Book Review: (published in Inside Out, 2019)
Soul Friends – The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection
by Stephen Cope
the point of a relationship has nothing to do with the relationship itself. The point of a relationship is the added power that life gets in working with it as a channel
Joko Beck, 1989: 95-6
it is the central premise of this book that these are six forms of human connection that we must have in order to grow, to thrive, to develop and to live fully…and I believe that through recognising and understanding the nature of these connections, we can more skilfully shape who we become…
(Cope, 2017: xxi).
Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection explores how human relationships form us, sustain us and extend us. This is not in itself unusual territory, but Stephen Cope approaches it from an innovative angle - a template gleaned from his study of object relations, self-psychology, attachment literature and neuroscience, complemented by a lifelong immersion in the western and eastern traditions.
This ambitious landscape is introduced by means of a brief portrait of novelist EM Forster. Like many of us, writes Cope, “emotional and relational isolation was the great wound of Forster’s early life…” (Cope, 2017: xiv). Yet, in that wound, Forster found both an obsession and a calling - one that yielded rich rewards for himself and those who knew him. “Forster turned friendship and connection into a high art. He studied precise moments of connection, and their power. Slowly, he learned how to connect…He practiced conscious connection…” (Cope, 2017: xvi).
Cope’s book is entirely loyal to that spirit, articulating the role relationships play not just in enriching our lives, but in co-creating who we are. Cope champions our capacity to continue to evolve and deepen as adults and argues that by far the most potent vehicle of our transformation lies in our close relationships. Forster got it right, Cope is saying: connection is as valuable and transformative as he found it to be, and we would be wise to re-calibrate our lives accordingly.
Drawing heavily on the work of Heinz Kohut, but also on that of Winnicott, Bowlby and contemporary neuroscience, Cope (a former psychotherapist) identifies six 6 ways of being in relation that he posits as necessary for our thriving. The ‘mechanisms of friendship’ he elaborates over the course of Soul Friends are: Containment, Twinship, Adversity, Mirroring, Mystic Resonance and Conscious Partnership. Each of these is a role – but more importantly a process - a dynamic cauldron in which precise forms of relationship take effect to continually re-configure us.
Cope begins with a consideration of Containment. He is unequivocal about its foundational primacy, and endearingly naked about his own longing:
most of my friends, like me, spend their life in search of a ‘reparative containment experience’…most of us search for good enough containers everywhere. We deeply need to feel safely held and soothed, aligned, attuned, and resonant with another non-abandoning being…it is impossible to exaggerate how much we want this… (Cope, 2017: 35).
His section on Twinship speaks to the discovery of the other through a tender and in-depth portrayal of a passionate adolescent friendship in “The Thrill of Reciprocity” (Cope, 2017: 47). Cope’s rich consideration of the role of The Noble Adversary paints a fascinating portrait of the evolving, increasingly oppositional relationship between Charles Darwin and his original sponsor and elder Captain Fitzroy over the course of several decades.
In Mirroring, his focus shifts to a precision of perception in adulthood wherein we are not so much celebrated (as in the grandiose mirroring needs of early life) but seen with a blend of accuracy and love. He describes this as uncomfortably exposing, yet profoundly valuable, helping us to land more fully in the truths of who we are and to experience feeling known, behind the familiar roles and self-images that even we ourselves may have failed to penetrate.
Mystic Resonance touches on the territory of Kohut’s idealisation transference, but takes it further onto adult ground, exploring how we respond to larger minds than our own, and how certain humans, perhaps dead or only known through their art, can function as beacons and harbingers of our future capacities.
Cope’s final section Conscious Partnership is a celebration of an unlikely commitment that formed for him in later life: a long-term living arrangement that evolved with a friend who supported him in emerging from profound depression. In this partnership, Cope finds a home at the end of the world, an opportunity to meet the emotional needs of his mature self, while forming the basis of a loving community in outward-looking service to others. It is touching in its humility, gratitude, and modelling: together they create something other than what we tend to look for or be trained to look for, yet which yields exceptional happiness.
Cope’s exploration throughout is refined and thorough, drawing out nuances of each type of relatedness – its shape, qualities, and contribution to the self that we become – while maintaining a loyalty to the complexity of life and its resistance to easy categorisation. He considers each of the six functions from three angles: well-chosen vignettes of analytic theory; ‘experience near’ portraits of a personal relationship from his own life; and a ‘famous’ affiliation which embodies the quality he is exploring. It is one of the great achievements of this book that he does justice to each of these three elements, allowing them to develop in the mind of the reader, weaving a textured and stimulating map of the territory involved. It is this full, co-mingled, evocation that lends his offering its unusual potency.
