Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Family Ties: Lifeline and Gordian Knot

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


562f0bd2b8ef0bfaddda7de36e447f92Gordian Knot — an extremely difficult or involved problem.

Sometimes when you learn a new word you immediately hear it the next day, and the same thing can happen with ideas. In last Monday’s New York Times, I discovered an article by the Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni, not about politics but about the influence of family. Under the headline “The Family Footsteps We Follow,” the column addressed some of the same issues I had been thinking about since a lecture I had attended the previous day. Bruni talks about the comforts of family support, but he says we are also inevitably weighed down by “dues and expectations.” The influence of family on the individual was precisely what I was thinking about.

The lecture I attended, called “Devotion and Desire,” was a presentation by a professor from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, Deborah Anna Luepnitz. In her talk, she compared the theories of English analyst D.W. Winnicott to those of the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. Many regard the two as incompatible. Winnicott is generously optimistic and emphasizes the goal of making the patient “whole” by creating a “holding environment” in the therapy. He is responsible for the famous concept of the “good enough mother.” Lacan, on the other hand, is notoriously difficult to understand, and many of his concepts are considered deliberately obscure, particularly in the United States. Yet, worldwide a large percentage of  modern psychoanalysts consider themselves “Lacanians.”

Lacan believes that man can never be “whole” and acceptance of this disappointment is part of psychological health. He also sees the individual “self” as a dubious concept and believes that we are created and conceived long before we are actually born—by the way our families see us. So, for example, each child born into a family comes into that family already weighted with fantasies and expectations along with family history that is very important to understanding his or her identity.

RELATED: Alone Together: Humans in the Digital World

Lacan and his followers always ask patients not only about their immediate families but also about the previous generations — as many as they can remember. Names are considered crucial in this regard. Who were you named for? What was this person’s history and what was his or her story? Bruni discusses the Bush family and the heavy expectations that burden members of a family of such high achievers. But Lacan would ask also about the specific expectations. It’s widely known that Jeb was the one who was supposed to be president. How far back did the family myth go? Was this expectation itself part of the problem with his campaign? Whose “footsteps” was Jeb following (or perhaps refusing to follow)? Bruni writes, “Days later, he tearfully ended a campaign that he’d never seemed entirely sure of. This time I thought: What a burdened man. Measured against daunting examples. Compelled to keep pace. His quest for the White House was a kind of parable of the blessing and the curse of a tightly knit family deeply invested in each member’s advancement.” Read More »

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.