Edmond's blog

Reflections on Relationships

Relationships are complex and enormously difficult. It is a miracle that so many seem to work.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.

Those who wish to sing always find a song.

At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”           Plato


Two people meet and fall in love and pursue the dream of continuing happiness, sometimes for a week, sometimes for fifty years or until death.  Each carries conscious and unconscious hopes of emotional fulfilment, of being loved unconditionally for ever, of being understood, of sexual gratification. During the initial stages of the relationship romantic dreams fill the mind. There is often mutual idealisation, a focus on the positive and a turning of a blind eye to limitations in the relationship, to faults in the other. There tends to be an element of fantasy in the newly hatched world of young love. The promise of magical gratification of one’s need to give and receive what one believes to be uncontaminated pure love may dominate the relationship. The dawning of the reality of the huge complexity and difficulties in relationship is often very difficult to cope with. The failure of one’s partner and  one’s own failure  to realise the promise of a magical fulfilment may be very painful. This conflict, and a sense of loss and even betrayal may take hold. If the relationship is to last there has to be an acceptance of the self and of the other in the partnership. The process of discovery of self and other and how to relate may be a life- long commitment. As we know, not everyone gets to the point of compromise that makes life possible..

Most of us believe that the long term relationship is the best bet to ensure the stability and dignity of the relational needs of adults and their potential children. The vast majority of those entering committed relationships desperately want them to work. It is often very difficult to understand why some seem to work while others fail. Are there particular ingredients in a successful relationship that are absent in those that do not work? Or do the same ingredients work in one situation but not in another? Human relationships are enormously complex and operate on different levels, they operate on a private but also on a public level; human attraction has an obvious but also a hidden dimension.

The forces that attract one human being to another are very powerful and the desire to make the relationship work are profoundly meant yet many relationships break down. There is no simple explanation for this phenomena but we can think about the changes that have taken place in our social world and also consider the difficulties and complexities that we all face in our private and public relationships.   

Social change

Sociologists and Psychologists attempt to explain the increase in the divorce rate and apparent breakdown in couple relationships. They draw attention to the increasing development of the isolated neuclear family and the consequent absence of the support of the extended family. They highlight the changing economic role of women and the consequent need to adapt to the necessary changes in the role of both men and women in the home. Both men and women have increasingly high expectations that a committed relationship should be fulfilling, women in the western  world are less tolerant of the difficulties and limitations that previous generations endured. The stigma of separation and divorce seems no longer to be such a barrier to ending an unsatisfactory relationship.

In our contemporary world of geographical and social mobility there are increasing opportunities to meet and fall in love with another who is not drawn from the same social grouping.  Given that each partner brings to the relationship the depth of their cultural experiences, with all its richness but also its differences there is the potential for conflict. Both people have to confront the cultural values and beliefs that they have brought to each other from their familial relationships. Each culture socialises its young in its norms and attitudes that regulate their lives. These then are taken for granted, slipping into the unconscious mind of the individual, without the need to fully examine the implications of holding particular views and so following a particular way of living. Cultural and class views may differ on authority, marriage, education, male and female roles, the way to bring up children, the relationship with the extended family, sex, politics, religion, etc.

 It is likely that intimate and detailed discussions on many aspects of their shared life will have taken place between partners who come from both similar and different cultural and class backgrounds before a final commitment is made. Indeed many, if not all couples, will be more or less aware of difference, indeed difference may be one of the features that attracted them to each other in the first place. It may also be the case that difficult contentious issues will have been skilfully avoided. Fear of abandonment, rejection, by one’s loved one tends to inhibit communication around difficult issues. It is possible that partners sail into a relationship on a cloud of love,  hope and generosity to discover large unexamined areas in each other. The feeling may be that there are differences but then love conquers all. Or does it?

The Hidden demands in relationships

“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even if he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, so shall he descend to your roots and shake them in your clinging to the earth.”

                                                                                                       The Prophet,  Kahlil Gibran

As we know relationships operate on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Some of our  assumptions about what life should offer, what one should expect to give and receive, our dreams and hopes, are known and shared by both ourselves and our partner. There are however whole areas of our lives that we do not know about, we may only become aware of these areas when we have a crisis either in our public or our private relationship.