The Adversarial Selfobject, or ‘Noble Adversary’
Some sections are especially rich; and the section on the role of the adversary is one of these. The adversarial selfobject transference was first elaborated by Ernest Wolf:
we each have a need to experience the selfobject as a benignly opposing force that continues to be supportive and responsive, while at the same time allowing, or even encouraging, active opposition, thus confirming an at least partial autonomy; [we each have] the need for the availability of a selfobject experience of assertive and adversarial confrontation vis-à-vis the selfobject without the loss of self-sustaining responsiveness from that selfobject. Please add reference.
Here’s Cope’s take on his personal ‘adversary’, Mrs Compton, an aristocratic employer who he had worked for from childhood, and whose charisma and exacting standards provided a backdrop against which he developed a love of physical work and discipline, and first tasted his own capacity for courageous defiance. (This excerpt captures his ability to present an essential element of theory, and then to demonstrate the way our relational experiences veer off such neat categorisation, falling short and to the side of the theoretical ideal):
Notice that Kohut insists that the noble adversary should be a ‘benignly opposing force who continues to be supportive and responsive’. Honestly, I’m not at all sure about the benign part. I did not experience Mrs Compton as benign, nor even as particularly supportive or responsive. (To say the least.) What she did do, and what I think is essential in adversarial selfobjects, is that she stayed… (Cope, 2017: 101)
This second excerpt (concerning the relationship between Fitzroy and Darwin) speaks to the dynamism and changeability that often characterises our most important relationships:
As Darwin’s idealisation of Fitzroy began to crumble, their relationship shifted. The two men were already attached as selfobjects, as we have seen, and indeed, they loved one another and were devoted to one another. But now…the two men slowly became adversarial selfobjects… We can see between Darwin and Fitzroy the precise dilemma of the noble adversary – and the reason a mature adversarial selfobject (in the right hands) becomes such a powerful engine of creativity, and even of transformation of consciousness. Why? Because love between adversaries makes a black-and-white picture very difficult to sustain for either one. The love and good will for the adversary makes battle lines difficult to draw. There is clearly conflict. But because of the admixture of love, conflicts of this nature between adversarial selfobjects tend to seek resolution. Each individual seeks to act upon the other, rather than to destroy him. And in acting in this way – with integrity to his own views – he experiences him or herself as a nondestructive center of initiative, just as Wolf suggests. (Cope, 2017: 140-1)
Cope’s consideration of the role of the adversary then segues into an exploration of our AQ or ‘adversity quotient’. This gives some measure of the range and generosity of the material offered.
This is a section that leaves us with stirring questions: What is our capacity to appreciate the adversarial selfobjects in our lives? Can we recognise that our more harmonious relationships are not always our most truly ‘supportive’ ones? Can we stand courageously in our own adversarial capacity, abandoning the attractions of popularity and comfort, to enable the authentic challenge and creative friction of two subjectivities ‘up against each other’?
For all its depth and eloquence, this is a disturbing book. Inevitably, given the intensity of our relational needs and longings, it will bring up areas of deficit and dismay alongside clarity and appreciation. Just as it reminds us of the gifts of our relational history, it also sheds harsh light on where our wounds lie, on the types of relationship we have not had the capacity, intelligence or luck to find ourselves in the way of.
Yet all is not lost, Cope would argue, and fatalism is undermined by the revelation of neuroplasticity. Throughout our lives, we remain subject to alteration, and our relationships with those we are closest to are a potent source of change: “interpersonal experience shapes the growth of the neural networks in the brain…So there it is…Almost all significant human development and transformation happens in the context of interpersonal connection.” (Cope, 2017: xix). In this context, it makes enormous sense to attend consciously to the human micro-culture that continues to form us.
Though this would be a logical and intelligent focus, it is not necessarily natural to us. We are, as Freud noticed, incredibly drawn to repetition – however banal, bleak or disappointing the familiar is, we’re still attracted to it. This leaves us prone to replicate the relational patterns of early life, and though, as a culture, we have become profoundly aware of the formative role of early relationships, as adults we tend to neglect or dismiss our vulnerability to influence, operating in a blind spot of apparent autonomy. This leaves us, Cope argues, failing to take advantage of a core source of potential nourishment.
