‘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’.

Pressure to ‘do something’

As is often the case when faced with someone in distress seeking help, there was much pressure to ‘do something’ and the first task was often to create the space in which it was possible to understand. This is such a fundamental skill that, whilst as I look back at these early years of work I can see the potentially self indulgent nature of an approach in which ‘building an understanding’ took precedence over ‘doing things to make a difference’, I also think there was sense in paying so much attention to it.

There are of course risks to both approaches but it is too often the case that people in distress find themselves given a pill or referred on or indeed told they can’t be helped. In the work with marriages, it was not uncommon for usually a woman, to be told that they could not be helped simply because a letter had been sent to their partner and he had not responded. A wish for reconciliation had been presented; something had been done about it; no-one was helped. Of course, everyone cannot be helped all the time just because they are upset, but if a different approach was taken, it was very often the case that the person presenting the problem knew rather more about what was possible than first may have appeared. It was also the case that some help could be provided because the problem had been reframed away from ‘get my husband to come back to me’ towards ‘can I do anything differently to move the relationship with my husband forward?’

Spending time on ‘understanding’ rather than ‘doing’ was therefore crucial. It was in working to do this that it became clearer that being helpful may not always be a warm nurturing experience, and was often better understood as an ‘argument’. ’Developing good arguments’ could well have been the appropriate title of this whole account rather than ‘becoming useful’ and as an idea it recurs throughout my professional development. Not everyone, for example was patient about spending time as I tried to understand what was being presented! Creating the time for this purpose would sometimes mean having to argue quite strongly with the client, and this argument would then sometimes turn out to be an important diagnostic experience for me as the worker and for the client who would find themselves forced to think differently.

How marriage problems were presented

Apart from these patterns of belief and behaviour, it was clear that it was vital to pay attention to the way in which a problem was presented, just as in individual work. Just as an individual in trouble would often present their problem in a way that became a barrier to change – better the familiar problem than the terrifying unknown – so couples would do the same. The first task then was to make sense of the way in which the problem was framed by this first presentation.

So a reconciliation referral may involve one party asking that you make their partner see sense and return to the marriage. This request might require powers of magic since the partner was not prepared to come to any appointments. What was being presented was perhaps an inability to face the fact of the partner’s departure, and to cope with the sense of loss, defeat or powerlessness. Alternatively, it could be that some people felt that they had to present themselves in this way to justify my time and attention – to simply ask for help with distress was too hard or too burdened with the expectation of rejection.

Patterns of marriage problem

In the early cases, alongside thinking about identity and attachment, certain patterns would become apparent repeatedly:

  • The absence of men. The women would normally go to court for a separation order, sometimes to protect themselves from violent men; others would try and use the court to manipulate their men to return. Often the man was nowhere to be found and certainly he was usually unwilling to subject himself to a meeting with his ex partner and some official such as me who was clearly seen as in alliance with the women. Words were female weapons – actions male; we were clearly in the female camp.
  • Winning and losing – in this world, there was no third way. Issues tended to be presented as black and white, good and evil and the fantasy seemed to be that the partner could ‘win’ whilst saving the relationship in some way. The expectation was the rather childish assumption that the parent authority (the Court, the probation officer etc) would now come down in favour of one side and thereby force the other to accept ‘the truth’ and their own blameworthiness.
  • Authority and helplessness – people would experience themselves as helpless in the face of the behaviour of their partner and look to change being enforced through the exercise of authority by the courts or their officials. Some would be bewildered if the Court failed to do this and anger was easily turned on the officials.
  • Rationality and madness / dangerousness – one partner would present themselves as a model of common sense and rationality, and present the other as quite mad, irrational or even dangerous. The solution was always expected to be a rational one.
  • The conflict was central and the children peripheral – the children’s role would be to evidence the madness or dangerousness of the opposing party, or to be a sort of sentimental justification for whatever position in an argument the party was taking. They would often seem to cease to exist as separate beings with their own views, and become aspects of the warring parties’ view of the world.


My early approach to this work located the sense of personal development through marital problems, as being centrally concerned with achieving secure attachments and with achieving an effective and secure personal identity. It seemed that these emotional issues were at the heart of people’s difficulties, expressed in a range of ways. It is perhaps a confusing way of articulating the issues when the actual lived experience with which we were faced was often rather more immediate and practical. Financial insecurity, domestic violence, drunkenness, depression etc were how people’s unhappiness or disturbance was often expressed.

This illustrates how the idea of ‘reframing problems’ began to become a familiar part of my understanding. A friend of mine once recalled a definition of professionalism as ‘the reframing of problems so that they become amenable to solution’. Once an issue is understood as, say ‘bad behaviour’, it is easy to find that the solution applied tends to be punishment. If that bad behaviour can be accurately described in a different way, then new options in responding to it become possible. Social enquiry reports to courts persistently struggled with this idea, and had to contend with understandable scepticism from many magistrates when the reframing turned ‘bad behaviour’ into ‘product of disturbed upbringing’!

