Affect Regulation, Recognition, and Mutuality
by Jessica Benjamin

We may imagine the psychological position of the Third originating in the mutual accommodation, the system of adaptation and fitting (Sander, 2008) between mother and infant that I now call, for simplicity’s sake, the rhythmic Third. Initially (Benjamin, 2004) I tried to conceptualize this position with the phrase “the One in the Third,” meaning the kind of joint harmonious creation (Third) based on recognition or being “in tune.” We may think of a rhythm developing from the caregiver’s recognition of and accommodation to the infant’s earliest needs and the evolving mutual adaptation in feeding and holding, supporting the emergence of shared intentions (Sander, 1995) and communication.

This rhythmic Third also builds upon the sharing of positive affect states or attention as well as the intentional coordination of actions—for example, gazing, head nodding, leaning in or away, vocalizing, movement in general—that support the recognition process in the procedural dimension. It creates a basis for interacting in a way that allows the baby to exercise agency through regulation of his own state by affecting the other in a more differentiated way (Sander, 1991). That is, the issue of whether our action has the intended impact and is recognized as intended becomes central.

To the extent that mutual alignment and the development of the rhythmic Third proceed well enough, they also generate stable representations of procedural interactions, that is, patterns of (positively contingent) expectancy: “Our Third.” Actions may match or violate those patterns, but significantly smaller violations may be followed by return to the expectable, which itself becomes an expectable pattern; this implies reorganization at a more complex level (Beebe & Lachmann, 1994). Or, as in disruption and repair, the dyad may find a specific form of correction. The relationship of safety in dependency, which has been called attachment (Ainsworth, 1969; Bowlby, 1969)—so vital for our clinical understanding—is shaped by whether such patterns of fitting and coordination can be relied upon, and whether they are constituted by control or responsiveness to needs, broken by exciting novelty or in disruptive ways. All of which, of course, influences the dyad’s level of arousal, or mutual affect regulation.

The outcome of such ongoing adjustment contributes to the construction of what I think of as lawfulness in human relating, a rhythm of recognition. Here, try not to think of law as in decree, prohibition, government. By lawfulness I am denoting not prohibitions or decrees, or even explicit rules. I mean the quality of reliable patterning and coherent dyadic organization (Tronick, 2005; 2007) at affective and sensory-motor levels of interaction that might be thought of as a baby’s idea of the “natural order of things.” Now it is true that the natural order and system to which an infant may become used could be highly depriving of agency or quite painful, an arrangement involving control and pathological accommodation. It would be without the essential element of contingent responsiveness whereby one’s intentions are affirmed. So in this usage, lawfulness would signify sharing of intention, the infant equivalent of the aesthetics of harmonious existence, something like the implicit relation to harmony in music or synchrony of motoric movement in dance. The harmonious, coordinated movement is the opposite of both tight control and fragmentation or disintegration; it thus expresses physically what later appears psychically. In this sense, as we coordinate, we are able to savour each other’s expressions of intention.

Rhythmic thirdness depends on co-creation, that is continuous mutual adjustment that persists through variation of patterns, which allows for acknowledgment of difference and deviations by both partners. The representation of “the lawful world” thus includes difference as well as harmony in co-creation. I hold this to be a key representation in the infant’s mind, the basis, long before speech, before a symbolic order, of a lawful world known through the sensory-affective musical order of coherent mutual relating (see Knoblauch, 2000). Not the paternal “law of separation” (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985), the Law of the Father, of do or don’t (oedipal law), but the “law of connection.” Of course this rhythmic Third will have great consequence for our later relation to the symbolic domain. 


Affect Regulation and Mutuality

The dimension of early mutuality that I refer to as establishing the rhythmic Third, originally understood through infancy studies, has more recently come to be theorized in terms of affect regulation. Some years after infancy research began to revolutionize psychoanalysis, the introduction of neuroscience into the field started to confirm a view of affect regulation (Schore, 1993; 2003; Siegel, 1999; Hill, 2015) that meshed with both recognition and attachment theory. What seems particularly germane is the connection between affect regulation and emotional integration. Affect regulation refers to maintaining a range that is neither over nor under-aroused such that both painful and positive affect can be differentiated and shared. Siegel (1999) and Schore’s (2003) articulation of the integrating function of emotion (Fosha, Siegel & Solomon, 2012) corroborates Stern’s (1985) earlier views, and suggests that self-cohesion (Kohut, 1977) comes from the ability to share and express affect states.

