This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology, By Christina Robb, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 454 pp., $30
Forty years ago, in "The Duality of Human Existence," David Bakan proffered a distinction between an alleged masculine orientation to action and exerting power, and a feminine communing orientation. Women, he wrote, were socialized to orient their lives around relationships. I cannot recall whether Bakan cited Heidegger's provocative notion that we don't have relationships as much as we are relationships. In fact, in enunciating three modes of being, Heidegger suggested that at all times we deal with the biological world into which we are thrown, the world of consciousness and identity in which we are thrown against ourselves, and, most significantly for the present discussion, the world of relationships.
At about the same time, family systems theorists such as Minuchin, Haley, Bowen, and Whitaker predicated an approach to the study of human behavior on the dynamics of family relationships rather than psychic histories of family members. In the world of psychology, this position constituted a revolutionary step, but one that awaited, perhaps, that special feminine sensibility.
In "This Changes Everything," Christina Robb , a former Globe staffer, has recounted, in magnificent manner, the evolution of relational psychology and with it the transformation of contemporary psychological theory and practice. As it happens, many of the original contributors are Boston physicians, professors, and psychotherapists -- Jean Baker Miller, Carol Gilligan, and Judith Lewis Herman having emerged as the most renowned.
To pierce the political and cultural underpinnings of patriarchy that dominated American and European psychology, this small group of extraordinary women began to think and write about the personal experiences that had shaped their own psychologies. Not surprisingly, they discovered that concepts such as the autonomous self, independence, individualism, competition, and morality as justice were hardly the cornerstones of their lives, or, for that matter, the lives of most women. Accordingly, they began exploring not only the minds of the patients, students, and colleagues with whom they communed, but the substance, both seen and sensed, that was their connection to these people.
And so they learned that even mere disruption of connection, not to mention overwhelming trauma, shapes not only the mood but the very destiny of a person as well. They learned that genuine connection cannot exist with one person exerting power over the other. They learned that empathy is more healing than interpreting a person's utterances according to some hard-earned ideological scripture. Which meant that people must find their unique voice that allegedly they use only in the presence of others who listen and affirm. In fact, it is in these moments of genuine affirmation and attachment that we feel a familiar sense of being ``our best."
The work of the women who have given us such volumes as ``Trauma and Recovery," ``In a Different Voice," and ``Toward a New Psychology of Women" has profoundly altered the way we think about one another, ourselves, and ultimately the very meaning of self and other. Their theoretical and empirical discoveries square with the findings of neuroscience. Women are not necessarily more emotional than men; they are, perhaps, more accepting of emotion, and hence more likely to perceive, and experience, thought and emotion as being so intertwined it is difficult to detect where one commences and the other concludes.
Until recently, psychologists have been reared by two Western fathers, Aristotle and Descartes. We think in terms of rational logarithms and conclude that thinking is being. Alas, we are, in Michael Oakeshott's words, what we have learned. But now, in a transformative era brilliantly documented by Robb, we at last have mothers who support what Jerome Bruner has called narrative thinking, and reasoning, to go along with the objective or paradigmatic thinking exhibited by scientists. Recognizing the subjective and phenomenological worlds to be explored, along with the world of natural events, we are, in great measure, the stories we tell. How strange, but liberating, to consider that a relational orientation invites us to experience our own memories in wholly different fashion, and unite with others around these memories.
In the end, if the masculine in us, formed by culture and political economies, is often fixated on time travel, and thus our interest in psychohistorical evolution, then perhaps our feminine voice is about space travel: the movement from me to you, our wading together in the shallow water. If I read Robb correctly, perhaps we together must gaze at the water and feel how it defines us.
Thomas J. Cottle is professor of education at Boston University and the author of ``When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother."