Excerpts from "Must Read" Books & Articles on
Mental Health Topics, Books- Part XIV
Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage- Maggie
Themes of Early Life
The tendency that people have to replicate the themes of early life or of previous
generations in the context of later, intimate relationships has long been commented upon
by many marital theorists and therapists. As the social worker Lily Pincus, founder of the
Tavistock Institute for Marital Studies, and the family therapist Dr. Christopher Dare
All of us have a tendency to get into repetitive patterns of relationships that are
motivated by the persistence of wishes in unconscious fantasy form and derived from the
way earlier needs were satisfied. Sometimes, in marriage, the repetitive aspect of
sequences of partnership is remarkably literal, as when a woman whose childhood was
damaged by her father's alcoholism finds herself marrying a man who turns out to be an
alcoholic, divorces him and then gets herself into the same situation once more. Or, a man
whose childhood was dominated by his mother's heart disease may marry a woman with
congenital heart trouble.
The partners in such repetitive sequences, usually unaware that their problem is a
resurrection of one that existed earlier and elsewhere in the extended system, are
startled when they come to see that particular charged issue standing out in high relief.
I will cite two such examples--situations in which a family problem had been resurrected
and worked upon in a blatant and dramatic way, while the partners involved were oblivious
of any connection between patterns of the past and the present.
In the first instance, the couple were, at the time of our interviews,
in the midst of a full-blown marital crisis and were maintaining their emotionally fragile
connection for reasons that seemed to have more to do with mutual hostile dependence than
with anything relating to love, satisfaction, or caring. They behaved toward each other,
by and large, like an angry mother and a truculent child. He was her incorrigibly bad boy
of a spouse.
The wife had had a father whom she loved very much but who had made his
family's life insecure and difficult. He was a man who kept shifting jobs, changing
careers, owing either to restlessness and dissatisfaction on his part or to
dissatisfaction on that of his employers. He had been a musician at one time and a teacher
of music at another. He had run a community organization (and gotten into difficulties
with the board), tried to start a school, and also worked at a number of other, very
different sorts of occupations. The emotional turmoil surrounding this issue--because each
job that her father lost or decided to leave tended to involve a move to a new
community--had been a painful part of this woman's entire growing-experience. When we
talked, she was forty-three years old; she and her husband, a business executive, had been
married for eighteen years.
He had had a solid professional training when she married him: a
master's degree in business administration. He was moving rapidly up the corporate ladder
in a large financial institution. At a conscious level the wife had done everything
possible to avoid a repetition of her earlier difficulties: she'd found a partner who was
not only prepared for a stable, well-remunerated career but also interested in the things
that he was doing professionally.
But, as became evident during tile course of the interviews, this pair
had duplicated in their own lives what had happened earlier in the wife's family. Some
five years before our conversations got under way, the husband had begun feeling restless
in his job, like a cog in a large industrial wheel. He'd felt, as he put it, "trapped
on the company's organizational chart" and had decided to start a new business of his
own. The venture wasn't working out, and recently it had become clear that this effort (in
a field that had nothing to do with his former occupation) was destined for failure. He
was now, as he described himself, "in the midst of a male menopause," a crisis
of middle life. At a time when their oldest daughter was on the verge of entering college,
he had used up much of the family's savings and had no income. Had the wife, at some
level, required that the past repeat itself in this fashion?
One couldn't know. This particular wife, like her mother before her,
surely knew from her past how to be a powerful and competent woman who is in a
relationship with an immature, incompetent man. At the time of our conversations the
family (which consisted of two adults and two adolescent children) was being supported by
the wife's fairly ill paying job. This, too, was a repetition of a past set of
circumstances--her own family had been supported by her mother's secretarial salary. So
here she was in the middle years of her adulthood dealing with the same painful problem
that had preoccupied her throughout her childhood.
