Learning from weaknesses

It may be that my anxiety about letting go of safety reflected a weakness in my practice, but I came to feel that we are who we are because of both strengths and weaknesses. Our weaknesses can give us assets in the work if we are not afraid of them and the professional job is to make the most of who we are, rather than trying to be some kind of ‘ideal worker’.

I did find however, that following this limited and difficult experience of family therapy, I became more confident about working with couples and family groups, and about managing ‘live’ conflicts within client sessions. This was useful, not just because it increased the flexibility of the way I worked, but because it attended to one of the risks of working with highly charged family or couple conflict. There were workers who tried to focus on reaching agreements in couple disputes, to the extent that conflict in sessions was firmly suppressed as a blockage to finding an agreed logical conclusion to the problems at hand. All too often in these cases, the intense conflict, suppressed in the formal meeting, overflowed immediately the worker was out of the way resulting in more entrenched bitterness and mistrust. Equally in individual work, fear of intense and often destructive or ‘mad’ emotions could lead to their exclusion from the helping process, leaving the client as isolated or frightened as before – indeed more frightened if the anxiety of the worker seemed to confirm their worst fears about themselves.

This is a familiar problem in managing suicide work where a worker’s hesitation and fear about open discussion of suicidal feelings can mean risks of suicide are missed or underestimated.

The ‘active’ technique necessary for family therapy, the sense of ‘letting go’ of familiar securities reflects the need to act ‘intuitively’, to trust intuitions. This is difficult territory – how do we distinguish between and intuition and a prejudice?

Worker as ‘Scapegoat’

Studying family therapy was then more helpful to me in its influence on how I thought about the work than in its practical application. I can instance a few aspects of this influence:

First of all, family therapy theory and training seemed refreshingly eclectic – there was a belief that all approaches, cognitive, behavioural, psychodynamic, systems theory etc., had a useful contribution to make, and there was no need to ‘take sides’ between these theoretical orientations.

Secondly, I was struck by the notion of therapist as ‘scapegoat’, articulated by Robyn Skinner.


Skinner was one of those able to articulate an integration of all kinds of approaches to helping people that fitted exactly with the stage that I had reached in my own learning. The ‘scapegoat’ integrated a notion of emotional ‘transactions’ with systems theory – in engaging with the family the therapist becomes part of a system of emotional transactions. (S)he is not just exchanging ideas with, stimulating new ways of thinking in the family, but is becoming part of the emotional world of the family in all its confusion. The worker does not then just ‘offer interpretations’ that might re-frame the family’s understanding, but (s)he models behaviours within t he family, engages actively in emotional transactions. It is this participation in the family dynamics that entails the more active style of work, and a letting go of some of the securities that support more reflective individual work.

Struggling with Family Therapy

There is a considerable literature about family therapy and I have nothing substantial to add to this. In any event, I am trying to give an account of a process of professional learning, not a dissertation on intervention techniques. Although I did do some specialist family therapy training, and had some albeit tentative, experience of family therapy, ‘tentative’ remained the right word.

I found that the delivery of family work required a very different approach from that I applied in the rest of my work. It also involved new emotional challenges to which I think I was not then equal. I acted these difficulties out in the very first formal family therapy session I ‘conducted’, in partnership with my professional supervisor. To my distress, I found myself incapable of uttering a word through the entire session. No doubt, trying to work with my supervisor (the first time we had shared a case) contributed to my paralysis – not only was he more experienced and self assured, but given the dynamic between us, I felt scrutinised and judged. But the heart of the problem, I later came to believe, concerned the way I brought my own family experience into the family therapy session. In my own family, I was the youngest and was hidden behind a noisier, more dominant (as I experienced it) brother. I tended to retreat into a sort of passive acceptance of my junior status, until I had to assert myself, and this would then involve a combination of grumpy adolescence – especially towards my mother – and periodic outbursts of rage – especially towards my brother.

Having then not found a secure adult presence in my own family, I didn’t seem able to find such a presence in the formal family therapy session and regressed to a silent passivity. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of this, and whilst I did continue to do some family work and found a way of being present and active with more experience, I had no enthusiasm for making family work a larger part of my social work practice. It is the case that leading family therapy sessions called for a more active interventionist style from the worker than I comfortably adopted. I was only just beginning to try out (other than in Court settings) more publicly assertive roles at that stage in my professional life, and I found family therapy work too uncomfortable a place to learn.

