The Two Kinds of COVID Couples

The pandemic can draw couples closer—or push them apart. Here’s why.

I’m a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst specializing in couples and family therapy. Like many people across the world, many of the couples I work with have been struggling through the hardest year of their lives. People who maintained their marriages by spending very little time together—usually with one partner working outside the house—were now, for better or worse, unable to take time apart.

The pandemic has had an amplifying effect on partnership dynamics: some couples pull closer, while others push away from each other. By the numbers: In China, 18 percent said their relationships were slightly worse at the beginning of the pandemic, and a full 29 percent of respondents reported their intentions to divorce after the pandemic (Tian 2020c). The same phenomenon surfaced worldwide.

As conflict increased when couples were confined together, some marriages went from contentious to unbearable, leading to an urgent need to divorce. In Wuhan, China, the initial site of the pandemic, a spike in divorce rates was one immediate effect. Early reports documented increases in marital and family distress and a surge in family violence. This increase in family violence was so critical that it has been described as a “double pandemic” (Bettinger-Lopez and Bro 2020) as well as a “new crisis” (Taub 2020).

Negative outcomes during COVID, particularly domestic violence, have also been a function of social structural factors. This included poverty, unemployment, food or housing insecurity as well as social isolation, issues of racial tension, and ecological features (Flowers 2000; Gelles and Maynard 1987; Utech 1994). Domestic violence is more common in families of lower education and incomes, but it certainly happens in all social and educational groups. As the pandemic exacerbated many of these issues, an uptick in domestic violence was, tragically, predictable.

But not all couples find themselves teetering on the edge of divorce; according to the same poll mentioned above (Tian 2020c), 41 percent of partnered couples have seen improvements in their relationships during the pandemic. This begs the question: why have some couples pulled closer during the pandemic, while other couples drifted apart?

In analyzing my own clinical experience, as well as the available data, several trends have emerged. Here are some observations:

Negative-Outcome Families

CASE STUDY 1: The Smiths moved in the midst of the pandemic. Both parents worked high-stress jobs and, even before the pandemic, had limited time for family bonding. Their adolescent daughter, now faced with online schooling in her new school, never could construct a social group, and her stress ricocheted around the family, stressing her parents and driving a wedge in their marriage. The pandemic’s isolation was the cause for the husband’s secret affair that now came to light, resulting in intolerable marital tension when he was unable to move out because of quarantine.

In this example, we see a textbook case of stress, poor communication, disconnection, and resentment that brought the couple to a breaking point. (This is not uncommon during times of public health crises; war, famine, and disease outbreaks set off depression, anger, and anxiety caused by isolation and loneliness.) During historically trying times, everyday stressors may become too much to bear. Moreover, pre-existing vulnerabilities or personality traits may be exacerbated, including the expression of hostility, dominance, stubbornness, or rigidity (Prime, 2020). These factors create a feedback loop of stress, resentment, and withdrawal.

Additionally, certain family dynamics predispose us to the risk of marital uncertainty. For example, being in a blended family (a family with children who are shared between divorced and remarried parents) is one stressor that has been shown to increase the likelihood of marital strife during the pandemic. Another component is the presence of young adults preparing to leave home for school or work. As many young people are now having to change plans, often amidst a family dynamic that is already primed for stress and conflict, this circumstance begets a host of possible challenges.

To summarize, negative-outcome couples evince some of the following characteristics:

  • Poor communication
  • Mutual blaming
  • Ongoing social isolation, particularly with respect to loss of outside emotional support systems
  • Loss of jobs or income (Campbell 2020)
  • High-stress states before the pandemic
  • Divorced or blended families
  • Children on the cusp of leaving home

Positive-Outcome Families

CASE STUDY 2: The Greens used the quarantine to work on longstanding challenges in their marriage. They shared a renewed focus on their children’s schooling, rebalanced their household division of labor, and managed the emotional burden of the pandemic as partners. They also used their time together to work on their sex life through sex therapy, which had needed more focus for years; they were, fortunately, able to keep their children in daycare so they could carve out “together time” at lunch, rather than only thinking about sex when they had finally put work and their children to bed.

Why is the Greens’ pandemic story so different from the Smith’s? They consciously chose to structure their lives around the needs of the other partner. They worked consistently, and collaboratively, to improve communication and conflict resolution, practicing “I feel” statements in place of accusations or stonewalling. They set goals—and boundaries—around how much of their pandemic lives would be about their children’s wellbeing. And, they continued to see a therapist throughout the pandemic, proactively improving their communication skills and their sexual functioning.

Positive-outcome couples demonstrate the following traits:

  • Constructive communication
  • Enhanced mutual empathy
  • Quick and consistent conflict resolution
  • Multifactorial problem-solving skills
  • Shared emotional labor (Neppl et al., 2016)
  • Willingness to seek help, including psychotherapy (and/or sex therapy) as a preventative measure

The pandemic is “perhaps the most widespread social experiment of all time” (Lebow, 2020). While these lists may be helpfully kept in mind, not all couples have the same capacity for change or growth, particularly in high-stress situations.

As therapists, we, too, have been grappling with the stressors of the pandemic, so we have been sharing that with our patients and couples on an unprecedented scale. We can use that fact to our advantage as we identify with what our clients are going through. As we learn about their anxiety and stress, illness and loss, unemployment and financial uncertainty, it may be just a bit easier to remember that partnerships—even in the best of times—require both partners to enlarge their capacity for patience, empathy, commitment, and willingness to support each other. Many of these couples can profit from the skilled and timely attention of a psychotherapist, who, as they will all know, are themselves also living with the stresses of the pandemic.


References

Bettinger-Lopez, C., & Bro, A. (2020). A Double Pandemic: Domestic Violence in the Age of COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/double-pandemic-domestic-violence-age-covid-19. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Campbell, A. M. (2020). An increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic: Strengthening community collaborations to save lives. Forensic Sci Int: Reports, 2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsir.2020.100089.

Flowers, R. B. (2000). Domestic crimes, family violence and child abuse: A study of contemporary American society. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Gelles, R. J., & Maynard, P. E. (1987). A structural family systems approach to intervention in cases of family violence. Family Relations, 36, 270–275. https://doi.org/10.2307/583539.

Lebow J. L. (2020). Family in the Age of COVID-19. Family process, 59(2), 309–312. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12543

Neppl, T. K., Senia, J. M., & Donnellan, M. B. (2016). Effects of economic hardship: Testing the family stress model over time. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(1), 12–21. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000168

Taub, A. (2020). A new COVID-19 crisis: Domestic abuse rises worldwide. New York Times, 6.

