scores) in both our MMPI-2 indexes. It appears that the main
58 An Expert Look at Love
factor is the use of primitive defenses and not gender. Target parents
were mostly similar to the control parents. The results showed strong
support for Richard Gardner’s definition of PAS with the target parent’s
personality not being a significant factor in the cause of PAS, (see Fig-
Our research shows that alienating parents favor primitive defenses
that we believe are a main component of high-conflict custody battles,
the worst of which results in the childhood disorder of Parental Alien-
ation Syndrome. Primitive defenses include the splitting of reality into
an all-good parent and an all-bad parent and projective identification.
Projective identification occurs when one denies personal faults and
Figure 5.1 Bars show mean MMPI-2 T-scores (T50 is average and T65 is high), and
lines show standard deviations of 158 parents court ordered to have child
custody evaluations. L K F indicates denial of faults and splitting
defenses, and the Goldberg Index (GI) (L Pa Sc) (Hy Pt)
indicates a borderline level of functioning and the favoring of primitive
defenses such as projective identification. There were 31 mother
alienators, 31 father targets, 7 father alienators, 7 mother targets,
41 mother controls, and 41 father controls. Alienating parents use
primitive defenses, while the target parents are more like the controls.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 59
projects them onto another, and then treats and provokes that person ac-
cordingly. For example, a child or alienating parent with irrational ag-
gression infuriates a target parent so that the child and alienating parent
can claim that the target parent has the anger problem.
We consider PAS as a childhood disorder caused by an alienating
parent sharing primitive defenses with a vulnerable child against a tar-
get parent. The sharing of primitive defenses helps the child maintain
a pathological symbiosis with the idealized alienating parent, who is
seen as all good, while the target parent is seen as all bad. Projective
identification is used to blame and provoke the target parent. We found
little support for the idea that the target parent is similar in dynamics to
the alienating parent. We hope that studies such as ours help in under-
standing the etiology and dynamics of PAS so that psychotherapists
will know to focus on the use of primitive defenses in alienating par-
ents and children with PAS.
Chapter 6 Grieving Lost Love
We all have losses. Dealing with loss is part of living. People are
often in denial about the love that was lost to them in childhood. They
need to grieve their lost love. Without a grieving process, these people
will have trouble with attachment and have love disturbances.
I wrote “Recovering Bodies a Crucial Part in Grieving, Dealing
With Death” for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call (July 23,
1999) after the editor asked to me write an op-ed piece for the next day.
The following is an excerpt from that article.
The headline news today was that the bodies of John F. Kennedy
Jr., his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette were recovered
from the Atlantic waters off Martha’s Vineyard. That story dominated
the news worldwide. Their plane had crashed at sea last Friday night.
After a few days the search and rescue mission changed to one designed
to seek and recover their bodies. Why?
Why the enormous risk, effort, and cost to retrieve bodies? Can’t
we accept their deaths without the need to find their remains?
President Clinton instructed the Coast Guard to continue their
search for the bodies, “because of the role the Kennedy family in our
national life and because of the enormous losses they have sustained in
I remember my incredible sadness at seeing little John-John salute
his dead father, our slain president. I became connected to him in some
remote way, along with millions of people around the world. John F.
Kennedy Jr. was part of our nation’s family. Now he, his wife, and sister-
in-law were dead. It is tragic.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 61
However, if ordinary people were in that small plane—no celebrity,
no world figure—but just someone you loved very much, would not
you do everything possible to recover your loved one’s body? Why?
After decades, Viet Nam returned some remains of U.S. service
men. It mattered. When remains are not recovered, loved ones wonder
“could he be alive?” I still see “Missing in action, but not forgotten”
flags and posters from people who hold onto hope that somehow he or
she is still alive.
A patient of mine was convinced that John Kennedy, his wife, and
sister-in-law had parachuted safely out of their plane, and were alive;
that is, until today when he heard that their bodies were recovered.
Then it was real. There was now no room for doubt, no room for de-
nial. No chance for defenses to be creative. The recovered bodies made
I recently started treatment of a young woman who was badly in-
jured in a car accident. Her boyfriend died in that crash. He was her first
real love. They were inseparable. They hoped to marry. She had no
memory of the accident. She did not see him die. She was still badly in-
jured and in the hospital when he was buried.
Her mother asked me to help her daughter; “she thinks we are all
lying to her, she thinks he is still alive.”
We need something tangible to help realize a loss. The dead body
is no longer the person we loved, but it is a powerful connection to
them. In our trying to accept the reality of our loss, we need as much
reality as possible.
Death is so really hard to grasp. It was beyond the grasp of my pa-
tient. She said, “The last time I saw him, he was alive, how could he be
We need to get closure when we suffer. We need to face loss. An-
thropologists have found that early humans ceremoniously buried their
dead. One of the earliest functions of religions were to bring reality and
meaning to death.
62 An Expert Look at Love
Recovering bodies can take many forms. Throughout life we must
deal with a series of losses. If we do not recognize and grieve our losses,
we can never really appreciate life. We lose people we love when they
die. We feel great loss when love is not returned. We lose our feelings
in childhood when we are not seen, heard, or understood. We lose our
health, our youthfulness, and eventually our lives.
If we cannot accept the reality of loss, we get stuck, and we suffer.
Depression is often the result of incomplete grieving. Rather than ac-
cept the loss of the love that you will never get from a parent, a child,
and lover or a spouse, or get what we think is fair, we get depressed.
Depression is a way to go on strike against life. It puts your life on
hold, and you are unable to connect and appreciate. Grieving fully and
completely helps us continue to mature in life.
Recover the images of people you miss and let yourself cry. Let that
help you live and love better. Recover bodies so you can bury them.
Chapter 7 Personal Growth
What does it take to have personal growth? The answer involves such
factors as insight, a therapeutic intimacy, and years of hard work.
“MMPI/MMPI-2 Changes in Long-Term Psychoanalytic Psycho-
therapy” was published in 2001 in Issues in Psychoanalytic Psychology.
I rewrote this research article without the detailed methodology and
most of the statistics. These can be found in the original article or on
my web site at www.mmpi-info.com. I hope that I made this study more
accessible, while retaining much of the science.
I have noticed in my work with patients in long-term psychoanalytic
psychotherapy, that the Minnesota Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the
newer form, the MMPI-2 (I refer to them as the MMPI/MMPI-2) showed
profound changes to personality throughout the years of treatment.
These MMPI/MMPI-2 changes support the belief that the matura-
tion of personality is only achieved from years of effective treatment.
The MMPI/MMPI-2 is rarely used to assess change in psychother-
apy research, since the MMPI’s scales tend to measure enduring person-
ality traits, and most outcome studies involve short-term therapy. The
highly stable MMPI/MMPI-2 is not likely to show significant changes
in deep personality traits in treatment that lasts only 10 to 20 sessions.
For example, Smith and Glass (1979) in their meta-analysis of 475
psychotherapy outcome studies found that the average duration of ther-
apy for these outcome studies was only 15.75 hours.
They looked at the connection between outcome measures and
change from the treatments. They concluded that the MMPI had a
minimal connection with the treatment or the therapist, and had a low
reaction to the treatment.
64 An Expert Look at Love
They found that the MMPI’s degree of reaction to treatment was
low, similar to physiological measures, blind ratings, and grade point
average. The highest reactive measures were the client’s self-report and
therapist’s ratings of the clients.
Self-report scales that are obvious in what they are asking are highly
reactive in therapy outcome research. When Beck was developing his
cognitive-behavior therapy for depression, he found that the MMPI De-
pression scale was not reactive to his treatment. He developed his Beck
Depression Inventory, which is very reactive to his short-term treatment
of depression (Beck, Ward, Mendelsohn, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961).
The MMPI Depression scale was developed with a criterion group,
most of whom were in a major depression (Hathaway & McKinley,
1942). The items on that scale, as well as the other MMPI/MMPI-2
clinical scales, are associated with deep and complex psychopathology.
Beck did not get results from the MMPI because his treatment is
not dose effective for deep and complex disturbances.
Cognitive-behavioral theory’s premise is that thoughts are the locus of
pathology. If one changes the thoughts, psychopathology will be cured.
Psychoanalysts feel that it is the other way around. Thoughts may
affect our emotions, but emotions are not created by thoughts. Emo-
tions come from many sources, such as biology, a lack of internalized
good objects from childhood, developmental arrests, personality struc-
ture, and emotional traumas. The working through of emotional prob-
lems necessitates an intimate therapeutic relationship. A therapeutic
intimacy is not an essential part of cognitive-behavior therapy.
Beck’s cognitive-behavioral treatment is symptom focused and
short-term. He encouraged a body of research that proves that his treat-
ment works. As with my research on artifact in treatment outcome stud-
ies (Gordon, 1976), Beck created favorable circumstances by focusing
on simple symptoms and making his own reactive self-report test.
The MMPI/MMPI-2 has not been very reactive as an outcome mea-
sure. This may be because most the MMPI/MMPI-2 clinical scales are
based on enduring and complex personality traits that are stable for years.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 65
Stability of the MMPI/MMPI-2
The MMPI and the MMPI-2 are the most used and validated tests
of psychopathology in our field (Graham, Ben-Porath, & McNutly,
1999, and Graham, 2000). Personality traits such as the Introvert-
extrovert (Si) scale are the most stable. The Si scale, for example,
hardly changed after a 30-year period (with a retest correlation of .74)
(Leon, Gillum, Gillum, & Gouze, 1979).
After 5 years, 1,072 men showed high stability on their MMPI-2
scores (Spiro III, Butcher, Levenson, Aldwin, & Bosse, 2000).
Fiske (1957) found greater stability for the more extreme scores after
9 to 18 retestings on the MMPI. Subotnik (1972) also did not find a re-
gression toward the mean with deviant MMPI profiles after 9, 21, and 33
months, with students who had psychiatric problems and were untreated.
