Parenting impacts on partnering


A mother Nyala and her young son are grazing below me as I sit here in the bush veldt in early summer. His coat is still fluffed and spotted, and his appetite voracious. The mother leads him to the water hole where they both drink, then he walks away to find green shoots on the trees to eat. She notices me watching but seems unthreatened; her ears are tuned in, turning in the direction of her young, as they graze, many feet apart, across my path.

I am reading in Keeping the Love You Find about the young child growing into a sense of themselves and their security. With warm and consistent attachment, a child is safe to explore who s/he is as an individual, an entity alone and connected, without risk to the vital relationship with parents who are themselves secure.

We know that the early stages of attachment, exploration, identity and competence are repeated in adolescence and early adulthood, as well as in every new stage of life or change in lifestyle. They are also repeated in the stages of a relationship, from total (and chemical) attachment to being able also to express complimentary or even competitive competencies as the identity of each partner is allowed expression within the sacred space of the relationship.

Hendrix’ view that the child develops into either maximizing affect or minimizing it according to genetics, socialization and the family context is perhaps questionable. Surely in different settings or stages we might have found it useful to do both or either?

I can see in myself both the capacity to exhibit diffuse compliance, in my ready smile and quick noticing of people and how to make them feel comfortable and accepted. I am also increasingly aware of my resistance to compliance in certain situations and rigid distancing ability when I feel an expectation to not have needs or boundaries of my own. My feeling when treated as an extension of my partner – either by him or by others – is of anger, strength and fear.

As a 2 year old and the last of my mother’s 6 children I was very loved and securely attached to her. At that stage it was healthy and gratifying to be so connected, and so affirmed when I went into the garden to play in the mud or make my own gardens in tin trays. I was also free, having many sisters, to experiment with aspects of myself – to a degree – and felt a happy sense of integration and security. Competence was always an issue, naturally, and became more so in later childhood. (Very much so in marriage!)

As a 14 year old the need to explore the world more, and to individuate and express myself in my ways was a lot more fraught. We had moved to a large city, my siblings had mostly left home and I missed them and longed to please them, but still be the person I was becoming who didn’t fit well in the family norms of activity and sociability. My parent’s marriage moved into a very insecure state as they struggled with their individual circumstances and the demands placed on their home life by the new work environment. At this stage I consciously chose to take care of my mother’s security in order to protect my own. Adolescent differentiation was not feasible, my old brain believed, only desperate watching for the safety of my care-giver.

By others in my family I was sometimes punished for being close to my mum; seen as spoilt or over-protected, or even as just an extension of her. To my mother I was sometimes so close as to be out of view. I was the seat of her longings and projections, and included in marital details that were not mine. And very loved.

In these circumstances I met and married Dave. My adult life with him has shown both clinging and avoidant strategies; both pursuant and isolating, and times of diffuse compliance with little sense of identity balanced with times of trying to control him, while holding myself out of his reach. I am both minimizer and maximiser in different situations! Our competence complimentarity has been easier to resolve and clearer to see, especially with the safety and creativity of Imago! After 30 years we are (a little) more able to express our own power and enjoy each other’s success while celebrating our different or similar abilities.

With clients, I find the tortoise and wind metaphor very useful as a way of holding up a mirror that does not judge either, in the early sessions. In a broader sense I’m concerned that we could limit our clients’ identity formation in the therapeutic process by expressing the expectation that each is only one or the other.

I notice the mother Nyala keeping an eye on me while she keeps an ear on her son. She is not afraid and he doesn’t know I’m here. She keeps him safe by staying between him and me and I honour how she lets her child be free to explore and choose his sweet green leaves as feed, while she both lets him go and keeps him safe. Perhaps I can do that for myself, now, as an adult: make safety for myself to explore, to express a universe of inner aspects and be securely attached to myself for safety and freedom. And then even do the same for my partner and children.


Joy Clarke

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