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Feldman, M. (1999). The Defensive Uses of Compliance. Psychoanal. Inq., 19(1):22-39.

(1999). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 19(1):22-39

The Defensive Uses of Compliance

Michael Feldman, M.D.

THERE IS, IN ORDINARY USAGE AS WELL AS IN PSYCHOANALYSIS, a wonderful ambiguity about the word compliance. The term has been used to embrace a wide concept of accord. “He [Paul] tells them of his tears, and they answer him with tears: O happy compliance!” (Trapp, 1656).

Its more modern use involves the individual's acting in accordance with, or yielding to a “desire, request, condition, direction, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). However, the O.E.D. clearly recognizes the variety of motives, and degrees of coercion involved. Thus compliance may be freely and gladly achieved or demanded by a powerful figure, under threat. Burnet (1699) describes a situation in which “it was only a Compliance, and not a Submission to their opinions, that … (made them observe certain practices).” Phillips (1863) suggests that “all politics necessitates questionable compliances.”

These issues will be familiar in the analytic dialogue. The patient feels a degree of compliance is required of him—both in relation to the analytic setting and the “desire, request, condition, direction, etc.” he feels implicit in the analyst's verbal interventions. The requirement or pressure for compliance is felt to be a potent force and invokes infantile, childhood, and adolescent struggles with external and internal demands and the accommodations that were arrived at. It is never simple but usually involves some combination of willing agreement and conscious or unconscious submission—out of a desire to defer to powerful authority, out of fear, or for masochistic reasons.

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