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Human Relations (Part II)

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 32 - September 1998

In the last issue of PH (31), we looked at a paradigm of different types of human relations based on the Gestalt Therapy method of Frederick "Fritz" Perls (1893-1970). The first two types, dependency and confluence (or what could be labelled "symbiosis", or in Perls' own terminology, "confluence") show a situation in which one or both of the partners involved have boundary problems. Now if a person's boundary is too solid, or impermeable, then no relations at all with people in the outside world are possible. At the other extreme, are those who have boundaries which might be described as too weak or diffuse, not allowing for a stable sense of self or identity. So that either one is hanging on the other, strong partner; or, in the less common case of double dependency, the two are mutually caught in a situation of hanging on to each other.

But over time it is really too much to constantly hang on in this way. The bother is that nothing new or interesting takes place. (For, as Perls puts it, there can be no growth without assimilation of the novel.) A simple experiment will concretely demonstrate the dullness of this confluence quality: place one hand on your wrist and hold it there as long as possible. Notice that at first you sense the differences between hand and wrist. That is, you can feel the boundaries contacting – the skin, hairs, etc. It is stimulating and interesting to focus on. But later, as this contact continues too long without interruption or renewal, it becomes confluent, i.e. you lose the feel of the two distinct surfaces; they seem to blend into one another, and now it is no longer interesting. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep in focus and your attention wanders. (Or perhaps you feel the disgust, and get fed up!) After a time, you can no longer differentiate hand from wrist! The boundaries are no longer clear, and it become increasingly difficult to tell, as in the D-E immersion (see Part I of this article in the last issue), where one ends and the other begins. This is confluence. In this concrete example you can experience yourself what takes place. Feel the "stickiness", the lack of good contact, the de trop (too much) quality. Does it arouse any strong emotion in you?

Thus it is in the confluence relationship: one person fades into the other (there is no clear boundary) with a loss of personal identity.

The boundaries further weaken, and so one becomes more and more bored and fed up with it. Such a relationship is hardly enriching because, as in the hand exercise, neither one feels any real contact, and thus cannot experience novelty and growth.

Of course, there are times when either of these previous examples cited above (figs. 1 and 2 – dependency and confluence) could be considered healthy and not pathological. It is only unhealthy if one attempts to make such a situation chronic. A mother and child, for example, represent an appropriate dependency or confluence, and in context, this interaction lasts for a limited time… but if the son is 35 years old and as dependent on his mother as he was at three, then it might well be an unhealthy dependency. Again, at the moment of orgasm, two persons (as in D and E, previous article) will be in confluence – their boundaries dissolve momentarily and they melt into each other. This is a healthy instance of confluence. However, if one tries to chronically maintain a confluent bind, then the pattern invariably sinks into an unhealthy and anti-growth system.

The third paradigm, fig. 3, shows what Perls considers a more healthy, i.e. growth-oriented configuration; one where both partners are allowed to be individuals, maintain boundaries, and make contact at the boundary point. (First, of course, one must have a viable boundary in order to make real contact with an Other!) Thus, both can grow and enhance the mutual relationship.

Figure 3

Figure 3

This healthier mode of interaction between two people allows for freedom (one can flex the boundary); thus in fig. 3, there is a life-sustaining, lively rhythm of contact, withdrawal, and resumed contact.

You can easily demonstrate this enlivening of the interaction by returning now to the hand-on-wrist example used earlier: to make it more lively, renew the contact by taking your hand away for a short time. Then return the hand to the wrist. Now there is a sense of new contact, a livelier perception of both hand and wrist. Instead of the former death-grip of confluence with its diminished awareness, sluggishness, lack of attention, etc., now you can feel the new contact. Try this simple experiment for yourself, don't take my word for it. Interrupting the confluential pattern by intermittent withdrawing can result in increased boundary contact, a better ability to distinguish one from the other (hand from wrist, or whatever) and more appreciation of one's perceptual awareness and sensitivity.

Thus, in the example above (fig. 3) the partners are in good contact at times, and at other times, each withdraws, taking new nourishment from the environment. And then, contact, when it takes place again, is livelier and more interesting to both, in striking contrast to the locked-in confluence or dependency relationships (figs. 1 and 2) where the clinging produces stagnation with little growth for either partner.

Ideally, here in fig. 3, each individual is allowed to grow and so both can meet upon mutual consent without the imprisonment of dependency or the resulting resentment. It's not necessary to "share everything"; what is realistically workable is to build in "spaces" – allowing the other one to breathe.

This paradigm may also be fruitfully applied to other interactions in life: for example, to the therapeutic situation itself. In some schools of therapy, the dependency model (as in fig. 1) is encouraged by the therapist. Here the patient is put in a dependent position from the start; the therapist plays the Authority-Expert, and as such the patient needs the therapist more and more. He clings to the therapist, never letting go. The therapist, playing "parent", works to encourage such dependency, perhaps labelling it with a fancy name – "Transference", which is then seen as necessary for the therapy to continue. Therapy drags on for years and years.

Or in other cases, both therapist and patient are locked into a double confluence pattern (fig. 2)… sometimes called a "transference jam". Both hold on to the therapy.

The proper model for conducting psychotherapy is fig. 3. Both therapist and patient are given responsibility for the relationship. Freedom is encouraged; if the patient wants to stop therapy for awhile, he is permitted to do so without being punished for his independence (contact – withdrawal – contact).


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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