A regression to a mean (or return to a normal score) occurs when
there is an error in sampling or the finding is out of the ordinary. This
is not the case with deep-seated disturbances. It follows that high scores
in enduring psychopathologies, such as schizophrenia, should not be-
come normal with just the passage of time.
There is very little outcome research on what is common in private
practice psychotherapy, i.e., years of treatment with polysymptomatic
patients. Psychotherapy that lasts for years is very difficult to study.
For example, placebo or no treatment control groups and random-
izing patients to treatments would be grossly unethical and would con-
stitute malpractice. One way to objectively study personality changes
in long-term therapy in a private practice setting is to use the MMPI/
MMPI-2 as a pretest control.
The MMPI/MMPI-2 does not show a tendency for a regression toward
the mean or spontaneous remission. The scores are stable for years. Using
the MMPI/MMPI-2 in the beginning of treatment can serve as its own con-
trol, which allows for an empirical assessment of long-term psychotherapy
in an ecologically valid setting, such as an independent practice.
66 An Expert Look at Love
However, research with the MMPI/MMPI-2 as an outcome mea-
sure is waning (Hollon & Mandell, 1979) as is research on long-term
psychotherapy (Stevens, Hynan, & Allen, 2000).
Brief therapy is easier and more frequently researched than long-
term psychotherapy, but the conclusions are often not generalizable to
A survey of the characteristics of empirically supported treatments
(ESTs) identified by the American Psychological Association Division
12 Task Force on the Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological
Procedures found that ESTs focus on a specific symptom involving
brief treatment contact, requiring 20 or fewer sessions.
Traditional assessment methods, such as intelligence testing, pro-
jective testing, and objective personality tests such as the MMPI-2, are
rarely used to evaluate these treatments (O’Donohue, Buchanan, &
In a recent meta-analysis of 80 outcome studies, 79% were treatments
of fewer than 10 sessions. The authors concluded that treatments should
be at least 16 to 20 sessions to effectively study dose effectiveness. They
also advise the use of uniform measures of proven reliability, such as the
MMPI-2, rather than highly reactive self-reports (Stevens et al., 2000).
Clinical psychology is in danger of becoming the profession of
brief superficial treatments for specific symptoms. It is also in danger
of disenfranchising much of the effective long-term psychotherapy
practiced by successful private practitioners with people who have
complex and deep disturbances.
Seligman (1996) found different results by going outside the labo-
ratory’s typical short-term studies, by actually surveying 2,900 respon-
dents who saw a mental health professional in the previous 3 years. He
found that satisfaction with therapy was the greatest for those who were
in treatment for 2 or more years.
Westen’s meta-analysis (2000) put doubt in the value of short-term
therapy for reoccurring disorders and polysymptomatic patients.
Kordy, von Rad, and Senf (1989) assessed neurotic and psychosomatic
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 67
patients in long-term psychoanalytically oriented treatment. They
found that about 2.5 years was the most beneficial dose for patients
overall, and about 3.5 years for the psychosomatic patients who stayed
in treatment at least that amount of time.
Weiner and Exner (1991) used the Rorschach (ink-blot projective
test) as an outcome measure with outpatients in long-term psychoana-
lytically oriented psychotherapy (in treatment 2 to 3 times a week for
about 46 to 50 months), and with outpatients in short-term behavioral
or gestalt therapy (in treatment about once a week, and no patient in
treatment for more than 16 months).
They found that after the first year of treatment there was some
progress in both groups. They retested all the patients again about 2.5 and
4 years after the start of treatment. The patients who stayed in the long-
term psychoanalytically oriented therapy showed the greatest effects to
their personality after about 2.5 years, and the changes continued into the
fourth year of the study. The changes were extensive and profound. There
were few changes in personality in the short-term behavior groups.
Most of the research on polysymptomatic patients and patients with
personality disorders find that they require long-term psychotherapy. Psy-
choanalytic psychotherapy is aimed at personality structure and not just
symptoms. The goal is to mature the underlying personality structure so
that there is less need for a person to produce functional symptoms. This
higher dose therapy takes time, but gets to the core of the problem.
Since the MMPI/MMPI-2 has not been supportive of brief treatment
effectiveness, it has fallen out of favor as an outcome instrument. None of
the current textbooks on the MMPI-2 now includes a section on the use of
the MMPI-2 as a pre- and post-outcome measure in psychotherapy.
The MMPI/MMPI-2 should be significantly reactive to personality trait
changes with only large dose, long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
The scales assessing deep and complex psychopathology, (F—Acute Psy-
chopathology, Hs—Hypochondriasis, D—Depression, Hy—Hysteria,
68 An Expert Look at Love
Pd—Psychopathic Deviate, Pa—Paranoia, Pt—Psychasthenia, Sc—
Schizophrenia, Ma—Hypomania, Si—Social Introversion, and A—Over-
all Psychopathology), should decrease after years of treatment. The K and
Ego Strength scales, both measuring psychological resilience, should in-
crease after years of treatment. (For definitions of these scales, go to
www.mmpi-info.com). This is the opposite hypothesis of diminishing re-
turns after the first few months of treatment.
I am unaware of another psychoanalytic practitioner who gives pa-
tients, on a regular basis, the MMPI/MMPI-2 at the beginning of treat-
ment, sometimes during, and at the end of treatment. I have been doing
this for almost 20 years. This data has allowed me to help my patients
to objectively assess their changes, outside of my perceptions and their
transferences. I give it to almost every patient. I do not give it to patients
who clearly do not want psychotherapy, but only wish a brief consulta-
tion or brief counseling.
As with any intervention, timing and empathy determines when I
give the MMPI/MMPI-2. Most patients welcome the objective evalua-
tion, and consider it part of their health care assessment. I have found
the patients’ reactions to the test to be analyzable. I have found the re-
sults valuable for both diagnostic and treatment progress purposes.
The MMPI/MMPI-2 has also provided me with data to test the re-
activity of the MMPI/MMPI-2, with large-dose therapy. My archival
field study is a practical way to do ecologically valid research on pa-
tients who were in therapy for many years.
A psychology intern took all the MMPIs or MMPI-2s from retired
patient files according to the following criteria:
1. The patient must have had at least beginning- and end-of-
treatment MMPIs. Consistent with most findings, many patients
were in treatment for less than one year, and did not have a sec-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 69
ond MMPI or MMPI-2. I typically do not give a second MMPI or
MMPI-2 until at least after one year of therapy. Patients before
1995 took the MMPI, and thereafter took the MMPI-2. (I com-
bined them by using raw scores and later converting them to
MMPI-2 T scores).
2. At least one main clinical scale had to be significantly elevated at
the beginning of treatment. The psychopathology had to be de-
tectable by the MMPI or MMPI-2. Some patients had issues not
assessed by the MMPI/MMPI-2 and therefore could not be in-
cluded in the study, that is, child problems, adjustment disorders,
etc. This criterion eliminated from the study some patients with
ego-syntonic pathology (meaning that they do not detect their
problems since the problems are too much a part of them to per-
ceive) and some high-functioning patients with mild problems.
Fifty-five polysymptomatic outpatients (women 27, men 28)
met the above criteria. The average age was 38 years. Eighty-two per-
cent were college educated.
The average two highest scales were Depression and Psychopathic
Deviate, indicating the sample’s problems with affect regulation and
healthy intimacy. The average duration in treatment was about 3 years.
The typical chief complaints were relationship problems (53%), de-
pression (35%), and anxiety (24%). (The percentages do not add up to
100% because of the multiple complaints and diagnoses.). The most
common Axis I diagnoses were: dysthymia 36%, anxiety disorder 25%,
major depression 22%, and somatoform disorder 11%. The most com-
mon Axis II diagnoses were borderline 27%, narcissistic 25%, histrionic
11%, obsessive-compulsive 11%, paranoid 7%, and dependent 7%.
Ninety-three percent of the sample had some degree of personality
disorder. Excluded from the study were individuals with psychotic dis-
orders, substance abuse disorders (as a primary diagnosis), and anti-
social personality disorders. This population is typical of outpatients in
70 An Expert Look at Love
psychoanalytic treatment. They are bright, motivated, depressed, anx-
ious, and have had long-term problems with relationships.
A subset of 18 patients (women 8, men 10) took the MMPI or
MMPI-2 at the beginning of treatment, during the course of their treat-
ment, and at the end of their treatment. The average length of treatment
was about 5 years. The average time between the first and second test-
ing was about 2 years.
This analysis helped to better understand when the changes to person-
ality occurred. All the patients were in psychoanalytic psychotherapy at
least once a week. Thirty-six percent were in treatment twice a week.
After about an average of 3 years of psychoanalytic psychotherapy,
scales F (Acute Psychopathology), Hs (Hypochondriasis), D (Depression),
Hy (Hysteria), Pd (Psychopathic Deviate), Pt (Psychasthenia), Sc (Schizo-
phrenia), Ma (Hypomania, Si (Social Introversion), and A (Overall Psy-
chopathology), all showed highly significant decreases in psychopathology.
Most of the scales went from the pathological level at the beginning
of treatment to the normal level after 3 years of treatment. Scales K and
Es (Ego Strength) significantly increased to higher levels of mature
functioning. (See Figure 7.1. I pooled the raw scores for men and
women and then converted to T scores. The graphs are in K-corrected
T scores using MMPI-2 nongendered norms.)