Utech, M. R. (1994). Violence, abuse, and neglect: The American home. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Zhang, H. The Influence of the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic on Family Violence in China. J Fam Viol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-020-00196-8


David Scharff, M.D., is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, as well as at Georgetown University. He is also Co-Founder and Former Director of the International Psychotherapy Institute; Chair of the International Psychoanalytic Association’s Committee on Family and Couple Psychoanalysis;  Co-Chair, APsaA Advisory Committee on COVID-19, and editor-in-chief of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in China. He directs training programs in analytic couple and family therapy in Beijing and Moscow.

Returning to In-Person Treatment During COVID-19 – If, When, and How

Original August 4, 2020

Revised January 16, March 11, April 29, 2021

 

Dear Colleagues,

 

If you’re thinking about returning to in-person work, or have already done so, we hope you will find these ideas helpful. This is a long document, so here are the key areas:

 

  • Maintaining uncertainty
  • Different practices & risk tolerances lead to different decisions
  • Not shaming those who work differently
  • Beliefs about online vs. in-person work influence our risk assessment
  • Wishes and fears about resuming in-person work
  • Child work
  • Transference
  • The new normal may require being more directive
  • A hybrid model for working in-person, online, and the phone.

 

Dan Prezant, Acting Co-Chair

David Scharff, Co-Chair

APsaA Covid-19 Advisory Team

 

 

Opening Day?

 

Returning to In-Person Treatment During COVID-19 – If, When, and How

 

 

Given that some analysts and therapists have returned to in-person work with some (or all) of their patients, many are considering doing so, and some have decided not to, the APsaA COVID-19 Advisory Team and the APsaA Reopening Task Force are sharing thoughts on in-person work. Our goals are to encourage thoughtful analytic approaches and not shame anyone for how they work.

 

Changing from working in-person to working via video or phone was difficult. Having to do it overnight, with little or no preparation, made it even harder. However, it was a crisis, so we rose to the challenge and adapted. Most of us defended against the harsh reality of COVID-19 by thinking it wouldn’t last long. Once the terrifying sprint became a depressing marathon, the question became: When can we get back to normal? Now that we’re getting vaccinated, the question is: Are we done? Only you can answer that question for your practice.

 

Tension exists between those who recommend not making any significant changes in COVID precautions post vaccination vs. those who recommend that post vaccination life can almost go back to normal. Some feel that the push to relax precautions is driven by a desire to motivate vaccination acceptance. After all, why go through the difficulties of finding and getting vaccines if they don’t change what we can do? Some of us, who typically follow trusted sources, find themselves questioning the CDC or NYT because of past mistakes, miscommunications, contradictory advice, economic and political influences, and/or our resistance to change.

 

We are NOT taking a position on whether you should work in-person.  Nor are we making a statement about how you should work in-person if you choose to do so. Our ideas are not best practices or mandatory guidelines for everyone to thoughtlessly follow.

 

We ARE taking a position that maintaining an attitude of uncertainty is good. Being certain that you can never return to the office or that being fully vaccinated is all you need may be different ways of avoiding the same complicated problems and feelings. We recommend remaining curious and tolerant of not knowing the “right” thing to do. Part of living with uncertainty is letting yourself change how you work as the situation and/or your feelings change.

 

Shaming those who go back to in-person work or those who remain online may be ways of creating certainty and/or enemies. However, hubris sacrifices the analytic principle of recognizing what we don’t know while we seek to know. Respecting those who work differently during COVID may help us question our decisions and be open to change.

 

Every practice is unique. It is not possible to offer a one size fits all solution.  So much is in flux. How you work depends on your risk tolerance, how necessary you think in-person work is, how effective you think online/phone work is, how directive you feel comfortable being with your patients, if you work with kids, very disturbed patients, inpatients, do testing, the underlying health risks of your patients and their families, the underlying health risks of you and your family, if you have staff in your office, if you share your office, if you’re in a suite or single office, the physical nature of your office, the local climate if you plan on leaving your windows open, whether your patients will typically be waiting for their session while sitting in their car or standing on the street, the local viral incidence, local vaccination rates, local prevalence of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, how concerned you are about COVID variants, long haul effects, and the strength of post vaccination immunity, and insurance reimbursements for tele-treatments.

 

Many of us struggle with wishes to and fears of returning to a pre COVID-19 world.  Part of us wants to get back to normal. We have anniversary reactions and battle fatigue over cumulative trauma. We want to stop living in fear and in isolation. Part of us fears disease risks (variants, length and strength of post vaccination immunity, breakthrough infections, long haul effects), our own phobic feelings, the now foreign feeling of being in our office with patients, intense feelings that can come with a shift to in-person meetings, and discomfort showing our heavier bodies (did you gain 19 lbs. during COVID-19?).

 

Some of us find working from home with partners, kids, and pets around surprisingly comfortable. Some find it quite uncomfortable. Some enjoy the extra family time and lack of commuting. Others long for the separation between their work and family lives. For some being home and taking care of kids, chores, errands, exercise (that used to have to wait until after hours) is a benefit and for some it’s an onerous demand. Some have given up their offices for financial, health, or other reasons.

 

Many therapists and patients prefer in-person work and believe it is the most effective.  Those who feel strongly that online/phone work is not effective will understandably feel a greater need to return to the office.  Many analysts and patients have found that online/phone work is different, at times better, at times worse, but still quite effective.  Understandably, they will feel less of a need to return to the office. These beliefs likely influence your assessment of the risks.

 

Seeing patients in-person or via telehealth is an important decision with powerful ramifications on the physical and psychological health of our patients, their families, their coworkers, and ourselves. Insurance reimbursement is important to many of us and to our patients, but it shouldn’t be part of this equation. Thus, state and federal rules and regulations should permanently require equal insurance reimbursement for telehealth.  Unfortunately, this is not yet the case.

 

Most of us who reopen will do so in stages, starting with patients who we trust are vaccinated and safe.  It’s unlikely there will be one opening day in which everyone comes in. This may help us, and our patients adjust to in-person work. Seeing patients in-person may be a new normal, but it won’t be the same as going back to the old normal. Please consider:

 

  1. Psychological Factors:

 

  1. To be an effectivetherapist you need to be comfortablewith how you work, whether in telehealth or in-person. If you’re too anxious to think, then you can’t help your patients. If in-person work replaces your free-floating attention to the patient with anxiety, anger, or guilt about spreading and/or catching COVID-19 it may be best to wait.

 

  1. Creating and maintaining a safespacewhere the patient feels as free as possible to express their innermost thoughts, feelings, wishes, fears, and fantasies is fundamental to our work. Working in-person may inhibit some patients from being open about their vaccination status, risky behavior, COVID type symptoms, and/or wishes to hurt us. We may fear that patients will consciously or unconsciously not tell us information that might affect our safety. Alternately, working online may inhibit some patients from being open about their fears that we are sick, don’t want to see them, and/or their wishes to hurt us.