This restaging of a toxic family situation, in its entirety, seems to
defy rational explanation. But far eerier are the replications of problems by couples who
have no knowledge of a particular problem's previous existence in their families. I
encountered a replication of this sort in a set of interviews that I had with a couple in
their fifties (he was fifty-five at the time, and his wife was fifty). These partners had
begun their marriage, now in its thirty-second year, by running off and eloping. It was
not until many years later that the husband learned that his own parents had done the same
The couple that I talked with had decided to marry secretly because
they were certain that her family would never give their approval. Her parents would
consider her too young for marriage--she was then eighteen and a freshman in college--and
they would view him as insufficiently ambitious, because he was not preparing for a
lucrative profession. It was not until after both his mother and father had died that the
husband learned that his oldest sister was illegitimate: his parents had run off and
gotten married because his mother was already pregnant. This information had come to him
by chance; he had simply stumbled across the dates of his parents' wedding and his oldest
sister's birth when he was going through some family papers. Then he had realized what had
What had been told to him, as part of the family lore, was that his
mother's people had initially disapproved of her suitor; they'd viewed their daughter as
too young for marriage and they had considered her suitor unambitious, not sufficiently
upwardly mobile. His father, a shopkeeper, wasn't considered to be the equal to the men in
his mother's family, who were all academics and clergymen. His suspicion, confirmed in
retrospect by many odd bits of information that he'd hitherto overlooked, was that his
parents had eloped without his mother's family's consent because his mother was already
well along in her pregnancy. But he could not recollect having heard any such story in his
childhood, and thus was puzzled that he himself had eventually done something similar.
And it is puzzling: how could it have come about that a secret
marriage, made without parental blessings or consent, was repeated in a subsequent
generation without the young couple's being aware that such an event had occurred before?
The answers to such questions aren't obvious. Do we imbibe our families' psychological
issues and concerns along with the mother's milk that we drink?
This is, most probably, about as close to the truth as one can possibly
come. Families are such affect-laden little social systems that people who live in them
can "know" each other's truths in ways that are almost magical; they can know
them without ever being told. Because they are the first truths of existence to which each
of us is exposed, our families' truths are embedded within us, and all our lives these
truths struggle to make themselves known.
To some degree, when we become adults, most of us have not put away our
childish things. In the very process of choosing our mates, and of being chosen--and then,
in elaborating upon our separate, past lives in the life we create together--we are deeply
influenced by the patterns for being that we observed and learned about very early in
life, and that live on inside our heads. The possibility that there may be other options,
other systems for being in an intimate relationship, often doesn't occur to us, because we
don't realize that we are operating from within a system, one that was internalized in our
original families. What has been, and what we've known, seems to be "the way of the
world"; it is reality itself.
Perhaps this is why the way it was feels, to so many people,
like the way it has to be. Perhaps this is why one stumbles across so many coincidences in
the lives of families. And certainly, when encountering them, one wonders, is it
coincidental that a man whose mother was hypochondriacal and depressed married a woman who
was warm and outgoing, and then, a decade later, finds himself the disgruntled husband of
a seriously depressed and somewhat suicidal wife? Is that bad luck, or is it the present
bending to the will of the past?
It may be that the tendency "to get into repetitive patterns of
relationships" (to quote Pincus and Dare again) is based more than anything else upon
our need to remain in a relational world with which we are familiar. The case that Pincus
and Dare cited, for instance--the daughter of an alcoholic who marries an alcoholic--can
be understood in terms of that woman staying in the only kind of world that she knows. She
knows what life is like when you live with an alcoholic. What she doesn't know is what it
is like when you don't. When it comes to dealing with a mate with a drinking problem, she
knows how to behave; she is dealing with the devil she knows.
What she does know may not be pleasant, and may be frankly undesirable
at a conscious level; but what she doesn't know (so goes the unconscious reasoning) is
alien, and might be far more threatening in ways she can't realize. It is for these sorts
of reasons--plus the fact that repeating the past is a way of remaining psychologically
connected to the past--that people will remain in uncomfortable yet familiar kinds of
emotional scenarios. I don't mean to suggest that each generation is a carbon copy of the
preceding one. This is obviously not the case. My point is that there is a tremendous
affectivity within families and that the inter-connectedness of generations is often
Emotional Triangles: Infidelity
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Kinsey and his coworkers published their landmark
findings (in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human
Female), the statistics on adultery took most people by surprise. In that era of
"family togetherness"--well before the development of relatively safe and
effective contraceptive procedures, the sexual revolution, and the women's-liberation
movement--extramarital experiences were, apparently, not at all uncommon. Kinsey's data
indicated that a full 50 percent of husbands had engaged in sex with an outside partner
before the age of forty. And so had 26 percent of wives.
