Dominant Stories and Marriage
Where to begin? That was the question on my mind all day when thinking about how to approach asking my parents about their sixty-five year relationship. I’d thought of writing questions down. ‘Do you think you were ready to marry when you met at fifteen? What have been the highlights? What’s been most difficult? Do you ever regret having had nine children? What’s been the glue that’s kept you together? But that’s not my style, not the way I work as a therapist. So I decided to begin with my trusty friend curiosity. What was it like for them having their son enquire about their marriage?
I was encouraged as part of my training as a systemic couple and family therapist to converse with members from my family of origin. I have done many times, and can fully appreciate the rationale for broadening one’s perspectives and hearing and understanding stories that differ from your own. Undoubtedly it has made me a more effective, curious, ‘not-knowing,’ therapist. It’s also challenged my view of self, the familiar and safe stories I held, my knowing and often judgemental perceptions of others. That is both liberating and disconcerting. I want a world established on solid truths, but I know such a world limits me. This ability to hear and revise stories has been a process. The conversations have deepened as time has gone on and I have been faced with struggles in my own relationships.
As a trainer for Relate, I regularly encourage trainee counsellors to consider how their identities, beliefs, values and aspirations are shaped by dominant stories in relation to such things as gender, race, religion, class and sexuality – stories passed down through generations and through conversation. We consider why certain stories are dominant. Who decides? Do we shape them? How do the conversations we have create our realities? But this particular conversation with my parents went to a deeper level than ones I’ve had previously, powerfully reinforcing for me how we are shaped by not only stories, but world events that shape those stories. Furthermore, I was struck by the stories of my parent’s struggle against the expectations of others, a struggle to create a relationship of their own, one that has worked for them.
On a recent Relate couple counselling training course, one of the student counsellors shared a story of her grandfather lying alone in the darkness of night, in a trench in World War One, his leg blown off. Around him, but out of sight, some close, and some more distant, were the intermittent but agonizing cries of young soldiers for their mothers; cries that he became familiar with, but some of which would get quieter and quieter and then suddenly stop. I left my parent’s house that evening, and we spoke for some hours, with a deeply disturbing image. Maybe it was just my fanciful imagination at work, but I couldn’t help but picture a naive sixteen year old boy, my mother’s father, who lied about his age to get into the army, in a bomb crater at Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. At that young innocent age, what horrific scenes of death and destruction he must have witnessed. And like many survivors of war, my grandfather would never talk about his experiences. At night sometimes, he would flay his arms around, as if searching the ground for something. For dead bodies? For a companion still alive?
That war shaped him. He was locked inside himself and could rarely show emotion other than sarcasm or criticism. And no doubt his story had been shaped by having a father who was an army major, and his wife’s father who was also in the army, once receiving an honour of being the best shot with a rifle in the British army.
He was in a marriage and perhaps a culture too, like my father’s parents, devoid of the showing of physical affection. He subsequently lost a leg and all his body hair in a motorcycle accident. Maybe, it was his feelings of abandonment, the terror of lying in a crater surrounded by blood, bodies torn apart, death, and exploding shells, crying out but receiving no reply, that my mum with her depression has carried with her all her life.
He had deep fears of getting close. And perhaps behind that were deep fears of rejection.
At twelve, my mother, the eldest of four, was sent away from London to a boarding convent school in York. It was the Second World War. One of the explanations given, she told me, was that ‘she asked too many questions.’ One sister and one brother stayed, another sister was given an option. The Catholic Church, with its powerful messages about rights and wrongs, shaped my parents marriage and family life. My mother’s experience of nuns in York was almost completely negative. She described her experiences like ‘going back into the 16th century.’ The nuns were vindictive and cruel, the headmistress one day telling her ‘to go back to the slums where she belonged.’ Again she found questioning wasn’t encouraged. You had to accept some things as givens, in faith.
Whilst some women had taken on employment during the Second World War, my mother’s mother working briefly as a short-hand typist for a colonel in France in World War One, there was still a dominant belief that a woman’s place was within the home. And if it wasn’t within the home, then it was in the professions of nursing, teaching, or in a bank. Neither of my grandmothers worked outside the home after the war. I guess we need to remember that it’s only eighty years ago that women acquired the right to vote. My mother never felt encouraged to pursue education or a career. The impression she was left with was that her parents weren’t interested. And if there’s one phrase sure to rile my mother, it’s ‘just a housewife.’ She has strong feelings about motherhood being undervalued, and how it should be seen as a job that receives recognition and financial remuneration like any other work.