The sharing of life with another on a conscious level is likely to be testing at the best of times, but unconscious needs and drives that are not met by the relationship may give rise to extreme conflict. Just how significant this conflict is and how well individuals can manage  seems to depend on their personal experience of care, on the quality of their life from infancy. When both people have been consistently the object  of  care and love since infancy, when there has been  respect for their autonomy and tolerance of their individuality, and tolerance of difference in others it is very likely that the challenges of partnership will be successfully met. It is unlikely that the unconscious hidden world will produce any big surprises. When difficulties do arise in the relationship of emotionally healthy partners there is likely to be sufficient respect for and acceptance of the individuality of the other to allow the difference to be explored and a compromise worked out without the destruction of the partnership.

Some partners are faced with what feels like insurmountable difficulties in their relationship without necessarily understanding why. Potential conflict is an ever present factor in all relationships even the apparently most suited. Whether potential conflict erupts into actual destructive conflict depends on how well each partner is prepared to work with and empathise with each other’s position. The vast majority of people work very hard to make their relationship successful. Unfortunately conflicts over relatively minor issues may arise and grow in importance.  When minor issues erupt into verbal and physical violence they are frequently, if not always, underpinned by hidden frustrations, disappointments and anger. As the real explanation for the explosion of anger is hidden, unconscious, it takes the individual by surprise and is often followed by remorse and a desire to make recompense. The cruelty is that people who love each other can continuously assault each other, snipe at each other and ultimately destroy their relationship without fully understanding why.

The explanation for our difficulties in adult life may be found in our infant/child relationships

 We are born with a very powerful drive to bond, to form relationships with those who care for our infant/child self. During our infancy and childhood we identify with the most significant people in our lives, we take them into our minds and they become a part of the self. This whole process is such a natural part of our young dependent lives that we simply adjust to the demands of those that we are dependent on. When the relationship between infant and carer is mutually respectful and loving the infant/child is provided with a foundation for an emotionally healthy future. If, however, the carer is suffering from the damages of her own experience of life she may project her experience and the infant’s adjustment may give a very distorted view of self and others.

These early relationships determine our sense of self, whether we believe that we are loveable, whether we can love and evoke love in another. They determine our capacity to be intimate with another without feeling trapped or engulfed. Our capacity to be compassionate to be tolerant and forgiving and empathetic is learned during these early years.

It is likely that the majority of us were provided with a loving but imperfect environment in which to develop. As the human is such a rich mixture of the fragile and resilient it is likely that most of us carry scars from our childhood which we wrestle with in our adult relationships. If we are unable to come to terms with the effects of the more damaging early relationships we may unknowingly bring these internalised relationships to our partner’s bed.

It is widely accepted that the insecurities  and wounds of childhood continue into our adult relationships. This point of view is based on the work has been done on attachment in childhood and the profound impact of insecure attachment on human growth.

The carer who is unable to support the child in time of stress, who is not able to be in touch with their child’s feelings is likely to produce an insecure adult, an adult who minimises the importance of their own needs, one who is  likely to be out of touch with the normal longing for love, care and support. An adult who may not be able to acknowledge feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment at their neglect. Their capacity to empathise may be profoundly damaged.

 A parent who is inconsistent in their caring of their infant, one moment loving at another moment dismissive and rejecting, is likely to produce an adult who is inconsistent in their relating. They are likely to unknowingly reproduce the inconsistencies of their childhood experience. At one point they may be very loving but dependent and clingy while at another angrily independent punitive and distant.

A parent who seeks to compensate for emotional difficulties in their own life may seek to live through their child. In practical terms this may mean an engulfing involvement in the life of the child. The child  is over protected and over directed. The child is persuaded to follow a path in their schooling, in their choice of free activity, in their friendship group that is of the parent’s choosing. The parent may use emotional blackmail to ensure their focus and loyalty. The child may have to fight for their survival as an autonomous individual. The adult emerging from this kind of parenting may have huge fears of being engulfed by an intimate other. He may have problems in forming and committing to relationships. The unconscious fear of being taken over may indeed be too powerful. There may be resentment and rage at the way their capacity to naturally be their own person has been eroded. There may be a sadness that he has not been loved for himself. These powerful but negative feelings are likely to get in the way of the development of their adult relationships.

