perverse games in couples  

Perverse games in couples

Luisa Perrone and Maria C. Immirzi (Italian Society of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy)
University of Naples Federico II Medical School, Chair of Forensic Psychopathology, Napoli, Italy

Paper presented to EFPP Conference PLAY AND POWER, Copenhagen 2007


The couple asks for a session through a telephone call made by Giovanni.

At their arrival, I am faced with a man in his sixties accompanied by a lady who looks much younger than he does. While Giovanni is soberly, and very well dressed, Piera’s attire is garish and juvenile. She looks like a teen-ager.

I immediately recognize the lady because I have seen her some years ago. At that time, in our first meeting, she spoke of a secret love affair she had had for many years and of her difficulty in making a decision whether to remain with her husband. She also complained of phobias and panic attacks, which made her very dependent, particularly on her husband, whose support she relied upon completely. At our second meeting she came with her husband, who silently listened to the encounter. I suggested individual psychoanalytic treatment, but as a matter of fact I never heard from her again.

The couple relates a love affair lasting for more than ten years; during this period, while Giovanni has separated from his wife and has lived by himself for at least four years, Piera is still living with her husband.

Besides being an Executive in a financial company, she also collaborates with Giovanni in his office. The couple seems to have reached a sort of balance in that Giovanni, in the position of a family friend, besides calling freely at Piera’s house, also gives hospitality in his holiday resorts to Piera, her husband, and sometimes to members of their families and their friends. According to Piera, however, their relationship seems to have reached a dead point that makes her furious and causes her to feel paralyzed, this being the reason why she had insisted on an encounter with me.

She directly accuses Giovanni of never having wanted to openly accept her as his partner; she also claims that this is the reason why she cannot resolve on leaving her husband, since he is the only person she can fully rely upon. Apparently Giovanni seems not to complain about this ménage à trois, maintaining that he cannot officialise their relationship, since Piera is still living with her husband.

The two partners come from very different social, cultural and economic backgrounds; Giovanni comes from an old, aristocratic and affluent family and has followed the family tradition even in his prestigious profession. Piera’s father is a workman, described as very handsome and unfaithful; her mother, orphan of both parents, spent her infancy and adolescence in an orphanage. With great determination Piera has reached a high professional rank, in which nevertheless she does not feel completely at ease. Even though she is in her forties, she is presently studying for a second degree. Before meeting Piera, Giovanni had a relationship for a few years with a married lady, who also did not leave her husband. Prior to meeting Giovanni, Piera had some adulterous relationships: of this past she retains a humiliating memory. In the last three years, she has also been spending time with a colleague of her age with whom, now and then, she has fun going to discos, beach parties, etc, all events, she says, she could not share either with Giovanni or with her husband, Cino.

The couple claims to be strongly motivated to embark on an analytic treatment hoping to work their impasse out. Quite soon, though, they reveal the unconscious collusive goals they bring to the treatment; while Piera actively seeks the analyst’s connivance to charge Giovanni with all the responsibilities of what she feels as their relationship’s failure, Giovanni, on the contrary, seeks the analyst’s complicity to legitimate their triangular relationship as normal. It soon appears that the couple never moved towards a mature project, since the emotional area shared is instead dominated by covert transgressive, excited fantasies. They both refer to some physical features of the partner that recall the parent of the opposite sex, this fantasy bringing an infantile triumphal satisfaction. They also tend to split off the narrow area of their private play from the rest of their lives.

The first months of this treatment bring to light dynamics in which the presence of Piera’s husband is pivotal. He appears to represent to his wife a reassuring and yet confusing paternal image: three attempts to have a child with him ended in three miscarriages. Giovanni, apparently resigned to the stability of Piera and Cino’s couple, actually unconsciously enacts all the angry ambivalence towards a father who – although on the one hand he asserts his rights over his wife - is nevertheless belittled by the erotized complicity of the mother/son relationship and is represented as an impotent voyeur. “To me Cino is like a sister to Piera” Giovanni said once. In the same session, Piera referred to having sexual intercourse with her husband now and then “to please him”. Other aspects of the triangle that immediately draw the analyst’s attention concern the peculiar dynamics existing between Giovanni and Cino and possible undifferentiated elements hidden inside their relationship. “I never asked myself what Cino thinks of my frequent presence in their house, but once I happened to think that if Piera were not around, we could really be good friends”. Piera seems to strongly impose herself on both men, thus controlling them and keeping at bay her own separation anxieties.

In Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning (1911) Freud introduces the crucial theme of the relationship between truth and falsehood, making an equation between truth and reality and pointing out the process from pleasure principle to reality principle as strongly influenced by the renunciation of libidinal satisfaction linked to the development of the demand of the Super-Ego.

In Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence (1938) Freud turns back to the vicissitudes of the Oedipal complex linked to the dawn of truth and points out how fetishism (perversion) represents a clever solution that allows the denial of the universal law of differentiation.

In On Narcissism (1914) as well, Freud had already dealt with the problem of the Ego ideal in relationship with infantile omnipotence and narcissism; many among Freud’s major contributions discuss the overcoming of incestuous drives in connection with differentiation and the acquisition of genital maturity, and basically on the relationship between narcissism and object-relationship. Very close to Freud’s concepts regarding perversion, Chasseguet Smirgel (1984) states that in its quest for omnipotence, the Ego ideal prefers absolute solutions, pushing forward the frontiers of what is possible in order to unsettle reality.

Giovanni’s daughters are felt by Piera as her own sisters and she is quite jealous of them: "I can’t understand why when you are with them, you shorten our telephone conversations with me and when they call you, you even ask me to get out of the room to talk with them secretly”. By denying generation gaps and roles, and not without a hint of aggressiveness, she often speaks of Giovanni’s daughters as if they were the same age, even though the difference between Piera and the girls is ten and fourteen.

She seems to have fully split the Oedipal object so that Giovanni becomes her desired and elusive father, coupled with an emotionally distant mother, and facing this mother, she feels dirty and guilty for her seductive fantasies. The other side of the object, projected on Cino, represents the idealized imago, in its reassuring and fusional components. The impossibility to heal the splitting is probably at the basis of her frequent panic attacks.

Giovanni and Piera seem to be joined together inside a petrified pre-genital area, where the denial of the differentiating paternal law is strongly maintained. In a perverse game, exciting because it is clandestine, they are both engaged in a never-ending attempt to defensively exclude reality.

The archaic representations of sexual development lead inevitably to the mother-infant relationship and its vicissitudes linked to the topic of loss and annihilation. Psychoanalytic treatments often bring to light the extent to which a perverse and false structure, reinstating a fusional illusion, is defensively built in order to preserve an omnipotent representation, which is both magic and chaotic, of human destiny. This is what André Green describes as the silent work of the narcissistic core, which prevents the patient from reaching the level of object relationships, pushing instead towards a chaotic homeostasis. It seems as if a defensive structure, linked to fusional archaic representations, were cunningly engaged in coping with life in a totally unauthentic way, as if it were true (Deutsch, 1942).

Giovanni depicts his mother, who died after being ill for a long time with Alzheimer’s disease, as very beautiful, basically aloof and affectively distant towards her family, except for Giovanni, her elder son, with whom she had a conniving, exclusive relationship. Belonging to a social class lower than her husband’s, according to Giovanni, the lady was considered to be outside the family’s culture: her silvery laugh and creativity were smothered by the stiff family structure, and secretly shared only with her son. Yet Alzheimer’s disease in a parallel way evokes a chaotic and unreliable image in which the mind day by day abandons reality testing. In the primal relationship, the difficulty to differentiate roles and generational gaps progressively threatens and confuses the boundaries of the self. Both the narcissistic aspects in Giovanni and the anaclytic ones in Piera seem to be anxiously involved in resisting the engulfing seduction by the object.

Starting from different theoretical backgrounds, but basically in agreement with the concepts so far described, Bleger speaks of an agglutinated personality core forming the psychotic (undifferentiated) part of personality, characterized by a pattern of mental functioning based on projective identifications and sadistic control mechanisms. In defining ambiguity, Bleger emphasizes its indissolubleness from the agglutinated core, and stresses the poor discrimination between homo- and heterosexuality in patients showing such a personality structure. Baranger (1961) includes Bleger’s analysis in his concept of dishonesty. According to him, it is to be considered as an identity disturbance, in which the Ego is composed of a multiplicity of unelaborated, contemporary, contradictory identifications.

