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Authenticity at the Northern Existential Group

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 5 Dec 2011, 11:02

24th November 2011 saw the third meeting of the Northern Existential Group (NEG). This month our reading was a paper called 'A Road Less Travelled' by M. Guy Thompson. Based on the author's own relationship with R.D. Laing, the paper wove together biography of the famous 'anti-psychiatrist' with an account of his understanding of the concept of 'authenticity'. What did authenticity mean to Laing, and how well did he embody it within his own life?

This paper was a perfect one for the NEG as our discussions tend to focus on the personal and pragmatic issues of the concepts under consideration. Are these existential ideas something that we want to strive for in our own lives and, if so, how might we go about that?

Here we will briefly introduce R. D. Laing for those who are unfamiliar with him. We will outline the concept of authenticity as it is presented in M. Guy Thompson's paper, and then give a flavour of the NEG discussion on the topic.

R. D. Laing

R. D. Laing (1927-1989) grew up in Glasgow. He studied medicine there and became a psychiatrist in the British army. Later he trained and worked at the Tavistock clinic alongside the likes of Bowlby and Winnicott. Laing formed the Philadelphia Association in 1965 and set up a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall and later other locations. At PA houses patients with diagnoses of psychosis lived together in communities with therapists and other patients, and there was minimal use of the restraints or drug treatments which were commonplace in mental health systems.

Although Laing did not embrace the term 'anti-psychiatrist', his views about mental illness were – and continue to be – radically challenging to conventional views. Influenced by existential philosophy he questioned the idea of mental illnesses which could be diagnosed according to symptoms (although his opinion on whether there were real mental illnesses or not altered over time). Instead he saw the feelings and behaviours of people with 'mental illness' as expressions of their lived experience and valid attempts to communicate their distress.

Instead of locating mental illness in biology, he saw it as a response to, often contradictory, messages within the family and wider society. Indeed, at times he suggested that 'madness' may be a saner response than 'sanity' to the impossible double binds in which people are placed when their experiences are not allowed to be articulated. These ideas are covered in Laing's famous book The Divided Self.


Laing's ideas about authenticity are explicitly related to his theories of mental illness because he suggests that people erect false versions of themselves in order to conform to society, and that this is why they frequently become confused about who they are. For this reason, part of the ethos of Kingsley Hall, and the other Philadelphia Association houses, was to communicate without falsity. People were encourage to speak in all conversations as honestly and openly as they would in a therapy session, with no small talk. Laing's own style was frequently confrontational in attempt to break through falsity in communication.

Thompson distinguishes Laing's version of authenticity from the kind of 'pop' authenticity of US talk-shows and self-help books. This latter form of authenticity is rooted in the humanistic view that there is some core inner self that we can get in touch with, often through our feelings rather than our thoughts, and that this authentic self will be a nicer, more loving, person. Such an idea is based on both a dualistic splitting of emotions and thoughts, an optimistic vision of what human beings are 'naturally' like, and a theory of selfhood that is problematic from an existential perspective.

Laing's authenticity was based more on Nietzsche and Heideggers' versions of authenticity which did not link authenticity and ethics and which dispute the idea of any core self beneath what we construct. This existential form of authenticity involves a courageous facing of the inevitable anxieties of life. This includes going against societal norms when they conflict with this. Heidegger's position was that humans were inauthentic the majority of the time (seeking approval, validation, recognition and so on). We get our sense of identity and – along with it – inauthenticity from the crowd we (seek to) belong to, but it is possible sometimes to transcend this. This is not about getting at any genuine self (because the self is always constructed) but rather being aware of our general inauthenticity and acting in a way that does not attempt to fit in or to court favour.

Laing's authenticity, however, was intrinsically related to ethics because he saw human suffering as resulting from inauthenticity (particularly the double-binds it places people in). Therefore authenticity was a superior way of relating which involved loving another person without 'trespassing' on them or doing them violence by using them for our own narcissistic ends. This requires both the courage to open up to another person, and the awareness to see when you are in danger of trespassing (for example, by demanding that they conform in some way rather than being authentic themselves). This is the awareness that Laing saw as frequently absent in the mental health profession: those who think they are being helpful deny the thoughtless way in which they treat the vulnerable people they are caring for, and the demands they place on them to act in inauthentic ways.

From Thompson's summary it seems that Laing's authenticity includes the following elements:

  • Honestly owning up to our inauthenticity

  • Acting without regard for what others will think of us (rather than being a 'phoney' and adhering to social niceties)

  • Having the courage to stick to our principles rather than being hypocritical

  • Being brave enough to open up, authentically, to others

  • Being aware enough not to trespass on others, doing violence to them by denying their authenticity



The rest of Thompson's paper – and much of our discussion – focused on whether Laing, himself, embodied the form of authenticity that he espoused. This is part of a wider question of whether such thinkers need to 'walk the walk as well as talk the talk' in order to be convincing, or for us to take up their ideas. We could see both positions on this. On the one hand, when the personal is political as it so clearly is in Laing's work perhaps his personal behaviour should be under scrutiny. On the other hand, all thinkers are likely to have feet of clay and we can question whether it is acceptable to use this to pathologise them and to dismiss their ideas, as has been done with Laing, Neitzsche and Heidegger.

Thompson points out that Laing's writing became increasingly pretentious and inaccessible over time, that he courted fame despite this surely being a form of inauthenticity, and that his behaviour became bullying and cruel in ways that alienated most of those he was close to. Again, this latter seems far from Laing's ideals of open-hearted communication and not trespassing on others, although it could be argued that he was deliberately trying to confront people with their own inauthenticity.

A classic example of this was in his exchange with the American humanistic therapist, Carl Rogers. Thompson tells the tale of the night before the organised debate between Rogers and Laing. Laing and his group invited Rogers and his group round to his home and then out to a restaurant. Laing told Rogers that his 'California nice-guy' act would make an authentic exchange impossible. Laing proceeded to get drunk and to shout out (about Rogers) 'he's not a man, he's a perrrrson!' (a sarcastic reference to Roger's book On Becoming a Person). Later he spat in the drink of one of Rogers' colleagues.

The NEG group spent much time considering Laing's idea that anger is the Royal Road to authenticity. Is niceness always inauthentic? Is it always authentic to strip away artificial niceness however much trespassing is required to do so? We found ourselves questioning why the so-called 'negative emotions' would be considered more authentic than the 'positive' ones. Is this another problematic dualism? Also, we noted the contradictions between two aspect of Laing's authenticity (in order to be authentic in this way one has to trespass on others, demanding that they be authentic according to his definition).

We wondered if Laing would have the same impact if he had not acted the 'trickster' in these ways: punching holes through inauthenticity. Then again, might he potentially have had more impact if he could have expressed his ideas in a way that was more palatable to people. Related to all of this there is the question of whether one person can ever really judge the authenticity of another.

In response to this latter, we reached the conclusion that we certainly can't judge the authenticity of another (there can be no objective measure of authenticity), but that equally that we cannot really trust our subjective sense of whether we are being authentic or not because we are likely to be a poor judge of whether or not we are in a form of 'false consciousness' (believing we are being authentic when actually we are simply saying or doing what is expected of us). There is also the question of whether it is always authentic to go against the norms and conventions around us. We considered Sartre's example of wearing a moustache when everyone else was doing so: Would it be authentic to sport such a moustache nowadays (as long as we weren't doing it for 'movember' – the charitable event where people grow moustaches for the month of November)? Even in going against convention are we still in relation to this and potentially even reinforcing it?