We have all observed infants/children cling to their mother as if its life depended on her presence. This is hardly surprising as in fact the infant instinctively knows that its emotional and physical life does actually depend on her. What is remarkable is that whether the mother is loving or rejecting the longing born out of this dependence persists. The need for approval of the parent, whether transparent or hidden, seems to last through life. Many of us spend our lives working on and processing this early relationship and indeed revisit it in our adult relationship.  Several observers of adult relationships suggest that both males and females marry their mother. This may because they seek to recreate the phantasied paradise of the breast, that imagined a perfect world of unconditional love. On the other hand when the carer was not loving they revisit the scene of infantile rejection in their adult relationships, replaying the relationship repeatedly. The hope is that  this time everything will be alright.  

How can Therapy Help?

Perhaps finding the courage to contact a therapist and make an appointment is the most productive part of the therapeutic process. It suggest that there is an awareness that something is wrong, that work needs to be done to find out what are the issues. It further suggests a willingness to reflect on oneself and on the relationship which is the essential staring point.

As a therapist/counsellor I am very conscious that people may be apprehensive about going to talk to a stranger, in the presence of their partner, about their most private thoughts, fears and concerns. I am always impressed by their courage and honesty. I am often moved and feel privileged that that they entrust their difficulties to me. I recognise that they are actually making a large leap of faith. I assume that questions around my competence as a therapist, my capacity to empathise, to not judge, to understand, to not favour one partner over the other arise in the mind of clients. There are fears around how much to disclose, it may be felt that some things are better left unsaid. “Will my spouse be shocked, hurt, offended by revelations?”

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of consulting a therapist is overcoming the taboo that attaches to seeking psychological support. For partners to seek counselling is to admit to themselves and to others that their relationship is not working. This admission may evoke shame, guilt, a sense of personal failure and humiliation. That partners overcome their ambivalence about seeking help is testament to their courage and determination to make their relationship work.          

It is the job of the therapist to work with the couple to develop insight into the source of their mutual difficulties. This work inevitably involves a detailed exploration of the life history of each and of their relationship from meeting to present time. The life history of both individuals is of course central to their present relationship. This exploration begins with infancy and childhood and the intimate relationships of that period. It is during this period that the basis for adult relationships is established.

In my experience clients often begin with the question, “how long will this take? There is no straight answer to this question. So much depends on what the presenting issues are, what the hidden issues are and what the couple want to achieve. Some couples find what they were seeking in five or six sessions while others may take a year or more. As the work develops couples often find that hidden unforeseen issues arise which may take longer to resolve.

A minority of couples that I have worked with have come to see me because they want to end their relationship amicably, without the bitterness and anger that can accompany the break-up of a relationship. The majority of couples want desperately to save their relationship. It is the role of the therapist to work towards this end. Indeed as a couple therapist it is my committed aim to facilitate the relationship by supporting the development of clear communication. With open and transparent communication the meaning behind conflict can be discovered and understood. By offering a safe, supportive non - judgmental place for each it becomes possible to ventilate feelings of frustration, sexual and non-sexual disappointment, anger. It also becomes possible to explore feelings of abandonment, loneliness and isolation within the relationship. Being given the freedom, permission, to share these feelings is often very revealing to both partners and generally evokes empathy for their mutual plight. As the source of so many difficulties are hidden it is hardly surprising that there is frequently a lack of full appreciation of the other’s position.

It is part of my role as a therapist to work with the couple to explore and so make transparent the ways that they have found to act out their feelings of loss, of love, hate, abandonment, of the frustration of hope. These feelings may be expressed in open verbal or physical abuse or in more hidden ways, in passive aggression. Those who are fearful of open conflict may express their feelings by cold withdrawal of affection, emotional support, of engaged sex.

When therapy works an awareness of how each is responding to the other begins to develop. It becomes possible to reflect on the relationship and to develop an understanding of the source of the difficulties. This understanding provides the context in which it becomes possible to begin to repair the damage that has visited the relationship. The work provides a better understanding of what the relationship is based on, what they expect from each other and from the relationship. An appreciation develops of the fact that the tension in the relationship comes from within each as well as from the overt behaviour of the other. Finally my aim is to help each partner to see the other more objectively, to manage their ambivalence and aggression in a more empathetic and less destructive way and to recognise when and why they are projecting. Relationships are enormously complex requiring compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and a desire to seek the happiness of the other. Love is a mixture of loving the self in the other, loving the other because they make oneself happy and the finding of pleasure in the other’s happiness.

