The Object-Oriented Question: A Contribution to Treatment Technique B. D. Margolis, Ph.D.
The object-oriented question is a technical device favored in the treatment of the preoedipal patient (Spotnitz, 1969, 1976). It is, to all appearances, relatively uncomplicated, and seems to play a largely protective role in safeguarding the patient's fragile ego from experiencing more tension that it can tolerate. If, in the process, it helps resolve resistance and fosters the development of the narcissistic transferences, these appear at first glance to be serendipitous spinoffs of the analyst's ego-sheltering approach. It is the purpose of this paper, however, to demonstrate the contrary, namely, that the object-oriented question occupies a central position and exerts an influence disproportionate to its apparent simplicity on every aspect of the treatment process. What is an object-oriented question? It is a question calculated to direct the patient's attention away from his own ego and toward objects or events external to himself. What is the man's name? What was the movie about? Would I behave like that? The analyst asks this type of question because of the emotional state of the narcissistic patient. The latter is arrested in the narcissistic phase of development where self and object are not as yet completely separated and the one is often confused with the other. The ego of such a person is unstable, shifting in outline, unsure of its functions, and insecure in relation to the external world. Consequently, questions about himself or, as we say, ego-orinted questions, are bound to be experienced - 187 -
by such an individual as confusing or even assaultive. We therefore use object-oriented questions, with which he will feel comfortable, since they deal with external matters. Before proceeding, let us review the reasons for asking questions of any kind. The preoedipal patient is unable, because of his narcissistic defensive pattern, to express the full range of his positive and negative feelings. The analyst's interventions in treating such a patient are communications aimed at helping him hatch out of his emotional shell by responding with communications of his own. The analyst's intervention usually take the form of questions. This is not true, of course, when working with an oedipal patient. In that case, a declarative statement, i.e., an interpretation, tells the patient what the analyst knows about him. The patient finds this helpful because his ego is mature enough to use the insight provided to recognize his resistance and discard it. The immature ego of the preoedipal patient, however, is unable to cope with the bald facts and connections exposed by an interpretation. A declarative statement spelling out his dynamics is experienced by him as confusing and threatening. It sets off in him impulses toward aggressive action, arouses his anxiety as to his ability to control them and activates characterological resistance patterns. A question, on the other hand, is a communication with an open-ended request for whatever the patient is capable of giving at the time. The preoedipal patient may resist, if he so desires, by not answering at all. He may respond as briefly as his emotional capacity permits, and then draw down a curtain of resistance. He may engage in an investigative dialogue, powered by the analyst's questions and affording the patient the opportunity to expand his capacity for emotional communication. To safeguard the patient's fragile psychic economy and protect him from any sense of emotional invasion throughout the course of these interchanges, the questions are usually object-oriented, i.e., they are directed toward matters external to the patient's ego. In actually, there is no such entity as the pure object-oriented question. The patient's ego, whether brittle or robust, is impacted by the question, cognitively and emotionally. The ego's functions are involved in receiving...
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