Commentary on Schachter’s “Free Association”

Joan Lentz

Joan Lentz, Ph.D., is a training and supervising analyst at the Minnesota Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and has a private practice in Minneapolis. She is a member of the Committee on Preparedness and Progress, DPE.


Joan Lentz

In Joseph Schachter’s “Free Association: Is It Still Relevant?” [See TAP 50/3, Fall 2016, page 10], he leaves no doubt about his answer to that question. Schachter devotes two paragraphs to what is “valuable” about free association while the rest of his article emphasizes “Cautions and Criticisms.” Indeed, he concludes free association “may no longer be useful” and should be replaced. As someone who uses her patients’ associations, I would like to respond to Schachter’s points and to answer his question in the affirmative.

Definition may be the key to our disagreement. There is no consensus about a definition for free association. Schachter begins by defining it in the traditional way, as it relates to the fundamental rule—the patient is to say everything that comes to mind without censoring. Fair enough. Yet, he later implies a different definition when he speaks of a “suggestion to a patient to associate to any apparently significant subject matter” (emphasis mine). While some modern usage of the term emphasizes a method that promotes the freedom of association, that is, unrestricted association, and the reciprocal receptive stance of the analyst (Anton Kris, 1996; Axel Hoffer, 2004; 2006; Jonathan Lear, 2015), yet another modern usage emphasizes that free association involves all of the patient’s communications, verbal and nonverbal. It is whatever the patient brings to the session, not something the analyst has the patient do (Fred Busch, 2014; Kris, 1996).

Schachter’s subheading “ Valuable for Revelations” suggests Freud’s original goal of retrieving missing traumatic memories and re-introducing them to the patient as a method of cure for neurotic symptoms. If free association were merely about revelations, meaning the disclosure of previously unknown facts (from the Oxford English Dictionary), then I, too, might believe perhaps its time had passed. But, just as our field has evolved to highlight the process of our work and the interaction between analyst and analysand, I find free association works effectively with these developments.

Finding the value of free association solely in disclosed facts is quite limiting. Even if some see a focus on the content of the associations, one can hear much more than facts. For example, the patient’s “random” thoughts that follow after having come to a dead end often add to the stopped train of thought. “Unrelated” thoughts that occur after the analyst has spoken often tell us the most about our patient’s response to what we have said. Words that reverse the ideas the patient has just spoken signal defense and resistance (Busch, Paul Gray). Talking freely about something new may be followed by the patient’s attempts to figure it out, perhaps related to fear of depending on the analyst.

Having spoken directly about the analyst, the patient’s subsequent associations may say more, but in displacement. Other familiar ways of listening to the associations involve the latent content, as in a dream. We may hear our patients’ own needs being expressed as they talk about the needs of a child or baby. We consider the reference to ourselves when our patient talks about a teacher, a mentor, a boss, a doctor. A sharp image or the accumulation of words brings into relief a theme—secrets that must be kept from women/mother; being discarded and replaced by other patients/siblings; near success that must be interrupted.

Freud knew that after introducing the fundamental rule, the rule would inevitably be broken, switching his focus to the process. Many modern authors deal with process when they consider how and when their patients use the rule, when they reject it, replace it with their own rule, get confused by it, or talk in ways aimed at filling silences or finding solutions (Busch, 2014; Gray, 1982; Kris, 1996; Lear, 2015; Lentz, 2016).

It is true, as Schachter tells us, that our patients are not always calmly observing their thoughts. With some patients, action and projective identification predominate. But across the spectrum of patients and analytic approaches, we are all trying to understand more about our patients’ vulnerabilities and their need to protect themselves. We alter our techniques for various patients and circumstances without considering eliminating a technique. It is also true, as Freud said, that the associations are not free. That the patient’s unconscious and the therapeutic setting influence the patient’s associations, however, does not make the associations any less valuable.

Some criticisms Schachter raises do not seem to warrant the conclusion that the concept of free association be “retired.” Using his examples, even if analysts in the 1950s and ‘60s viewed themselves as interchangeable, I would not conclude we should discard the misused method. Schachter also brings up the primacy of a “one person” over a “two person” approach associated with free association. Yet I find the associations to be an indispensible guide, not only to my patient’s history and inner world, but to complex transference/countertransference occurrences.

Although cited by Schachter as rejecting the use of free associations, Merton Gill (1979) provided an important use for them. He emphasized the role of disguised allusions to the transference. Listening to the associations in this way opens up a myriad of clues about how our patients are reacting to us or see us. I regard this as one of the most valuable uses of associations and certainly a window into the interaction between analyst and analysand.

Freud developed the idea of free association near the end of the 19th century. I began analytic training about a hundred years later. My ideas about and use of free association retain some of Freud’s evolved notions and reflect the growth and change that has taken place in our field. Aren’t we all using associations, but, as Kris (1996) says, all using them differently? Like Schachter, I am also concerned with the “patient-analyst interaction and relationship.” I find that the idea of free association, encompassing content and process, verbal and non-verbal, intrapsychic and interpersonal, has remained adaptable, useful and modern. Oh yes, and relevant.