Partner Choice

“Some enchanted evening

Someone may be laughing

You may hear her laughing

Across a crowded room

And night after night,

As strange as it seems

The sound of her laughter

Will sing in your dreams.


                                                                               South Pacific sound track


These lyrics from the very romantic , very popular, musical South Pacific reflect   the joyous belief  that when we meet ‘the one’ there is a kind of magic in the air, something  happens, there is a once in a life time opportunity for happiness. The lyrics suggest that we must grab this opportunity sent from heaven or “All through your life you may dream all alone”.

The sentiments of the modern rock song are more likely to focus our attention on the sensual attraction:

“Your lips are so sweet, honey you’re my every need

You got a smile so rare

A love like yours I just can’t compare………………”

                                                                           ‘Aint That a Lot of Love’  Rolling Stones

So, how many of us believe that there is just a ‘thee one’ that we are romantically attracted to as soon as we meet? One that we will spend our lives with?  Or are we simply overcome by the sexual attraction of the person we see ‘across a crowded room’? Our thoughts of the future do not go beyond what is going to happen next. Perhaps there is a mixture!

When I work with couples and we explore the history of their relationship I invariably ask about the initial attraction. The answers vary but there is usually some exchange of smiles and straightforward reference to the mutual physical/sexual  attraction: “we could not get enough of each other” This type of remark tends to be followed by the naming of such qualities as, “she made me laugh, we had great fun”,  “I felt that I could trust him”  “He made me feel safe” “I just enjoyed being with her ”  “As soon as we met I knew that this was it.”

The question as to what was the attraction in the first place is not always well remembered or even considered to be very important. Subsequent experience of each other in the demanding business of living together and meeting the challenges of life to say nothing of the strain of meeting each other’s needs may cause a degree of AMNESIA about what the great passion was all about.

Without being too cynical it might be worth observing that our great passions tend to be influenced if not sometimes prescribed by external pressures. People seem to be drawn to others whose family and social backgrounds are similar, to those who have similar educational backgrounds, cultural and leisure tastes, socio economic position, age, ethnicity. This may seem strange given that we are supposed to be living in an open choice society. Have a look around at you extended family group to check to what extent this is true. In my experience of working with clients from different cultures I am constantly reminded of the powerful social pressures that our culture exerts on us, whether this be Catholic, Islamist, Jewish. Any religious or ideological commitment by those who were responsible for our upbringing will have had a profound impact on our choice of partner. 


Some suggest that girls marry their fathers and men marry their mothers, others observe that we simply marry our mothers.

There are of course many exceptions to this general observation. Classical and popular literature  celebrates the challenge to prohibition against partner choice across tribal, religious and class boundaries. Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, Lady Chatterly are just a few of the many accounts of ‘Illicit’ attraction that have engaged minds and hearts.
 We are sometimes reminded by the media of the tragic consequences for those who challenge the constraints imposed by some extreme religious groups on their young. Those who pursue their attraction to another from a forbidden alien group may suffer death or are simply cast out from the family.

These mythical and factual stories  remind us of the frequent tragic consequences of pursuing a socially forbidden love affair but they  also highlight the overpowering drive to consummate a passionate love affair, to pursue the loved other to the gates of hell believing that it is really paradise.

So how do we explain partner choice? Why do some people become sick for the love of a particular other ? Perhaps it is simply to do with the power of physical attraction or do we have to look to the hidden parts of our mind, to the unconscious?

The Natural Impulse
To begin with we can think of the question at a crude Darwinian survival of the species level. The young male is powerfully attracted to the young healthy female who at a conscious level feels that sex with her would be just great. At a more unconscious level he believes that she will receive his seed and bear him healthy children. Similarly the young female is sexually excited, attracted to the strong healthy male who will be a good hunter, a protector and will provide the seed that will fertilise her eggs and ultimately perpetuate the species. However In a world where many people have these qualities to be chosen as a mate it is necessary to find other explanations than the purely physical for specific choices.

