I have written before about making links and how important it is to understand how links work in our emotional life. See the link below.
I have had a number of conversations recently with patents who wish to keep their history in discrete boxes.Each box is important-or not- in its own right. So a divorce may be an important box. The birth of a child another important box. A new job will be another interesting box. And so on. Each box has its place in the scheme of a person’s life. Some boxes are looked in more often than others.Some are accessible, Some are marked “Do Not disturb”. My patients will spend a session looking at one box, talking about its contents and then put it back where they found it. Next week they might open another box. And so on. In this way they persuade themselves they are having therapy.My task then is to wonder with them about how the box “Divorce” might be able to be connected to the box “Parent‘s marriage” which in turn might be connected to the box “Anger”. When I say to my patients that there might be links between boxes, I am frequently met with an incredulous stare. Talking with one of my patients, I said that I was interested in the way he rarely , if ever, spoke about his parents. “Why would I want to do that?” came the reply. “We’re talking about now, not then.” I suggested that there might be a link between the way his parents conducted their marriage and his own marriages. I have had a number of similar conversations-mainly with men. My female patients are usually much quicker to make connections. (The reasons why this might be the case would make several doctoral theses.)
George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” One might alter this a little to read “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” The image in this blog is of stepping stones, which are all about past, present and future. The stones here form a way across the stream. But there is a history to them. Who put them here? Over what period of time? Were they built one afternoon by some children? Were they put here by several people over some months? Where were they found? Then we could think about their impact on the stream. The stream has to take account of the stones and vice versa. (I could add many more metaphors, but I will leave the space blank for you to play with and in !) Many of my patients choose not to look back or forward, happy that this stepping stone is all that matters-and possibly the one immediately in front of them.
I can still recall a patient who came to see me because, he said, he was depressed. He was in his early 40’s and had been with a new partner for 2-3 years. She was now pregnant and he was delighted. We spent some time talking about some of the reasons he thought his first marriage had ended. The main reason he gave was that he continually slept with other women, mostly whilst way on business trips. Eventually this became too much for his wife and she divorced him. Some time later he met the woman who became his second wife, whom he said, he loved dearly. I was prompted to ask if he still slept with other women. The pause that followed seemed to last a very, very long time and various thoughts went through my mind about what might be happening in the session. Eventually he said that, yes, he did still have sex with other women. I wondered why this might be and he talked of his childhood where both his parents had affairs. His father had homosexual lovers whilst his mother would bring home her “friends” when her husband was at work. My patient was only 4 or 5 during this time but instinctively did not want his mother to go upstairs with her friend. He tried various ploys to keep his mother downstairs, none of which really worked. The connect between his past experience and his present conduct seemed quite apparent-at least to me! I pointed out some possible links and he looked amazed-and promptly dismissed my suggestion. Sadly he left after only a few sessions, thanking me for my work!
When I was planning this blog, I looked up Stepping Stones on You Tube and came across a band – ( a singer?)- called Catching Your Clouds who had written a song called “Stepping Stones”.
It has the verse
“Please lock your thoughts
Throw out the key
Your doubts will never set you free.”
I’m sure they never wrote those lines with any intention of them appearing appearing in a blog about counselling, so to to criticise them is rather churlish. Nonetheless, they do capture the idea that so much of my time is spent undoing. Namely that locking up one’s thoughts and throwing out the key is a recipe for anything but disaster. It guarantees that Santayansa’s prediction comes true. By forgetting our past we condemn ourselves to repeat it. We concentrate only on the stepping stone on which we stand-and possibly the one immediately in front of us. We forget the way back and have little idea of the way forward. Condemned to an eternal Now with no clear idea about how we got here. A terrifying thought.