As often in our discussions we related Laing's ideas to gender. We considered how somebody with Laing's ideas and behaviours might have been treated if they were a woman, and this led us to consider whether it was possible for women to be seen as authentic in the same way that men could be, given the way that men are regarded as 'normal' humanity (according to Sartre, de Beuavoir and others), and the potentially harsher sanctions (internal and external) against women behaving authentically.

Another question we explored was whether authenticity may only be possible when all ways of being were open to us. For example, some of us felt that kind of anger that Laing displayed simply wasn't an option in our behavioural repertoire. Did that condemn us to 'inauthentic niceness'? We decided that there would always be limits and constraints on what was possible, but that authenticity was possible so long as there was some degree of choice over how we acted.

In the group there was a sense that it was valuable to hold both a Laingian and a Rogerian way of being. The question which we kept returning to was 'how far do you go?': How much do you flout convention and how much do you police yourself? These are important, and emotionally loaded, questions. 'Too far' in one direction can leave us alienated and alienating, 'too far' in the other and we can loose ourselves completely in the (contradictory) demands of others.

In a way the contradictory nature of Laing's version of authenticity can provide a helpful constant corrective: be honest and courageous, but in open-hearted ways that does not trespass on others. Of course it is impossible to know how our actions will be experienced by others, but if we hold these tensions when engaging with the world perhaps we will occasionally experience moments which at least feel authentic.


Questions to Consider

  • Do you agree with the components of authenticity that Laing identified?

  • Is inauthenticity implicated in human suffering?

  • Is anger the royal road to authenticity? Can we be nice and authentic?

  • If we are being authentic is it our task to point out the inauthenticity around us, and in others' behaviours?

  • Is authenticity equally open to everyone?

  • How can we know if we, or others, are being authentic?

  • Is authentic something to aspire to?

  • Does authenticity lie in our actions or in the reasons behind them?

  • How far do you go?


Find Our More

You can download M. Guy Thompson's paper here.

The international R. D. Laing institute is here.

The Philadelphia Association is here and has plenty of downloadable pdfs on existential topics.

The BBC documentary, The Trap, covers R. D. Laing's ideas in some depth, as does the documentary Just Another Sinner.

The website of the Northern Existential Group is coming soon!



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Mindfulness: Kindness & honesty

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sep 2011, 12:28

This blog follows the one posted here, where I reflect on tensions emerging from a weekend retreat about the possibilities of social mindfulness.

Kindness / honesty

The second tension which emerged, for me, over the weekend was perhaps less explicit than the other one, and harder to capture. It is about whether we prioritise kindness or honesty in our interactions with others (and with ourselves).

Of course, again, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed one understanding of mindfulness could be as a form of kind honesty, or honest kindness. It is not there in the early Buddhist definitions of mindfulness, which focus on lucid awareness (which could, perhaps, be viewed as a form of honesty with ourselves), but recent western mindful therapies - for example - often bring together concepts of awareness with those of compassion or acceptance. And the kind of awareness which is advocated in mindful meditation, more broadly, is a gentle or kind one. For example, when we meditate we are encouraged to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that bubble up, but not to become too attached to them. However, we are also not meant to squash them or try to eradicate them. Rather the aim is to be compassionately aware of them, and to gently bring our attention back to our breath or other focus of meditation. This kind of practice reminds us of the sorts of stories and habits that we can get easily become caught up in.

When it comes to our interactions with others it seems that a prioritising of kindness can take us away from being honest, and a prioritising of honesty can take us away from being kind. For example, a mindfulness activity which I brought to the weekend (based on some writing I've been doing with Jamie Heckert) was about two different common strategies for dealing with situations of conflict where one person or group has more power than the other because of their social status. One of these strategies focuses more on kindness, where we try to compassionately understand where ourselves, and the other people, are coming from in the conflict and focus on reaching an understanding, being gentler with each other, and perhaps forgiving and accepting. The other strategy focuses more on honesty, where we look at what is going on in the conflict (perhaps explicitly and implicitly) and we name it publicly, drawing attention to the power dynamics which are at play and the privileges which one person or group has which means that their voice may be more heard than the others.

As I see it now, the dangers are that kindness-focused strategies may fall into 'niceness', whilst honesty-focused strategies may fall into 'rudeness'.

When we are trying so hard to be kind that we prioritise compassion over honesty, we may find ourselves ignoring or avoiding tensions which are there in order that everybody gets along. We might fail to see the power dynamics and marginalisations that are happening because we do not want to have to face difficult conversations, or even irresolvable conflicts. We might lose our critical awareness of the complexities of the situation, and the differences between us, in a comforting sense of our shared humanity and connection which may well not be there for everybody. We might find ourselves accepting what we take for granted rather than questioning it in a critical way. In our attempts to be kind we might end up causing harm as we silence some voices and flatten the hierarchies that exist. If our aim is to increase kindness in the world, we may find ourselves doing the exact opposite as people feel even more hurt and raw and less inclined to engage with one another, or we ourselves behave passively-aggressively because we are suppressing any difficult feelings.

When we are trying so hard to be honest that we prioritise awareness over kindness, on a very practical level we may find that others are unable to hear what we have to say. The privileges, oppressions and power dynamics which we clearly see, and the problematic behaviours which we want to highlight, may well be so hard for others to own up to that they just respond defensively and shut down. This may particularly be the case if we communicate with them in an accusing or insistent way which doesn't include listening to their perspective at all. If our aim is to improve awareness and to encourage honest exchange, we may do the exact opposite as people feel far too unsafe to speak openly, and put up their defences such that it becomes even harder for them to see the problematic things that they are doing. It may be much easier for them just to dismiss us as rude people, or over-the-top activists, and walk away from the exchange. We may, ourselves, become so aggressive in our manner that others are scared or hurt by the exchange, meaning that we are perpetuating the very violence which we were trying to address.

There is a danger, in mindfulness, that we prioritise compassion to such an extent that we close down debate and difference and – unwittingly perhaps – prevent ourselves from seeing some of the problems that we are so keen to address. There is a danger, for those of us who are critically socially engaged, that we fall into judgement of others and shoring up our own sense of 'rightness'. Without compassion we may be unable to see our own potential for harming others (because it is too hard to face when we aren't being kind), or the personal and painful reasons which may lie behind other people's actions.

Perhaps this is social mindfulness: the attempt to be honestly kind, compassionately critical, and gently aware.


Where is the social?

I hope that these explorations may go some way to answering my colleague's question about 'where is the social' in mindfulness. To summarise, I think it is (or can be) in there in the following ways, and probably many more:

  • In recognising the inherent socialness even of our very internal experiences: the ways our interactions with other people throughout our lives have shaped who and how we are, and how much of our internal life is devoted to our interactions with others and the wider world.

  • In employing meditation, and other practices, to 'swim against the stream' – noticing how wider assumptions and accepted behaviours operate through us, and committing to do otherwise.