 

  1. In-person work during COVID may require us to be muchmoredirective. It’s true, we’re directive online (during COVID) and in-person (pre-COVID) about where we meet, appointments, bills, etc. However, in-person work during COVID may entail an unusual level of directiveness. Depending on what you think is necessary for in-person safety, you may need to tell patients they have to be vaccinated, show you their vaccination cards, wait outside and not use your waiting room, not have anyone wait for them in your waiting room, not use your bathroom, take their temperature, wear masks in the building, waiting room, and/or in the office, not come to the office when they have COVID symptoms, travel, or engage in risky behavior, and/or participate in contact tracing in which you might have to give their contact info to the local health department.

 

  1. Being so directive impactsthe expression and exploration of the transferenceand countertransference. It may put us in the role of a parent, doctor, or teacher instructing and judging the patient. This tends to limit the transference and its exploration.

 

  1. Patient’s fears and/or wishes of hurting and/or being hurt by us, our family, and/or our other patients can best be explored when they are fantasiesinstead of realities. In the COVID-19 world, telehealth may prevent these fantasies from becoming realities and thus help us work on the transference.  In-person work may create so much fear about reality that it becomes too difficult to explore the fantasy. Alternately, being online can limit the transference and countertransference.  If there’s no possibility of actualizing wishes to kiss or kick, so to speak, it can deaden the therapy.

 

  1. Reopening the office in stages may help us be safe.  However, it may also amplify siblingtransferencesabout which patients are your favorites.

 

  1. Kidsmay be the most in need of in-person work.  Some of us feel it’s not possible to work online with very young kids or that if you do so you have to change the way you work with them (for example, involving the parents more directly in the session). However, kids are not vaccinated and likely won’t be eligible for quite some time.  Kids also tend to be very physical in sessions which greatly increases the analyst’s or therapist’s exposure.  Kids are brought to sessions.  They often need their parent or nanny to stay in the waiting room in case they run out, need to leave early, or need help in the bathroom.  Kids get sick frequently and come to sessions with symptoms that are similar to COVID symptoms. Young kids have trouble blowing their nose, wiping, and washing which also increases our exposure.

 

  1. Many of us have concerns about our practices which will likely affect our assessment of the risks and our comfort working in-person or online. We may fearlosingcurrent patientswho want, demand, or need to be seen in-person. We may have concerns about getting new patients if we can’t see them in-person.

 

  1. Many of us have concerns about insurance not reimbursing, reducing the reimbursement, or requiring us to use their platform for telehealth.

 

  1. Some feel it’s not possible to do psychological testingonline.

 

  1. Those who practice in areas or with patients who don’tbelievein vaccinesmasks, and/orphysical distancing face added risks working in-person. They may also find it more challenging to remain neutral or not get into arguments about reality.

 

  1. If you’re working in-person with vaccinated patients, is it discriminatoryto not meet in-person with patients who are too young to be vaccinated or say they can’t get vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons? Given that we have to feel safe to be therapeutic, how do we work with someone who’s not vaccinated?

 

  1. In-person work may model denialand risk-taking behavior for our patients. Online work may model phobic and risk-averse behavior. Whichever way you work, it’s important to explore what it means to the patient so that we don’t promote a defensive not knowing.

 

  1. Depending on what you think is necessary for in-person safety is it more or less therapeuticto meet in-person with safety conditions (for example, checking vaccination cards, wearing masks, closing your waiting room) or to meet online without those conditions. Each approach will likely affect the work in different ways.

 

  1.  Avoidthe temptation of giving a patientwho you think isn’t safe (unvaccinated, symptomatic, risky behavior) the choice of how they want to meet. This may appear to be empowering, but it may also be a way of denying our ultimate responsibility for the safety of the patient, their family, our other patients, and ourselves. Giving this type of patient a choice may be a way of protecting us from our guilt, but it shifts the guilt onto the patient. We shouldn’t ask patients to make decisions for the safety of our other patients of for our safety and that of our family.  It should be your decision, not the patient’s. Again, this requires us being directive.

 

  1. Going back to in-person work when there is a chance of returning to telehealthwork because someone gets COVID and/or there’s an increased positivity rate in your community decreases the stability inherent in the structure of regular appointments. Alternately, not going back to in-person work because of these possibilities will have meaning for your patients.

 

  1. Consider that the patients who may needin-person work the most because they easily feel abandoned and/or tend to need to see us as a check against their destabilizing fantasies about our hostility toward them are also the patients who may be most negatively impactedby our safety procedures (i.e., requiring vaccines, masks, symptom checks).

 

  1. If you reopen, how will you understand and what will you do with patientswho don’twantto work in-person or only want to come to your office some of the time? How do we stay neutral and avoid making value-based decisions about what’s an “acceptable” reason (e.g., I feel sick, I might have COVID) vs an “unacceptable” reason (e.g., I’m calling because I just remembered our appointment)? Some of us may be directive and give patients rules to follow. Some may try to interpret the patient not working in-person as resistance or avoidance of the best possible treatment.  Some may see it or work with it differently.

 

Many of us did not work on the phone or online with our patients pre-COVID. We could simply say: I don’t work that way. Most of us can no longer say that. Some of us might choose to say: now that we can meet in-person, I no longer work that way.

 

Should we move to a hybrid model where patients can choose in-person, online, or the phone? If you use a hybrid model, will you require patients to choose one or the other? If your patients choose to meet in-person, what will you do if one day they call or go online instead or vice a versa? Will you ask them to give you advance notice? Will your online or phone patients surprise you by showing up in-person or vice a versa? If you see patients back-to-back and use a hybrid model, how will you quickly navigate from working in-person to phone to online? How will you know whether you should go to the waiting room, turn your ringer on or off, or log into or out of your online platform? Will you be waiting for your patient to show up in-person and not notice that they are calling you or waiting for you online or vice a versa?

 

 

  1.  Local Prevalence of COVID-19 and Vaccination Rates:

 

Consider the percentage of people in your local area who are testing positive and the percentage who are fully vaccinated. You can go online and get current incidence rates for your county here. Keep in mind that patients and/or their families may live or work in neighboring counties and/or travel. If your practice is in a tourist area, people may be exposed to folks from all over. If the positivity rate for your local area is less than 5% it might be safer to see patients in-person. Ideally, you may want the local incidence to be 1-3% for in-person work. These numbers can change quickly and if they go above 5% you may want to stop doing in-person work. You may want to discuss with your patients that depending on the numbers you may have to go back to only doing video and phone treatments.

