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………

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