  • In mindfulness as a methodology – individually and in group processes – for understanding the complexities of how social aspects such as power and privilege operate through us.

  • In mindfulness practices which are explicitly social. One example would be writing about how we, ourselves, experience being on two sides of an opposition (for example when we feel marginalised, or when we marginalise others), in order to understand the other perspective better. Another would be mindful dialogue, when we have conversations with the explicit intention of listening, hearing the other, and being aware of what we bring to the situation. A further example is in ways of making people's stories available in ways which illuminate what their lives are like within the current social context (e.g. of healthcare systems, or global politics).

  • In 'retreating' in ways which leave us more able then to engage, rather than feeling too ragged ourselves to intervene in ways which may be useful to others.

  • In using mindfulness to bring an ethics to our work on social issues which might mean that we make more of a difference, because we understand better how to communicate what we are saying in ways which can be heard and acted upon by others.


Find out more:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh's community of interbeingrepresents one very social version of mindfulness.

  • Gregory Kramer's 'insight dialogue' is an example of a social mindfulness practice.

  • Steven and Martine Batchelor's website is another interesting way into mindfulness which considers many of these issues.

  • My papers written in collaboration with Steven Stanley and Jamie Heckert will both be appearing online and explore some of these ideas further. I will link to them when they are available.

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Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sep 2011, 12:29

Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

People who read my blogs and other writing will know that one of the things I'm heavily into is mindfulness. This is, broadly speaking, the practice of cultivating awareness, often through meditation where you gently focus on your breath going in and out, or on the sounds around you, or on your bodily sensations as you walk very slowly back and forth.

My excitement about mindfulness may seem a bit peculiar to those who know that the other areas which I'm passionately engaged in are all very social: issues around relationship structures, discrimination of marginalised groups in society, and power and conflict. Mindfulness seems such an internal, individual thing, how can it possibly be relevant to these matters. As somebody asked in an Open University seminar on the topic: 'where is the social?'

Such questions were the motivation behind a weekend workshop/retreat which I attended earlier this month. Steven Stanley and I put together the weekend with a group of colleagues to address the question of social mindfulness. The weekend consisted of a combination of periods of meditation and other mindful-type practices (such as Qigong), together with presentations and discussions linking mindfulness to various social issues including sustainability, interpersonal and intergroup conflict, prejudice and discrimination, mental health and communication.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the weekend was the way in which the kinds of challenges we were discussing were so live within the group itself. Perhaps - particularly as a relationship therapist - I should have expected that these psychosocial issues would come up in the process of our interactions as well as in the content of them. But I really didn't anticipate it, and I found it tough indeed to notice how much my thoughts, when meditating, kept returning to niggles about my exchanges with other people, and how many of our group discussions themselves became conflictual or manifested some of the very power dynamics which we were trying so hard to address.

Mindfulness retreats, in my experience, are often humbling experiences in this way: in the silence and stillness we are forced to confront the kinds of petty judging and competitiveness that we fall into a lot of the time, and it is not a comfortable experience. At times I found it frustrating. Perhaps on some level I wanted us to prove to everyone how socially beneficial mindfulness could be by having some wonderfully experience of perfect connection, simply because we were all being so mindful! But perhaps what really happened was a lot more useful because it reminded us that what we really were was just a group of human beings, with all the messiness that entails. The inevitable tensions, scratchiness, miscommunications and disengagements – if we are courageous enough to face them – provide a perfect arena for thinking about how all our mindful ideas and practices could usefully be brought to bear on other social situations.

In my next two blogs I want to focus on two tensions, which emerged for me, from the weekend, which I think are key to this question of how mindfulness ways of understanding the world, and living our lives, might be useful in terms of wider social issues. The first is about whether we focus inwards on ourselves or outwards on the world around us. The second is about a tension between kindness and honesty. In both cases, of course, these are not mutually exclusive things, and perhaps the important shift is from an either/or way of seeing them (either I can focus inwards or outwards, either I can be kind or I can be honest) to a both/and way of embracing each 'side', or perhaps bringing them into dialogue with each other, or seeing what it is like to oscillate between them like a pendulum rather than prioritising one 'side' over the other.


Focus inwards / focus outwards

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the weekend, for me, was one about internal or external focus.

Some of us found ourselves arguing for the social benefits of very internal mindfulness practices because – if we do not look into ourselves in this way – we may well find ourselves intervening with others in ways that are harmful to them. One way in which we are all social is that our exchanges and interactions over the years (with close friends, wider groups and society at large), leave us with painful feelings, fears about ourselves, and uncomfortable habits. For example, we may have grown up in a family where it was expected that everyone be tough, or we may have been bullied at school for being a misfit, or we may have taken on board a wider societal habit of judging people by their appearances. If we are not aware of these things we may find ourselves just acting on them when we interact with others (e.g. trying to be the tough guy all the time). Or we might try to suppress them and keep them hidden, but find that they blurt out, or that we project them onto other people (e.g. using an appearance word like 'fat' as an insult without meaning to, or viewing somebody else as a misfit because we're trying not to be one ourselves).

The extreme 'internal' position might be that putting our 'stuff' onto other people like this is so inevitable that the best thing we can do is to focus inwardly a lot, and just endeavour not to cause harm in these ways. Trying to intervene with others is just too dangerous and will likely involve us imposing ourselves, or our society, onto them in ways that are deeply problematic because we can't ever know enough about their situation.

Perhaps the opposite view to this is to see the social benefits only of external practices where we do actually go out into the world and intervene. This view might look at internal practices, such as meditation, and ask what good they are doing. In a world where there is so much suffering, meditation, therapy and the like seem like incredibly privileged activities, only available to a few who have the necessary time and resources. They can also appear like a kind of self-indulgent naval-gazing which encourage us to focus inwards on self-improvement or on beating ourselves up, instead of outwards on activities which might actually diminish suffering or help other people. Wouldn't it be better if all the time, energy and resources spent on such internal-focused practices was put into activism or directed towards those with greater needs?

The extreme 'external' position might be to focus entirely on intervention: to get out into the world and find out what the most pressing issues are (the threat to the environment perhaps, or poverty, or war), to develop our skills and knowledge in these areas, and to do something which might be of help. External mindfulness practices might take the form of encouraging people into mindful dialogue to resolve conflict (for example, by teaching listening practices), or they might be ways of increasing sustainability through encouraging awareness of 'conditioned arising' (e.g. where the pair of jeans we see in the supermarket came from, and what the impact is of buying them).

The well known mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, was presented with just this challenge of inner or outer focus. In the 1970s a monk asked him what the best response was to the crisis of refugees in Vietnam after the war: should the monks stay in their monastery and meditate, or should they get out there and try to feed and house the refugees. Thich Nhat Hanh responded that they should do both, and his book The Miracle of Mindfulness was written as a fuller response to this social issue. This is why the book focuses on bringing mindfulness into all our daily activities, rather than it just being something that we do sitting on a cushion.

Steven Batchelor, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, also emphasises a kind of oscillation between retreat and engagement. He says that our practice cannot be abstracted from the way in which we interact with the world, which needs to be with integrity, but perhaps we cannot know what the ethical way to act is if we do not take time to tune into ourselves and to consider others with empathy. However, we can never reach a certainty of the impact our actions will have, so we have to act, to be open to learning from our mistakes, to notice when our habits kick in when we are acting on self-interest, and then to act again, attempting to avoid this.