 

 

III.  Office Setting:

 

The type of office you work in may influence your comfort doing in-person work as well as your ability to accomplish the actions discussed in the next section. A freestanding private office with open windows, lots of ventilation, and its own entrance and bathroom(s) will be safer for your patients and you than an office in your home, or an office in a residential or office building which requires sharing entrances, elevators, and bathrooms. If you share your office with other therapists, work in a suite, or have office staff you may feel obliged to consider their comfort with in-person work. If you choose to close your waiting room, you may want to consider the type of transportation patients take to your office. It’s probably more comfortable to wait outside sitting in a car than standing on the street (for those who walk or take mass transit).

 

 

  1. Physical actions to reduce the risks of COVID-19:

 

The following are some conservative suggestions.  You should assess the wisdom of each idea for the setting in which you practice and for your own risk tolerance.

 

  1. Wait until you are fullyvaccinatedand only see patients who are fully vaccinated. You may want to determine if it’s legally discriminatory to require vaccinations if your patient is too young to be vaccinated or objects on medical or religious grounds.

 

  1. You may want to tell your patients not to come in-person and do an online or phone session when they or the people they live with have COVID-19 like symptoms(fever, loss of smell and/or taste, breathing difficulties, fatigue). You may want to take patients’ temperature and/or do a symptom checklist upon arrival to your office. Please note that symptom screening will not help detect anyone who is asymptomatic, presymptomatic, or tends to deny or minimize their symptoms.

 

  1. Some of us think that masksare no longer necessary if you and your patient are vaccinated.  Some of us still recommend masks with vaccinated patients.  Some are allowing patients to unmask in session but require them to mask when they enter and exit the building, use the waiting room or bathroom.  Some ask patients to have a mask handy and quickly put it on when they are about to sneeze or cough.

 

  1. You may want to continue maintaining physicaldistance with your patients. This includes when they are entering and exiting your office, lying on the couch, sitting in a chair, or playing with you.

 

  1. You may want to continue frequent handwashing.

 

  1. Therapists who have office windowsmay want to leave them open during their sessions and workday. The influx of outdoor fresh air decreases the chances of spreading COVID-19. However, it may create problems with confidentiality, street noise, and cold or hot weather.

 

  1. You may want to eliminate your waitingroom. If you maintain a waiting room, you may want to remove some of the chairs to reduce the number of people in your waiting room.  Some are removing waiting room magazines, toys, and water fountains.

 

  1. Although COVID-19 transmission is believed to be airborne, some of us are still recommending that you ask patients to avoid using the bathroomin your office.

 

  1. Even though COVID-19 transmission is believed to be airborne, some of us continue to advise disinfectingdoorknobs, intercom buzzers, bathrooms, and waiting room and consultation room furniture before and after each patient. This may necessitate not seeing patients back-to-back.

 

  1. You may want to avoid physicalgreetings, such as handshakes, as a way to maintain physical distance.

 

  1. HEPAair filtration machines may reduce the risks of spreading COVID-19 by sanitizing the indoor air at a reasonable financial cost. A modern building might attempt to reduce these risks by upgrading the entire HVAC system for all the tenants. Ultraviolet light systems are usually seen as an unnecessary step beyond what is required and a cost prohibitive measure. Creating an office with negative air pressure is probably not possible and is believed to be an even more unnecessary step and even more costly than UV light.

 

If you use any of these devices, it’s important to consult with experts to get the right equipment for your office and waiting room. Installing a small HEPA air machine, that doesn’t perform the required number of air changes per hour, will not reduce the COVID-19 risk. Installing a proper HEPA air machine, that performs the required number of air changes per hour, will stop reducing the COVID-19 risk if it isn’t maintained. This equipment requires regular testing and service to replace filters and ensure that it’s doing the job. Keep in mind that some of these machines create noise that may interfere with you and your patient hearing each other.

 

  1. Since COVID-19 can spread in all directions – from patient to patient, from patient to us, from us to our family, from our family to us, and from us to our patients – you may feel an obligation and/or it may be required by your local public health law to participate in contacttracing. This should be discussed with your patients prior to beginning in-person treatment. You can explain that you would only give officials a list of names and contact information of who was in your office on a certain day or week. Although you would not say why anyone on the list was in your office, it does place a limit on confidentiality.

 

  1. You may want to have patients and the parents of minor patients sign an informedconsentfor in-persontreatment. It should explain the COVID-19 risks of in-person work to them and their family, the above changes in how you will be working, and the changes to confidentiality with contact tracing.

 

  1. You may want to have patients and the parents of minor patients sign an informedconsentfor onlineor phone treatment. It should explain the rationale, advantages, and disadvantages for tele-treatment.

 

  1. Follow all guidelinesfrom your subdiscipline.

 

  1. Follow all city, county, state, and federal lawsand regulations.

 

For Some Psychotherapists, the Work Has Always Been Virtual

A therapist shares knowledge gained from two decades of teaching online.

  • Familiarity with the experience of online therapy can help ameliorate stress, both on therapists and our patients.
  • Online learning opportunities abound for mental health professionals, particularly in this era.
  • The ongoing stressors of the pandemic will affect individuals, couples, and families differently.

It has been a difficult year for patients and psychotherapists everywhere. As all therapeutic work moved online, my colleagues at the International Psychotherapy Institute and I had one advantage: We have been at a distance-learning institution for 25 years. As a result, we were ready when suddenly everything was forced onto online platforms. In particular, we were prepared to treat couples and families negatively affected by lockdowns, and to help our students do the same.

Even as vaccines offer a light at the end of the tunnel, online therapy and training are not going away. Here’s what I think therapists can learn from our experience:

Online therapy is better than ever. Our initial close partnership with the Tavistock Clinic, the Tavistock Institute for Marital Studies (now called Tavistock Relationships), and Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, used early shaky technology and unreliable internet to establish distance training. At first, all of our students had to be in the same room at one of four locations; that was all the platforms would support. Over time, we adapted to each iteration of improving technology, and eventually we could reach people on their own computers, beginning about 15 years ago. We have now been conducting online trainings and supervision in China and Russia for a decade, even as the technology has continued to improve dramatically.

Opportunities for online training have grown enormously in the pandemic. A real paradox, for us, is that our training programs have grown enormously. Through offering Town Hall meetings and online trainings, we have colleagues and students joining us at IPI from around the world in much larger numbers, and despite the time zone differences. The need to put all our conferences online has meant that people could come to courses and conferences without the expensive need to travel. I do miss seeing my friends and colleagues at in-person conferences, which IPI has always held four or five times a year. But I am reaching and interacting with more people from all over – throughout the U.S. and Canada, India, Pakistan, Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, China, Romania, and Russia. For some in India, China, and Australia, our programs happen in the middle of the night, but still they come.

