Stephen A. Mitchell (psychologist)

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Stephen A. Mitchell (July 23, 1946December 21, 2000) was a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst whose writings helped to clarify many disparate psychoanalytic theories and theoreticians.


  • In the integrated relational model presented here, sexuality and relational issues are not seen as alternative foci. Rather, sexuality is regarded as a central realm in which relational conflicts are shaped and played out.
    • Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 66
  • The relational model provides different categories, different underlying structures into which experience can be organized. Here the establishment of strong connections to others, in reality or in fantasy, is presumed to be primary. Forms of relationship are seen as fundamental, and life is understood largely as an array of metaphors for expressing and playing out relational patterns: discovery, penetration, domination, surrender, control, longing, evasion, revelation, envelopment, merger, differentiation, and so on. The body is still centrally important. Sexuality and bodily experiences are viewed as particularly apt arenas for this activity, since sexuality is enormously multiform and plastic. The number of different body parts, the variability of interactions, the poignancy of the sensations, the immense number of combinations — the almost infinite variety of human sexual possibilities make this an enormously fertile reservoir of metaphors for expressing different types of relationships, different configurations of connections, between self and others.
    • Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 91
  • When sexuality is operating in the service of intimacy, it is the fact that it is the particular other who is responding to the vulnerability inherent in sustaining desire that generates intensity and meaning. It is precisely the physiological intensity of the sexual response that lends the sexual encounter its dramatic interpersonal significance. This suggests that it is a mistake to regard the role of sexuality in relation to needs for relatedness and attachment as a "sexualization," which implies that sex is carrying something that can and somehow should be attended to in other ways. (Although this is sometimes the case.) The distinction between preoedipal and oedipal developmental levels often implies such an artificial and misleading separation between sexual experience and issues of attachment and connection. There is perhaps nothing better suited for experiencing and deepening the drama of search and discovery than the mutual arousal, sustaining, and quenching of sexual desire.
    • Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 107-108
  • One of the most profound and universal realizations of later childhood, a realization that probably is never totally integrated, is the discovery that one's parents are not necessarily representative of the human species, that one has grown up in an idiosyncratically structured family with its own peculiarities and dramas.
    • Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 275
  • If the deepest, most fundamental levels of the analysand's pathology are to be reached, the relationship with the analyst becomes the vehicle for the establishment and articulation of bad-object relations. The analyst cannot enter the analysand's world in any form other than as a familiar (that is, "bad," or less than gratifying, object). This is true even though there often are elaborate resistances to the experience of the transference. Otherwise the analysis does not touch the analysand deeply, offers no promise, no hope for connection and transformation.
    • Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 305
  • Love and desire are both thoroughly human. Our problem with them is that they orient us toward very different goals. Love seeks control, stability, continuity, certainty. Desire seeks surrender, adventure, novelty, the unknown. In love we are searching for points of attachment, anchoring, something we know we can count on. In desire we are searching both for missing, disowned pieces of ourselves and for something beyond ourselves, outside the borders of self-recognition that, under ordinary circumstances, we protect so fiercely.

    Erotic passion destabilizes one's sense of self. When we find someone intensely arousing who makes possible unfamiliar experiences of ourselves and an otherness we find captivating, we are drawn into the disorienting loopiness of self/other. We tend to want to control these experiences and the others who inspire them. Thus emotional connection tends to degrade into strategies for false security that suffocate desire.

    • Can Love Last? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), pp. 91-92
  • From this perspective, the common experience of the fading of romance over time may have less to do with the inevitable undercutting of idealization by reality and familiarity than with the increasing danger of allowing oneself episodic, passionate idealization in a relationship that one depends on for security and predictability. Intense excitement about another is a dangerous business; it often is much safer to surrender to it with a person one cannot possibly spend much time with or will never see again. Sustaining desire for something important from someone important is the central danger of emotional life. What is so dangerous about desiring someone you have is that you can lose him or her. Desire for someone unknown and unobtainable operates as a defense against desire for someone known and obtainable, therefore capable of being lost.
    • Can Love Last? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 114
  • Rather than being a measure and consequence of the power of naturally occurring sexual desire, pornography is a measure of the extent to which people tend to prefer controlling desire through contrivance rather than being surprised by desire that spontaneously arises.
    • Can Love Last? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 137
  • Sexual dysfunction often plays a key role in risk management by couples over time. It seems crucial not to get too excited about the other, and diminished excitement serves the purposes at once of self-protection and revenge. I was once excited about you, the diminished arousal seems to be expressing, but there is not much to get excited about now. Often lovers work together to pretend they are safer (even if also a bit sadder) over time, by collapsing their expectations of each other in collusively arranged, choreographed routine. Each feels the other is less exciting because of being so familiar and predictable. And each acts towards the other in as wholly and artificially predictable a fashion as possible. But, of course, lowering expectations also empties out passion. No risk, no gain.
    • Can Love Last? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 143