Sex and the Life Story Perspective

Birth, sexual bonding, and death are human experiences that cultures, religions, and societies invest with profound meaning, and they protect that meaning with rituals, ceremonies, and laws. Epics and epic heroes emerge from the collective unconscious of nations. Nations wage wars to protect meanings and values. Individuals seek to share in the narratives of their “own kind” by understanding the narrative of their lives as both connected to and unique within the greater community. This is what gives meaning and direction to people’s lives.

Given the several roles of sexual behavior—pleasure, bonding, reproduction— in the life of the individual within his or her community, several meanings can be assigned to these behaviors. In the complexity of these meanings and the varied challenges they create, an individual’s understanding of the meaning of sexual behavior and the relational context it typically requires can become distorted or confused. We look to the life story perspective to address the question of sex and meaning.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE LIFE STORY PERSPECTIVE

The life story perspective relies on narrative as the logic for understanding the clinical data presented by an individual. The narrative finds cohesion and developmental sequence in any well-developed theory or myth—Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, or North American Indian.

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Whatever its heuristic structure, the narrative gives direction, cohesion, and meaning to the individual’s life journey. It says that this path, with all its vagaries, trials, and tribulations, is the path the person has trodden and that this life narrative is what it is today because of what he or she has both endured and created. The life story perspective rejects the notion that the human life is merely a random event and that chaos is the only “unifying” construct.

In encounters with persons and participation in events, individuals generate a narrative that provides meaning for themselves and, in most cases, for the society in which they live. Sometimes the structure of the narrative gets lost, is forgotten, or becomes meaningless for the individual. At such times a crisis generally ensues. For most persons this crisis, or decision point in life, contains both peril and promise. Relying on friends, family, and internal resources, the individual strives to reconstruct the narrative or, if necessary, to create a new one. But at times of such crisis, the individual may also seek out the assistance of a professional “narrative maker,” the psychotherapist. Together, they attempt to understand the past and to develop a narrative that gives the patient future direction.

A question immediately arises here: which narrative is the right one? Is it a narrative emerging from the theory in which the therapist has been schooled and has invested years of professional and personal effort? Or is it the narrative of the ethnic, cultural, or religious group in which the patient has grown up or with which he or she identifies? Does the nar rative give a causal explanation of the individual’s present state? Does it lend understanding to the present such that it “makes sense” or even “has meaning”?

The life story perspective addresses these questions and, in so doing, affirms the therapeutic necessity of a cohesive narrative that generates meaning for the individual. It affirms that humans are more than the diseases they have, more than their traits and abilities, more than the behaviors they have performed or omitted. The life story perspective states that to understand the person who happens to be the patient, both therapist and patient must collaborate in the task of creating or remembering the narrative, story, and myth that provide understanding and meaning to the patient’s life journey.

The form elements of creating a narrative are setting, sequence, and outcome. The social and emotional setting in which events occurred, the sequence in which they occurred, the outcomes that flowed from the events, and the individual’s perception of the events are the core elements of therapy in the life story perspective. In this perspective, therapy is a psychohistorical work and contains within it the same limitations that historians have always struggled with: historical bias and contrived causation.

Historical bias can occur in the choice of what is remembered and amplified in therapy. The patient and the therapist can collude to focus on certain events and ignore others. For the patient, this may be an attempt to avoid painful emotions. For the therapist, it may be an attempt to reinforce consistency in a theoretical system rather than explore an event or reaction that may challenge the application of such theory. Contrived causation is the tendency to read causality as a direct and single effect of one event on another: “Your inability to have an orgasm results from that event at age 5 when your mother caught you masturbating.” While this may seem exaggerated when set in bold relief, the tendency to contrived causation is subtle and widespread in the practice of those who use the life story perspective exclusively and uncritically. The most recent example of this is the fabrication of memories of sexual abuse, the product of overzealous and theoretically narrow therapists rather than the recall of tragic events.

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Although historical bias and contrived causation can compromise the validity of the life story perspective, the perspective should not be jettisoned as a therapeutic method. What is needed is a complex reading of the narrative that allows for multifactorial influences, including insights provided by the disease, dimension, and behavior perspectives. Without the life story perspective, interventions through the other three perspectives may be technically efficient but lacking in recognition of the unique person who is the patient.

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