But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold; ’tis not to me she speaks.
– Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1594
My daughter’s English class is reading Romeo and Juliet. Yesterday they acted out the balcony scene, in pairs. To capture the scene the teacher had each Juliet stand on a platform so that she stood higher than her Romeo. The positioning is important, because Romeo likens her to the sun: above, aloof, unapproachable, silent. Parents are taller than children; men, usually taller than women — the height differential corresponds to a power differential. It’s important in Shakespeare’s play that the differential be reversed in Romeo’s first declaration of worshipful love.
The last few days I talked about space; today it’s furniture and the relative position of bodies in psychological space. You’ve seen movies where the analyst sits in a chair behind the patient lying on the couch? This arrangement was a holdover from the days when hypnosis was the main analytic technique. Here’s the rationale for continuing the positional arrangement from The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis by Ralph Greenson:
The circumstance that two people meet together repeatedly and alone for a long period of time makes for an intensity of emotional involvement. The fact that one is troubled and relatively helpless and the other expert and offering help, facilitates an uneven, “tilted” relationship, with the troubled one tending to regress to some form of infantile dependency. The routine of having the patient lie on the couch also contributes to the regression in a variety of ways… The patient is lying down and therefore is lower than the analyst sitting upright behind him, that the patient’s locomotion and bodily movements are restricted, and that he speaks but he cannot see to whom… this combination of elements recapitulates the matrix of the mother-child relationship of the first months of life.
In contrast to the disciplined severity of the analytic scene, there’s the more relaxed and interpersonal style of counseling. The main criterion for a good room is that it not be noisy or distracting; the client will adjust to whatever is in the room. The relationship is a professional one, and the therapeutic technique does not rely on the client to establish a child-to-parent transference relationship with the therapist. Consequently, no attempt is made to recapitulate the “tilted” relationship through the positioning of furniture. Here’s Alfred Benjamin from The Helping Interview on arranging chairs:
Some interviewers like to sit behind a desk facing the interviewee… Others feel best when facing the interviewee without a desk between them. Still others prefer two equally comfortable chairs placed close to each other at a ninety-degree angle with a small table nearby. This arrangement works best for me. The interviewee can face me when he wishes to do so and at other times he can look straight ahead without my getting in his way. I am equally unhampered. The table close by fulfills its normal functions and, if not needed, disturbs no one.
I think I’m with Benjamin.