Online therapy allows for international insight: you’re not alone, and neither are your patients. Because I work with therapists worldwide, especially in China and Russia, I could see how much the pandemic affected couples and families everywhere, not just in the United States. Some were positively affected when they had more time together, and solved the problems of quarantine and risk reduction together. But as we all know, other couples and families were adversely affected, with more conflict while confined together in marriages that went from contentious to unbearable familiarity, and often then to an urgent need to divorce.

A spike in divorce rates, for example, was reported in Wuhan, China from the outset of the pandemic. Couples that had maintained their marriages by spending very little time at home together, usually with one member of a couple working in another city or traveling for work, were now locked in together. Some were suddenly much happier together. But many found themselves with a new and unbearable closeness, and their therapists had a new problem to deal with.

Some takeaways from our experience. Patients—especially couples—have had increased need this year, which has kept me and my colleagues even busier than usual. For therapists still learning the ropes of online appointments, here are a few ways to support the couples you work with:

  • We are all experiencing “PTSE” – Pandemic Traumatic Stress Experience. It’s not a disease. It is not PTSD. It is a shared experience of stress common to therapists and patients alike.
  • Acknowledge the differences in the way of working online that color the therapy.
  • Look for analogous differences in patients’ and couples’ lives that are highlighted by the experience in online couple therapy.
  • Connect their distress as a couple or family with the wider distress that we are all living with – our shared PTSE.

Thankfully, my colleagues and I are surviving the covid pandemic. Though we miss our freedom, we have been able to use our expertise to benefit both our students and patients in the newly virtual world. We’ll be glad to be able to meet patients in the office again and to meet each other in person at our conferences, but we all know that our ways of conducting therapy and training will never be the same again.

 

David Scharff, M.D., is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, as well as at Georgetown University. He is also Co-Founder and Former Director of the International Psychotherapy Institute; Chair of the International Psychoanalytic Association’s Committee on Family and Couple Psychoanalysis;  Co-Chair, APsaA Advisory Committee on COVID-19, and editor-in-chief of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in China. He directs training programs in analytic couple and family therapy in Beijing and Moscow.

How the Light Gets In: Contemporary Understanding and Treatment of Trauma

 A lecture-discussion by Dominique Scarfone

 Today is Saturday April, 10, 2021, and I am at the IPI Saturday morning guest lecture by Dominic Scarfone. I am sitting here in my Zoom window along with clinician colleagues from thirteen countries (Austria, Canada, India, Iran, Japan, Macao, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, Phillipines, Romania, and South Africa) and twenty-five US states. The IPI Director has explained the use of technology so that we know how to introduce our questions and comments into the large group discussion of the ideas presented to us in the lecture “Trauma, Subjectivity, Subjectality.” Dominique Scarfone, a Montreal psychoanalyst, professor, and author of The Unpast and Laplanche, is talking about these ideas developed from those of the French psychoanalyst Laplanche. Since most of us are more familiar with Anglophone psychoanalysis, we’re looking to Scarfone for his translation of the French way of thinking about the impact of trauma upon the infant’s developing body and mind and subjectivity. Later we’ll hear about subjectality.

Scarfone tells us that, when trauma is the focus, psychoanalysts tend to see it as an exceptional problem as if it calls for something other than the foundational method of psychoanalysis. This is not justified. In his view, trauma is a general part of the impact of the other on the self and falls along a continuum. To him, trauma is normally, inextricably entwined in psychic life, as the infant subject confronts the other, and in particular has to deal with the impact of the care-giving adult’s infantile unconscious sexuality.  The theories of attachment or mentalization do not take sufficient account of the enigma that the adult’s infantile unconscious sexuality poses for the infant mind.  When the infant mind cannot articulate what is going on but can only register it, the experience creates a primordial split between what can be held in mind and what cannot.  This is due to implantation of the traumatic sexual enigma stuck in the infant mind like a foreign body, an experience the infant has to decode or translate — an effort which will be only partially successful.   When the sexual enigma is accompanied by violent passion, the translation effort is compromised and impeded what Laplanche calls intromission, and Scarfone calls intrusion.  The balance between implantation and intromission, is determined by the context of relationship with the other.

The mother who provides sensitive care for her baby always shows some deviation from the provision of care into the realm of sexuality. Lest this sound too abstract, Scarfone gives us an example.  Imagine the parent at bath-time, pretending to be a monster coming to eat the child up.  The parent communicates intense oral desires, but this is play, the infant enjoys the pretense, and the cannibalism doesn’t happen.  The mother who puts the baby to the breast may have sexual feelings and responses from the nipple stimulation.  All this is in the realm of ordinary parenting behavior.  In Scarfone’s view, unlike Freud’s view of psychosexual development, the infant is not sexually endowed at birth.  (I would put more value on the infant’s active pleasure-seeking, sucking and caressing, but that is not Scarfone’s focus).  He redefines infantile sexuality as being evoked in a libidinal and inviting interaction with the other. The child registers the various forays from the other, and stores them for future understanding.

The human context that the various others caring for the child provide is unpredictable. Attempts at consistency and reliability are never perfect – which is a challenge for the infant, but has an upside, since surprise and novelty stimulate adaptation and growth of individuality.  Scarfone agrees that the infant and mother work together to create a symmetrical attachment relationship, but believes that, since the powerful adult is endowed with sexual desire and the infant is not, this part of the mother-infant relationship is asymmetrical.  When an adult’s caring for an infant is infused with the exertion of power and mastery, the child, who thereby is required to submit to the desires of the other, suffers a greater amount of trauma than usual from the encounter with the other. The trauma is compounded because the infant (and later the child in that situation) is in a helpless state of mind, unable to put words to events and symbolize what has happened.

The normal development of our subjectivity is subject to the history that came before us, our sexual drive, unconscious elements all around us, our suffering, and the estrangement we have experienced.   The subject should be the center of action. But when treated as a thing, the person loses the sense of subjectivity. The child may be diminished by the shame of her helplessness or may respond by imagining she is special in order to preserve her dignity and elevate her helpless masochistic surrender to a triumph. Traumatized people who were so objectified may join others with similar feelings to form a compact mass for support, but are then subjected to the common opinion, and find themselves again victims of abuse of their own making.  It is difficult for them to recover their subjectivity.  Now we find out the meaning of subjectality – the taking back of one’s subjectivity and having one’s own opinions, desires and choices.