It’s a job that underpins the stability of society. Her father belonged to a Catholic Business Men’s organisation, to the Home Guard. He was out most nights. As my mother said, ‘he expected his meals on the table when he got home. When a couple married, the woman became the man’s property, taking on his name, looking up to him as head of the household, where he had the final word on matters.’ And it was his son, who he referred to as ‘boy’ who carried the weight of expectation in terms of career, who couldn’t perhaps get married until his father died for fear of being criticised for making the ‘wrong’ choice. The Church reinforced strong messages about gender and the places of men and women. There were no discussions about women priests or bishops then! Only with time was my father able to meet with my mother as an equal, as a ‘partner,’ not merely an extension of himself.
And that required my mother asserting herself, overcoming strong messages about the submissiveness of women. My father has strong feelings now about men being equal care providers to their children.
Born during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, my father was an only child. His mother struggled with giving birth; experiencing great pain. His parents decided not to have more children. My grandfather worked as a motorcycle messenger in World War Two London, and subsequently for the Post Office. He wanted my father to be a customs officer in the Post Office, a safe and reliable job, though he himself had longed to be an artist.
His mother, who always longed to be a school teacher, wanted the same for my father. But as my father said, ‘there were no grants when my mother was a young woman, and no student loans. Her family weren’t of the class that could afford such an education.’ And if there was a strong message in terms of social class, it was ‘know your place.’ The house was cleaned and scrubbed if the doctor – a semi-God – visited. One talked in a hushed deferential tone in the presence of a priest or vicar. People higher up in terms of social class were to be aspired to, admired and respected.
And if my father’s parents projected their own unfulfilled aspirations, it was also because they didn’t want him to suffer the poverty and hardships they had suffered, where my grandfather’s income was £3.00 a week, and where my grandfather had seen his own parents reduced to life in the workhouse, where frequently couples, unable to care or support themselves, were separated. How ironic then that my grandmother should end her life in a nursing home, sitting around with other residents in a square room, adorned with plastic flowers and perfumed with strong odours of urine and bleach. What value do we give to older people I am left wondering?
My father was deeply influenced by these ideas around class, and struggled against them all his life. His parents were proud when he obtained a place at the Royal College of Art and proud when he became a school teacher. But as he said, ‘it has taken me a lifetime to conquer a sense of social inferiority.’
There was no sex education, no pill and certainly no casual sex in the culture my parents grew up in. Besides, if a couple were dating, it was with a view to a likely marriage. You didn’t ditch a partner. The idea of ever divorcing never entered my parents mind when they wed. It was unheard of. Everyone was expected to attend church on Sunday and my father had to attend Sunday school twice. You never hung out the washing on the Lords day. And homosexuality was an offence carrying a prison sentence, a mental illness.
My parents described themselves as ‘Post Victorian children,’ their parents having grown up in the late Victorian era. Their lives were built upon foundations of certainties. They described their marriage as having been one of conflict with dominant stories, representing authority and established truths, and finding their own voices, their own authority and their own truths.
They were fifteen when they met. Within three weeks they had decided between them to get married, eventually marrying when just turned twenty. My father had intended to marry in his RAF uniform due to a lack of money, but his parents insisted on a suit. My mother made her own dress. They met opposition to their plans, particularly from my father’s parents, but they were certain in their own minds what was right for them. My father, an ex-school teacher, said, I have always been surprised at the maturity of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Who says when a couple are old enough to know their own minds?’ What are the stories about age and responsibility that dominate our thinking?
My mother was Catholic, my father nominally Church of England. There was deep opposition from his parents when they decided to get married, and he describes his father imploring him, begging him on his knees, not to proceed with the plans, not to marry my mother, not to convert to Catholicism, and certainly not to live in a caravan as newlyweds. But they ended up living with his parents, my mother left alone for long days whilst my father undertook his National Service in Bexhill. There was, as he described it, an emotional blackmail that he felt too ‘weak’ to resist. But it was more than this. He felt ‘robbed’ of his identity and precious years during those early years of their marriage. He felt as if he was a possession his parents were reluctant to give up and my father feels he eventually lost his relationship to his parents through their possessiveness.