No solutions

For anyone new to this blog, I am writing about how I learned to work with people in trouble, and how this learning was not just an academic / cognitive process but one that was integral to my development and maturation as a person. The hope is that readers will find in this a stimulus to explore your own learning stories so that the objective knowledge about how to work with people is integrated with the individual emotional realities that make you who you are,


Much of my learning about work with marital problems was developed over a 20+ year involvement with Family Court work and I will discuss this further in future blogs. At this point however I had to discover how my job in working with couples was hardly ever to find ‘a solution’ to their conflict, but to help them argue constructively either face to face or through the ‘shuttle diplomacy’ to which I have referred. As ever, it was my job to be helpful more than ‘right’. Even when couple could reach no accommodation with each other, and I had to advise the Court so that a judicial decision could be imposed on parents, about custody of or contact with their children, my judgment and that of the Court were not the ‘outcome’ of a dispute, but just one more step in the couple’s ongoing struggle.

(Occasionally of course, an issue of child safety or domestic violence would take over from all other matters, and a ‘judicial’ framework of safety would have to be imposed.)

Whilst there is some truth to the idea that the way we worked with warring couples was in part driven by anxiety about the violence and primitive conflicts generated within intimate relationships, I was less troubled by this fear than by direct exposure to the children who were struggling in these conflicts. Although the family work that we did in the 1970s was supposedly generated by the need to ensure that children were looked after, our practice hardly seemed to put children at the centre. Children were often not seen at all , on the basis that they should be protected from having to take responsibility for decisions that should be made by their parents. When they were seen , the approaches were tentative and often superficial.

This I found a harder ‘nut to crack’ and whilst I came to some insights about it later, when working on policy and practice management , I never became skilled or confident in direct practice with children. This also showed itself when I came to family work.


Working with couples -shuttle

With the wisdom of hindsight and more experience, it is likely that the ‘shuttle diplomacy’ approach to work with warring couples contained:

  • An unconscious fear of the violence of conflicts locked within breaking marriages, a kind of intuitive sense that splitting couples were like splitting atoms. This fear needs to be treated with respect. All too often, the frightening violence that can be unleashed within intimate relationships, notably the real dangers of domestic violence, have been disregarded.
  • A struggle to reconcile the responsibility of adults for their own private lives and for their family, with the judicial nature of a justice system. As an officer of the court, we were expected to give expert advice to Judges and Magistrates that would help them make a judicial decision where parties could not agree. If we became too absorbed in the family dynamics, unable to keep some emotional distance, we could find we were simply reflecting the family’s chaos and providing no assistance to the Court. This is not to say that keeping the parties separate was as necessary to achieve that emotional distance as I sometimes felt but the tension was a real one.

Seeing couples together

Although much of the early experience of marital work was with individual interviews, there were occasions when I would see a couple together. Usually, these meetings were to try and achieve reconciliation – at that time in my team, the tendency was in cases of dispute about custody of or access to children, for us to see the parents separately. In custody disputes, we were still expected to report on the physical conditions in which it was proposed a child should be brought up and this lended itself to separate visits to each parent’s home. There were also understandable concerns that each party should be free to say what they felt, so that if there were issues of domestic violence or risk to children, there could be open disclosure. These would not have been the only reasons for conducting enquiries in this way, however. It seems to me as I look back that anxiety about the conflict between the couples meant keeping the fight at a safe distance – it was easier to be imagine you were in control of the situation if you saw each party separately!

In reconciliation cases however, you could all imagine you were working together to overcome the conflict.

‘Patterns’ of marital problem

What I have summarised so far relates to the issues that needed to be understood about the way in which the problem was presented and described by the client. I was tempted to try and provide more detailed accounts of these patterns but what I am trying to do in this account is to invite the reader to open the imagination to the multitude of personalised ways in which people will come for help and describe their problem. The patterns can be discerned but they are individually different and a different imaginative listener may find other patterns that have not occurred to me. What is much more useful to the person in distress is a listener who is looking to learn with them and not to subject them to pre-conceived ideas into which they have to fit themselves.

The patterns can be found in the way in which problems are presented but also in the nature of the relationships with which the client was struggling. In trying to understand therefore, I would be interested in how the problem was presented and described, but also in the patterns within the relationships that the client formed, and especially in the relationship with which the client was having trouble. I recall Janet Mattinson talking about these patterns. She referred to them in archetypal terms such as the ’Babes in the Wood’ (characterised by the couples that clung together in an external world that they experienced as hostile or dangerous) or the ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ relationship (characterised by persistent conflict but an inability to separate). These formulations are helpful if they lead us to look for the different ways in which people in couple relationships relate to each other and the world around them, but not if they lead us to force fit the experience of people into one of a list of ‘types’.