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BookREVIEW: Love in the Age of The Internet

Age of the internet.

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Linda Cundy (Ed)
2015. Karnac
Kindle/paperback
pp224

Reviewer Aaron Balick

Are therapists talking enough about the everyday impact of technology and the Internet on both society and individuals? I don’t mean just amongst ourselves in hushed whispers about the odd Skype session or suspicions about the point of Twitter or Snapchat, and I don’t mean in relation to worries about our clients’ or our children’s engagement in social media, online dating or free Internet pornography. I mean to ask, are therapists doing what they do best in relation to ‘The Digital’ – that is, asking the right questions, seeking meaning, and attempting to understand the whole variety of online life from a perspective that is curious, human and involved? I think we are beginning to.

Lately, I have been heartened to see more psychotherapists, and particularly more psychodynamically minded ones, thinking more intently about the Internet, social media and technology. For too long and for too many therapists, technology has been something that has either been peripheral to the perceived domain of therapeutic work, seen as too alien to be properly understood, or frankly too scary (or too ‘millennial’) to be accessible. Today, a slew of new thinking and writing is emerging in the field that is helping to bring us all up to scratch in our thinking and practice. In addition to Linda Cundy’s new edited collection discussed here, the past couple of years has also seen the publication of Lemma and Caparrotta’s Psychoanalysis in the Technoculture Era, Scharff’s Psychoanalysis Online, and Weitz’s Psychotherapy 2.0. Cundy’s Love in the Age of the Internet is a thoughtful collection that examines aspects of the digital era under the rubric of attachment.

The notion of a “digital world” is vast and in our field there are two broad dimensions to consider – technology as used for the delivery of psychotherapy, and technology as a sort of miasma that surrounds our work whether we like it or not. When it comes to the delivery of therapy, this has probably been most welcomed to those in the cognitive-behavioural world because the modality itself is so amenable to this kind of delivery, but the practice is spreading across modalities. Different questions are being asked by psychodynamic therapists and this is the first book that I’m aware of that takes a particularly attachment-based focus to its understanding of digital relating, which is both timely and relevant. As I have pointed out in my own work, the vast majority of what we do online is relationally motivated – so the role of attachment is naturally axiomatic.

Cundy does a wonderful job in the opening chapters of applying the theories of attachment as described by Bowlby and others to the conditions set by our digital world. This nicely sets up the scene for the rest of the book in which several contributors speak to both the delivery of psychotherapy across digital means as well as to the effects that digital elements bring to our psyches as individuals, couples and therapeutic dyads. All of the authors take an open minded approach, clearly grasping that the elements of technology themselves can be utilized in a variety of ways, some that enhance intimacy and others that defend against it. None of the chapters veers into the overly theoretical, and most take an open and personal approach to the material in respect to their experience, thoughts and the use of clinical vignettes.

The strength of this book is the accessibility of the stories and a facility within which any psychotherapist may identify with the authors and their challenges and learn from them. Several of the chapters stand out for me as beautifully weaving together personal experience and the application of theory in this way. These are Jenny Riddel’s honest and beautifully written piece examining the management of a couple dealing with the impingement of Internet pornography and Tony Hanford’s individual psychotherapy with a young woman who manages disturbing experiences of self-harm by sending emails to her therapist between sessions. Hanford expresses his complex reaction to these missives in an open and honest way that will be a comfort to readers who have also dealt with similar challenges to boundaries.

Similarly to Hanford, Linda Cundy who also faced the challenge of emails between sessions, thought these missives served an entirely different purpose. Cundy provides a heartbreakingly intimate encounter with her client “Julie” detailing how she learned to manage attachment difficulties through bristling emails and communications between sessions that served initially as a representation of disordered attachment delivered as a prickly defense, but later turned into a clear route to intimacy and attachment. The presence of two such different email vignettes and how they are worked through speaks to the brilliance of the curation of chapters in this book.

Other contributors took more of a bird’s eye approach, surveying the nature of their fields in the contexts of the challenges and opportunities afforded by the digital world – for example Anne Power and Linda Cundy’s chapter on gains and losses in relation to the current digital state of affairs, Nicky Reeve’s thoughts on psychotherapy delivery by telephone and Skype and Lindsay Hamilton’s exploration of the nature of communities when they exist online.

While I delighted in the largely personal and accessible approach to the texts, I still would have liked to see the application of more recently released current empirical research on the subjects being examined. While the availability of such research is still rather light on the ground, it is becoming more widely published (eg see Gillian Isaacs Screen Relations hot off the presses in April, 2015) and would have served as a more solid grounding for the ideas that were mostly expressed through personal observation and relation to theory. That, however, is a small criticism of a book that deals so honestly with the challenges and opportunities of our times. It showcases not just the right kind of psychotherapeutic thinking on these issues but also an authenticity and clarity in writing that I found refreshing, thought provoking and brave. The variety of contributions makes Love in the Age of the Internet a wider ranging and important read for today’s psychotherapist, whatever their theoretical orientation.

Dr. Aaron Balick is an Integrative psychotherapist and supervisor, honorary senior lecturer at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, and chair of The Relational School UK. In addition to his clinical and academic work, Aaron is a cultural theorist and regular communicator of mental health and psychological issues within the media. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.