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Psychoanalysis On and Off the Couch

Jul 9, 2023

"In divorce it's fundamental that even though the couple ends, there's not an end to the family. We still owe a debt to the other - that other who offered to love us, who we had the opportunity to love, our debt to the children of that union. We are irrevocably called to ethics and to the continuing sense of responsibility to that other. Even though the marriage doesn't survive, the family needs to. In the high - conflict scenario, not only does the marriage not survive, often the family doesn’t as well. In that sense it is profoundly unethical.  So when I attempt to work with people in that situation, I always do so from an ethical perspective - ethical in the sense of creating a third, so that you try and enter into that system, but it has to be a profoundly ethical presence which I also find is distinctly psychoanalytic. I think our method is saturated with ethics without even realizing it, we're always thinking in ethical terms, managing transference, powerful forces within analytic relationship -  it's a profoundly ethical task that we do. In that sense we also serve as witnesses to what our patients have experienced. The witnessing is also a kind of engagement and we try to do that when we work with people in the high-conflict position." 

Episode Description: We begin by distinguishing high-conflict divorce from less malignant versions. Arthur has found that high-conflict divorce is characterized by a particular timeless destructiveness that lacks regard for the sense of the family or the history of affection that had existed within and between the individuals.

He has noted an experience of overwhelming disillusionment in the histories of those who are unable to mourn and instead remain immersed in vendetta seeking. We discuss the role of ethics, witnessing, and the capacity for the 'third' in these couples. Arthur shares with us his clinical experience with same-sex couples as well as with the unfortunate scenarios of alienated children who attempt to bolster the fragile capacities of one parent by refusing any contact with the other. He concludes by describing that his attention to the inner realities of these individuals is what he uniquely brings as a psychoanalyst to these often behaviorally tumultuous human tragedies.


Our Guest: Arthur Leonoff, Ph.D., is a psychologist and Supervising & Training Analyst of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society. He is a past president and recipient of his Society’s Citation of Merit. He is also an Honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Dr. Leonoff was the first president of the North American Psychoanalytic Confederation. He currently is chair of the IPA Committee International New Groups.Dr. Leonoff has maintained a private psychoanalytic practice for more than four decades. He is an active clinician, teacher, supervisor, and presenter, as well as author. Recently he has contributed to two edited volumes, Dear Candidate and Psychoanalysis at the Crossroads. He has written on diverse subjects of clinical interest, including the kindling of metaphor in recovering from the impact of early complex psychic trauma.In addition to his psychoanalytic practice, Dr. Leonoff has worked extensively as a consultant and expert witness to the Canadian courts on the confluence of psychopathology and high-conflict divorce. He is the author of three books in this field, most recently The Good Divorce (2015) and When Divorces Fail, Disillusionment, Destructivity & High Conflict Divorce (2021), The Good Divorce has been revised and republished as The Ethical Divorce, which is available from Friesen Press.

Recommended Readings:

Leonoff, A (2021). When Divorces Fail: Disillusionment, Destructivity, and High Conflict Divorce. Rowman & Littlefield.

Leonoff, A. (2021) The Ethical Divorce: A Psychoanalyst’s Guide to Separation, Divorce, and Childcare. Friesen Press.

Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2020). Conclusions, concepts, controversies, and conundrums of “alienation:” Lessons learned in a decade and reflections on challenges ahead, Family Court Review, 58(2). 576-603.

Greenberg, L., Fidler, B. and Saini, M.A. (Eds). (2019). Evidence-Informed Interventions for Court-Involved Families: Promoting Healthy Coping and Development, Oxford University Press.

Levinas, E. (1985). Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (R.A. Cohen, Trans.). Duquesne University Press.

Wallerstein, J. and Kelly, J. (1980). Surviving the Breakup: How children and Parents cope with Divorce. Basic Books.