'At times we may concentrate on the specifics of material existence: creating a livelihood that is in accord with our deepest values and aspirations. At times we may retreat: disentangling ourselves from social and psychological pressures in order to reconsider our life in a quiet and supportive setting. At times we may engage with the world: responding empathetically and creatively to the anguish of others' (Batchelor, 1997, p.42).

Perhaps it is useful, also, to be aware of the risk of meditation – and other more 'inner' focused practices – to become a mode of self-monitoring, done with the aim of self-improvement, which takes us away from engagement with others, as well as of the risk that externally focused activities may be done in a way that hurts others if we do not attempt to be aware of what we bring to those situations in terms of our personal hopes and fears.


My next blog will focus on another tension from the weekend – that around kindness and honesty. I'll also conclude with a summary of social mindfulness and some places to read more.

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The gap that lovers must fill: What exactly is a 'conventional' relationship?

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This post also appears over on OpenLearn

For the next three weeks, the Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed will be examining cultural shifts and changes in the home. With the help of OU academics, Laurie Taylor will be speaking with people whose living situations reflect the increasing diversity of home-lives of people in the UK. This seems a very timely exploration given the number of commentators who blamed the recent rioting and violence in British towns on changes in the family, and called for families to be punished by eviction for the behaviours of their members. Similarly, recent reviews have called for for society to become more 'family friendly' as a way of addressing the 'sexualisation of culture'.


In my own work, on romantic relationships, I have been struck by the fact that we have a clear idea of what a 'proper' relationship should look like, and often imagine that this is how relationships have always been and how they will always be. We even talk about it as the 'traditional' or 'conventional' form of relationships. However, what we are referring to is a relatively new invention, which clearly differs from relationships at other points in history, and in other cultures around the world. Also, there is much evidence of diversity in such relationships in our own culture today. I have always suspected that the same is true of 'home' and of 'family' and look forward to hearing more about this on the programme.


The common idea of the conventional relationship is of a monogamous, long-term relationship between a man and a woman, based on them falling in love, and committed to through marriage. The conventional family is the so-called 'nuclear' family where such a couple has two or three children. And the conventional home is the house which this family owns and where they live out their private life, away from the gaze of other people.


Understandings of the conventional relationship has certainly changed a great deal over time. For a start, the current emphasis we have on love as the basis of a relationships is a relatively new thing. In the past, relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it in her book Marriage, a History 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. The current form of love relationships seemed to emerge in the 1950s, although, as I often point out, the TV series Mad Men, which has so caught the popular imagination, is a pretty accurate demonstration of some of the tensions that were in it right from the start.


Some have argued that the historical shift in emphasis to romantic love is related to the decline of religion, the precariousness of work situations, and the tendency of people to move about geographically rather than remaining in one place. Intimate relationships have become the new religion: the place people turn to get self-validation, a sense of meaning, and the belonging they may previously have gained from family or community. It certainly seems that marriages are a relatively recession-proof industry, and that there is a strong message – in popular culture – that people will meet The One with whom they will have a happily-ever-after.


However, there is an inevitable tension here because we are also living in a time which emphasises individuality, autonomy and reaching our personal goals. Increasing gender equality, and recognition of lesbian, gay and bisexual people's relationships, means that romantic couples are now generally made up of two people who want both togetherness and independence, both belonging and freedom. This means that old rules, around rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules available for how to manage these relationships. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.


These changes may be the reason why marriages, and romantic relationships, are relatively unstable, and why there is evidence of an increasing diversity of relationship forms. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Around 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not. Newspaper articles wonder whether Bridget Jones singledom, or Sex and The City serial monogamy, will replace long-term monogamous relationships as the new form of relating. Many people are engaging in forms of openly non-monogamous relationships, from the new monogamy (where couple relationships are, to some extent, open to other sexual and emotional connections), to swinging, open relationships and polyamory (where people form multiple emotional and/or sexual relationships).


There have been similar shifts in families and homes over the past century. Related to changes in relationships, are increases in single-person households (estimated at seven million in the UK, and particularly high in urban areas). There have also been changes in parenting (single-parenting, step parenting, and families with multiple parents), and at returns to the less-private, extended, forms of family (both biological families and families of choice) due to economic pressures and other reasons. Also interesting is the British love of home-ownership following the involvement of mortgages in recent financial crises.

Those who are interested in finding out more might like to listen into Thinking Allowed, follow the links in this piece, and check out the UK General Lifestyle Survey 2009 which charts how things have changed in recent decades.


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Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Thursday, 16 Jun 2011, 18:00

Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms


During the last few days I have been attending the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) conference up in Glasgow. Right before that, on June 11th, we had the conference of the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), which is the key British organisation for this group of practitioners.

I organise the programme for the COSRT events and, to make it go with a bang, this year we decided to focus on the orgasm! On Saturday we spent the day learning about the science and art of orgasms, and on Monday we brought our various perspectives to the attendees of WAS in a very well-attended symposium on the subject. Here I want to give a flavour of just some of the ideas that were presented over the course of the two events.


Orgasm science

During the COSRT conference we were very fortunate to hear from three of the major international researchers in this area: Roy Levin from the UK and Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk from the US. We learnt that many of the same underlying physiological processes are involved in orgasms regardless of the sex of the person involved: for example, increased blood flow to the genitals, activation of the dopamine system, and the involvement of the hormone oxytocin. Indeed, research has found that experts cannot tell the difference between descriptions of orgasms given by people of different sexes. Vaginal muscles, like those of penises, contract during orgasm, and many also ejaculate a specific fluid as well (sometimes called 'squirting'). However, there is no evidence that vaginal and uterine contractions are involved the transport of sperm for fertilisation (a common myth).

Given that the genitals begin in the same form in everyone – only being sexually differentiated later in foetal development – there are more similarities than we often realise. For example, the clitoris is not simply the 'button' that most people think it is, but rather a structure of much larger size stretching back through the body, meaning that some people with clitorises experience pleasure or orgasms from internal stimulation, for example of the 'G-spot' at the front of the vaginal wall. However, it is important to remember that 70% require external stimulation of the clitoris glans (the button) in order to orgasm, so orgasms from penetration alone are actually quite rare. Similar to the G-spot, the stimulation of the prostrate through the rectum can produce/enhance orgasm for many people.


Orgasm art

When I organised the programme for the conference and symposium I wondered whether there might be conflict or tension between the perspectives of the scientists who were speaking, and those of the therapists and others who were talking from a more practical, or even creative, point of view. Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth. There were so many resonances between the different talks. For example, we heard from Roy Levin that sounds made during orgasm occur at the same time as contractions and are an important part of the process. Then tantric teacher Barbara Carrellas echoed the importance of sound, and the involvement of deeper and higher notes in different orgasmic experiences.