Scale A is a very stable scale and a good measure of overall psy-
chopathology. Scale A decreased by 50.3%. The F scale, another mea-
sure of overall psychopathology, decreased by 42.3%. The
MMPI/MMPI-2 proved to be very reactive to changes in long-term psy-
The scales of psychopathology (F, Hs, D, Hy, Pd, Pa, Pt, Sc, Ma,
Si, and A) and maturity (K and Es) were not predicted to change in the
early phase of treatment, but only after a few years of treatment. It is
not clear from the above results when most of the changes occurred
during the 3 years of treatment.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 71
A subsample of 18 patients had more than two tests during the
course of their therapy. Most of the hypothesized scales did not signif-
icantly change during about the first 2 years of treatment, but did by the
end of treatment after about 5 years, (see Figure 7.2).
Psychopathology, Ego Strength, and Length of Treatment
A more succinct way to present these results is to reduce the find-
ings to two scales of the MMPI/MMPI-2, one measuring overall
start of treatment
after M = 3 years
L F K Hs D Hy Pd Pa Pt Sc Ma Si
Figure 7.1 Changes in psychotherapy after about 3 years of treatment. T45–55
represents normal scores; T65 and above are high scores. The graph is
based on MMPI-2 norms using K-corrected T scores.
72 An Expert Look at Love
psychopathology (disturbance) and one measuring ego strength (psy-
The best overall measure of psychopathology is the A scale, which
assesses the basic distress found within psychopathology.
The Ego Strength scale (Es) measures overall psychological matu-
rity and resiliency. Es is a good measure of stress tolerance, resource-
fulness, independence, discipline, and flexibility.
start of treatment
L F K Hs D Hy Pd Pa Pt Sc Ma Si
Figure 7.2 Changes in psychotherapy after about 2 and 5 years of treatment.
T45–55 represents normal scores; T 65 and above are high scores. The
graph is based on MMPI-2 norms using K-corrected T scores.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 73
The A scale and the Es scale are very stable over years. In a retest
study of 1,072 men over 5 years (Spiro III, et al., 2000), the A scale
pretest mean was 45.95 and 5 years later was 45.5. The Es scale had
similarly high stability, with a pretest mean of 52.3, and 5 years later a
mean of 52.1. The two scales have a low correlation with each other,
.23 (Swenson, Pearson, & Osborne, 1973).
Scales A and Es did not significantly change in the early phase of
long-term treatment. They showed no significant change after an aver-
age of 2 years of psychotherapy.
The results suggest that during the first year or two, acute symp-
toms may be reduced, but significant reliable changes to personality do
not occur until after about 2 years of treatment. It is after about 2 years
of treatment that a person’s characterological baseline can change with
intensive treatment. Patients continued to improve over the average of
5 years of treatment. They not only had significantly less disturbance,
but also more psychological maturity, which is necessary to help pre-
vent future disturbances (see Figure 7.3.)
The MMPI/MMPI-2 is the most used and validated objective test
of psychopathology in our field. Yet researchers have found the
MMPI/MMPI-2 to be a poor outcome measure, since it was not provid-
ing empirical support for brief treatments.
Researchers rarely study treatments that last more than 20 ses-
sions. However, this study demonstrated that the MMPI/MMPI-2 was
highly reactive to large-dose treatment, i.e., long-term psychoanalytic
Most the psychopathology scales on the MMPI/MMPI-2 not only
significantly changed, but they changed from being in the very dis-
turbed range of functioning to the normal range of functioning after an
average of 3 years of treatment.
74 An Expert Look at Love
start of tx avg 2 yrs avg 5 yrs
Figure 7.3 Patients on average needed at least two years of psychoanalytic psycho-
therapy to begin to make profound changes to their personalities. They
continued making reductions in psychopathology (as measured by scale A
[Overall Psychopathology]) and increases in personal growth (as measured
by the Ego Strength scale) into their fifth year of treatment and beyond.
There were major reductions in the areas of somatization, depres-
sion, intimacy problems, anger, narcissism, anxiety, identity confusion,
impulsiveness, and insecurity. There were also concomitant increases
in psychological maturity.
In other words, the MMPI/MMPI-2 not only showed a significant
and powerful decrease in psychopathology with long-term psychother-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 75
apy, but also showed a significant increase in personal growth as well.
Personal growth can be measured by the amount of self-reflective and
self-soothing capacity, affect regulation, improved objectivity, and ca-
pacity for healthy intimacy.
This result is consistent with the literature, which indicates that the
MMPI/MMPI-2 is not a good outcome measure for low-dose treat-
ment. However, after an average of 5 years of treatment, almost every
scale significantly changed for the better.
Looking at about 2 years, 3 years, and 5 years of treatment, it seems
that on the average, between the second and third year of treatment, pa-
tients significantly changed in personality traits.
This is consistent with psychoanalytic treatment. During the mid-
dle phase of treatment, patients begin to work through deep-seated is-
sues. This is when the patients begin to internalize the therapy, and
make reliable, structural changes to their personalities.
It takes years to access some areas of personality because of defenses
and resistances. On the average, it took about 2 years to begin to inte-
grate these new changes into a person’s enduring personality structure.
These findings—that deep changes to personality occur roughly
after two years of treatment—are also found in other research, and are
not unique to this study. This, however, is the first study to use the
These results support the value of not only long-term psychoana-
lytic psychotherapy, but the concept of phases of psychotherapy. A be-
ginning phase is often characterized by the patient learning how to be
a patient, and establishing a working alliance with the therapist. Tem-
porary symptom reduction is possible in this early phase.
A middle phase is characterized by the patient going beyond talk-
ing about the manifest level of the symptom, to where the patient can
begin to discuss and experience deeper levels of the problem within
76 An Expert Look at Love
In this phase, the patient can assess areas that were unconscious and
relevant to the problems, and use insight to not only reduce or elimi-
nate symptoms, but to achieve greater maturation in the structure of
These results support the concept of a middle phase of working
through deep issues after about the second year of treatment.
Finally, there is a termination phase that deals with loss and sepa-
ration, which further aids in maturation of personality. All of life in-
volves losses of some sort or another. The termination phase of a
long-term therapeutic intimacy allows the patient to finish old losses
and to prepare for the inevitable ones to come.
Some patients never get out of the beginning phase of treatment.
They might be too concrete, not self-reflective, or too defensive for
deeper reconstructive work on personality. These people may benefit
from symptom-focused treatments.
In actual practice, one cannot be so specific about phases of treatment.
Phases of treatment occur only vaguely in very rough periods of time. I
did the therapy with all the people in this study. Some made progress in
2 years, where it took others 10 years to make similar progress.
Many patients seemed to have gotten worse before they got better.
Many of the MMPI/MMPI-2s indicated an increase in problems at the
second testing. This was usually due to the patient’s increased ability
to acknowledge his or her own pathology. The first testing often indi-
cated a high degree of defensiveness.
Patients were often only aware of their manifest complaints. After
a few years of working through resistances, patients’ MMPI/MMPI-2s
indicated less defensiveness and their underlying self-defeating traits
became apparent to them (ego-alien). In other words, as the patients ma-
tured in therapy, they could take responsibility for their previously un-
conscious personality flaws, and begin to make maturational changes.
No two patients were alike in the rate they changed. Research such
as this is useful to make broad statements about the necessity for high-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 77
dose therapy to help individuals with long-standing psychopathology.
However, such findings are limited and may only serve as a guide when
applied to individual cases, and may encourage those who doubt that
such changes are possible.
Freud felt that treatment had to be intense, but that it was impossi-
ble to predict how long any one treatment might take. He referred to
Aesop’s fable of the Wanderer. One cannot tell a person how long it will
take to walk to a destination without first noticing the pilgrim’s pace.
However, Freud was not even happy with this metaphor, since “the
neurotic can easily alter his pace and at times make but very slow
Freud felt that the pace was based on what the mind could tolerate:
“The shortening of the analytic treatment remains a reasonable wish.
Unfortunately, it is opposed by a very important element in the
situation—namely, the slowness with which profound changes in the
mind bring themselves about” (1913, p. 350). Freud did not wish to
focus on a person’s symptoms, behaviors, cognitions, or coping skills,
but rather to bring about “profound changes in the mind.”
Profound changes in the mind, or what we would refer to today as pro-
found changes in personality traits, are the goals of psychotherapy. A ther-
apy that helps to mature a personality is not simply skill training, coping,
or symptom relief. It necessitates a deep and long therapeutic intimacy.
Personality is necessarily resistant to change, as is our basic biol-
ogy resistant to foreign invasion. The mind’s resistance to change is ba-
sically a self-protective mechanism. It takes years to develop the type
of therapeutic relationship capable of working through these powerful
resistances to change.
Since these results are so similar to other studies, I believe that they
are generalizable to other similar practices. The form of treatment in
this study was psychoanalytic psychotherapy. It is well researched and
manualized (Luborsky, 1984). It demands a great deal of training and
supervision as compared to other treatments, but it allows for an under-
standing and treatment of enduring personality problems.
78 An Expert Look at Love
The majority of the public seeks brief psychological treatments for
their problems, and there are many effective treatments available to
them. However, many individuals suffer from problems that can best be
helped by maturation in personality. Most of the patients in this study
were polysymptomatic mainly due to their personality disorders. Brief
treatments on each separate symptom would have done little to relieve
their suffering. Many had been in symptom-focused treatment before
coming to long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
The distinction should be simple enough; brief cognitive-
behavioral treatments have been shown to work well for many specific
symptoms. However, many individuals may require long-term psycho-
therapy. The therapeutic relationship in long-term psychoanalytic psy-
chotherapy fosters deep changes to personality that promotes a better
ability to handle stress and intimacy, and promotes a greater sense of
well-being. This study demonstrates, with a well-validated objective
test, that this is possible after years of effective treatment.
What do psychologists look for in their own psychotherapy? Eight-
hundred psychologists were surveyed. What psychologists valued
most, from a list of 38 of the most beneficial things they got from their
psychotherapy, was self-understanding.
The results of the survey had “specific symptom relief” as halfway
down the list. Included in the survey were psychologists from all theo-
retical orientations (behaviorists, cognitive-behaviorists, psychoana-
lytic, etc.) (Pope and Tabachnick, 1994).