The Search for Completion
The Greek philosopher Plato sought to explain this phenomena and suggested that what humans are seeking is the completion of themselves as human beings, their other half. Human beings are made up of both male and female genes and to be complete, whole human beings, according to Plato, need to unite with a being of the opposite sex. It is rather strange that Plato did not acknowledge same sex relationships given their importance amongst  Greek warriors.

Whether we are seeking completion of ourselves with a member of the same sex or of the opposite sex, as suggested by Plato, the idea is that we want to be whole, to be complete. Indeed many find their soul mate without fully realising the full significance of the relationship until one partner passes on. The full impact of the traumatic loss is often expressed by my clients when they have lost a loved one to  death: “I have lost my other half, there is a void in my life.”  “ My heart has been cut in two”. “I just sit there staring into space wondering who I am now.”

Attraction of the Bad Boy
Not only are we attracted to others who carry positive qualities that are missing in ourselves we may also be attracted to those who complement our darker side. I am sure we are all familiar with the attraction that the ‘bad boy’ holds for the ‘nice girl’.  The reverse is also of course true. This tendency may in part be a reaction to parents who are “nice” and have put a lot of pressure on their young to be “nice”. The breaking of sacred norms is often great fun; the challenge to parental restrictions is a normal part of separation. Rescuing the law breaker, the failing other may have a great appeal to the internal rescuer, the need to rescue, to feel strong, to dominate, to be omnipotent. The ‘bad boy’ is often the one that makes things happen, is never boring. 

  Narcissistic  Appeal
We may also be attracted to those who carry similar characteristics, the values, the beliefs, the looks, the sexual needs, as ourselves. We may like to be affirmed, to be ‘told’ that the character that we have is fine, acceptable even dazzlingly attractive. It is hardly surprising to see “the beautiful people getting together”.
The fact that the original attraction does not always last is a matter of common observation. Mutual beauty seems not to be enough in itself to sustain a relationship. It may not be enough to feel wanted on the basis of just one quality, there is a need to be loved for one’s real and whole self, ‘warts and all’. Perhaps we need to remember that people who have an excessive need to be adored have been damaged by their experience of life and in some ways have become a victim of their need for reassurance. They sometimes drown in it as did Narcissus, the problem is they may drown the person they believe they love.

Humans seek their partner in varied and often wonderous ways

We humans seem to have certain basic needs that propel us, often unconsciously to seek a partner that will complement us, provide us with a suitable parent for our children, provide us with emotional support in our strivings for life, fulfil  our sexual fantasies. Help us to feel comfortable in our own skin while making us feel that life is great after all and that it is possible to be happy and have great fun.  I imagine not that many people go around wondering about why this person ‘makes me feel so great’, they just get on with it. Perhaps it is only when some of the magic, the energy and excitement leave the relationship that we begin to wonder about why and what has happened.
As a couple therapist I see people who need help to explore their relationship and come to an understanding of what has broken down. In our efforts to find explanations we carry out a type of excavation. I get my clients to explore their individual history, the history of their courtship and cohabitation, what their hopes and dreams were, what is going on in all aspects of their relationship now. As a Psychodynamic therapist I am particularly interested in the childhood relationships that my clients had with parents and siblings. I believe that these relationships play a very important part in our views of ourselves, who we choose as a partner, what we hope for from relationships, what we can expect from others, what we can give to another, our dreams and ambitions our sense of self-worth.

“Love is a many Splendored thing” Indeed it is. The rationale for our love  choice is often not however completely clear. It is important to make a distinction between the accidental meeting and flowering of chemistry between two people on a one night stand and the considered long term relationship of two people who seek happiness with each other. When we pursue our attraction for another each of us have conscious realistic expectations and hopes for our happiness but we also have dreams and hopes that we are not aware of, they are unconscious. These hopes fuel our initial attraction.  Unfortunately our sexual desires for our ‘ideal’ may be so powerful that we make our decision on the basis of fantasy rather than reality, we do not see the real person rather we see what we have created in our imagination, our projections, what we want to see. Unconsciously we may be transported back to our very early relationship with mother who offered us a blissful ‘Garden of Eden’ experience of unconditional love where all our needs were magically taken care of. Frustration is inevitable, we may expect our relationship to repeat this first maternal love experience, deliver us magically to a nirvana where our hopes and dreams will be realised. Alternatively our early experience of maternal love may have been very unsatisfactory and choice of partner may be based on a drive to compensate for these  experiences.