The difficulty of course is that the ‘truth’ is many sided. Some people had difficulty in understanding that one framing of a problem was not a ‘correction’ of another – both were ‘true’ alongside other framings of the problem. There is no doubt that how a problem is framed is not an objective process – that I tended to understand marital disharmony as a struggle with identity and attachment said as much about me as about those with whom I worked, but this does not mean my way of understanding the issues was wrong or ‘prejudiced’. As ever, the central question was less whether I was right and more whether this way of understanding a problem helped towards a solution or towards some positive change at least.

In practice, we worked with several ways of framing problems at the same time. It was no good trying to resolve difficulties say with an alcoholic marriage partner simply by unfolding some of the drivers behind the drinking behaviour. This was only possible if the behaviour was managed appropriately as well – for example, arriving drunk at a session was simply not acceptable and appointments could not proceed under those circumstances. In cases of domestic violence, the safety of the parties involved was paramount. My early supervisors emphasised the importance of setting clear boundaries so that behaviour was appropriately managed before more reflective exploratory discussion was much use. This meant clarity about appointment times, their length, the role of the worker in the discussion, establishing a ‘business focus’ to the work (rather than a social, personal exchange) etc.

Marriage matters

Thinking of this idea of marriage as about personal development prompted me to look at a consultation paper written for the Home Office in 1979 called ‘Marriage Matters’. It is an interesting document as a reflection of its time – I can recall being part of a working group within the Family Welfare Association, for whom I then worked, that constructed a response to it. I found the following paragraphs:

“The task of forming a person’s concept of himself in his relationships with other people increasingly devolves upon himself. His position is less defined by his role, status, occupation or economic circumstances than ever before. The development of the individual has emerged as an increasingly important objective – of social policy as well as individuals, who translate it into a wide variety of aspirations and claims. Man’s development and maturity become more necessary as technology advances; human qualities of adaptability, curiosity and imagination become vital resources with which to cope with social and technical change. The more elementary economic and material needs are satisfied, the more central does personal growth become.”

Our evidence and experience confirm the thesis that personal development and satisfaction are core values underlying contemporary expectations of marriage. An example comes from the work of Gorer, a social anthropologist, who repeated his 1950 study 20 years later. From a careful survey, he found that in the earlier study the emphasis was upon partners being efficient executants of their roles as bread-winner and housewife; in 1970, the emphasis had shifted – the important thing was that husbands and wives should like one another……….. Though class differences remained, the qualities looked for in each other by contemporary married couples were those that had to do with their maintenance and development as persons; in the 1950 study what was looked for by couples was complementarity of roles which would sustain a family and help it to hold its own economically and socially.” 

All this was setting out a context for my entry into work with marriages, a context that was largely unquestioned both in relation to my own marriage and to those of people with whom I worked. It fitted with the fact that in work we did not take the reconciliation task too seriously – we thought the enterprise was out of date, clung to by magistrates who could not face the ‘real world’, a world in which divorce was seen as often a positive step towards freedom, life and possibility. Not that we did not try hard, captured secretly no doubt by the same romance of hearts re-united and moral world restored that seemed still to hold the magistrates in thrall. Mostly our scepticism about the possibility of reconciliation sheltered us from the disappointment that normally characterised these referrals. The job was more usually about how to help people to separate. In this context, separation was framed positively. Hope derived not from the possibility of a mended marriage but from the idea that:

“a potential for change  is often inherent in marital disharmony” (Marriage Matters para 2.6)


My interest in working with marriages was naturally enough also driven by more personal needs. Naive though I was at this early stage, at least the personal experiences to which I have alluded gave me something to work with. I knew from the experience of falling in love, how intense and non cerebral this was. From failed relationships, the connections between sexual attraction, disgust, fear of loss of identity, anxiety and embarrassment had been introduced to me.

The starting points for a young probation officer in his early twenties and just beginning married life were then a curiosity driven by personal anxieties, and discovering about attachment and identity. Many discoveries may have been barely conscious or not conscious at all – some of that comes later. I do recall however that I was aware of my anxiety about both attachment and identity at this time of life.

As I look back at this still adolescent young man, it is also apparent that I had no other sense of marriage than as part of a personal journey. The 60’s had worked their passage and the old assumptions about marriage as a social event had gone. The adoption of the social role as a man, as head of a family, responsible for providing materially for wife and children, a role from which my social status and identity would have been defined, had given way to marriage as an aide to personal discovery, growth and personal happiness.