In a survey of 425 counseling psychologists (Gilroy, Carroll, &
Murra, 2002) the majority of the respondents were cognitive-
behavioralists. There were five times as many cognitive-behavioral
therapists in the sample than there were psychodynamic therapists
(psychodynamic is a form of psychoanalytic treatment). Yet the major-
ity of the psychologists surveyed sought personal psychotherapy from
psychodynamic therapists. Regardless how psychologists practice,
they know the value of insight and a therapeutic relationship for per-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 79
Chapter 8 Lies and Defenses
Child custody evaluators: Psychologists or detectives? is a book
that I wrote, which was published by the Pennsylvania Bar Institute in
2002. This book is based on my presentation to the Pennsylvania Bar
about the role of the psychologist as an investigator of specific allega-
tions, such as child sexual abuse and spousal abuse. Many psycholo-
gists avoid investigating the accusations and focus on the current test
results and observations. I advocated doing detective work.
I include this piece to show two things. First to show how I seek and
weigh evidence; second, to show how love relations can become hate-
ful and destructive when there are lies, primitive defenses (denial, split-
ting, projection, etc.), and little insight.
I often need to use psychological detective work to track down ev-
idence in a child custody evaluation. It is not the type of evidence such
as when a patient presents a symptom. As a treating psychologist, I try
to find the symptom’s cause. In my therapist role, I do not challenge
nor try to independently verify the claims of a patient.
However, the examining psychologist in a forensic (court-related)
role is often confronted with individuals who have reasons to lie. They
will exaggerate their virtues and deny or rationalize their misdeeds.
They present accusations of others and avoid admitting to symptoms.
The court in a child custody case presents to the forensic psychol-
ogist parties with accusations of neglect, violence, substance abuse, sex
abuse, and so on. Diagnostic interviews, home studies, or psychologi-
cal tests are helpful, but they cannot determine if someone engaged in
a specific past act.
Psychological tests can hypothesize if such behaviors are typical or
not of a given personality. However, very disturbed individuals may
80 An Expert Look at Love
never hurt anyone, and some rather normal individuals may do some
very bad things.
I use several different methods to go after specific relevant accusa-
tions. I employ interviews, surveys, standardized psychological tests,
talking to witnesses, and reading documents such as police reports and
medical reports. Sometimes my methods are unconventional.
Two brothers, 8 and 11, both claimed that their father beat them
with a plastic baseball bat and shot a gun at them to terrorize them.
Children and Youth Services believed the boys, since their stories were
plausible and consistent. The mother, who had left the boys with their
father, now wanted full custody of them.
The boys had not seen much of their mother, and longed to be with
her. The father was a hostile, gruff man who quarreled with the mental
health workers. He stated that the mother and his boys were lying in
order to be together.
I believed the boys, but I was still uncertain. The boys had been suc-
cessful in convincing social workers and psychologists. Therefore, I
presented them with a laptop computer with a voice stress analysis pro-
gram on it. I had no literal faith in using this program as a valid test.
However, I did tell the boys that it could tell if they are lying.
I separated the boys. I first asked the youngest boy to tell me again
how his father beat him with a bat and shot at him. As he again related
his story, I looked confused. I looked between the computer and the
boy, saying, “Something must be wrong. It shows that you are lying.”
I felt that the boys would not have the same confidence with a com-
puter as they had with the “experts.” Eventually he confessed that his
older brother had practiced the stories with him. His brother promised
that they would be able to live with their mother if they could fool the
experts and the court.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 81
I then went through the same bogus test with the older brother. I re-
peatedly stated that the computer was showing that he was lying. I also
added toward the end, “Your brother told me that you told him to lie so
you both can live with your mother. Maybe I can help you. But you
must be totally honest with me.” He then confessed to having fabricated
the entire story.
The boys had no idea that their mother was mentally ill and was not
a responsible parent. However, they missed her and they would lie to
be with her. They saw their father as preventing this.
I called the brothers together and explained that they would not get
into trouble for lying since they were so young. I told them that I would
recommend that they see more of their mother, and that I wanted them
to have the help of a therapist. I explained that the therapist would teach
them to find better ways to solve their problems.
These desperate boys were particularly conning. Had I not been
creative, I am sure I would have made the same mistake as the other
mental health experts.
I remember in court when the mother’s attorney attacked me for
tricking the boys into confessing. I responded, “What I did is no differ-
ent than what you do in court.” The attorney angrily responded, “Yes,
but you are a psychologist!”
Here are a few other examples of psychological detective work in
child custody evaluations.
A four-year-old daughter told her mother, “Daddy put his finger
around my pee-pee, and he licks it.” There was no physical evidence
and the little girl later refused to talk about it to the Children and Youth
The investigators considered it “unfounded.” The mother remained
convinced that her husband committed sex abuse. This was the last
82 An Expert Look at Love
straw in their strained married. The mother left the marriage and re-
fused to let the father visit with his daughter. (Note that the suspicion
of sex abuse was before a separation or custody dispute.)
In the interviews with the mother, she gave a consistent and plausi-
ble history. My observations showed a close healthy relationship with
her daughter. Her MMPI testing indicated that she took the test hon-
estly and had a normal profile, which is consistent with her history and
The father was ingratiating and defensive in the interviews. His
MMPI testing indicated defensiveness, poor impulse control, and im-
maturity. He refused to take a polygraph exam since he said that it was
a violation of his rights. He said that he was a Christian and that he
would swear on a Bible instead.
Collateral witnesses stated that the father was immature and had a
drinking problem. I encouraged the father to rationalize inappropriate
sexual behavior by my saying that such sexual playfulness is natural
and common in some cultures, and is often misinterpreted. The father
then gave rationalizations for his touching his daughter, by stating that
it was not sexual but playful, and that she had enjoyed it. He went on
to state that his wife exaggerated what had happened to punish him.
I felt that the father probably had been sexually inappropriate with
his daughter and was too narcissistic and defensive to have insight or
remorse. I recommended only brief supervised visits and treatment for
After her two-year-old daughter’s visit with her father, the mother
claimed that her daughter said, “Daddy put soup up my bottom.”
The mother immediately assumed that this meant sex abuse and
filed a complaint with Children and Youth Services. They found no ev-
idence for sex abuse, but the mother obtained a court order limiting the
father to only supervised visits.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 83
The father was wary of me, and was reluctant to have an examination
by a psychologist. However, his MMPI indicated a normal personality.
This was consistent with his history and my observations of him. He de-
scribed his former wife as very suspicious. He said that she frequently
distorted things so that she was often offended and felt victimized.
The mother was pleasant and seemed well adjusted. Her MMPI
testing, however, was associated with paranoid traits. One collateral
witness also described the mother as often misinterpreting even the
most benign comments as slights against her. The review of documents
was at odds with several of the mother’s claims against the father.
The child reacted warmly to both parents. On the conjoint interview
the mother’s distortions and anger came out in a manner very different
from when she was alone with me. When I asked the father to take a
polygraph exam, he tearfully rose up from his seat, went over to shake
my hand, and said, “Thank God for that opportunity. She has been mak-
ing my life hell. How soon can I take it?” He did, and he passed.
When I told the mother that there was no evidence of sexual abuse,
she felt that I was biased toward the father and that I had treated her un-
fairly. Because of the mother’s paranoia, I recommended that the father
have legal custody of the child.
A father and stepmother seeking full custody of a 6-year-old child
claimed that the mother was mentally ill and that she had physically at-
tacked the stepmother during an exchange. The stepmother filed crim-
inal charges against the mother. The MMPI of the mother showed that
she had many emotional problems, more so than the others. (At this
point, I believed the claims of the stepmother.)
The stepmother’s mother claimed that she saw the mother attack
her own daughter. However, when I continued to question her, she was
inconsistent. At first she claimed to have seen the mother attack her
daughter (the stepmother), and later stated that she did not actually see
anything but heard the attack.
84 An Expert Look at Love
The mother claimed that there was no attack at all, and that the step-
mother was fabricating. Usually people exaggerate, minimize, or ratio-
nalize an event to serve their needs. However, it is rare for one party to
say that they were attacked and press charges, and the accused party say
that the event never happened.
I offered the mother justifications and rationalizations such as, “Did
the stepmother start the fight?” The mother refused any excuses and
just repeated, “It never happened.” The mother also had her witness—
her husband. He also said that there was no attack.
I finally suggested that both women take the polygraph exam. Both
agreed. The mother took the exam and passed. The stepmother called
and cancelled the exam at the last minute claiming that she could not
get off work, and that she could not afford it. However she also added,
“Besides I felt justified in this instance because she (the mother) was
being so uncooperative, I wanted to teach her a lesson.”
The stepmother ended up confessing to making false charges
against the mother. (She later denied making that confession to me.)
At the advice of her attorney, the stepmother dropped the criminal
charges, but a year later filed a child sex abuse charge against the
mother. The judge referred the case again to me. Again I found the step-
mother to be fabricating. I recommended continued primary custody
with the mother.
A mother claimed that her husband had beaten her. She said that she
could prove that it happened since she had a protection-from-abuse
order and the incident was on a police report. The mother was upset
when I asked for a copy of that report, and accused me of bias since I
did not take her at her word.
She stated that up until me, the pervious mental health profession-
als involved in the case had believed her. She gave me her release to
contact them. She saw their belief in her as independent support for
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 85
Indeed, my interviews with her therapist and previous custody eval-
uator confirmed that they felt that she had been beaten. However, they
never checked into the police report. The previous mental health pro-
fessionals did not consider her motives to lie, and they did not investi-
gate her claims of abuse. The mother was a convincing victim.
I finally got a copy of the police incident report. It stated that the
officers came to the home after the mother called claiming that she was
beaten. The husband stated that she was lying and that she wanted him
removed from the home so that her boyfriend could move in.
