HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Katia CharalabakiPsychiatrist, Family Psychotherapist, coordinating director of Family Therapy Unit of Attica Psychiatric Hospital

With her emblematic article “Envy and Gratitude”, Melanie Klein brought about a great shift to Freudism and to psychoanalytic thought in general.

The theoretical contribution of Melanie Klein in the notion of envy led her to observe and describe the mechanism of  _projective identification _ that led to the elaboration of a bridge among the intra-psychic and the interactional and equipped psychoanalysis with tools for understanding interaction and communication. In this sense, envy is not only an intra-psychic phenomenon, a feature of the personality, but also an interactional process.

In a similar way, another psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, made a special contribution to understanding envy among the couples in his book “Love Relations”.

It is interesting to find that every school in the theory of psychotherapy needs to assimilate notions from other epistemological fields in order to explain phenomena emerging from experience: to produce theory through “insemination” rather than from “parthenogenesis” (the notion of “epigenesis”; Paolo Bertrando).

Schismogenesis and Love

Gregory Bateson elaborated “Schismogenesis” in order to speak about neighbor tribes, neighbors in general, people in close (even intimate) relationships.

Symmetrical schismogenesis : competition, rivalry.

Complementary schismogenesis : dominance-submission, succoring-dependence, exhibitionism-spectatorship.

What is interesting is that, when writing about Schismogenesis, Bateson went back to the intra-psychic, to “drives” and “love relations”. He referred to “erogenous zones”, “orgasm”, love and war.

_ “The link with erogenous zones indicates that we ought, perhaps,…to think of phenomena comparable to orgasm - that the achievement of a certain degree of bodily or neural involvement or intensity may be followed by a release of schismogenic tension.”_

“If there be any basic human characteristic which makes man prone to struggle, it would seem to be this hope of release from tension through total involvement. In the case of war this factor is undoubtedly often potent”

“…it was suggested that the phenomenon of “falling in love” may be comparable to schismogenesis”.

“…The obvious relationship of these interactive phenomena to climax and orgasm very much strengthens the case for regarding schismogenesis and those cumulative sequences of interaction which lead to love as psychologically equivalent. (Witness the curious confusions between fighting and lovemaking, the symbolic identifications of orgasm with death…)”

G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Paul Watzlawick (Pragmatics of Human Communication) delivered the axiom of two types of communication: Symmetrical and Complementary.

John and Martha in Albee’s “Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a paradigm of symmetrical couple communication. All these “up-position” and “down-position” games are “mises-en-scène” of the partners’ envious attacks on each other and their link.

“The innocent” by Luchino Visconti is a paradigm of the destruction of a seemingly complementary couple relationship, by bringing to reality the envious husband’s inner fears.


But what has Aeschylus to do with all that? It is no coincidence that Ms Klein’s main application of envy (“Some reflections on the Oresteia”) was on a couple: Agamemnon and Clytemnestra!

To be clear, when speaking about “Oresteia” I refer mainly to the trilogy of Aeschylus, but I also include the five other surviving tragedies: “Electra” by Sophocles, the two “Iphigenias” (“In Aulis” and “In Tauris”), “Electra” and “Orestes” by Euripides.

The notion of  envy  and the relevant terms as they are found in the three poets create an atmosphere of emotional darkness, where the drama of the house of the Atreides unfolds, and especially the interpersonal relationships of the couple of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.

In Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon”,  when Agamemnon tells Clytemnestra:

“do not draw down envy upon my path by strewing it with tapestries” ”, (921), she replies:

“he who is unenvied is unenviable ” (939).

In Sophocles’ “Electra”, when Orestes, as yet unrecognized, brings a covered corpse,

Aegisthus believes that it belongs to Orestes but it is the corpse of the just-murdered Clytemnestra; and he says:

_“I see an image which could not have fallen without divine spite” _ (1466).

In Euripides’ “Electra”, the farmer that opens the tragedy and narrates the story says that after the murder Aegisthus wanted to kill Iphigenia, but Clytemnestra saved her:

_“she feared that she would be despised for the murder of her children _ 30).

Modes of expression of envy in complementary couples: Idealization of the relationship, devaluation, control, parasitism of one partner off the consenting other.

Depreciation of each partner from the other

M1: “As you see, my wife has grown so fat that I detest her. I say it to her all the time but she ignores me, she goes to the fridge to eat”

When Agamemnon arrives outside the palace Clytemnestra welcomes him warmly, and he, proud for having Cassandra on his side, replies to her:

“pamper me not as if I were a woman, nor, like some barbarian, grovel before me”, (Aesch.  Ag . 919-920).

Devaluation of the female

M2 and W2 go to a ballet show to see their ten-year-old daughter dancing.

M2: “Your daughter is as inelegant as you are!”

(devaluation of wife and daughter, devaluation of female gender).

“The mother of what is called her child is not the parent, but the nurse of the newly-sown embryo” (Aesch.  Eumen . 657). Of course, on the basis of the morals of that time, the superiority of the man compared to the woman is assumed in all areas.

Envy between the sexes

W3: She is married to a man who has two friends, both married with children. Her sister is also married and has children. The four families keep close relations, meet during weekends and holidays, their children are friends. During a twenty-year period W3 had sexual relations with the two friends of her husband and the husband of the sister. After the rupture of the last of them, one evening, as they were coming back from the cinema and stopped at a bar to have a drink, she “confessed” to her husband all those affairs. Her husband felt sorry but offered no further reaction. She went into depression. The couple came to couple therapy where they both agreed that “in general we are very happy”. After six months they dropped out of couple therapy and W3 decided to follow a training program in order to become, herself, a couple therapist.