In the couple, the relationship is based on crossed projective identifications, yet continuously subjected to close confrontation with the other’s otherness; it is during this process that primal idealization gives way to the creation and stabilization of the bond, rooting the relationship in reality. The couple can be seen as a sort of container whose function – through a steady reciprocal affective and sexual acknowledgement felt between the partners and shown towards the outside world – is, among others, that of feeding vicarious lacunal personal identities, giving them a legitimation and widening the spectrum of personal potentialities also through the unconscious recognition of parts of the self in the other. In this way, a feeling of belonging and complicity is promoted, giving rise to a fantasy of being a dyad against the rest of the world. This is what Dicks (1967) calls natural transference, based on several elements having a reciprocal therapeutic effect. Thus the couple is bound in a sort of unconscious collusive pact as an expression of mature and evolutive drives. Couple relationship can also be considered as a reciprocal regulation system, in which each partner is influenced by the other’s presence; it satisfies the need to recognize oneself and be recognized by the other, entering and letting the other enter one’s own mind. The basic requirement for a shared feeling of being a dyad actually lies in the equilibrium stemming from the awareness of a reciprocal steady acknowledgement. (Benjamin, 2005).

An emotionally stable bond makes it possible to create an area in which the couple may cope with Oedipal topics, through the enactment of the relevant regressive fantasies and actualizing the possession of one’s own parent’s body (and mind). All these aspects, only partially conscious, are a basic part of the unconscious pact that is ultimately the true bonding agent of the couple. Thus, the durability of the couple essentially relies on the pact, and its strength, either in health or in pathology.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapy of the couple, in constantly dealing with the internal object and its seeming actualization in the partner, reveals all its difficulty in the fact that the real partner can reduce or even screen the power of fantasy, which on the contrary is focussed on and worked out in the hic et nunc of the transference in individual treatments. In the treatment of couples we face a multiplicity of transferences, i.e. the one of each partner towards the analyst; another so-called natural transference between the partners, and a third one of the couple towards the analyst in terms of the outside world. This multiplicity stands for the complexity of each internal group system (intrasubjectivity) according to the symbolic and pre-symbolic levels enacted in the treatment. The different mental functioning (intrapsychic, intrasubjective and intersubjective), their continuous mingling and intersection are constantly monitored by the therapist, since their focussing is a crucial issue in the therapeutic process.

In a couple asking for treatment it can be seen how perhaps their relational container has collapsed or has never succeeded in reaching an evolutive capacity and significance. In such a case the unconscious pact may be connected with perverse instances, which chronicize the relationship in a petrified stage in which the hidden strategy of the couple aims to neutralize aspects of the self felt as dangerous or in danger and to soothe anguish linked to separation phantasms.

The paralysis of this arrangement indeed jeopardizes the very life of the couple and its prospects for growth and mobility, as in the case of the impossibility to open to the birth of a parental mind. The couple may thus satisfy personal survival needs by retreating in mortiferous solutions. These give rise to crossed revengeful projections and to a painful impossibility to proceed to a separation, felt as an annihilation of the self: this mechanism indeed reveals a repetition compulsion preventing any kind of transformation.

Since the ultimate goal of any psychoanalytic treatment is the unearthing of the truth, we constantly face the defensive strategies tending to maintain an equilibrium, even though precarious, the goal of which, beyond superficial motivations, is exactly to block the way to any achievement of truth. In the couple, to achieve truth also means to finally give up the presumption that each partner has to already possess it, this being the most frequent cause of revengefulness and bitterness.

The ping-pong mechanism of crossed projective identifications often leads the couple to assume complementary roles going from overt violence to a narcissistic withdrawal, which indeed appear as polar expressions of the same internal pattern of relating to the object and/or the primal couple, felt as exciting, inscrutable and unreliable (Fisher, 1999).

In the course of this treatment, my attempts to make the couple aware of their shared project to avoid the oedipal outcome of their relationship, always keeping themselves on the threshold of differentiation, result in a persecutory reaction, which Piera usually takes on the task of communicating. She in fact often comes back to the next session accusing me of trying to separate the couple. Giovanni usually listens silently and smiling to Piera’s complaints, but once he said: “When we leave your studio, we often look at each other and say: Once more she hasn’t been able to do it!” In the transference, the couple reacts like a child found spying in the parents’ room and made to feel guilty by a persecutory mother for the excitement provoked by the primal scene. They also express rather collusive elements of transference towards the analyst felt as third object, envious and threatening.

Around the third year of treatment, coming back from the summer pause, they bring some new elements: the two spent, this year as well, part of their summer holidays as a threesome in Giovanni’s mountain resort. While mockingly hinting at Giovanni’s request not to tell me, Piera says they finally could open the blinds, thanks to the presence of Cino. In other circumstances, she added, when they were there alone, Giovanni had always insisted to keep the blinds closed so as not to be seen by neighbours, to whom he could not justify Piera’s presence in his home. The rest of the summer, Piera says, was spent very unhappily alone with her husband, also worsened by a fall that forced her to stay at home. Giovanni listens with a sort of derisive smile to Piera’s words; he says he spent the rest of his summer holidays on his yacht with a friend going around the Mediterranean, happy and light-hearted.