Cope brings a well-intentioned and corralling urgency to this situation: He insists that we remain capable of transformative relation over the course of our lives, though to do so we must forego our loyalty to our original objects and find better ones to take their place. He quotes Mitchell and Black’s Freud and Beyond:
According to Fairbairn, no one can give up powerful, addictive ties to old objects unless he believes that new objects are possible, that there is another way to relate to others, in which she will feel seen and touched.’ (Cope, 2017: 228)
Of this, Cope observes: “A friend, of course, can become this new object. A mirroring friend, a holding friend, a friend who values the truth…” (Cope, 2017: 228)
I find enormous depth, intelligence and authenticity in Cope’s work. His desire to support others to cultivate relational fields in which they can thrive is beyond doubt. Yet at times, the tone of this undertaking feels disconcerting. I’ll point to three core elements that seem to run counter to the deepest value of the book – that of our mutual interdependence: a tendency toward self-absorption; a lack of explicit recognition of the constraints we may face in ‘building a sustaining field’; and an abundance of faith in our capacity to control and direct our lives in a way that is good for us.
The first is what I will crudely call the ‘self-absorption’ of the project as presented. In Soul Friends, Cope has written a guide to creatively ruthless use of our objects, encouraging us “to systematically create for ourselves that very surround of highly effective relationships that will continue to evoke, affirm and sustain our most mature selves”. (Cope, 2017: xxii). Fundamentally, Soul Friends positions itself as a user guide to building a sustaining field rather than being a sustaining field; it leans toward guiding us to create optimal relations for our own thriving, rather than developing the capacities to offer such fertile ground for others. To some extent, this is a limitation of form rather than intent, (and, in any case, by becoming our best selves, we tend to serve others more optimally). Nonetheless, this primary emphasis on the needs of the self in a book so committed to the beauty of mutual influence can seem at odds with the deepest values of the text.
It seems to me also (though I am hesitant to say it) that this project of consciously creating a rich relational field will be held somewhat differently depending on whether our lives are formed by traditional family structures of spouses and children. In many ways, such lives are existentially different propositions: lives embedded in family inevitably mean much of our relating is not so explicitly chosen, which, whatever its gifts and frustrations, inevitably draws us into formative commitments of depth, constancy and sacrifice; lives without such responsibilities are more vulnerable to lacking these qualities, just as they are more open to being continually refined (for better or worse) by the luxury of choice and the pursuit and prioritising of conscious relationship. It seems to me both easier for the less constrained to approach our lives as Cope suggests, and perhaps more urgently necessary if we are to build lives of depth and substance.
One element that surprised me given Cope’s long-standing immersion in Yoga (he has worked at Kripalu for decades), was how fundamentally western this book is in its frames of reference. This has two aspects: one concerns control, and the other an implicit loyalty to the individual self – a concept belied by eastern philosophy and meditative experience.
For all its emphasis on our fluidity, Soul Friends speaks from a tradition of individualism, pragmatism and self-control, as if we know who we are and what is best for us and are best placed to organise our lives accordingly. Something about this feels partial. To the extent that Cope charges us with the responsibility of cultivating conscious fields of optimal relation, he implicitly downplays other forces: the power of the unconscious; the roles of fate and error; the will of God or gods. Our profound gaps in self-knowledge are cast aside, and qualities of humility, receptivity and mystery are lost.
Another bias that stayed with me concerns Cope’s powerful emphasis on our connections with specific others. He is right to laud such connections, and Soul Friends makes an excellent argument for their preciousness. Yet there are losses too: in inviting us to concentrate on an elite gathering of certain special others, less attention is paid to the potency of our connections with side-characters and strangers, and our evolving relationship with the Other as Other. This underplays the process element of his text and how any shifts in relational capacity inevitably transform our relationship to all others. For me, this is a missed opportunity to celebrate one of the deepest fruits of relational and spiritual maturity: how we develop a more egalitarian availability and commitment to the other as Other and deepen in our capacity to serve and be served by multiple ‘objects’.
These are minor caveats to what is, in essence, a generous, passionate and beautiful book, whose value lies in its capacity to deepen our understanding of who others have been for us, and who we may be for them. As therapists, we are all too familiar with the formative and deeply impactful (often catastrophically so) relationships of early life. Cope’s timely book champions our ongoing fluidity and interdependence. This is what he is after: emphasising our need for formative relation always, deepening our perception, gratitude and relational intelligence, in order that we may continue to thrive across the arc of our lives.
Joko Beck, C. (1989). Everyday Zen: Love and Work. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Cope, S. (2017). Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection. Carlsbad: Hay House.
Mitchell, S.A. & Black, M.J. (1995). Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books.