The police found no bruises or redness anywhere on the mother.
The police refused to force the husband to leave their house.
Nevertheless, the next day the mother was able to get a protection-
from-abuse order and had her husband removed from their house. Soon
after, she moved her boyfriend in with her.
Her MMPI looked normal except that her Lie scale was much
higher than the norms for custody litigants. The father’s MMPI was as-
sociated with anxious, passive individuals.
Collateral witnesses stated that the mother was manipulative, and
they did not feel that the father would ever hit her.
The father took and passed a polygraph exam, the mother refused
to take it. The mother had alienated the children from the father, and
they refused to see him. They made the visits with him very difficult.
I recommended that the father have legal custody of the children. I
also recommended that the court appoint a mental health professional
to help the children with their Parental Alienation Syndrome, with the
eventual goal of the father having full physical custody of the children.
In all these cases, there is a parent with little insight and primitive
defenses (denial, projection, and projective identification) who does
harm to children.
Chapter 9 Integrating Theories
“Toward a Theoretically Individuated and Integrated Family
Therapist” was published in 2003 in the Russian journal Psychother-
apy. It was based on the first part of my psychology lecture in Russia
in 2001. Under Communism, there was little psychotherapy. The good
of society was more important than the good of the individual. Personal
growth was considered anticommunist. Russians often had a hard life.
Many took refuge in spiritual and superstitious beliefs. There is no
word for insight in Russian.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, psychotherapy began to take off.
They sought American experts on the subject.
I focused my lecture on family therapy, which I felt was a good tran-
sition from the Soviet emphasis on the social unit to the new Russian
emphasis on the individual.
My hosts pointed out to me that the 200 to 300 audience members
(professionals and students) were sitting together according to their
schools of thought. They already had rigid boundaries around their the-
oretical orientations. It was similar to how child learn religion, “Our
correct one and the other wrong ones.”
I wanted to warn them how such egocentricity of thought has hurt
the advance of the science of psychotherapy in the West. I warned that
it should not be copied in Russia. I explained that we hopefully mature
as individuals from our family’s biases. Similarly, as therapists, we
need to individuate from rigid schools of thought.
I argued for knowing how all the main theories provide interven-
tions useful for different sorts of people and situations. However, the
best theory for understanding and formulating cases was psychoana-
lytic theory. It had the best theory for a deep understanding of people.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 87
Although some patients might be too concrete and not self-
reflective enough for psychoanalytic work, it is always valuable for a
therapist to use a psychoanalytic formulation.
For example, is the personality structure primitive with mainly
primitive defenses, such as denial, projection (putting the denied faults
on to someone else), splitting (seeing things in black or white), and
projective identification (provoking others to make them feel similarly
Alternatively, is the personality structure neurotic with mainly
higher-level defenses such as repression? Patients who favor repression
as a defense can respond better to interpretations than those patients who
favor denial. With evidence, a patient can lift the repression and grow.
After the therapist has an understanding of the patient’s dynamics,
the therapist should then decide what interventions would best suit the
patient. I advocate familiarity with all the major theoretical orientations
and their techniques. I base the interventions on the needs of the patient
and not theoretical biases.
Psychotherapists professionally mature by individuating from their
theoretical family of origin. They learn to integrate concepts and tech-
niques from most of the major schools of thought based on the needs
of the family or patient. I will focus on the family unit as a pragmatic
starting point, which can later lead to individual psychotherapy.
No one theory has been able to deal with the full range of psycho-
logical problems. I will offer a philosophical, theoretical, and personal
review of the theories of therapy. Therapists can work from their fa-
vorite core theory, and branch out from that.
I will explain why I prefer a combination of family systems theory
and object relations theory. These theories explain both the interper-
sonal and intrapsychic levels and each level regulates one another. The
combination allows for interventions at either the interpersonal level or
intrapsychic level, depending on the degree of accessibility.
88 An Expert Look at Love
The family unit helps to develop and shape individual personality,
and each personality in turn contributes to the climate and operations
of the family system. Understanding this linkage can help a therapist
decide on which level to direct interventions—at the family system
and/or the intrapsychic system level.
Sometimes the level of intervention is based on the degree of em-
beddedness in the system and level of psychological maturity. Chil-
dren, for example, are strongly embedded in the family system. They
benefit more from an intervention in the family system, as opposed to
trying to appeal to their insights.
On the other hand, an emotionally sophisticated mother may be
able to greatly benefit from the interpretive insights from individual
psychotherapy, which can lead to improved parenting and personal
growth as well.
Sometimes I begin by working on the level of the family system,
reduce the symptoms displayed by the child, and subsequently address
the marital subsystem or a particular parent in individual psychother-
apy. I generally work from the larger, external family system and
progress to an individual’s intrapsychic system whenever possible.
I no longer believe, as I did as a beginning therapist, that all psy-
chopathology emanates from the family dynamics. That was the pre-
vailing belief in family therapy during the 1970s. Now I believe that it
is far more complex than that. Since the 1970s, the field of genetics has
advanced tremendously. We now know that much of one’s basic tem-
perament is biologically predisposed, and severe psychopathology, un-
less it is a result of severe abuse, generally has some biological basis.
It was wrong to blame families for such disorders as schizophrenia,
autism, and bipolar disorders.
However, primary caregivers shape the mind of the child. The fam-
ily has its greatest influence on personality in the first few years of life.
Research now shows that early attachment styles shape brain and psy-
chological development. The capacity for self-soothing, affect regula-
tion, and the healthy notion of self and others are developed in the early
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 89
After early childhood, the family can cause stress disorders, wors-
ening of psychopathology, or be a source of continuing love, guidance,
Psychology seems most effective in dealing with the sequelae of
psychological trauma. Perhaps the most damaging of traumas is from
our own family. When the very family that should be the source of pro-
tection and love traumatizes a child, the damage cuts to the core of
personality. Development is altered, and the capacity for healthy
relationships is compromised. Interpersonal treatment can help the
trauma that came from interpersonal causes, better than medication.
Therapeutic relationships can best help to heal the repetition of bad in-
timacies that was a result of an unhealthy childhood relationship.
However, our field has been slowed down by having competing
schools of thought trying to advance their superiority over other theo-
ries. Many therapists are often stuck in their early loyalties to a theo-
If you wish to be a master of your profession, then grow beyond the
assumptions and allegiances of your professional childhood. We help
patients to individuate from their families of origin. Therapists also can
benefit from individuating as well.
Studying the art of any practice involves some degree of identifica-
tion and imitation of our teachers and gurus, who served as our profes-
sional parental figures (Gordon, 1995b). However, I often hear
colleagues idealize their gurus while devaluing other schools of thought.
This primitive splitting into idealized and devalued schools of thought
represents a defensive insecurity and a lack of professional maturity.
I sought out and studied with some of the great proponents of the
major schools of family and individual psychotherapy. Although I
have my preferences, I can say that I have grown as a therapist because
of my ability to understand, respect, and integrate the various schools
All our schools of thought are derived from long traditions in epis-
temological assumptions, and not scientific facts (Lana, 1991). These
90 An Expert Look at Love
assumptions permeate academia and our present-day beliefs. The as-
sumptions of behaviorism and cognitive therapy are that the whole of
personality is the sum of learned behaviors. There is no dynamic un-
conscious or innate tendency. The best area of study is the observable
behaviors or thoughts.
Yet the mechanistic assumptions that are implicit in behaviorism go
back to the 17th century’s British school of empiricism. The empiricist
John Locke wrote that the mind is a passive blank slate, written on by
the external environment. This philosophical view helped create a psy-
chology of a concrete and simplistic model of the mind. This assump-
tion is seen in the work of Pavlov and Skinner.
Psychologists mainly tested the behavioral model in animal lab re-
search, and then generalized to the complexities of human personali-
ties and relationships with often-poor results.
Behaviors are seen as the atoms of psychology, and that the sum of
behaviors is equal to the whole of the person. Since the theory is based
on a physics model rather than a biological model (as is systems and
psychoanalytic theories), it developed no theory of resistance. This is
significant, since symptoms often serve a function, and families and in-
dividuals are often reluctant to relinquish them.
From the opposite end of epistemological assumptions is the En-
lightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant proposed a dynamic
mind with innate structures and tendencies. The proper study of psy-
chology therefore begins with understanding the innate structures of
the mind and how the mind actively processes experience.
Darwin’s theory of evolution gave us a structured brain that evolved
from lower life forms, and took along with it a primitive inheritance.
Darwin argued that mammals evolved behaviors and emotions for their
Freud then posited a structured mind with both primitive (Id), and
anti-primitive, i.e. cooperative value-oriented structure (Superego), and
a reality-oriented structure (Ego) to deal with the inherent conflict be-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 91
tween the Id and Superego and the demands of external reality. In this
model of the mind, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, since
there are conflicting and dynamic interactions among the various parts
Freud considered innate character and the interpersonal-emotional
world of the child. These forces are within the context of a dynamic un-
conscious mind with its defenses and its ability to encapsulate conflicts
with symptom formation.
Freud derived his theories from case studies of mainly introspec-
tive, intelligent patients suffering from psychoneuroses. It remains the
most sophisticated theory for understanding personality, symptoms,
and defenses. The treatment, however, is not effective with concrete in-
dividuals who have poor self-reflective abilities.
When we view these different assumptions, ranging from the mind
as a blank slate to a structured organizing mind, we can establish a cor-
responding continuum of psychotherapeutic theories ranging from be-
haviorism to psychoanalysis.
Systems theory represents a middle ground. It is ahistorical and its
focus is on overt behaviors and not insight, as is behaviorism. However,
similar to psychoanalytic assumptions, systems theory has a concept of
the whole as more than the sum of the parts, with a biosocial model of
resistance, boundary, and homeostasis, (see Figure 9.1).
