Learning about couples

The first step past working with individuals came when I began to do family court welfare work as a probation officer. At that time, probation was the agency of the Courts, and that included the family courts, or domestic courts as they were known. In those days, we also received court referrals to work towards reconciliation between couples in dispute. Commonly this work would be conducted with each partner individually. (This was most often the ‘wife’, since the male partners were less likely to agree to take part.) This work did however bring me into working with couples together, bearing a new kind of responsibility. There was of course learning in both experiences.

Taking on this work was one of those moments when the oddity of the social work enterprise becomes more conscious. Here was I, a young man in my mid 20’s, relatively newly married, presuming to help couples in all kinds of difficulty about which in many ways I could have little inkling. At that stage in my life, I had only just emerged from all the confusion of adolescence with its preoccupation with sex, to a point where ‘being a couple’ became possible. As later events in my life were to show, I really knew next to nothing, but of course with coupledom for me being such a new and exciting experience, engagement with the work was immediately fascinating.

The energy that drove this fascination was certainly in part anxiety. As a rather serious young man, the whole business of forming relationships with another person, especially girls, had been painful and disturbing. At that stage in my life, with its introspective adolescent self absorption, I was unaware that the whole process of attraction, relationships, attachment was basically a mess of trial and error, terror, elation, despair, self disgust etc.

When I dared to take a more positive step, and actually go out with a girl on a date, a new layer of confusion and anxiety is revealed. First of all, you discover that having a girlfriend is not the private experience of childish fantasy, but a public statement. That is unnerving enough but an intimate relationship, however immature and formative, involves having emotional demands made of you. Some of the confusion for the adolescent arises from the fragile sense of self, hidden usually behind a kind of role playing borrowed from friendship groups, family etc., with varying degrees of extravagance. For all the self centeredness of adolescence, it is also a time of concealment, especially concealment of dependency on parents. This sometimes gets generalised into an appearance of grunting indifference or even hostility to everything adult.

Then a girl looks on you with the look of love, and it is as though all that concealed infantile nature is revealed and it can’t be borne. With one it is a sort of castration, and with another, indecent exposure. D.H.Lawrence articulated this in Paul Morel whose experience I found instantly recognisable. Paul in Sons and Lovers bounced between two girls, Miriam who raised incestuous anxieties and Clara who was a sexual but somewhat socially doubtful figure………


Working with family

Mostly I have discussed the journey of professional learning on which I embarked at 22 years of age, as a discovery of the individual, and this is indeed where I and most students begin. There was always some recognition that this involved an over-simplification of the work. I have already referred to the sense in which the parents are always present in the young offender – effective work with young people necessarily involved dealing with the parents, whether you actually met them or not. You also had to discover that in working with an individual you were working with a social and community context. This was very much part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s, though I came to focus on it more at the end of the ‘70s and thereafter, so I will return to this later.

The first step past working with individuals came then in working with young people. It was Donald Winnicott who strikingly pointed out that ‘there is no such thing as a baby’. ‘Young children do not, indeed cannot survive as “isolates”, but instead can only thrive within a primary relationship context.’ It is actually an old insight:

No man is an island

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

There is then also no such thing as a teenager – a teenager’s identity acquires its full dimensions in the context of intimate relationships, and where those have broken down, in whatever relationships can be constructed to substitute for that family identity. The importance of this truth is underlined by how easily life goes wrong for young people who have no consistent family presence in their lives and who have to either make something out of fantasies about family, or from the closest they can get to intimacy with often similarly disadvantaged young people. There is a real sense in which all work with young people is family work.

Although I studied family therapy and had some limited experience of it some seven years post qualification, I was doing family work from early in my working life, though I may not have thought of it as such.

Conclusion of Attachment paper

In this paper, I have spoken of the probation officer’s task in terms that imply some criticism of some current social work thinking, but I do not have the space to develop these debates. Attachment theory may sit uneasily in the current climate with the preoccupation with target setting, offence counselling, service provision and scepticism about relationship centred work. However, I do not argue that attachment theory replaces the necessity for more focussed, behaviour specific social work, nor for the improved provision of skills training, education and information facilities for offenders. However, attachment theory opens up to more specific examination aspects of the relationships that probation officers form with their clients. It illuminates underlying processes that can be seen in all kinds of social work intervention. It should I believe, have a substantial place in the training and working knowledge of probation officers and indeed of all social workers.


Now, some 30 + years on, there is little in this article that I would wish to change. Given that the Criminal Justice system is even further away from believing in the value of ‘helping’ offenders, and more committed to notions of controlling, punishing and instilling responsibility in offenders, the idea of probation officer as caregiver will seem even harder to conceive. ‘Advise, assist and befriend’ has gone as a description of the purpose of probation officer work.

Limit setting and holding

I have referred before to the apparent tension between attachment theory’s caregiving role and the social control function of modern day probation and social work. It does seem to me that the significance of limit-setting is not fully examined in Bowlby’s work.

This is such a central issue in the probation setting that it would merit separate and more detailed study than is possible here. I would suggest however that it is all too easy to be preoccupied by limit setting in terms of discipline, sanctions or punishments, and that an important component of limit setting for the infant is the experience of being physically held. Both limit setting and holding are ways of discovering the individual’s own integrity and that of others, and the process begins for the infant in the arms of the parent. As Winnicott points out, “There are those who can hold an infant and those who cannot”[1] and this may suggest the quality of holding as a further dimension of caregiving which could be crucial to secure attachment.