Similarly, Alex Iantaffi and myself spoke about the fact that it is important not to see orgasms as the goal of sex. Psychosexual therapists find that clients who put too much focus on orgasms and/or erections or penetration often experience problems and don't enjoy sex as much. Beverly Whipple said exactly the same thing in her talk, emphasising that it is better for sex to be pleasure-directed, rather than goal-directed. There are many things that might be involved in sex (fingers, tongues, fantasies, imagery, kisses, self-touching, other-touching, holding, caressing, talking, various kinds of penetration, and various kinds of sensations – sometimes including orgasm), but not all of these are necessary each time or for every person.

We also heard from several speakers that genitals need not always be involved in orgasms at all. Barbara Carrellas introduced us to tantra-style energy orgasms which involve breathing in a circular motion up and down the body and squeezing the pelvic muscles during this process. Again, this is not done with the goal of orgasm, but can result in orgasmic experiences which build and build and which are indistinguishable from other kinds of orgasms when the brain activation is recorded in an fMRI scanner.

Speakers Michelle Donaldson and Sue Lennon spoke about the potential for widening out our understandings of orgasms, and the parts of our bodies and minds which are involved in them, for people with spinal injuries and various cancers. They may have less, or no, genital sensation, following injuries or surgeries, but they can still experience orgasms if they develop these wider understandings and experiences. Psychosexual therapist, Tricia Barnes, spoke at the WAS symposium about the importance of taking a biopsychosocial approach to orgasms, which incorporates the whole body, the perceptions and thoughts people have, and the wider sociocultural world they inhabit which may have positive or negative notions about sex and orgasms.


Question marks around the current treatment of orgasms

During the COSRT conference we screened the recent documentary Orgasm Inc which follows the race, in the US, to find a medical treatment for women who have difficulty experiencing orgasm (along similar lines to the popular treatments which exist for 'erectile dysfunction'). The documentary cautions against a purely medical approach for all the reasons that we have already mentioned:

  • The focus on attaining orgasms is goal-directed rather than pleasure-directed, and may therefore be counter productive in encouraging focus on a particular 'end point' rather than people being present to the whole experience of sex, whatever it involves.

  • Orgasms are biopsychosocial experiences, and medical treatments alone may stop us from considering the psychological and social processes involved. For example, many women feel they should have sex even when they don't want to in order to maintain their relationship, and there are many negative social messages about sex for women who have 'too much', or 'too little', sex.

  • Most people with clitorises need external stimulation in order to experience orgasm, and many of those seeking medical treatment are still under the popular misconception that it is 'normal' to experience orgasm from penetration alone.

  • There are whole body, emotional, and imaginative techniques which can open up orgasmic experiences which would be well worth trying before taking a medical treatment with potential side-effects which have not been researched long-term yet. Certainly a good starting point would be exploring what turns you on and communicating about that with sexual partner/s.

In our symposium at the WAS conference, Alex Iantaffi and I concluded that the constant focus on what is 'normal' in sex, and on diagnosing people with 'disorders' or 'sexual dysfunctions', is unhelpful. Instead it would be useful to recognise that orgasms mean different things to different people at different times. An orgasm can be experienced as all of the following things and more:

...a mechanical release, a demonstration of one’s masculine or feminine sexuality, a relief of stress, a loss of control, allowing someone to see you at your most vulnerable, a display of intimacy, the height of physical pleasure, a transcendent spiritual experience, a performance demonstrating prowess, a giving of power to another, an exerting of power over another, a form of creative self-expression, a humorous display of our rather-ridiculous humanity, an unleashing of something wild and animalistic, a deeply embodied experience, an escape from bodily sensations and pain, and/or a moment of complete alive-ness or freedom...

So orgasms can be positive experiences, they can be relatively mundane, or they can be negative. Not everyone sees them as an important part of their experience, and many may prefer other kinds of stimulation, or to stay in the realm of fantasy, or to focus on other aspects of life. Instead of worrying so much about having certain kinds of experiences (like orgasms), we could simply be with our sexuality as it is at the time, allowing it to be all that it is, and to ebb and flow over the course of our days, weeks, and lives. Instead of trying to force ourselves to fit what we perceive as 'normal', perhaps we could put that energy into letting go of our preconceptions about sex and discovering our sexualities anew.


Find Out More

  • The website for Orgasm Inc is here.

  • You can find the accessible book on orgasms which Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk co-authored with Sara Nasserzadeh, and Dr. Carlos Beyer-Flores here.

  • Barbara Carrellas's Urban Tantra website is here.

  • The COSRT website is here, and their journal, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, is here.

  • The Scarleteen website contains useful information about exploring and communicating sexual turn-ons.

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Hell is other people?

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Hell is other people? The Northern Existential Group discuss No Exit

2nd June 2011 saw the inaugural meeting of the Northern Existential Group (a Manchester-based version of the London-based Society for Existential Analysis discussion group). For our first session we chose to discuss the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit: a marvellously accessible introduction to the ideas of the French existentialists, and particularly resonant in these days of reality TV shows which place contestants in a very similar situation to the one in which his characters find themselves.

No Exit

In No Exit, three characters (Garcin, Inez and Estelle) are, one-by-one, escorted into a drawing room and left there together, locked in. We soon discover that all have recently died and that this room is the hell to which they have been condemned for eternity. The characters initially respond in surprise that the room is nothing like the fiery pit of torture and torment which they had always imagined hell to be. However, Inez quickly realises that the idea must be that 'each of us will act as torturer of the other two'. Whilst Estelle and Garcin try to deny that they would torment the others, and even the validity of them being in hell (perhaps it is all a mistake), Inez is more aware of their fate and resigned to her rightful damnation.

Over the course of the play, we discover that all three characters have done things that they regard as bad and/or cowardly: Inez had an affair with her cousin's partner and he ended up killing himself, which led to his partner killing both herself and Inez, and she admits that she needs to make others suffer. Estelle became pregnant as a result of an affair and killed her daughter despite her lover begging her not to. Garcin tried to run away rather than being sent to jail as a conscientious objector, and beat and cheated on his wife. They succeed in becoming each others' tormentors mostly by denying each other what they seek which they believed would alleviate their suffering: Estelle wants Garcin to want and desire her and Garcin wants somebody to see him as a hero and not a coward. Eventually Garcin realises that there will never be any escape from being looked upon by Inez and Estelle, and that they will never see him as he wants to be seen. This is when he delivers the famous line 'hell is – other people!'.

Discussion of the play

There is a certain awkward humour to finding yourself sitting in a room as a group of relative strangers discussing this particular play! One of us had researched the play a little online before attending and said that some have simply read it at face value: that it is about the kind of hell that might await these particularly (bad) people. However, we agreed that Sartre meant it to be a much wider comment on the human condition: other people are always hell for each other. There is some debate between Garcin, Inez and Estelle over whether they have been chosen as the ideal tormentors for one another, or whether they were simply allocated at random. We suspected that it was the latter: the point being that any human beings thrown together would inevitably end up being hell for each other in some way.