These distinct schools of therapy, based on philosophical assump-
tions and particular patient populations (or animals), are often not gen-
eralizable to the wide range of human conditions.
Behaviorism Systems Psychoanalytic
Figure 9.1 The Basis of Psychological Schools of Thought
92 An Expert Look at Love
Each school contributes valuable techniques and understanding of
psychology, but none has fulfilled its original promise to be either fully
explanatory or successful.
They can be unified under an encompassing theory that includes
levels of systems, from the social systems to the intrapsychic system,
from the level of overt behaviors to unconscious dynamics.
If one breaks out of the narrow school of thought, then a wide range
of knowledge is available to understand and treat a wide range of psy-
I started my psychology training with behaviorists. I began to break
from my strict behaviorism roots by working with cognitions.
In New York I received supervision from Albert Ellis in rational
emotive therapy. Ellis was one of the early proponents of cognitive ther-
apy. He felt that most of personality is inherent and unchangeable, but
what were changeable were irrational thoughts that could produce
This led to a simple theory of psychopathology based on the as-
sumption that wrong thinking led to psychological symptoms. Change
the thinking and the symptoms will disappear.
The cognitive therapy model is from both lab research with human
subjects and short-term case studies. It also assumes that only observ-
able thoughts (a form of behavior) are the only or main legitimate area
of study. There is really no theory of personality, development, resis-
tance, or unconscious dynamics.
The interventions are helpful for most everyone. Most people feel
better just knowing that they can control their irrational thoughts. Just
persuade a client to remember that they need not be perfect, or need to
have others approval, or need to be in control, and tensions may be tem-
The theory does not seem to consider that these irrational thoughts
may be a symptom of a deeper emotional trauma that needs emotion
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 93
detoxification and the internalization of a healthy smoothing intimacy.
This can only come from the context of a long-term therapeutic
Recent brain research shows that the science behind cognitive-
behavior therapy (CBT) is weak (Panksepp, 1998, 2004). All mammals
have similar affects that evolved because these emotions had survival
value. These sub-cortical affect centers of the brain are not due to cog-
nitions. Ironically, CBT therapists argue that they have the most scien-
tifically based treatment. Even if their theoretical assumptions are weak
and not backed by science, the technique is helpful.
In the 1970s, family therapy promised to become the great psy-
chological panacea, and Philadelphia became the Mecca of family
theory. I was fortunate to be a psychology graduate student in
Philadelphia at that time at Temple University. To the south of me, I
had the workshops at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center with
Jay Haley, Salvador Manuchin, Carl Whitaker, Harry Aponte, and
On the northern side of Temple University there was the Eastern
Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute (EPPI) where Ivan Boszormenyi-
Nagy, Jim Framo, David Rubenstein, Geraldine Spark, and Gerald
Zuck were developing their theories and offering conferences and
weekly lectures in family therapy.
Philadelphia Child Guidance emphasized cure by changing the
family structure and system. EPPI emphasized object relations theory
in the context of the family system. I was geographically and philo-
sophically in the middle of these two competing schools of thought.
As with cognitive-behaviorists, many systems-oriented therapists
seemed to have an ax to grind when it came to psychodynamics, mak-
ing it seem as though their ideas were in part a defense against the idea
that there was an unconscious out of their control. Interestingly, it is the
most controlling therapies that deny that there is an unconscious that is
out of conscious control.
94 An Expert Look at Love
It makes one wonder about the motivation of therapists who solve
psychological problems with more ideas of behavioral control than
After my Ph.D., I studied with Peggy Papp at the Ackerman Insti-
tute in New York City. Papp taught me how to apply many of the quasi-
hypnotic techniques of Milton Erickson to short-term work with
couples. These techniques cleverly were able to deal with the problems
of resistance that eluded the cognitive-behaviorists.
I discovered in my work with Peggy Pap that my talent for formu-
lating paradoxical interventions was based on my understanding of a
paradoxical unconscious. That is, I would tell a husband who was hos-
tile and controlling, that he should continue that behavior since it was
his compromise between his wish to be loved and his fear of it.
Generally, the paradox of describing and prescribing the symptom
was enough to disrupt the behaviors. However, if it was also a valid in-
terpretation of an unconscious conflict, it could also produce an emo-
tional insight that helped bring about more lasting change.
I noticed that the other supervisees who formulated paradoxes that
were not also valid interpretations of a self-defeating unconscious,
tended to have less results with their families.
The use of paradoxical communication grew out of communica-
tions theory, which considered that metacommunications regulated a
system. However, before that, there was simple communication theory,
which involved teaching patients how to communicate more clearly
The educative level of communications theory helps most families
and couples learn on a conscious level how to better relate. This re-
mains, regardless of theoretical bias, one of the most important thera-
peutic interventions; that is, teaching people how to speak clearly and
constructively. It helps most people, most of the time. However, it is too
superficial for families who resist positive change.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 95
Dysfunctional families may use confusing and harmful communi-
cations to maintain their family system in a rigid homeostasis. Such
families will resist such straightforward prescriptive interventions.
Communication theory then evolved to deal with resistances, by mov-
ing to the level of (unconscious) metacommunications, which define
roles, alliances, power, and boundaries.
Symptoms may be reduced by changing the communications with
relabeling, reframing, and paradoxical directives.
At this point of my theoretical continuum from behaviorism to psy-
choanalysis is systems theory. Systems theory is not mechanistically
based, but works like a biological system, which includes complex in-
teracting levels of behaviors, not all of which are either conscious or
have to do with learning.
Systems theory assumes that people are trying to maintain a home-
ostasis, not just responding to reinforcements. It assumes that biologi-
cal systems resist invasions of their boundaries and operations.
Gregory Bateson, John Weakland, Jay Haley, Don Jackson, and
Virginia Satir eventually saw metacommunications within a family
system as a main cause of psychopathology. Double binds, confused
communications, and mystifications could drive someone to psy-
chopathology, even schizophrenia. These theories were largely based
on observing families of schizophrenics, which often had poor com-
munications. They assumed a cause-and-effect relationship without
seriously considering that the members of the family of a schizo-
phrenic may share some degree of loosening of thought. In addition,
many families have poor communications, but do not produce a schiz-
It would seem to me that hostility, scapegoating, and negligence are
more powerful in traumatizing a child than unclear speech. Based on
these assumptions, relabeling schizophrenia as, say, idiosyncratic con-
fusion was supposed to help this disorder. This theory, however, pro-
vides for powerful interventions to circumvent resistances and to help
change patterns of communications that can produce damage to self-
esteem and independence.
96 An Expert Look at Love
Eventually, while theorists such as Jay Haley focused on commu-
nication within a system, Salvador Minuchin focused more on the
structure of the system. Systems theory does not view humans as sim-
ply made up of atoms of behaviors, as in the case of cognitive-
behavioral theory and simple communications theory.
The family system is a biosocial unit that tries to maintain a home-
ostasis unless it is programmed to become open to change. The system
has levels of power, boundaries, tasks, or operations it needs to per-
form, such as who does what jobs, how tensions are resolved, or how
to manage changes in roles, membership, and alliances.
Psychopathology of an individual is based on the maturity of the
family system. It assumes that such severe psychopathologies are usu-
ally a result of a family system with weak intergenerational boundaries,
weak executive functioning, and unhealthy alliances (such as an over-
protective mother), and the system’s need for a sick patient to perhaps
maintain or balance the personalities of the parents or take the focus
from their marriage.
Salvador Minuchin based his theory from a population of acting out
boys from the New York slums. These boys’ families were disorga-
nized and impoverished. Minuchin assumed that if their families be-
came better structured, the children who were embedded in the
structure of the family would become less symptomatic.
His techniques are often helpful for children of concrete belea-
guered parents, who often have little psychological resources available
for their children. I have found much of what he advocates to be much
less effective with insightful adults.
Many of Minuchin’s devotees have attempted to apply his theory,
based on poor disorganized families, to insightful middle- and upper-
middle-class families with poor results. These patients often complain
that they felt unheard and manipulated.
However, Minuchin made it possible to make significant progress
in the lives of children who could not be reached by techniques that in-
volved theories of learning or insight. His techniques often help chil-
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 97
dren get out of the role of the symptom bearer of the family with short-
term treatment. Today, Minuchin adds a psychodynamic component to
his theory by going into the parent’s childhood. This allows for deeper
I felt that cognitive-behavioral therapy and systems therapies did
not go far enough. I then went for psychoanalytic training. This also
necessitated my own psychoanalysis. My analysis contributed more to
my abilities as a therapist than all the other educational and training
The subjective relational emphasis within psychoanalysis is object
relations theory. However, before I outline object relations, since it is a
derivation of psychoanalytic theory, I shall first briefly review psycho-
analytic assumptions. Freud held a concept of a structured and dynamic
mind that was both selfish (Id), and socialized (Superego). This gave
us a model of a mind in conflict with itself from the start, with the child
dependent on both the adaptations of the Ego and the quality of the par-
enting to help reduce conflicts and move through the stages of matura-
tion. Recently, research on infant attachment supports object relations
The force to procreate and to protect is innate. The child is born
with affects and drives that had survival value. The child needs the fam-
ily to help tame these primitive forces. The child practices and needs to
master issues of aggression and sexuality throughout development.
Rejecting, conflicted, or seductive parents interfere with normal
psychosexual development, and the child traumatized by the family de-
velops sexual and aggressive conflicts and fixations. The trauma is
symbolically repeated in the symptoms. Later psychoanalytic theories
added the importance of traumas with attachment and empathic fail-
ures. When the patient unconsciously repeats the trauma in the thera-
peutic relationship, empathic interpretations help the person work
through the emotional past rather than repeat it.