It may be difficult to accept that we internalise both consciously and unconsciously all our relationships from infancy and these form and guide our feelings and thinking as we go through life. Our appetite for intimacy and closeness and the opposite need for separateness, our capacity to love and to receive love, our ability to trust all seem to be developed during the early stages of life. Inevitably how we seek to meet the needs of our sexual drive and our choice of partner are  importantly influenced.   




Recently on holiday a friend confided in me that he was so relieved to see me, he declared himself to be totally “boundaried out”, that he was “awash with boundaries”. His partner is a psychotherapist and so many of her approaches to people seemed to be influenced by what he thought was a ridiculous over concern with boundaries. He had forgotten that I worked  in the same world. He was not complaining too seriously but did raise the question as to why therapists are so concerned about boundaries. The non-therapist is often amused if not bemused by the concern, expressed by some therapists. Most people wonder what all the fuss is about and claim to regulate their relationships and so their boundaries with a minimum of fuss on the basis of common sense, or so they claim. When a friend or acquaintance steps over the acceptable line of familiarity unease enters the relationship, We may say,” that is a bit close to the mark”, or that is none of your business”, or whatever one’s particular style happens to be. The right distance is re-established, and so it is dealt with. If only!

So are boundaries a matter of common sense? Are therapists who drive their friends mad by agonising over getting them right just a bit odd? Perhaps!!

Boundaries have a similar meaning to borders. Borders seem to have been around since humans began to live a settled life. Borders demarcate where one sovereign state begins and ends. The people of a particular area/region/country believe they have rights of ownership, the freedom to control all aspects of life that affect them. They believe they have the right to determine who can live within their borders, the right to impose their own laws, the right to control their economy. The right to determine how their citizens should live with each other and with ‘strangers’.  History describes the ‘heroes’ who gave their lives to defend the ‘inalienable rights’ of a people to determine their borders from the intrusion of ‘foreigners’.

We can begin to think about this question by posing a couple of other questions: What function do they perform in human relationships? Are they about control of the relationship? Are they necessary or are they just in the way of people really getting together in a truly intimate and humane way?

Boundaries and borders

Boundaries have a similar meaning to borders. Borders seem to have been around since humans began to live a settled life. Borders demarcate where one sovereign state begins and ends. The people of a particular area/region/country believe they have rights of ownership, the freedom to control all aspects of life that affect them. They believe they have the right to determine who can live within their borders, the right to impose their own laws, the right to control their economy. The right to determine how their citizens should live with each other and with ‘strangers’.  History describes the ‘heroes’ who gave their lives to defend the ‘inalienable rights’ of a people to determine their borders from the intrusion of ‘foreigners’.

The word private is heavily inscribed on some doors and gates telling us to keep away unless invited. “Out of Bounds” is probably a familiar word that springs to school day memories for most of us. There were clearly demarcated areas where one was not allowed, under pain of punishment, to go. The rationale for these boundaries was largely about control, sometimes about safety, at other times about repression. At best these rules about where we could and could not go reminded us that we were not free to exercise unconstrained self- indulgence, roam where our will took us. We learned that our fellow travellers had the right to their space and that we had to respect this right.

It would seem that most people display ‘keep out signs’ that warn the uninvited to keep their physical and psychological distance. We only allow those that we can trust to get close to us. These tend to include some family members and some friends. In some sense we have come to believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that these friends and family are necessary for our psychological survival and happiness. They are not just fun to be with.

Perhaps it is important to keep in mind that the word boundary may have different meanings between and within different cultures. The north of this country is often thought of as more ‘open’ and friendly than the south. So often we hear that Latin peoples are much more warm and friendly and ‘open’. In general they have a reputation for inviting others into their ‘close’ space more easily.

As in all relationships boundaries have an important function. Back to the question what role do they play in our relationships?  Their main role is to help us to regulate our relationship. They do this in a number of ways, they protect the balance between autonomy and attachment, between dependence and independence, between intimacy and distance. They help us to allow those to whom we relate to be. We want to engage with the life of our friends and family in a healthy supportive way without threat of unwanted familiarity, this at times is difficult.