This idea relates to Sartre's wider philosophy: the notion that as soon as we are in the (real or even imagined) presence of another person, we begin to see ourselves through their eyes and this is the end of our freedom. In his early work Sartre only sees two ways that we can deal with this situation: either we can try to make ourselves something for the other person, or we can try to turn them into something for us. Thus in No Exit we see Estelle trying to turn herself into a desirable object for Garcin, and Garcin trying to get Inez to rescue him from his fear that he is a coward. The Look of other people has this incredible power. If only Inez (the truth-sayer) could see Garcin as not cowardly then that would mean that he is not. However, Sartre says that such strategies are doomed to failure. Our freedom will always bubble up and we will resent trying to be what others want us to be, or we will grow weary of another person who has turned themselves into an object for us, because they will no longer have the freedom that we were originally attracted to. It is also possible to bring this existential reading together with a more psychodynamic one in the form of the transactional analysis drama triangle whereby there is always a victim, a perpetrator and a rescuer, but these roles keep switching: We see such switches throughout No Exit as freedom ensures that no role remains static for long.

There are also strong echoes of Simone de Beauvoir's philosophies in No Exit (unsurprisingly given the close relationship between her and Sartre). Indeed, on discussing the play we were struck by the resonances between the characters and the triangles in Sartre and de Beauvoir's own life, particularly in relation to the younger women who Sartre became involved with. There are reverberations of The Second Sex in Inez's berating of Estelle for thinking that being a desirable object for a man is something to base her life (and even afterlife) around. And it is rather interesting for those of us who have reflected on the gendered treatment of Sartre and de Beauvoir's work that Inez sees the truth of the situation from the start, whilst Garcin (who was oblivious) is the one who is given the show-stopping line (which just summarises what Inez has been saying all along).

Is hell other people?

During our discussion of the play we were magnetically pulled, again and again, back to the big question that it raises. Are other people necessarily hell for each other? Is there another way? Garcin tries, in the play, to disengage from the others, thinking that if they all just sat there in silence it might be okay. But the futility of this demonstrates what existentialists know – that we are inevitably in-relation with others and can never truly escape their influence (even if we retreat or rebel we are doing it in relation to them).

But might there be another way of being-with-others? We were reminded of the Jewish parable of the long spoons, where hell is a place with a magnificent feast but everyone has spoons so long that they are unable to feed themselves and they starve. Heaven is exactly the same, but people are using the spoons to feed each other. Might the heaven version of No Exit consist of the exact same three people in the exact same room, but they have found a way to feed each other?

This idea sounds something like the form of mutual, or reciprocal, relating that de Beauvoir proposes in her work (notably her Ethics of Ambiguity), which also echoes in Merleau-Ponty's theories of intersubjectivity, and which Sartre was perhaps moving towards in his later, more Marxist influenced, writings. De Beauvoir argues that it is in all of our interests to recognise the freedom of others, not only because this is the reality of the situation, but because we need others to be free in order to trust their validations of us and to aid us in our own goals.

It seemed to us that it was necessary for Inez, Estelle and Garcin to recognise, themselves, that their cowardice or cruelty was there, but also that it was not all that they were, and was not fixed and unchangeable. But perhaps they do require the Look of others to affirm that plurality and flexibility in themselves (they cannot use the long spoons to feed themselves). Our discussion ended with a reflection on whether we inevitably regard others as objects for ourselves, or whether we can aspire to seeing others – and therefore ourselves – as unique, complex, changing, human beings. In fleeting moments of connection or mutuality can we experience a flash of heaven?

Find out more:

You can read No Exit here, and there are some fascinating clips and music videos based on the play if you search You Tube for No Exit.

There is a link to the drama triangle here, which comes across quite clearly in this play and represents another more psychodynamic reading.

If you would like to be on the mailing list for the Northern Existential Group, please send your details to Susan Iacovou: therapy@susaniacovou.com

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Sexual Nature: Happily Ever After

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 16:04

Happily Ever After?



The London Natural History Museum has been putting on a series of events in connection with its Sexual Nature exhibition. On Friday I spoke at the last of these events which aimed to explore what makes a successful relationship, along with anthropologist Volker Sommer.

The first half of the event focused on the kinds of relationships that take place amongst animals other than humans, and across different historical periods and the various human cultures around the world today. It is interesting that, when trying to answer these kinds of questions, we often try to determine what is 'natural' (by looking to other animals) or what is 'normal' (by looking across time and culture). We often assume that what is natural or normal must be what is good. But that in itself is worth questioning. Behaviours like taking antibiotics or being kind to animals could be seen as 'unnatural', and high levels of self-sacrifice for others or the ability to sing beautifully are 'abnormal'.

With that note of caution in mind, when we do look across animal species or human societies what we actually find is diversity. The Sexual Nature exhibition itself demonstrates the huge variety of relationship forms which exist amongst animals: from species of bird where many different females mate with the male whose displays are most visually attractive, to the male seahorses who give birth to their young, to the bonobo chimpanzees who use sex as a social activity to develop and reinforce bonds with other male and female chimps. Volker talked about the various forms of polygyny, polyandry, and polygynandry that have existed across the world at various times (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy), often relating to the physical environment that people find themselves in. For example, there are societies where women marry a man's brothers as well as the man himself, where men have sexual relationships with other men early in life before marrying a woman, where men have more than one wife who take on different roles in relation to work and domestic labour, and where the norm is for people to have 'trial marriages' - with someone of the same, or other, gender - by cohabiting for a while before making any legal commitment.

Diversity is also the case when we look at UK society today. The UK is one of the 10-20% of cultures worldwide which are held to be monogamous. However, as I mentioned at the event, statistics on infidelity in marriage of up to 50-60% suggest that we could say that non-monogamy is actually more usual, but that it usually takes the form of secret affairs, rather than the recognised forms of polygamy that exist elsewhere. There are also many forms of open monogamy which are commonly practised, from the 'new monogamy' where couples are – to some extent – open to emotional and sexual commitments with people other than their partners, to forms of swinging and open relationships, to polyamory where people form multiple romantic and sexual relationships. It is more useful to view relationships today as on a continuum of sexual monogamy (from one sexual partner to many) and a continuum of emotional monogamy (from one close intimate person to many). Individuals are negotiating their own relationship rules around monogamy, for example whether they decide whether to remain close to ex-partners, or whether online sexual contact is acceptable.

Returning to the question of what makes a successful relationship, it is clear that the answer to this is 'different things for different people at different times'. We live at an uncertain time where old rules of relating don't necessarily apply to the patchwork families and serial relationships that many people are experiencing. However, we remain in a situation where some relationship forms are considered far more acceptable than others, and afforded much more social approval, recognition and protection.

When asked for my prescription for a 'successful' relationship I suggested that, on an individual relationship level, they would involve people respecting each others' values, communicating openly about these (rather than assuming that they are shared), and being open to the inevitable shifts and changes that will occur in relationships over time. On a societal level it is important to recognise the variety of relationships that people are actually experiencing, rather than trying to squeeze everyone into one-size-fits-all models of relationships or family.

Find out more:

The Sexual Nature exhibition is open till October 2011

You can read the tweets from the 'Happily Ever After?' event by searching twitter for the #sexualnature hashtag.

There is more about monogamy elsewhere on my blog

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Psychology in the Pub: Social Networking

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 11:22

Social Networking: Friend or foe?


This month saw the first Psychology in the Pub event take place in Sheffield. This spin-off from the popular London event is organised by myself and Mary Langridge. It will be happening once a month from now on at the Showroom in central Sheffield.