A period now begins during which Piera shows her fear of being abandoned by Giovanni due to the treatment, while, on the other hand, Giovanni starts to speak of himself and his unresolved issues, waving from the need for the object and the autarchic triumph over it. He does not seem to be aware of Piera’s presence for long sequences, bringing to each session some work done on himself during the intervals between sessions. He accuses Piera of covering up all what has emerged in the treatment, as if she deliberatelydid not want to see. Meanwhile Piera reports that she has more frequent panic attacks and increasing difficulty in staying alone: being unable to drive and use public transportation, she repeatedly asks Giovanni to drive her around, since he refuses to put his chauffeur and car at her disposal. Giovanni reacts with anger to Piera’s demands, telling her to ask her husband to help her, thus making her even violently resentful. Giovanni, in his turn, seems to go over the basic issues of his past, trying to drag the analyst into a privileged relationship. Through crossed projective identifications, they tend to enact their internalized relational pattern aiming to call back the absent object, each one in his or her own way, that is, through guilt and seduction. Each of the two takes on himself and herself the unexpressed parts of the other: while Piera drastically refuses the analyst’s interpretations, by accusing her of merely using a theoretical hypothesis, Giovanni asks for a name of an analyst with whom he can start an individual treatment.

They come back after an interval, due to a Piera’s persistent flu.

Throwing herself on a chair, Piera says, “I cannot stand my director any more! Everything I do is wrong for her. She takes away all my autonomy! Giovanni says ‘you don’t know how to handle her, pretend to agree with her and then do as you like!’ ". Then Piera goes on saying: "do you know the new way of acting Giovanni has started lately? He goes out with friends, organizes dinner parties in his home, goes to the theatre and opera. Me, on the contrary, I am living a flat and colourless life at the moment and I am feeling very sad. I would like to go to the seaside in winter but with Giovanni this is out, he is the one who decides and so we go skiing. Perhaps I could go with Cino, but I am afraid that, feeling in a holiday mood, he could ask me more frequently to make love with him….”

Giovanni, jumping on Piera’s last sentence: “It is like this, in fact. I am beginning to go out, to take up interests again that I had neglected so far. I am happy to see my friends again, go to art exhibits, to the theatre, open my home to people.”

Piera: “You see Doctor, Giovanni maintains that each of us should start taking care of what is wrong on one’s own. But to me, the reason why I am afraid of starting a separate analysis is that he might discover I am not the woman for him, and leave me. Sometimes I am feeling not understood by you, but when I tell this to Giovanni, he answers, 'you don’t want to understand that you and I are very similar, each of us with our own problems' but as far as I am concerned, I blame this on him.”

Giovanni: “It seems to me that quite a lot of what happens or does not happen between the two of us is due to our past, to our stories, etc, but Piera doesn’t agree with me, or with you, when you point this out to us. Perhaps I should wait for her a bit more, she does not understand yet, maybe she will never understand. As for me, I will wait for another couple of months, then I will contact the analyst you suggested. Tell me, Doctor, if I were here without Piera, would you tell me if there is something in me that does not work and what I should do to become normal?” Then a series of statements follow on the analyst’s capacity to see things he cannot see, since she is the holder of experience and knowledge.

I point out that both of them are enacting in the session the kind of relationship each had with his/her mother and the strategies each used to handle it. While Giovanni tries to establish a special relationship, which only apparently includes his little sick brother (Piera), hoping the mother will be seduced, Piera on the contrary engages herself in an angry squabble, ending up by feeling confirmed in her role of an aggressive, guilty black sheep.

The couple remains silent for some time. After a while, Piera says: “It is true, I have always acted like that. I also did it in order to force my mother to stay by me. She was totally taken by my father, they were a couple that left no space for us children. She was very jealous of him too, just think, after dinner, even when I grew up, I used to sit on my father’s lap but usually she intruded, saying I should go to bed, she wanted to get rid of me…”

Giovanni: I have always tried to have a special relationship with my mother, I secretly cheated my father since I knew that on many issues, she had more intimacy with me than with him.”

Piera interrupts him: “Why don’t you do the same with me? Why don’t you try to have a special relationship with me? Lately, we have been rather apart from each other, we do not make love, we are like brother and sister… This is why I do not leave Cino! With him I am feeling that I am in a couple: we are always together, we sleep hugging each other, we go out for dinner, to the movies, always together. You leave me alone for days and days…”

She goes on to say how important physical contact is for her but, unfortunately, she is forced to ask Cino for that, since Giovanni is not available. “At night, I go to sleep with my feet close to his feet.”