Some of the research on attachment theory touches on this issue. Bowlby reports Yarrow’s research into early mother-baby interaction, which identified amongst other important characteristics of maternal behaviour, “the amount of physical contact a mother gave her infant” and “the extent to which a mother’s way of holding her infant was adapted to his characteristics and rhythm”. [2] Ainsworth’s work also pointed to the importance of “frequent and sustained physical contact between the infant and mother, together with the mother’s ability to soothe a distressed baby by holding him”.[3]  I am reminded by this of an experience as a student in a children’s home, when one of the workers drew my attention to the different ways in which the children would hold my hand, from the rigid grip to the gentle variety of touch which some could enjoy.

Whilst there is more to holding the infant than limit setting, and some may feel, more to limit setting than holding, this dimension of limit setting draws attention to limits the probation officer sets that are at least as important as the proscription of behavioural acts. The security of contact arising from the limits established in the court order is one example of the helpful way in which this can work in the probation setting. Important questions are how frequent the client’s appointments need to be to ‘hold’ him/her securely. How quickly are failed appointments followed up? What structure is provided when officers go on leave?

[1] Winnicott 1982 p49

[2] Bowlby 1984 p 345

[3] Bowlby 1984 p346

Accessibility 2

Thinking about predictability put me in mind of the study undertaken for the Department of Health and Social Security[1] of the practice of field Social services teams. They reported that “for ongoing work definite appointments were rarely made but clients were usually given approximate indications of the date for the next visit”. “Few social workers attributed much significance in visiting on a strict appointment rather than on a causal basis”. “Visiting is often determined for you to really by the way the clients respond when you see them,” was the comment of one of the social workers. This comment is interesting because in one sense, it appears to fit readily with the notion of sensitivity to the client’s signals, and yet in practice, this approach seems equivalent to the caregiver who only responds when the child cries. Another worker is reported thus; “Priority with me is not a conscious thing, it just happens; you get involved with a particular situation….. and you get a series of these situations and so you find yourself visiting maybe half a dozen (clients) regularly and the rest seem to get pushed aside for a time anyway, and it is not really a conscious thing at all”.[2]

Much of this report makes disturbing reading in the light of attachment theory and it certainly reflects the immense difficulties of providing reliable caregiving in the context of local authority social work. The subject prompted me to do a small survey of the caseload of my team. One of the interesting points that arose in discussion was that a small number of cases formed a warm relationship with the secretary of their probation officer. These often seemed to be quite angry young men in their late teens. Their relationship with the secretary considerably extended the accessibility of the Service’s attention, and indeed the secretaries are not infrequently more easily accessible to clients than are the officers whose business takes them away from the office for long periods. This experience points to the creative potential of the general office, which often goes unrecorded.

The other outcome pointed to the contrast with the local authority experience. Out of 140 cases studied, only 16 did not have some kind of pattern of appointments, and in two thirds of the cases, the pattern was made explicitly in negotiation with the client. There seemed to be a tendency for more experienced officers to be less reliable in maintaining patterns of contact, although this was more an impression than something easily demonstrated numerically. It does I think reflect the effort required to keep up a reliable caregiving structure.

This outcome seems to show the advantage for the agency and clients, of the existence of a Court order, which holds both workers and clients to a disciplined pattern of contact. Certainly, in the case of voluntary work with individuals where there was no Court order, there was less likely to be a pattern of contact on which the client could rely.

However, given the existence of a pattern of contact, the frequency of the contact was often every two weeks or every month. What could accessibility mean in this context? An examination of the four dimensions of caregiving together raises the possibility that different dimensions are of different importance in different settings. For example, perhaps the officer who is more able to demonstrate his understanding of the client’s emotional needs to the client, will be felt to be more accessible whatever the frequency of appointments, and thereby be more effective?

[1] Stevenson, O., and Parsloe, P. (1978) Social Services Team: The Practitioners’ View. HMSO

[2] Stevenson and Parsloe 1978 pp 79-84

Accessibility 1

Some of the implications of attachment theory are problematic for the social work task, and it is to these that I now turn. One of the dimensions of caregiving was that of accessibility – inaccessibility. Inaccessible caregivers produced insecurely attached children. The caregivers of securely attached children were readily accessible to them. How can this be applied in a social work agency, where contact has to be limited for most clients to anything from weekly to monthly appointments?

In this regard probation officers are subject to limitations, and have to give up idealized notions of accessibility. Officers do not have the power to protect clients from the effects of unexpected demands to appear in Court, or sudden crises in the caseload that absorb all the available energy. As is the case with parents of course, we can only strive to provide a ‘good enough’ service. Accessibility does not mean permanent availability or devotion to each client. However, one component of accessibility is predictability; the mother is accessible if the child knows where and when she can be found. It would be useful to see how far probation officers can and do provide a similar kind of accessibility.


Importance of personal history

Coming back to Mary Main’s sample, the implication of her finding is that working at the emotional history is important for people to develop more secure attachments.[1]  This is both to understand the ‘scripts’ that may be organising a person’s understanding of themselves in the world in a way that prevents positive change, or might be an opening to change. Secondly however, the interesting phenomenon of memories of one’s own past and the ability to talk about them becoming more possible as more secure attachment is developed, suggests that exploration of such memories is a useful diagnostic approach. This is of course a reassuring finding for those whose work is informed by psycho-dynamic ideas, but it suggests to me that our agency needs to take a renewed interest in work that encourages the exploration of emotional history.

The ‘detective’ approach to emotional history has been unhelpful, but the ‘baby can be thrown out with the bathwater’. I came across a social enquiry report[2] recently that disposed of the offender’s formative years, upbringing and family experience, with the words that there was nothing in the history of relevance to his current predicament. It is interesting that family therapy appears to be able to hold together the contribution of a range of theories, so that family history can be alive and creative part of the work without slavish adherence to a narrow theoretical base.

[1] Main et al. 1985

[2] The name for probation court reports at the time