For the first event we were very lucky to have Sue Jamison-Powell from the University of Lincoln talking to us about her work on social networking. Sue has particularly studied the experience of 'defriending', or being 'defriended' on social networking sites such as facebook. She points out that, in real life friendships, there is the possibility of allowing friendships to drift into acquaintance-ships. On many social networking sites, however, it is only possible to have people as a 'friend' or not. This makes online friendships something more like romantic relationships, which we tend to view in an either/or way: Either we are in a relationship or we are not. For this reason Sue suggests that the experience of being 'defriended', or 'defriending' someone, may have more in common with losing a lover.

Defriending is certainly a very common experience. Sue found that only 16% of the people she studied had not experienced being on one end or the other of a defriending. When she studied those who had been defriended by somebody else, she found that the vast majority of them had not done anything about the situation when they found out about it. Research on romantic relationships suggests that an important part of the break-up process is some kind of communication between people acknowledging that there is a need for change. Clearly this doesn't happen in online defriending. Rather people are generally surprised to find themselves defriended, and don't feel that initiating a conversation about it is something that they want to, or are able to, do. Levels of distress following a defriending clearly weren't usually as high as after most romantic relationship break-ups. However, they were not non-existent either.

When she looked at the reasons people gave for defriending others, Sue found that it was sometimes done due to different expectations of the friendship (e.g. one person thinking it was pointless because they weren't close in 'real-life'). Other times people found it difficult to bring together different groups of friends on a social networking site and defriended those whose comments were likely to be disapproved of by other friends or family ('I didn't want me mam reading about my debauchery'). Some people valued their privacy and didn't want their posts read by certain friends (for example, work colleagues). Others found themselves irritated by some friends' online styles (spamming them with quizzes, for example).

Sue's talk sparked a lively discussion amongst the Psychology in the Pub attendees about the potentials and pitfalls of social networking sites. It became clear that people used them in very different ways, and that they meant different things to different people as well. For example, some were friends mostly with people who they knew well and used the sites to arrange meeting up. Others used social networking more to keep up with people at a distance, and/or to connect with new people. Some had more than one social networking persona for different aspects of their lives (e.g. work, social, family, sex) whilst others brought these together in one place.

Like Sue, it is important that people studying sites like twitter and facebook maintain an awareness of the multiplicity of experiences that people can have of them. Rather than trying to determine whether social networking is a good thing or a bad thing, perhaps it is more useful to explore the potentials that they can open up and the possibilities that they can close down. For example, the limiting either/or approach to (de)friending has changed now that it is possible on facebook just to hide friend requests. However, this may still discourage any kind of open communication between people and leave them feeling rejected with no idea why.

Social networking can be both a wonderful way for shy people to try out relationships in a safe context and for those who are geographically isolated to connect with like-minded people. It can also encourage fairly superficial connections and a sense of alienation when a post is not commented upon, for example. Seeing the varied experiences of our facebook friends can remind us that everyone suffers and give us opportunities to offer, and to receive, compassion. Alternatively, we might be confronted with purely shiny happy postings which leave us worrying there is something wrong with us, or with an overwhelming sense of hardship and impotence when many of our friends are struggling. When we socially network we can feel pressured to present one, coherent side of ourselves which will gain the most approval ('like'), or we can creatively enjoy the precarious experience of revealing the complexity and multiplicity of our daily existence.

In conclusion, as facebook would have it: it's complicated.

Find out more:

You can read Sue Jamison-Powell's presentation here

Find out more about Psychology in the Pub here

I will continue to blog here about the Psychology in the Pub events. Watch this space...

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The Royal We

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:36

The Royal We

Also posted over on Society Matters

With the royal wedding fast approaching it is interesting to consider what advice could be given to Kate and William, or any other young couple marrying in the UK in 2011. If we bring together psychological, sociological and philosophical work on relationships, as well as the experiences of relationship therapists, what are the key things that we could offer to people on the point of tying the knot?

Relationships Today

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, whilst Kate and Williams' situation is rather an extreme one, it also illustrates very well some wider patterns that are present in relationships today. Many commentators have linked their wedding to the recession, and certainly marriage is often found to be an almost 'recession proof' industry. When things are bad economically, people still want to get hitched.

Also, the desire to wed remains despite our knowledge of the high chances of the marriage ending at some point. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Of course, there is probably even more pressure on in the case of the royal wedding, due to the high rates of separation in William's family (three out of four of the Queen's children having been divorced).

So what does it mean that people, Kate and William included, are choosing to marry despite all of this? Perhaps it speaks to a great deal of hope that is being placed on romantic love, to the extent that some have suggested that it is almost a new religion in its own right. At a time when work is precarious, and when many people do not have strong religious beliefs, relationships are often the place that they turn to seek out validation, meaning and belonging. This is quite a change from past times when relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian, Stephanie Coontz, puts it: 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. These days we do try to live in a love story, seeking out The One and hoping for a happily-ever-after despite all the evidence against this being the most likely outcome.

The pressure is on relationships to fulfil us in every way throughout our – increasingly long – lives. However, we also know that relationships are a point of great potential struggle and pain. Living up close alongside somebody for many, many years may be one of the most difficult things that any of us do. Indeed, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that romantic relationships are the most dangerous places to be because they are where we are forced to confront ourselves and to learn about how we are capable of behaving. It might be possible to keep up a shiny, happy veneer with our work colleagues, our neighbours, and even our families once we are no longer living with them, but our partner gets to see us when we are at our most tired, stressed and ill.

This is something that is well captured in the Christian wedding vows. It really will be for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, and at the worse, poorer and sicker times we all (us and our loved ones) have the capacity for cruelty, coldness and cowardice. There will be times when we find ourselves frustrated, angry and bored with the love of our life and scared about what that may mean, as well as times when we see the loving gaze slip off their own faces to be replaced by something else. Such times can be terrifying if we have invested in this relationship the idea that it is a constant validation that we are okay and secure. It can be even harder if what we were expecting was some kind of constant perfection and happiness.

This may sound depressing and defeatist: an argument for not marrying at all, but it is not. Even if we didn't get married, or form romantic partnerships, we would still get intimate and connected to people, and these struggles would still arise. What I am arguing against are the industries that continue to sell us dangerous myths of perfect people and eternal happiness: the ever-smiling billboard, television and movie couples, and the self-help books and magazines that promise to reveal the secrets of 'successful' relationships which will lead to impossibly happy-ever-afters. This is what so many publishers, advertisers and film-makers sell, because they know that people want to hear it. But our constant saturation in these messages is the very thing that is leading to so much pain and struggle and heartache. And the image of the perfect love may well result in us leaving a relationship too quickly assuming that there must be something wrong with it, or staying in a tough relationship too long because we don't want to admit to 'failure'.

Perhaps instead of loading all these expectations and pressures onto Kate and William, and every other marrying couple, we could offer something different: a recognition that relationships will be tough at times and that there aren't any simple tricks to constant happiness. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have pointed out, along with wanting a great deal from relationships, relationships themselves have changed so much in the last few decades that we can feel lost and uncertain. Old rules, for example about rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules out there for us to follow either. As they put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.

If love is a blank then the thing that is, perhaps, most needed to fill in that blank is communication. The wedding gift that we might give to Kate and William, based on all the relationship therapy and research about relationships, would be communication.