Giovanni ”... but I know you are with Cino and I feel reassured. He brings you your drugs, takes your temperature….”

The two start to discuss about Cino’s role in their couple, and both agree on the hypothesis that Cino could be a fence which prevents them from planning a future for their couple.

Giovanni: But this fence, Doctor, then it is useful for us!? That’s us keeping it there, we aren’t victims of it! But I will be sixty shortly and it starts to bother me that I don’t have a mate to experience many other moments of my life with…".

As if freely associating, Piera now starts to speak about Giovanni’s best friend, a homosexual art gallery owner; the two, though they have been best friends for a very long time, go on not being on first-name terms. Recently, Giovanni invited him to dinner with a young friend of his and Piera says: “You don’t care what kind of relationship he has with this friend, just you who are so spiteful towards homosexuals, you know Doctor, he is a racist…”

Giovanni smiles at Piera’s words, but suddenly bursts out annoyed: "But now, what does it have to do with what we are saying? Tell me Doctor, what could be the reason why I am not interested in sexual drives of my friend: do I have to be curious? And why is Piera curious? Would she be so curious if he were not my best friend?"

Piera agrees that her curiosity is exactly due to the fact that this man is Giovanni’s friend. She goes on to say that when they started their relationship, quite a few people warned her that Giovanni was a homosexual and that, together with some friends, he used to go to London from time to time, to have sexual intercourse both among themselves and with local homosexuals.

Meanwhile, Giovanni looks at her smiling with a superior air; then he comments: “What do you think I may care about gossip by two or three stupid people, since I know it is all false…".

Piera goes on to say that she had heard at that time that Giovanni’s wife had started a relationship with a man to whom she had revealed her husband’s homosexuality. The session ends with a statement by Giovanni – that I also register as an attack to Piera – regarding the fact that he always keeps in his pocket the name of the individual analyst I had given him. On the threshold, shaking my hand vigorously, he says.” Thank you. Today’s session has been very important”.

The analyst had already been wondering about Giovanni’s homosexuality, whether it is real or not. Indeed, it appears all of a sudden in the treatment and its appearance seems to be related to the fantasies around Cino’s role in the triangle. This configuration is to be seen as crucial for the three and screens - at least as far as the couple Giovanni/Piera is concerned - the threat of an incestuous fantasy. The incest, as a product of the fantasy creating a circularity excluding intersubjectivity, happens in a claustrophilic area shielded by a non-threatening witness, who allows the continuity of the relationship, protecting it from the outside. Thus, Cino is fantasized as the silent, castrated witness, like the eunuch in the harem, representing both the maternal image of the father (for Piera) and the paternal image deprived of its super Ego aspects (for Giovanni). Furthermore, Cino plays the irreplaceable role of the person who, through and thanks to his presence, both legitimates and at the same time protects the clandestine nature of the couple.

The unconscious collusive pact binding Giovanni and Piera, seems thus to aim to intrude - through such a peculiarly intermingled situation - into the primal couple, thus avoiding annihilation of the self, in a polarity between seduction and abandonment. This goal could not be achieved without the connivance of the witness as a barrier against wider and more risky areas of the relationship. Cino’s function seems furthermore to keep the relationship blocked inside an area ruled by the pleasure principle and as if mechanisms.

The addiction to falsehood stubbornly tries to stand in the way of the love for truth: both Piera’s mutilated subjectivity and Giovanni’s death narcissism, however, start to be felt as too expensive a price each of them pays to painfully remain on the threshold of oedipal phase.



Baranger, M. (1961), La situation analitica como campo dinamico. Rev. Urug. Psychoanal., 4, 3-54.

Benjamin, J. (2005), Creating and Intersubjective Reality. Psychoanal.Dialogues 15, 447-457.

Bleger, J. (1975), Simbiosis y ambiguedad. Editorial Paidós, Buenos Aires.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1984), Creativity and Perversion. Norton, New York.

Deutsch, H. (1942), Some Forms of Emotional Disturbance and Their Relationship to Schizophrenia. Psychoanal. Quarterly 2, 301-321.

Dicks, H.V. (1967), Marital Tensions. Hogarth, London.

Fisher J.V. (1999), The Uninvited Guest. Tavistock Publ., London.

Freud, S. (1911), Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. O.S.F., 6.

Freud, S. (1914), On Narcissism O.S.F., 7.

Freud, S. (1938), Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence. O.S.F., 11.


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