Learning about couples 2

This confusion, shame and self centeredness is also the basis for responsiveness to and potentially understanding of the tussles and ties that were presented in the couples referred for our help. This work also extended my sense of relationships as transactions, a term that has been central to how I understood work with couples, families and groups from this early stage of my career.

From about two or three years into my experience as a probation officer, I began to be allowed to take on marital cases. This made this work seem like some kind of evidence of progression, gave it kudos, but I think my developing interest also illustrates how intertwined the professional and the personal are. After all, I was in my third year of marriage, something one is taken into by unconscious forces rather than rational judgments, certainly at that age. What drove people into marriage, what happened to them within marriage and what sustained or undermined it was not some abstract intellectual enquiry. They were real issues in my own life, not particularly considered directly but no doubt explored through working with marital issues in the job.

Whilst work with offenders was considered in the radical, materialistic and rational way of the prevailing fashion that I have described earlier, marital work seemed to be operating outside this fashion. It was not a popular side of probation work and there were many who thought it should not be part of the probation task. Somehow it was obvious that this work was dealing with highly emotional material that could not be brought into the thought processes that radical thinking wanted to apply to the probation service. It was therefore a good pastime to leave to the old fashioned psychodynamic workers that were seen as at best outdated or at worst reactionary, reducing offending to some kind of personal psychopathology.

Given my lack of interest in this, to me trivial, trend in thinking about offending, in working with marital issues I found a source of fascination and a way of sharing work issues with colleagues that quickly drew me in. In due course, this led me to apply (unsuccessfully) to the Institute of Marital Studies at the Tavistock clinic, having in the meantime been through their well established training course for probation officers. Here I was facing problems that could not be tackled by the application of the rationality about which I was so suspicious. Obviously, marital relationships were not pragmatic agreements – they involved significant emotional investment and the attraction that brought people together was often not understood at all. Encountering a marriage at the point of its breakdown, this force of attraction was very hard to see and often denied or put down as a confidence trick by the other partner.

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