A Wedding Gift: Communication

I'll use the wedding vows that Kate and William will be making to demonstrate both the importance of communication these days, and also the ways in which it might work. We make a lot of explicit, and implicit, promises to each other all the way through relationships, but we often fail to think much about what these promises mean, or to check whether they mean the same thing to both people. Research suggests that young couples actually often disagree quite strongly about the things that they thought they had both signed up to.

Kate and William's vows will be the ones from the Church of England 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This means that they will go something like this:

'I, William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor, take you, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, till death do us part; according to God's holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.' (and vice versa)

And later: 'With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.'

There are a lot of promises in there. To pick out some key ones, it seems that in marriage people are promising the following:

  • To stay together, through whatever happens, till death
  • To love each other throughout this time To have, or belong to, each other
  • To be sexual throughout the relationship (with my body I thee worship)
  • To share their worldly goods (usually understood as living together and sharing money)

In terms of the first promise, it might be useful – giving the statistics on separation – for couples to talk through this commitment. Would they want to stay together in exactly the same way, for example, if they found that they were fighting all the time in ways that hurt themselves and those close to them, or if one or both of them changed such that they found themselves with very different life goals. Some recognition that people and relationships change over time would be helpful here, and perhaps thinking about what they might do when such changes happen. Would the relationship staying in its current form be prioritised over their well-being? The idea that relationships can shift and change might take the pressure off a little as it offers something in between staying together exactly as we are, or completely ending the relationship.

In terms of loving each other throughout, it is worth talking through what love means to each person and how they express it, or like to have it expressed. People often feel very differently about this, for example, with one person liking regular declarations of love and big romantic gestures, whilst the other prefers practical signs that the other person has taken them into consideration (by doing the washing up, for example), or thinks about them during the day (the odd text message).

In terms of having and holding, it is very important to consider to what extent people belong to each other and to what extent they are free. This is at the root of so many big relationship conflicts. For example, one person might make a decision about their career which the other would have expected to be consulted upon, or one might think that they were free to be closer to certain friends than the other is happy with.

There is also often an expectation that marriages will stay sexual throughout, but there tends to be very little communication about what sex means to each person and what they actually enjoy. Research has found that people who have been in relationships for over a decade still haven't told their partners all of their sexual likes and dislikes, and of course these can change over time. It is useful to talk through what people want sex for, which actually differs quite a lot (e.g. from a release, to an affirmation of their attractiveness, to a reassurance about the relationship, to an expression of intimacy, to a sense of a physical need that requires regular fulfilment), and also recognise that this will fluctuate through the relationship too.

Finally, it is well worth communicating about what will be shared and what will be separate. Does sharing worldly goods mean having joint finances, for example, or keeping some separate? Do we expect to spend all our time together, or to have periods of separation? What are the limits on what would be acceptable (e.g. can we go on holiday with other people, or work apart for a while)? And what about space? Are we planning to live together, sleep together? Will there be any separate space? Who will be responsible for keeping shared space clean and tidy (and to what extent)? Or for caring for children, pets or plants? Will we have any things we keep private (e.g. certain activities or information)?

It is likely that with all these kinds of questions and more, there will be some aspects that both people agree on, some where they disagree but are able to reach a compromise which meets each other's requirements as well as possible, and some where they simply can't agree. These last ones occur in every relationship. They are points of tension which are likely to crop up every now and again, but can be a lot easier to cope with if there is awareness of them and respect for difference (rather than each person trying to force the other into their way of thinking). It can be very hard to respect that, while you would like to share everything, the other person really values keeping some things to themselves, or while you like lots of public displays of affection and 'I love you's', the other person prefers more private intimacy. Also, of course, both people will change over time, so it is worth revisiting these promises and seeing whether things have altered and any renegotiation is necessary, rather than 'you've changed' being a fatal accusation.

Hopefully a grounding of mutual commitment to communication, to respect for difference and change, and to understanding and forgiveness for behaviour when things get tough, will be a better basis for the rough and the smooth to come, than the expectation of perfection (in oneself and one's partner) and a fairytale happily-ever-after.

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Meg-John Barker


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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:37


This morning I have been writing a response piece for Sexual and Relationship Therapy about monogamy, so I thought I'd blog about it too. The original article and my response will hopefully appear in the August edition of that journal.

Basically the author of the original paper is arguing that sex and relationship therapists should be actively addressing monogamy with their clients because lots of sexual and relationship problems are rooted in monogamy. Thinking about it she has a good point. Obviously relationship conflicts and break-ups about infidelity are about monogamy. But from my own experience working with clients, I think that many other relationship conflicts and tensions are related to this broad issue as well. People often find themselves in different places in their relationships, over how free versus how together they want to be: how much they want to share and how much they want to be private and independent. Often one person is feeling more constrained and striving for more independence whilst another is feeling more insecure and striving for more of a sense of safety. And this frequently plays out around relationships with other people (is it okay to want more friends outside the relationship? Or to be a bit flirty with a colleague?)

Also, common sexual difficulties are often related to monogamy. A lot of people who have painful or unsatisfying sex continue to do so because they are scared of losing their partner to somebody else (and this tends to make it worse). A lot of people feel that they must continue to have 'great sex' throughout their relationship in order to affirm it, which creates the kind of pressure which can make it difficult to relax and tune in to what they really enjoy. The idea of being a 'sex addict' is sometimes linked to struggling with being monogamous.

The author of the paper pointed out that we generally get the message that monogamy is easy and 'natural', and that our partners will provide everything for us (emotionally and sexually). That idea can leave people feeling like a failure when it doesn't work out like that in their relationship. Actually very few people seem to manage monogamy across a life-time. As many as 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not.

So maybe it would be more useful (in therapy and in general) for people to have open conversations about how they want to manage their relationships: how monogamous they want to be.

I came up with the idea of two continua of monogamy for the book I'm writing on relationships. The emotional continuum goes from having all your emotional needs met by one person, to having multiple loving relationships. The sexual continuum goes from complete sexual fidelity to having multiple sex partners. I think it's useful for people to think about where they are on those continua and whether partners are in similar, or different places.

For example, on the emotional continuum we might consider relationships where it isn't acceptable to have any other close friendships, or to stay in touch with ex-partners, or where it is acceptable to stay up all night talking with someone you've just met, or to have several people in your life who are equally important to your partner. On the sexual continuum we might consider relationships where any form of sexual thought about someone other than the partner is considered wrong, ones where it is okay to look at pornography online but not to interact with someone sexually, ones where certain sexual activities with other people are considered okay, or ones that are completely open to sex with others. Obviously there is overlap between the two continua too.

At the end of my response I concluded that the following things would be useful for therapists, but also more generally:

  • Challenging the assumption that we all have the same rules about monogamy and being open to others being in a different place to ourselves
  • Recognising that relationships of all kinds are difficult and most people struggle around those tensions of freedom and togetherness
  • Communicating about where we are at currently on those continua, recognising that this might change over time and in different relationships, and that we might end up agreeing, compromising, or respectfully agree to disagree
  • Being aware of the variety of different relationship styles that are available , including different styles of monogamy, the new monogamy, open relationships, swinging, and polyamory

There's a lot more about open non-monogamy in the paper Darren Langdridge and I wrote on this topic last year.

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