This not only produces symptom reduction, but personal growth as
well. Psychoanalytic theory is excellent at explaining many of the mys-
teries of human conflicts, defenses, and symptoms. It takes into account
98 An Expert Look at Love
instinct, temperament, development, and family dynamics in the etiol-
ogy of psychopathology.
In Freudian theory, the emphasis starts with our primitive drives.
Object relations theory shifts the emphasis from innate drives to inter-
nalized parts of the self and others who are associated with aggression,
sexuality, dependency, and love. Fairbairn (1952) felt that we are essen-
tially social animals, not so much propelled by drives, but attracted to
needed love objects.
These internal parts are made up of various aspects of the self and
the external object (meaning the mothering figure for the most part, and
later other family members).
These objects are not simple internalizations of real people, but
subjective representations of them as perceived by the child’s tempera-
ment, needs, and developmental stage.
The locus of pathology is housed in the internal world of bad ob-
jects and a compromised self. These internal objects seek out others to
enact and repeat past traumas, or to repeat successful love depending
on one’s first loves in the family of origin. Individuals with family trau-
mas have internal bad objects that gyroscopically pick, provoke, or dis-
tort current intimates to repeat the past (Gordon, 1998; Kernberg, 1995;
Stierlin, 1970; Willi, 1982).
This theory is able to explain better than all others resistance and
repetition. Why do people complain about their symptoms, yet are in-
tent on maintaining them and resisting change for the better? Object re-
lations theory helps us appreciate that symptoms help maintain the
homeostasis of the internal object system.
A symptom is a compromise between the demands of the real world
and the internal world of good and bad objects. It may be better for a
person to have a lot of aggression in intimacy. It may represent the in-
ternalized need to punish the symbolic parent. Without such aggres-
sion, the person may feel extremely anxious, empty, or lacking passion.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 99
Guntrip (1969) describes an “in and out program” for intimacy. The
person may both wish intimacy and fear it, so therefore develops a pat-
tern of moving in and out of intimacy.
When a primary love object frustrates and injures a child, later a
dramatic and conflicted intimacy provides moments of familiarity and
the safety from feared commitment. The person may need to attach to
a drama, fetish, fantasy, a third party (child, lover, or substance), work,
or an illness in order to regulate intimacy.
The self becomes split off into many parts as an attempt to give to
the external loved object and yet retain some degree of true self. The
person feels confused about his or her own healthy needs and the toxic
needs of the bad internal objects. These internal bad objects become an
internal saboteur that purposely seeks and maintains poor relationships.
Other theories do not begin to explain such self-defeating relation-
ships, resistance to change, nor do they offer any enduring solution. Ob-
ject relations therapy is aimed at the deep level of identity to which all
relationships are subjected.
Although object relations theory represents the best combination of
attachment and family context, temperament, development, and innate
factors, its main drawback is that the theory is too complex for most
The application of analytic theories demands the most amount of
training, often involving a personal analysis. It is intellectually and
emotionally challenging. It is not a therapy for the masses.
Object relations theory has perhaps the best explanatory value of all
the major theories of interpersonal behavior. It is the most sophisticated
theory for understanding both pathological personality structure (such
as Kernberg’s work with borderline personality disorder 1976, 1980,
1989), and both mature and pathological love relationships.
However, its application is often limited to insightful psychologi-
cally minded people. There is nothing more powerful in helping a per-
son grow than a well-timed, accurate interpretation of a self-defeating
100 An Expert Look at Love
unconscious pattern in the context of being a good emotional container
for the patient.
At this point of my professional life, I respect and work with all
these theories. I hope not to have offended any of you in my trying to
break old stereotypes in my oversimplified survey.
However, let me return to my point. To grow as a field and as ther-
apists, we must give up our over identifications with schools of thought.
I have found value in all of them, but none of them has been enough.
After all my training in the various schools of therapy, and over 25 years
of day-to-day practice, I have come to value most the combined ap-
proach of systems and object relations theories. This combination has
the best explanatory value in understanding the complexities of human
problems and intimacy.
Although I may use behavioral desensitization, cognitive therapy
clarifications, and education in constructive and clear communications
to deal with specific symptoms, I always use psychoanalytic formula-
tions to help me understand the full depth of a person.
Religions and political parties are often stuck in their dogmas and
splitting the world into true and false believers. Psychotherapists can-
not afford such thinking. We are applied scientists. Scientists cannot be
out to prove something, but only to discover with an open mind.
Our theories are guides in our thinking. We can integrate theories
that range from external behaviors, internal conscious thoughts, a com-
plex interpersonal system, to the internal dynamic unconscious system.
All are interconnected. Therapists should not choose a theory based on
assumptions and old loyalties. The choice needs to be based on what is
the most effective and practical. Patients with limited emotional re-
sources may be helped on a behavioral level, while other patients can
be helped on a deeper level, and achieve more personal growth. Most
therapists feel comfortable with ways of thinking that fit their own per-
sonalities. My best advice is after you have mastered at least one the-
ory, to grow to respect other theories and techniques to add to your core
modality. Your only identity should be the best therapist that you can
be, and your only loyalty should be to helping patients.
Chapter 10 Self-Esteem
“Judge Psychology by Results and Scientific Studies” was my
op-ed piece for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call in 2005. I
wanted to respond to a recent op-ed piece by an English professor who
wrote that the concept of self-esteem was pop-psych nonsense.
Again, I needed to write for the lay audience about psychology. I
wanted to convey that although all people have their own theories about
it, psychology is a research-based science. The following is an excerpt
from my article.
Steve Salerno had a piece in last Friday’s Morning Call in which he
questioned the value of concepts such as self-esteem and confidence.
He stated, “society has embraced concepts like self esteem and confi-
dence despite scant evidence that they lead to positive outcomes.”
I am a Ph.D. psychologist. I publish research and have been prac-
ticing professional psychology in the Lehigh Valley for about 30 years.
I help people who have problems with self-esteem and confidence.
Steve Salerno is a professional writer. People who are not psychologists
are forever telling me about their own theories of psychology. In addi-
tion, I am sure that Mr. Salerno has many people telling him that when
they retire they will publish a book.
I did a search of our scientific journals in PsycINFO on the conse-
quences of self-esteem to test Steve Salerno’s opinion. It produced over
four thousand research studies. Almost all of the studies showed the
benefits of high self-esteem and confidence. There were many studies
that showed that higher self-esteem and confidence lead to better rela-
tionships, better physical health, better mental health, better incomes,
and overall a better quality of life. The findings were neither scant nor
102 An Expert Look at Love
One study of 312,940 individuals showed evidence for higher self-
esteem leading to better educational achievement and income. In a
study of 471 mothers, researchers found that the low self-esteem moth-
ers were more likely to abuse and neglect their children than mothers
of higher self-esteem.
The findings were not limited to just our society. In a study of
13,118 college students from 31 nations, students took tests measuring
self-esteem and other factors. The researchers found that self-esteem
was associated with a person’s life satisfaction.
A study published in the Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology
reported a positive relationship between self-esteem and mental health
in 699 Chinese students. In a 2004 study of data from Russia over a
five-year period, the researchers concluded, “Psychologists attribute a
large part of well-being to self esteem and optimism. The same factors
appear to influence individual’s wealth and health.”
There were also studies that did show the negative outcomes of high
self-esteem and confidence. However, these studies were about the de-
fensive distortion of self-worth, such as is found in narcissism, mania,
antisocial personalities, and those with grandiose delusions. These are
examples of psychopathology, not healthy self-esteem.
I would agree with Mr. Salerno if he had stated that self-deception
leads to problems. People with unrealistically high self-esteem use oth-
ers to maintain their inflated image and hence do not take negative
feedback well, do not learn from their mistakes, and blame others for
their own problems. I also agree that self-esteem and confidence are
not substitutes for hard work, good values, discipline, limits, and con-
cern for others.
Mr. Salerno wrote, “Pop psychology once taught us to wallow in
our faults and limitations. It now teaches us to deny them, if not revel
I would not confuse learning from popular psychology with learning
from scientific psychology. However, an idea achieves popularity not by
its scientific complexity, but its simplicity and function for the masses.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 103
For example, research psychology has found parenting style will
affect a child’s self-esteem and confidence. The pre-psychology tradi-
tional authoritarian parenting style and its opposite—the permissive
parenting style both produce children with distorted self-appraisal and
Research found that it was the middle ground style, the warm-
authoritative parenting style with both love and limits, that tended to
produce children with healthy self-esteem and confidence.
However, if what is translated into popular culture is simply “help
children to have better self-esteem and confidence,” then more good
than harm can come from this democratization of the science.
I share Mr. Salerno’s concern about pop psychology’s oversimplifi-
cations. I feel the same way when politicians turn complex issues into
sound bites. However, I would rather suffer some oversimplifying of
ideas for the sake of public accessibility. In the end, the consumer will
learn what works and what does not. That is true for science and politics.
Chapter 11 Children of Divorce
“The Doom and Gloom of Divorce Research: Comment on
Wallerstein and Lewis (2004)” in Psychoanalytic Psychology (2005)
was my reaction to Wallerstein and Lewis’s 25-year study of the effects
of divorce on children (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004, 2005).
Judith Wallerstein has several best-selling books on the subject of
how divorce hurts children for the rest of their lives. I applied my
knowledge of research artifact to argue that their correlational findings
do not mean that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between di-
vorce and later problems in the children of divorced parents.
Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) conclude from their longitudinal re-
search of 45 divorced families, “This 25 year study points to divorce
not as an acute stress in which a child recovers but a life transforming
experience for the child” (p. 367).
The authors attribute the subsequent psychological problems in the
children of divorced parents to the divorce itself as opposed to the psy-
chopathology of either or both of the parents, the trauma of their par-
enting, and their stressful marriage.
They drew a causal relationship from correlational data, and give
parents and those who advise them a very pessimistic view of divorce.