(“possession” of three men who “belong” to other women, devaluation of the partner, disqualification of therapy, “possession” of the therapist’s job).

In “Oresteia” the model of the complementary relationship is idealized, and in a subtly sarcastic way in the (hypocritical and insidious) welcoming of Clytemnestra, minutes before she stabs her victorious warrior husband when he returns to Argos after ten years.

“I should hasten to welcome my honored husband best on his return. For what joy is sweeter in a woman's eyes than to unbar the gates for her husband when God has spared him to return from war?” (Aesch.  Ag . 600-603).

Modes of expression of envy in symmetrical couples: Attacks on the relationship, devaluation of one another, triumph of the “strong” over the “week” -which alter from row to row- stirring envy and jealousy

Stirring jealousy

M4: “If we didn’t have children I would definitely have asked for a divorce”.

W4: “What I need now is to be in love again with somebody else”.

(devaluation of partner, stirring jealousy).

Clytemnestra says about Cassandra to the Chorus when Agamemnon arrives to Argos:

“No, she is mad and listens to her wild mood, [1065] since she has come here from a newly captured city, and does not know how to tolerate the bit until she has foamed away her fretfulness in blood. No! I will waste no more words upon her to be insulted thus” (Aesch.  Ag . 1064-1068).

Inculpation of the partner, “tit for tat”, neglect of the currently weaker partner

M5: “Since I lost my job my wife treats me like a dog. She says I am useless and lazy”.

W5: “When I was in hospital to give birth to our baby, my husband visited me for less than half an hour every day, he said he was busy with his job. I was so lonely…”

Upon her triumphant reentry after the killing of her husband, Clytemnestra accuses him:

“He sacrificed his own child, she whom I bore with dearest travail” (Aesch.  Ag . 1392) – a view shared neither by the children nor by the –relatively impartial- Chorus.

A continuous and relentlessness power game between the couple, continuous confrontation for the “up and down position”, control of the finances

M6 asks W6 to sell the house where they live, which belongs to her, in order to build a new one on a plot that he owns with his two brothers. W6 does not agree. Ten years later W6 asks for divorce, accusing her husband that although he earns a lot of money he does not give enough for their home, he has “secret” bank accounts. After the divorce, in a meeting for the children, W6 says that her job (running a small business) is not going well due to the economic crisis. M6 suggests: “Sell the business!”.

(Devaluation and control of partner through finances. She should sell everything she owned, so as to be too dependent financially to seek a divorce).

Clytemnestra, freed now from her husband who is murdered, talking to Aegisthus in the last lines of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon”, wants to be heard by the Chorus, while the Elders are ready to rise in defiance of the armed guards:

“Do not care for their idle yelpings. I and you will be masters of this house and order it aright” (1672).

Generally in “Oresteia” the extremely symmetrical relationship of the couple predominates and envy prevails. This is promoted by the curse of the Atreides, the  _transgenerational burden _ from the ancestors, which fuels vindictiveness. The Chorus of the elders says:

“Who can cast from out the house the seed of the curse? The race is bound fast in calamity”

(Aesch.  Ag . 1565).

Interactional envy in a couple’s everyday life

Under certain circumstances envy can be revitalized in a couple’s life, in a circular process, even if the partners are not narcissistic-envious personalities.

These circumstances are often due to environmental factors or to triangulation with children, members of the extended family, friends, colleagues, working and leisure time.

The economic crisis certainly contributes to this, as the couple’s value system is invaded by corruption and fear for their emotional stability.

Material Reality, Symbolization, Meta-Communication

We often observe a collapse of the partners’ ability for symbolization: it is very common to see them arguing about money, food, material goods  per se  and not about what they represent.

When we hear the partners saying to one another angrily “you lie!”, and this is about whether something happened on “Wednesday afternoon” or “Friday afternoon”, we as therapists become alert and try to restore the capacity for more abstract thought, discrimination and meta-communication, for constructing meanings.

Envy in the therapeutic setting

One of the more common expressions of envy in therapy is that partners become “siblings”, with each one trying to be the therapist’s “favorite”, even to seduce him (as Murray Bowen has first pointed out, he used to ask the couple at their next session: “Did you finally agree on whose side I am taking?”).

On some occasions, we see one of the partners participating freely and authentically in the therapeutic conversation while the other is more defensive and reluctant. Suddenly, the silent partner has a fruitful dialogue with the therapist, as if something suddenly mobilized her/him. Then the other one becomes anxious or angry, even threatens to quit therapy.

In couple therapy we try

To speak about envy as a human characteristic which can be destructive, yet in milder versions it can be tolerated in both oneself and their partner.

To reinforce the ability of partners to “take” (which then makes them also able to “give”).

To tolerate independence and difference in contrast to (or together with) fusion.

To find more sublimated ways to express envious, competitive urges (i.e. who wins in a chess game, channeling it through humor).

To search for feelings of gratitude towards both the therapist and the partner.

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve what Agamemnon says when he arrives in Argos:

“For few there are among men in whom it is inborn to admire without envy a friend's good fortune”

(Aesch.  Ag . 833)

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 8/ ISSUE 9, October 2016

Being a Therapist: The Art of Remaining Humane - Reflections on the Experience of a Group-In-Dialogue

Androula Elia, Psychologist – Psychotherapist, Hellenic Centre for Mental Health and Research, Athina Pistikou, Psychologist – Systemic psychotherapist, Eleana Koumpi, Psychologist – Systemic psychotherapist, Ioulia Balaska, Political scientist – Social Psychology (D.E.A.) – Systemic psychotherapist, ,
Next >


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