We are fascinated by Scarfone’s way of thinking, puzzled, intrigued, struggling a bit, and inspired.  We listen; we compare and contrast the French ideas to those of Freud and Winnicott; and we debate with him directly.  The fabric of our thinking has been torn by our contact with the other.  In the ensuing small affective learning groups, the translation and integration continue letting the light in through the cracks.

Jill Scharff

 

 

The Boulder Tragedy

Karen Mohatt, March 24, 2021

A day after the latest shooting and tragedy in Boulder, CO I was thankful to still be home-officing because my office is only 4 blocks from that King Sooper’s Store.  I used to go to the Starbucks located inside for coffee or tea.  Boulder does have a small town feel to it, much like Lincoln did as well.  Boulderites think of themselves as living in a bubble of peace, love, care of the environment, conscientiousness of health, and are very forward thinking.  But Monday, the bubble burst as unbelievable horror visited the city of 100,000.

All day Tuesday, my patients spoke of shock, profound grief, sadness and deep fear.  But most troubling was how they didn’t speak of disbelief.  Rather, they spoke of the violence in our country becoming as prevalent as Covid-19.  Most everyone follows the public health guidelines, with the exception of some, and are now grateful they’ve received or will receive the vaccine.  But yesterday they kept talking about fears of violence and being unable to inoculate themselves against it.  I’m sure I will hear much the same from my patients today and tomorrow.  They fear violence from external sources and we will at some point have to talk about the violence they feel internally as well, as their own peace and safety has been stripped away in one horrific act.  Those with a history of significant trauma who work so hard on a daily basis to feel some semblance of safety, have once again been activated by this tragedy.

By the time I finished with my patients last night, I found myself literally sick to my stomach.  Though working through Zoom, every emotion my patients felt was just so palpable, and I could feel the pain they experienced in the wake of such trauma, and my own vulnerability in the aftermath of such senseless tragedy.

Karen Sharer-Mohatt, PsyD Psychoanalyst

On the Intersectionality of Racism and Sexism

Jill Savege Scharff

 

I am sitting in my home office, in front of my Zoom screen, where I sit often these days.  But today is a special day.  I am attending an IPI virtual conference that is timely and of much importance to therapists and psychoanalysts.  The conference is called “Be Thoughtful and Act: Confronting Systemic Racism Inside and Outside our Minds” from October 9 – 11, 2020.  Kirkland Vaughans, Earl Hopper and Beverly Greene spoke yesterday about the disadvantaged education of Black children, the need to recognize the impact of the socio-political unconscious on self-perception and behavior, and the constant state of alert in which Black people live.  Now it is Saturday morning and I am listening to Dr. Greene again, and then to Dr. Wolfe, on the topic of the Intersectionality of Racism and Sexism. I want to share a few of their comments and personal reflections that meant the most to me.

Dr. Beverly Greene via Zoom

Dr. Beverly Greene, Professor of Psychology at St. John’s University, entered the screen and began with the history of feminism.  Architects of the women’s movement for equality were White women who were successful in getting the right to vote in 1920. But for Black women, suffrage was mainly theoretical until the Voting Act of 1965. In the second wave of feminism, the focus was on the woman’s right to work.  Dr. Greene pointed out that the pioneering White women ignored the history of Black women who had always been viewed as workers, regardless of their sex.  Some Black women have internalized racist sterotypes about themselves.  Many of them feel compelled to fit the image of the tireless, uncomplaining, subordinate worker who has to be strong, silent, and resilient.  In therapy, they may present with difficulty in claiming attention for themselves instead of always putting others’ needs first.  The late psychoanalyst Cheryl Thompson called this moral masochism.  But in human terms, what we see is that these Black women exhaust themselves from caring for others to the point of depletion, thinking that Black women are supposed to be strong and resilient, bringing in income and raising their children, constantly teaching them how to avoid trouble, and how to stay alive when extra-judicial lynchings, brutal brutality, and demoralization are rampant in insane society.

Dr. Greene told a story about herself and her mother. Dr. Greene grew up in Northern New Jersey of parents from the deep South at the time of American apartheid.  Like millions of other Black Americans, her parents became refugees from domestic terrorism and were part of the Great Northern migration of African Americans from the deep South into Northern and Midwestern cities. Beverly Greene and her family visited her mother’s home in Southern Georgia often.  On one trip, the train had a problem, and so they had to stop for repairs in Jacksonville, Florida.  At that time, the station was completely segregated from bathrooms to convenience stores, with signs saying “Niggers will not be served.  Whites only” right next to signs saying “Coke is 10 Cents.”  The 10-year-old Beverly was furious.  She said, “That sign says Coke is a dime and I have a dime, I’m going in there to buy a Coke.”  She got very loud, and her mom gently said, “If you go in there, those people will not serve us. You can’t go in there.”  Her mother agreed that it was not fair, but explained, “We can’t go in to those places, and don’t think of calling the police, because they will hurt us. We are not going to get hurt just to buy a Coke. For the sake of a coke it’s not worth it.”  Beverly knew she was trying to be disruptive.  Her childhood tantrum was not only that of a child who wanted a coke.  Her outrage was about inequity and even more about its acceptance.  She was most angry that everyone was walking around in that station as if it was perfectly normal.  Her mother understood and accepted that Beverly was angry and wanted to do something.  So, she told her child that it was alright to be angry, but taught her not to go up against a stacked deck.

Dr. Harriet Wolfe via Zoom

Dr. Harriet Wolfe, President-elect of the International Psychoanalytical Association, and former President of the American Psychoanalytic Association, came on to speaker view next.   She talked about her own history in order to model the importance of our looking at ourselves and recognizing racism and other forms of prejudice in ourselves before we can effectively guide others, whether socially or clinically. She described her youth as a child going to a private school and a women’s college. Her Whiteness did not strike her as a problem back then.  In those days, she was more aware of sexism as a problem for her.  Growing up in her family, the daughter had to be protected from behavior that her brother was allowed.  Moving from liberal arts education to medical studies, she experienced sexism when she lost the support of her father who did not approve of her choice of career, her politics, or her being outside his control.  As a medical student sexism was reflected in her having to take breaks in the nurses’ lounge not the doctors’ lounge. This meant she did not have access to informal medical teaching which male students gleaned from locker room conversations with their mentors.  Prior to starting medical school, she had worked with and become friendly with a childcare worker who was Black. She had trouble understanding why her friend never invited her to her home though it was possible for her friend to come to her home.  Dr. Wolfe realized that her colleague lived in a Black community where she could not welcome Dr. Wolfe.  It was a painful experience of racial boundaries. She continues to regret that race remained an unexplored problem between them. Her psychoanalytic training, where the teaching was still based on a one-person psychology with a focus on the internal structure of the patient’s mind, did not draw her attention to her Whiteness and what it meant.  Modern psychoanalysts now think of psychoanalysis occurring in a two-person field in which patient and therapist interact in a mutually influencing relationship.  They also think about transgenerational transmission of trauma and the influence of internal objects on behavior, perception of others, and relationships.  Thanks to psychoanalysis, Dr. Wolfe became able to understand her father’s point of view, stemming from his history, as well as the impact of a racist culture on her upbringing.  Now that the entire psychoanalytic community is dealing with the traumatic impact of systemic racism, Dr. Wolfe is viewing her Whiteness quite differently, as an inter-racial and political challenge to be contemplated in dialogue with diverse others.