Their conclusion is that divorce is the primary cause of the children’s
later life problems.
Wallerstein and Lewis used a comparison group of children from
intact families who came from otherwise similar backgrounds as the
children of divorced families. The children of divorced families had
much worse psychological problems than the comparison group. How-
ever, this comparison does not help us understand what may have
caused the problems in these children.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 105
It would have been more helpful if the authors compared children
from divorced families in which neither parent suffered from mental
illness, with children from intact families with at least one mentally
Wallerstein and Lewis blame divorce for the later psychological
problems of the children without considering the more likely conclu-
sion that the same factors that contributed to divorce also contributed
to the emotional problems in the children of divorce.
It is difficult to remain married to an individual whose mental ill-
ness involves abuse, meanness, addictions, defensiveness, neglect of
children, lack of empathy, selfishness, and remoteness. A mentally ill
parent can influence the child both genetically and by the early and con-
tinuing traumatic environment.
Wallerstein and Lewis conclude that children of divorced parents
go on to have poor relationships. However, it is more likely that tem-
perament and the quality of bonding and parenting affect how well
adults attach to others.
Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell, and Albersheim (2000) looked
at relationship patterns in 50 young adults who were studied 20 years
earlier as infants. Overall, 72% of the infants received the same secure
versus insecure attachment classification in early adulthood.
Additionally, negative life experiences also affected the type of
adult attachment, such as loss of a parent, parental divorce, life-
threatening illness of a parent or the child, parental psychiatric disor-
der, and physical or sexual abuse by a family member.
Kelly’s (1993) review of 10 years of research on children’s later ad-
justment found that many of the psychological symptoms seen in chil-
dren of divorce could be accounted for in the years prior to the divorce.
Kelly concluded, “the view that divorce per se is the major cause of
these symptoms must be reconsidered in light of newer research docu-
menting the negative effects of troubled marriages on children.”
106 An Expert Look at Love
Hetherington, & Stanley (1999) found that although soon after di-
vorce, children display more symptoms than those in high-conflict non-
divorced families, but as the children adapt to the new situation, the
pattern of differences reverses. When divorce involves children mov-
ing into a less stressful situation, children from divorced families show
similar adjustment to those in normal intact families.
It is not surprising to hear children complain about the divorce of
their parents, as expressed in Wallerstein and Lewis’s anecdotal inter-
views. Children are often not able to as easily discern the psy-
chopathologies of their parents as they can a concrete trauma such as
divorce. The children of divorce might more easily talk about the di-
vorce than the dysfunctional aspects of the parent(s) who caused both
the divorce and their problems.
Wallerstein and Lewis promote a rather pessimistic and unbalanced
view of divorce that can give false evidence for extremist, religious, and
political groups to pressure families to remain together, often in con-
traindication to the safety and the welfare of the children.
There are many children who would rather escape from a toxic fam-
ily system than remain in one. A divorcing parent could model that re-
solving trauma in a supportive relationship, which can lead to ego
resiliency and a better life.
Chapter 12 Toward Healthier Intimacies
Sections from my book: I Love You Madly! On Passion, Person-
ality and Personal Growth. (2006)
From chapter 2, “Disturbances in Love Relations”:
Otto Kernberg (1974, 1976, 1980, 1995) wrote of two basic love
pathologies found in the most disturbed individuals: the inability to fall
in love and the inability to remain in love. Another psychoanalyst,
Salman Akhtar (1999) had added three more: the tendency to fall in
love with the “wrong” kinds of people, the inability to fall out of love
and the inability to feel loved.
The most severe form of love disturbance is the inability to fall in
love. In order to fall in love some degree of idealization or overvaluing
is necessary. In normal love, the idealization is primarily based on real
qualities. In pathological cases, the idealization is extreme and can be-
come delusional with an equal but opposite devaluation lurking beneath.
However people who cannot fall in love at all either cannot feel an ide-
alization of another or the idealization is a fickle and fleeting fantasy.
Individuals may have problems falling in love because:
1. They are egocentric, lacking the capacity to love another.
2. They dread closeness, since they associate it with the destruction
of their fragile psychological world.
The next level of disturbance is when a person can fall in love but
cannot remain in love. Personalities that fall into this category have the
capacity for idealization and erotic desire. They unconsciously seek a
magical love that is worthy of their grandiose self and also a rescuer
that is transformational. However, they experience a great deal of hos-
tility when the idealized love object does not live up to the hoped for
108 An Expert Look at Love
magical transformation. They may become obsessed with deficiencies
in the love object. They often fear that intimacy will reveal that they are
a fraud and may project this onto the love object and come to see the
formally idealized lover as a fraud. A cycle of idealization and devalu-
ation of the other moves the person in and out of closeness. There is no
true intimacy with a real person. This type of love is mainly a child’s
fantasy. They fall in love with a fantasy and then punish the real person
for not fulfilling the fantasy.
Individuals may evolve from not being able to fall in love, to being
able to fall in love but not remain in love. They might fall in love with
the “wrong people” in service to their unconscious need to not remain
As I enter my waiting room, I see Karen looking unhappy to see me.
I brace myself as I remember her from the past. I enjoy doing deep and
meaningful psychoanalytic work. Even after many years, it still stimu-
lates me intellectually and emotionally, making me feel fortunate to
have such a rewarding profession. But some patients try to drive me
crazy, while I try to drive them sane. Karen feels empowered by defeat-
ing me. She sees her defensiveness as a strength.
Karen changes therapists the same way she changes men. She starts
out expecting magic and when she does not get it, she devalues the per-
son. She had been in and out of psychotherapy of one sort or another
(some bizarre) since she was a teenager. When I first saw her briefly a
few years ago, she was quoting from several self-help books to help her
find a man. She read some passages in order to educate me. She could
not understand why I had not read those books and still considered my-
self a serious professional. She particularly liked advice that is decep-
tive and manipulative. That sort of advice made sense to her. She
justified her dishonesty since she assumed that men are innately un-
trustworthy. She was unhappy when I told her that I would not help her
with deception, but I might help her to see what she was doing wrong.
Karen, looking around my office with a disapproving face says,
“Dr. Gordon, I came back to you because I tried everything else.”
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 109
“It’s been about four years,” I say. “You didn’t seem happy with
“I don’t believe in Freud and going into the past.”
Karen is really saying, “Just give me the answers, but don’t ask me
to look at myself.” People who do not believe in Freud have probably
not read or understood much of what he actually said. His theories warn
that people pay a price for lying to themselves. Defensive people do not
like to hear that.
Karen, now 39, never married. Her love relationships rarely last more
than a few months. The longest was with a married man for 2 years.
The fact that he was unavailable may have helped it last that long. When
he broke it off, Karen got depressed. That is when I first saw her. She
stayed a few months. When she fell in love again, she left therapy.
Karen’s blue eyes scan my face for hints of my feelings about her.
She had punky short blond hair and several earrings on each ear. Karen
is still skinny like a teenager and dresses like one. She could easily at-
tract a man and become infatuated for a while. Karen often picks low-
functioning men. Her rationalization is that she can have more control
and she hopes they will appreciate her. But Karen picks low-
functioning men mainly so that it will be easy for her to devalue them
and eventually reject them. When she finds a man who treats her well,
she feels less passion, becomes demanding, dependent, provoking
fights, and blames the conflicts on the boyfriend.
Karen notices my wheaten terrier, Roy, who remains behind my
chair. He is friendly and likes to greet most people.
“Your dog looks depressed. It’s no wonder since he has to listen to
all this crap.”
“Karen, what can I do for you?” I ask. Clearly, it was Karen who
feels depressed, projecting her feelings onto my dog. Karen transfers
onto me that I will not be able to endure her “crap.” She can barely stand
110 An Expert Look at Love
her own emotions (poor affect tolerance), so she had a hard time imag-
ining someone as an adequate emotional container. She cannot realize
how much she is already showing me about herself.
Looking at me insistently, she demands, “I want you to help me
find a man.”
“I’m an analyst not a matchmaker,” I say, clarifying my role.
“I keep picking jerks,” she says, shrugging to suggest her victimhood.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t want to be alone...I want to be married.”
“Not happily married?”
She is silent.
Karen is not ready for an interpretation. An interpretation is a trans-
lation from unconscious to conscious language. Dreams, slips of the
tongue, psychological symptoms, and relationship conflicts are all
forms of unconscious language. Interpretation helps a person develop
self-reflection. Self-reflection can help a person be more comfortable
with themselves and others. Karen wants love to protect her. She wants
to be the cared-for child and her man to be an undemanding ideal par-
ent. I could have interpreted that the real reason Karen did not say,
“Happily married” is because it isn’t consistent with her conflicted at-
tachment style. Her history with men proves this.
From the time I first met Karen, I saw many of the themes to come.
I see her problems with attachment by how she treats me (transference).
An interpretation goes into forbidden territory, into a person’s most
private place. I never go there without an invitation. For now, in this
first phase of treatment, I make no deep interpretations; rather I clarify
our roles and tasks.
Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. 111
“If you want me to help you to have a healthy intimacy, you must
allow yourself to have a therapeutic relationship with me. It will take
emotional honesty, time, and commitment.”
Karen says, “I don’t have the time and money. They don’t pay
nurses what they should.”
Karen feels entitled to happiness. She does not understand that she
has to earn it.
“Your time and money will go to other things that will not affect
your life as profoundly as psychotherapy.”
“Sure. Sure.” Karen sneers in a dismissive tone.
An emotionally corrective relationship could help a person have
better intimacy. Psychotherapy is the most reliable method. But here is
the irony: One needs to have the capacity for intimacy to form a thera-
peutic relationship to start with. In other words, it takes a good patient
to get to the good therapy.
These qualities make for good patients:
1. A commitment to the therapeutic relationsh