Couple therapy and the role of the parent and child in relationships

Honor Rhodesbnw

Honor Rhodes OBE – Tavistock Relationships / Trustee Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), delivered at the No Boundaries event in Hull March 2017

It is always hard to know where to start with a subject as large and as emotionally charged as ‘trust’.

Let’s start at the beginning then, the tiny new born infant, scarcely able to control her limbs or focus her eyes. Yet she is driven with an urgent need to survive and for that she needs the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be reliably and consistently met; she must be fed, kept warm and kept safe.

This is the minimum we all need for life to survive; yet we strive to exist so we need to not only be kept physically safe but to be contained and secure emotionally.

The infant is not born with a trusting state of mind, this is something we learn, we trust as it allows us to sustain ourselves when our needs are not met instantly or those who care for us are absent from us.

Trust allows us to believe, as a conjecture about the future, that we will be attended to and comforted and restored, just not quite now. Trust and hope are two companions.

In ideal circumstances the infant grows, developing a strong sense of herself. Her parent or parents or carers will be what Donald Winnicott called ‘good enough’ at what they do, good enough sounds like a low bar, what happened to perfect? The Psychoanalyst Winnicott counselled against perfection,

‘A good-enough mother allows herself to be used by the infant so that he or she may develop a healthy sense of omnipotence which will, naturally, be frustrated as the child matures, this is all to the good.’

Winnicott suggested helpfully, that it is our duty as parents to slowly and surely disappoint our children. We must do so knowingly, we must say no, we must contend with the idea that we are not our child’s friend – they will probably have enough of those – but we are something unique and utterly special, a parent, with authority, used wisely.

If we don’t help our children manage disappointment then the adult world will be a constantly shocking place until the child learns to self-manage, a much harder task in adulthood, and a state of mind not conducive to warm, lasting friendships and intimate relationships.

This focus on the small child may seem remote from our adult relationships but it is the pattern for them, most of us have had good enough parenting most of the time and grow up with a sense of proportionate entitlement.

If we have had insufficient care and insufficient unequivocal love we may carry a burden of unworthiness with us into our careers and maturity, if all our needs have been met before we can fully experience and manage the frustration of being denied we can become overweening in our sense that the world should bend to our will.

Some children have been bitterly disappointed in childhood and carry those emotional scars with them into the world and their work. We all know deeply pessimistic people, some are temperamentally so, others are located in this place as a result of earlier experiences; temperament, gender and birth order do matter as a loss for one child in a family can be devastating, for their brothers and sisters less so, perhaps they had another relationship that offered a degree of protection – with a teacher, a member of the extended family or friendships.

The pattern of our early lives colours our expectations then. It will form our responses and relationships; it will predict our capacity to tolerate new ideas, challenging situations, conflict, unreasonable demands from others. It may well orient us as to our careers, many first borns with high trust values are found in the helping and creative professions – is that us?

What happens though when our trusting child meets their first observable lie or some other situation that can only be experienced as an attack on their trust?

Think back to a time in your own childhood when you felt a small stab of betrayal. The friend who promised to sit beside you and then with a smile slips into a seat next to someone else. For children these acts of betrayal are scalding, they are often at the heart of the cry, “It’s not fair”, it is not fair to have something you trusted in denied to you, and no adult response can ever really mend the hurt.

Even if the adult arbiter agrees with us they cannot make the desirable thing happen, it was not the toy we really wanted, it was to have the toy AND to play with our sister; often in life we learn we can have one but not both.

Small acts of betrayal we can learn to manage and, in truth, we embark on a life of carrying them out on others, all the while knowing how much it can hurt.

Larger acts of betrayal of trust are far more complicated, sometimes in our intimate relationships it is not our partner’s actual sexual infidelity that so attacks us and smashes through our view of ourselves and world but the smaller breaches of trust along the way, the missing a birthday party with a lie, misusing family money, lying to the children about being away from home.

These are things that are stored up in the list of acts of betrayal.

They must be examined and weighed and examined again and painfully we can restore ourselves and our relationship, if we have a mind to.

The relationship therapist though is very like the parent who cannot give us both things we desire. Many people whose partners have betrayed their trust want both the deepest, most sincere and humbling of apologies AND for things to be as they were.

It is disconcerting in relationship therapy though to find that the therapist will refuse to take my side against my philandering partner, she refuses to punish him, she listens intently to what he has to say even though he says things that are an attack on me, “…it’s not fair…..” and for the couple they have to learn that it is the relationship between them that is the patient under consideration here, there is no Wimbledon umpiring with minutes for us each to talk.

Until the couple can understand that the rope of relationship that has bound them together is what is important and how each of them must hold their end firm then repairing the fraying middle or unravelling the giant knot is not possible. 

For those of you interested in thinking more about this then you need to come and train as a Tavistock Relationships counsellor. For the very few of you for whom this doesn’t appeal here is a link to the Trust Measure devised by John Gottman so that you can see how trusting you are.

And so it is in the organisations we work in and connect with, organisations are only made up of people after all, and all these people have been tiny infants once managing or not managing disappointments, fear of abandonment and rage. We are each of us offering the ends of ropes to each other, tangling and unwinding, pulling or leaving slack, trusting and liking and disliking and betraying as we go.

We remain in our heart of hearts rather small and rather needy children and so we must be careful and kind in how we go about our business.

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