 

Reflections of the IPI Weekend Conference by Dra. Iraira Butcher 

Be Thoughtful and Act: Confronting Racism Inside and Outside of Our Minds
Reflections of the IPI Weekend Conference by Dra. Iraira Butcher 

 

After finding much needed containment in the approximately biweekly town hall meetings with IPI and after the recent escalation in my frustration due to my inability to find a space to explore racism and discrimination in my country of residence, I was more than eager to participate in IPI’s weekend conference with the appropriate title of Be Thoughtful and Act: Confronting Racism Inside and Outside of Our Minds. I constructed a fantasy around my expectations for the conference thinking along the lines of Michael Jackson’s song, Heal the World. This fantasy held me through the latest rejection that I experienced when trying to explore these topics within an institution. In fact, the fantasy grew bigger and then frightening due to my ever-growing thoughts that I was going to be met by the persecutory resistance that has plagued the human race.

But I was pleasantly mistaken.

As I sat with an international community of analysts, psychotherapists, students, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, but most importantly, with human beings, to listen, to explore, to analyze, to learn and to understand, I quickly realized that part of the task that millions of human beings have set out to do, inside and outside of IPI and inside and outside of our minds, is to find, pull out and to deconstruct ideologies that have been so deeply rooted, in the DNA, in the unconscious, in the culture, in the psychic structures of humans of all backgrounds but also in the overall society that was built off of slavery, that as K.Vaughans’ said, gave birth to racism.

But it has proven to be a difficult task.

This brought to mind the fear of annihilation. As a black woman born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I understand that, contrary from what some theorist may say, this particular fear of annihilation is something real and it continues to live strong, throughout an entire life, to include transgenerational , within afro-descendants and the other oppressed communities all over the world. But again, in contrast to what others may say, this fear of annihilation is not a fantasy, it is in fact a reality as it was eloquently exhibited by Dr. B. Greene’s reading of the thoughts written out by a black, COVID-19, frontline New York City Doctor during the weekend conference.

But it goes both ways.

The fear of annihilation is also experienced in the white community both as a fantasy as well as a reality. What I witnessed and experienced during this conference, within the white participants, either because of race or lighter skin color, is a collective shame and guilt not only for what was done in the past by them or their ancestors but because of their inability to deconstruct the ideologies that were imbedded in their unconscious, that was floating in their pre-conscious and that were ignored while in their conscious. In other words, the shame, guilt and resistance related to the difficulties in examining their own psychic functioning, in particular within members of the psychoanalytic community, the examination of their ego. It is important to note here that if therapists are unclear and untouched within themselves, it is more likely than not that there will be a parallel process within their patients.

But it is painful.

Our psychic structures are filled with defenses to counteract and to resist the pains that are associated with, in this case, racism. A few that were highlighted in the conference were denial, repression, projection, displacement, rationalization, reaction formation and intellectualization. Aside from defensive mechanisms, the conference brought forth a space to explore psychoanalytic theory and its strong attributes for understanding racism. Thoughts were discussed in abundance and emphasized such as K. Vaughans’ considerations on education and African Americans in the USA (school to prison pipeline), B. Greene’s and H. Wolfe’s personal and clinical contributions to intersectionality of racism and sexism, E. Hopper’s research and developments on social unconscious, M. Klein’s schizoid-paranoid and depressive positions, S. Freud’s views on mourning, D. Winnicott’s work on cultural experience and many others.

But, as expected, these discussions opened up many more unconscious doors.

The groups, both large and small, encouraged the participants to view racism from distinctive perspectives. This task stimulated me to examine my internal and external worlds thus allowing me to look more at the reality of the situation, which includes the fact that racism and discrimination is a painful topic with limited language to use as expression when describing it as it relates to oneself and to the other, internally and externally, individually and socially and particularly in the white communities. Semi-successful attempts were made to define or redefine terms such as microaggression, whiteness, white privilege and racism in and of itself, by including aspects such as greed, exploitation, narcissism, avoidance, loss, control, secrecy and many others.

But the reality is that there is no real plan to continue to address this topic in the future.

Interestingly enough, the topic of dreams and nightmares was introduced on the last day by C. Ashbach as a means to find ways to unlock the secrets that are kept inside of our unconscious by the resistance associated with addressing and confronting racism. There is no surprise that I had a dream and I was able to share it in my small group. The only thing that I could and can remember of the dream was that my mother was running for President. After exploring my own associations, that included the reality of the fact that we are in one of the most important elections in history, I determined that I saw partial objects in my mother such as my 14-year-old daughter, the resilience and perseverance that my mother had and that was passed down to me and that now I am passing down to my daughter. I was and am clear that, for one, my mother is deceased. Additionally, my mother could not run for President due to the fact that though she was a citizen of the USA, she was born in the Republic of Panama. I was and am clear that because of my career path, I could and can but do not want to run for President. I was and am clear that my daughter can in fact run for President, especially because of all of the opportunities that my husband and I, a black couple, are able to provide to her. It is important to note here that opportunities include psychoanalytic treatment, high quality education, a nuclear family that includes both parents and overall stability. What I didn’t know and realized after an interpretation by C. Ashbach was that I am very visible in the dream not by way of running for Presidency in its literal sense but by way of running the race to uplift the races as a leader. My question of where do we go from here still produces disorganized thoughts, however, one thing is extremely clear and that is that, through listening, as stated by B. Votaw, and partnerships like those produced by the community created in this weekend’s conference, will be the only way to move forward.