The Catholic Church was deeply against any form of contraception and specialised in creating feelings of guilt. Large families were prized. There was, still is, a heaven and hell, a day of judgement when each of us will be held responsible for our sins. And God help you if you committed too many mortal ones! But these ideas no longer hold sway for my parents. My mother became increasingly frustrated about the role of women within the Church and the attitudes of the priesthood towards her and towards women, feeling treated as a second class citizen. Along with that, both questioned established truths, with my father eventually standing up during a sermon and challenging the priest’s espousals about charity and self-sacrifice. You just don’t do that! The church went deathly silent. But I so admire his courage. They have planned to be buried on their deaths beside each other in a field with trees planted above them.
I was curious to know what my parents thought were the ingredients that have most successfully kept the marriage together? ‘Effective communication,’ came high up their list, talking about anything, from the mundane to the spiritual. Linked to effective communication is not making assumptions, thinking you know what your partner is thinking, expressing needs directly and the ability to disagree. Separateness within unity was also described as a key theme, having private space both physically and mentally, the ability to negotiate being a couple but also maintaining a sense of one’s own identity. This has been an ongoing theme, and one I regularly visit with couples in the work I do. Giving praise also figured highly. I guess this is what transactional analysts would refer to as giving strokes. But they also expressed the idea that giving or seeking praise could also be a way of avoiding possible conflict or criticism, attempting to please rather than risk disagreement or disapproval. The last ingredient my father spoke about was the ability to maintain ‘mystery,’ never assuming you fully know the other person.
Besides the image of my grandfather lying in a crater, I was also struck as I rushed past fields on my way home on my motorcycle, the setting sun silhouetting the hills of Dartmoor, as if a metaphor for the passing of time, by how my own sense of identity has been shaped by those stories, stories that change in time, and how they have affected my relationships, my aspirations, my sense of myself as a man; stories that we need and yet stories that can either trap or liberate us. I think back to living in London as a boy, the house I grew up in always so busy with children, my mother cooking endless meals, my father working hard to bring in enough money, to the Catholic Church playing such a significant part in my own story and I’m left wondering what is reality? It’s only what we make it. Who I am today is not the person I was yesterday or the person I will be tomorrow.
A week or so passed and my father rang me. Our conversation stimulated his thinking and he was keen to share more, to add to the stories. And so on a sunny July morning I found myself again at my parent’s house.
The ‘social inferiority that dogged me all my life,’ he tells me, is more complex; it was about ‘indoctrination,’ a taught ‘subservience to authority.’ He went on to describe this authority in more depth, how members of the royal family were looked up to as ‘god-like figures,’ the queen viewed as ‘the empress of an empire.’ With all the pomp and ornate ceremony in both church and state, came a clear message, ‘obey without question.’ Moreover, there was a related clear message, ‘be subservient to experts.’ Thus, the Bible, the printed word, and newspaper articles had to be true. At the Royal College of Art, now twenty four, this subservience was still with my father. Practising artists were the gods of the art world, and the impact of overwhelmingly negative criticism, and their tunnel vision was huge; it crushed him as an artist. ‘Only now,’ he said, ‘fifty years later, am I beginning to rediscover a true sense of self.’
The next point my parents want to add to is that they want their funeral to be totally secular. They reject faith teaching, having experienced the Catholic Church as requiring them to give up powers of reason, with its demand for unsustainable truths of faith, truths that cannot be proven or unproven. They recall a priest telling them they were ‘no longer welcome in his church,’ during the period they were questioning. ‘I am a confirmed atheist,’ said my father, ‘so much more secure since leaving the Catholic Church.’ My mother is less sure, but she cannot believe in the God that is presented in faith religions.
I was deeply moved by my parents self-questioning in relation to whether or not they have been good parents; their concerns about the possibility of having handed down negative stories to me, to the other members of the family.
Whilst moved however, I also thought how unhelpful and undermining this self-questioning can be.
I suggested we all can only do the best with what we’ve been given, and how perhaps much of the time, we act with a lack of knowledge. But I took a risk, and chose to share some recent personal struggles, a period of intense self-questioning.
I left that day with a great gift. I am sure it will help enormously. My father tearfully read me some lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker.’
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at where you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
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