The proposition might then be expressed as follows: recognition of affect by the other, in communicative action, promotes the integrating function of emotion within the self. Conversely, and by extension, the integration of discrete, articulated emotions that results from recognition serves to diminish hyperarousal, which is to say, makes the having of feelings less anxiety producing; it thereby expands the “window of affect tolerance” (Siegel, 1999; Schore, 2004). In a recursive move, we can say that the expansion of what can be known, borne, and communicated in turn widens the field of mutual recognition. Conversely, as the recognition process allows more emotions to come into play between two partners, it extends the range of experiences they can share and reflect upon—including those otherwise unbearable experiences that people come to therapy to heal or at least make less disruptive and damaging. Thus recognition and regulation are co-determining. The proposition that recognition and regulation work in tandem points us towards a further intersubjective issue: that the sharing of affect states is complicated not only because affects themselves may exceed the level of our own tolerance. They may also, unfortunately, exceed what the other person can tolerate. Once affect has broken the window of tolerance, emotions are no longer recognized (by self or other) as specific feelings; rather, affects take on an aspect of chaotic dysregulation. As they are not contained in articulated form, they become intolerable to the psyche or disruptive to the attachment relationship. They interfere with the mutual coordination of intentions, impede sharing of states, and are liable to cause dissociation and disconnection. In this incarnation affect can appear dangerous; in common parlance feelings are threatening, even though in actuality the emotions are not being felt. It also becomes difficult or impossible to recognize feelings, emotions as such, for as we often note in the clinical situation, what is being transmitted is disorganized, inchoate, sub-symbolic. The transmission is felt to be too uncomfortable or over – stimulating for the receiver who cannot therefore locate them in the containing window, who feels unable to “think.” Whereas specific emotions can be identified and shared as a coherent, organized experience, the sharing of hyperarousal is quite a different matter. It is contagious, but not experienced as voluntarily shared. Such experience feels impinging and thus not mutual but asymmetrical: here arises the sense that “something is being done to me.” A person holds such dissociated affect in self-states which are experienced as not-me or shameful and thus disruptive to the ongoing “Me” (Bromberg, 2000). I would add, they are also disruptive to the shared “We” that creates meaning together. The pressure of this unformulated experience (Stern, 2009), conveyed in unconscious communication and dissociated enactment calls out for, though it often impedes, recognition by self or other. When the other is able to meet this pressure with understanding of what has been inchoate, overwhelming and isolating, that is, to contain, there occurs a palpable experience of the value of the other’s separate mind—in this sense, recognition of the other.

Thus dissociation and recognition become poles of affect relations—negative and positive poles of connection. Early lack of recognition predicts disorganized attachment and later dissociation (Beebe et al., 2010). The more dysregulated and incoherent the affect, the more experience leans towards dissociation and away from recognition by self and other. The less recognition of affect, the less coherence and containment, the more dysregulation and consequent dissociation. Hence, recognition and regulation, while not exactly the same, are dynamically linked. They are both indispensable to connection and, clinically, to repair of what has remained disruptive or traumatic in early relating. When there has been a tilt towards asymmetry without a sense of responsive subjectivity, the attention to affect regulation helps to restore the conditions for recognition. Likewise, the acknowledgment to the patient by the analyst of failures in recognition—a failure that is a violation of expectation for help or understanding—is a form of repair that restores mutual regulation.

Thinking in terms of the synergistic relationship between recognition and regulation enables us to better understand the procedural dimension of two persons gradually building a rythmic Third and to appreciate its therapeutic function. Each therapeutic relationship constructs its own complementary dilemmas reflecting both partners’ attachment histories, each must therefore find its own forms of thirdness through which to engage them. The relationship, regardless of content, becomes the medium for changing the internal working model of the individuals’ respective attachment paradigms (Ainsworth, 1969; Bowlby, 1969; 1973), which may vary with self-states. When growing trust in the evolving implicit thirdness alleviates mutual dysregulation and creates a zone of affective sharing this can be translated into the patient’s internal working model of attachment, their representation of the other. In this way previous unlinked, dissociated experiences can be wired together (Siegel, 1999; Bromberg, 2006; 2011; Schore, 2011) through mutual recognition.


Excerpt adapted from Benjamin’s new book, Beyond Doer and Done To: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity, and the Third (Routledge, 2017).


Jessica Benjamin is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City, where she is a supervising faculty member at the New York University Postdoctoral Psychology program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and at the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She is known as a contributor to the development of relational psychoanalysis and its interrelation with feminism as well as the theory of intersubjectivity. She is the author of three books : The Bonds of Love (1988); Like Subjects, Love Objects (1995); and Shadow of the Other (1998). After completing her doctoral work she spent several years in the field of infancy research. This background as well as her work as a psychoanalyst gave rise to her conceptualization of self, intersubjectivity and mutual recognition in child development and clinical work. She has been part of the relational psychoanalytic movement from its inception, helped to found the relational track at NYU Postdoctoral Psychology Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, and the Mitchell Center for Relational Studies where she currently serves on the board. Her work has been translated into many languages and she has lectured all over the world. She has recently published Beyond Doer and Done To—Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third, (Routledge, 2017) considering the need for acknowledgment with reference to clinical practice with individual trauma as well as psychosocial work with collective trauma.

© 2017 CSAR - Center for the Study of Affect Regulation All rights reserved.
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