Cheers to hope.

participants in the October 2020 weekend: Be Thoughtful and Act-Confronting Systemic Racism Inside and Outside our Minds

Recent IPI Faculty Publications

Change across a completed analysis assessed using a modified Three-Level Model

Jill Savege Scharff & Pat Hedegard

The authors present their design for a clinical teaching exercise to study transformation in psychoanalysis. They chose a completed analysis from which to select the sessions retrospectively so that the clinical review exercise would not influence ongoing analytic process. The co-authors selected three tranches of clinical material, a few years apart, to be presented by the analyst. They studied the material with colleagues in the impressionistic manner of traditional clinical review, and then subjected it to more systematic examination, using a modified application of the Three-Level Model (3-LM) for assessing change. Their prediction was that the use of the 3-LM model could amplify the clinical impressions of the individual analyst and provide a way of being more specific about the changes, if any, that had occurred, and arrive at which theories best explained those changes.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the participation of colleagues who engaged in the exercise, the generosity of Paul Koehler, MSW, Charles Ashbach, PhD, and David Scharff, MD, who shared their responses to the three tranches of case material, and the analysand who gave permission for the use of her clinical material.

https://doi.org/10.1080/0803706X.2020.1743879


The use of a simple writing task to enhance psychoanalytic education

Jill Savege Scharff & Caroline M. Sehon

The authors describe a simple recurrent writing task called the “Two Page Paper Exercise,” designed to enhance candidates’ learning of analytic theory and technique. They set this task in the context of other analytic institutes’ writing programs and show that this exercise is unique. Their educational philosophy is that, as candidates confront multiple perspectives in contemporary psychoanalysis, this writing task develops their ability to conceptualize, reflect on their learning, integrate affect and cognition, and express their ideas to others in written form and in discussion with peers. The candidate group develops cohesion that reduces writing anxiety. As individuals they develop a writing habit that supports the eventual duty to develop the field of psychoanalysis through publishing. The authors present raw data from candidates’ writing for readers to make their own assessment of the usefulness of the task as a measure of candidates’ integration of learning, development of analytic sensibility and synthetic capacity, and communication of experience and ideas to others.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the generous contributions of Flora Barragan, Ryan Garcia, Stefanie Minen, Andi Pilecki, Matthew Rosa, and Karen Sherwood of the International Institute for Psychoanalytic Training.

https://doi.org/10.1080/0803706X.2020.1718751

Some thoughts about the transition to an online weekend conference  

Jill Savege Scharff

Because of physical distancing to combat COVID-19, the International Psychotherapy Institute (IPI) moved its April weekend conference on sex and gender and its student graduation ceremony from the usual site in Rockville to IPI’s 1000-capacity Zoom room online.  I thought it was a good decision, and I planned to be there.  I had attended a number of online Town Halls and was quite used to seeing all the attendees in their electronic squares in gallery view across multiple screens, or a large image of a single person in speaker view.  However, in the week before the conference, I was still thinking of scheduling enough time to drive up to Rockville.  I was still anticipating meeting colleagues in the flesh.

Once the conference began online, I resonated with comments about what people were missing – the time after the session to meet and greet in the hallways, the pleasure of embodied presence, giving a hug, comforting someone who had lost a friend or loved one.  Electronic social time was scheduled but was barely used.  Once these aspects were acknowledged and mourned the large group seemed able to work.  Members got used to entering their requests to speak on the chat, and the co-chairs held the center, monitored the chat and called upon participants to speak during the discussion periods. One member spoke of his hatred of physical deprivation and of having to look at his colleagues in their little boxes.  It reminded me of the Pete Seeger song written by Malvina Reynolds, “little boxes just the same.”  But each person seemed far from the same to me.  The variety of backgrounds and size of image within the frame reflected the personality of the person within.  To me, the online setting offered one great improvement.  Instead of looking at the backs of heads as people addressed the speaker or the panel in the Rockville hotel, I was looking at faces, and I could see everyone perfectly.  Although it is a 2-D image, the speaker view brought me very close to a real live person, perhaps because of the size of the image, but more likely because of the affect being expressed.  We broke into assigned small groups five times during the weekend, each group using its facilitator’s own Zoom room number, and that worked well.

People speak a lot about being fatigued by the effort of being online all day.  I felt fine on Friday.  By Saturday the relentless pace had got to me.  I needed to take part of the afternoon off to relax, get some exercise and fresh air.  I missed a presentation that was important to me, and then a small group.  Missing those was a loss I had to take because the conference schedule was too tightly packed for me and for many others.  During the conference, I got an email announcement of a conference that was to have been in Panama in October would now happen online instead. I had intended to go because of wanting to work with my colleagues in Panama, but now I faced a choice: do I want to attend a conference online in three languages?  I tried to tell myself that it will be easier to listen to just the English translation without having to tune out the language of the presenter and the interference from other headsets, and cheaper than traveling to Panama.  But for me it would be so much less enjoyable because of my particular attachment to the place and the people.  If this notice had not come in the middle of a packed conference schedule, might I have responded with more enthusiasm?

This bears on the decision I must make about attending the APsaA conference in June, now also online.  IPI’s director is asked to help ApsaA plan for that transition.  It is an honor for IPI to be recognized as having experience in reaching across a distance.  So, I should want to attend, but I am not drawn to it.  What had drawn me to IPI’s event was the subject matter, the conference design, and the object relations analytic perspective.  The weekend was organized on a theme, with participants studying, responding, discussing and developing the theme.

On Sunday, the conference had its first technical glitch.  The director worked feverishly but with an outward appearance of calm as she put in place an alternative gathering place.  Reminded of the old days with frequent technical problems when IPI teaching was frequently interrupted on the old Polycom system, David Scharff felt that current participants now knew what he and those early classes had put with.  Someone offered him “technology empathy”.  Since the director and many of those leading the current day’s events had experienced those days too, they rolled with the punches.  On this occasion, the host-administrator was locked out of the IPI Zoom room.  She could not reach the Zoom representative to arrange for a new number.   It was explained that Zoom had scheduled an update unknown to us.  The director and the administrator worked together like lightning to inform 72 participants of a switch to the director’s own Zoom room number.  The conference start was delayed by 15 minutes to allow everyone to log on, and the schedule was quickly adjusted in consultation with the conference co-chairs and session co-chairs.   We saw a fine example of grace under pressure.  The ensuing case presentation and discussion proceeded smoothly thereafter.

Last came the graduation.  The convenience of the online venue meant that lots of family members and friends from far away could attend. Faculty described the qualities of individual graduates from IPI’s psychotherapy and psychoanalytic training programs.  Students spoke of their experiences of pain, challenge, perseverance, passion, and reward. Lots of congratulations and praise for work well done was mixed in with sadness of leaving behind group members to whom people had become close over two  to four years.  Some were laughing at silly skits.  Others were in tears at the beauty of a song that captured saying good-bye to a friend who would be missed.  True, this graduation was devoid of physical copresence, but there was no lack of affect.  The closing ceremony felt like a salute to psychoanalysis, to a vibrant, sturdy organization carrying on in spite of the corona virus, a demonstration of the life force over COVID-induced death anxiety.