So what has all this got to with how we therapist relate to our clients? What is so special about this particular relationship and why are therapists so concerned to get it right. The relationship between therapist and client is particularly close and intimate, at its centre is the trust and vulnerability of the client. For some clients their relationship with their therapist is more intimate than with any other. The client takes a huge risk in disclosing their fears, their deepest secrets, their most private feelings. The client allows his mind to focus on experiences, present and past, that hitherto he has blocked, perhaps for a lifetime. These are likely to be disturbing if not frightening. In any relationship where there is a deep trust and disclosure of confidences a special intimate relationship develops which borders on love. When this happens the therapy is given energy and focus. This is positive and leads to healing, but it may also carry a danger. There is a strict code of ethics which is designed to protect the client from exploitation in this very vulnerable place, however boundaries are sometimes broken. Inappropriate sexual relations develop which may be experienced as a natural extension of the intimacy developed in the therapy room. Transgressions of the code leads to expulsion from the professional organisation. This however does not stop every therapist from crossing the professional boundary. When sexual relationships develop between client and therapist there tends to be a collapse of both therapy and the relationship.

I believe that the vast majority of counsellors, at least consciously, would agree that their role is to promote the emotional health of their clients in a safe space. A safe space demands a clearly defined contract mutually understood. This contract makes clear the rules of engagement, in short the boundaries. There is considerable disagreement as to what constitutes good boundaries among the different ‘schools’ of counselling and therapy.

I use my own initial experience of analysis to point to one perception of the appropriate boundary. I began my own therapy with a psychoanalyst who encouraged me to lie on a couch, she remained relatively silent. It was as if she was ‘absent’. She believed that her job was to offer herself as a blank screen onto which I could project the contents of my troubled soul. There were no greetings or farewells, sessions began and ended exactly on the minute. There seemed to be a total absence of humanity.

My particular experience may be thought to have been rather extreme. I am however reminded of an account by a famous writer/analyst who refused to hold the hand of a very distressed female patient who was begging for the reassuring relief of human contact. He agonised over it but decided this would undermine her ability to heal herself, that it would prevent her from reaching into the past and connecting with the person who caused her original pain( the transference would be prevented). The model argues that when this connection is made both emotional and cognitive insight is gained and the client/patient begins to heal.

This is very far from the experience of a good friend. My friend’s wife left their marriage after ten years taking with her their two children, he began to lose his mind, and gradually felt that life may not be worth living. He sought help from a pastor/counsellor. My friend described how on one occasion he broke down in the counselling room, lay on the floor in the foetal position and bawled his head off. His counsellor picked him up and cradled him. The warm tactile presence of another was what he needed at that point in time. This he believes was the beginning of his recovery. He now manages his life very well.

A student on a diploma course that I tutored talked about her experience on a CBT course. Her supervisor told her that the best way to help a socially challenged client was to take him out to a restaurant and teach him by example and instruction on how to deal with a social situation.

In a very popular self-help book, ’The Road Less Travelled, the author describes how he helped one of his patients to solve a problem with her car. This revelation probably sent shock waves through the universe of the psychodynamic student’s rule book.

The analytic world would be appalled at such gross transgressions of ‘correct’ boundaries, described above. Alternatively there are those who believe in the importance of the presence of a warm, personal, caring interested counsellor/therapist. These therapists are horrified by the practice of what they consider to be the cold distant Psychoanalyst. In recent years there seems to have been, amongst some Psychotherapists, a shift from the blank screen to a position of caring that is akin to love. They argue that without love in the therapy room change is not possible.

It is a little alarming that there seems to be such an array of understanding and practices of boundaries in human relationships in general and therapist/client relationships in particular. The basic question for the therapist is: what works? What is therapeutic? How does one allow the client to find and manage their own inner strength without transgressing their sacred private space? How does one protect the client from the manipulations of one’s unconscious ego, the need of the therapist to be omnipotent, to ‘fix it’? How does one protect the client from the seductive attractions of dependency and the false promise? How does one protect the relationship from the incursions of sexual seduction, that destructive pretender. How does one avoid doing harm? How does one avoid doing anything that might impede the therapeutic process, get in the way of the healing? These are of course complex questions at their core is the concept of boundary. This is an issue that needs to be explored with the client.

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