In the decades following the publication of Kinsey's data, not only
have rates of infidelity among males risen slightly but also rates of infidelity among
females have risen significantly. In a recent overview of the research on extramarital
sex, the psychologist Anthony P. Thompson observed that while the incidence of
extramarital sex appeared to be "at least 50 percent for married men," the
"figure for married women is rapidly approaching the same level."
All estimates of extramarital sexual activity tend, moreover, to be on
the conservative side. Statistics on marital infidelity are notoriously difficult to
gather, given the secretive nature of adulterous behavior. Most experts, however, consider
the "educated guess" of the sex researchers G. D. Nass, R. W Libby, and M. P.
Fisher--that today some 50 to 65 percent of husbands and 45 to 55 percent of wives become
extramaritally involved by the age of forty--to be a relatively sound and reasonable one.
Considering that in many cases only one of the partners is a philanderer, the number of
marital relationships affected by infidelity is clearly enormous--on the order of two out
of every three marriages, at a minimum. Despite the remarkably high incidence of marital
infidelity, the discovery by one partner that the other is involved in an affair is
usually experienced as a totally unexpected and catastrophic event. It is a disaster, like
a death--which in an important sense it is. It is the death of that marriage's innocence.
The vows of emotional and sexual exclusivity have been broken, and the
reactions on the part of the betrayed mate are shock, anger, panic, and incredulity. The
marriage as he or she knew and understood it no longer exists, and suddenly the
"haven in a heartless world" feels frighteningly insecure and exposed. The
stress experienced during such a crisis can, according to Anthony Thompson, result in
"behavioral and physical changes. . . . daily living and work routines may be
disrupted; some sleep and appetite disturbances may occur. . . . [and] depression and
suicide can be a risk for fragile personalities."
We may in this culture have experienced a revolution in our sexual
mores, but most spouses continue to feel intensely afflicted and distressed by a partner's
violation of the boundaries around the marital relationship. This is true even in
situations in which the deceived mate has been a deceiver at an earlier time in the
relationship. One husband who had had a long affair several years before he discovered
that his wife was extramaritally involved described his reactions this way: "I felt
furious, betrayed. I felt as if I couldn't trust her! I felt that there was someone else
out there who knew all about me, and who had, for that reason, triumphed! He had--even
though I didn't know who he was--bested me, taken away something that was mine,
This man was angrier at the unknown lover than he was at his wife. He
felt as if he'd been defeated in a contest with the other man. His reaction was by no
means atypical. For, as a study carried out by J. L. Francis demonstrates, men tend to
associate their jealous, angry feelings with the rival male in the emotional triangle.
Women, on the other hand, tend to associate their feelings of jealousy with a more global,
generalized sense of loss--the loss of the partner's attention and caring. The very
existence of an affair, plainly, transforms a couple's relationship from a two-person into
a three-person system-and this triangle is affected by pressures emanating from the third
person who has entered the marriage and become part of it.
An extremely difficult issue that a couple has to deal with when the
infidelity of a partner becomes known is what actually "caused" the affair. Did
it have to happen, and if it did, which spouse is the one who is truly to blame? The
reasons offered by adulterous spouses in explanation of their behavior are bewildering in
their multiplicity and variety. They may range, as the sexual researcher Frederick
Humphrey has reported, from "conquest" to "rebellion" to
"combatting depression" to "getting promoted" to "being drunk or
otherwise under the influence of drugs" to "creating jealousy and gaining
attention"--to name just some of the many rationales for marital infidelity that have
Among the multitude of causes cited, however, certain themes
predominate. In a retrospective study of 750 case histories, the clinicians Bernard L.
Greene, Ronald R. Lee, and Noel Lustig found that sexual frustration, curiosity, revenge,
boredom, and the need for acceptance and recognition were the reasons for the affair most
And Anthony Thompson, in his elegant overview of the literature on
extramarital sex, condenses the explanation for marital infidelity even further. The major
findings in the field, he observes, consistently demonstrate that the lower the
satisfaction with the marriage, and the lower the frequency and quality of marital
intercourse, the more likely is the development of an affair. There is as well, he
comments, far more fantasizing about extramarital involvements among those people who are
dissatisfied with their marital relationships.
"It is possible that marital satisfaction and coital satisfaction
are the two major variables and that the influence of many secondary marital
characteristics are incorporated in these broader evaluations," Thompson concludes.
In short, if sex is to be viewed as an important medium of emotional exchange in the
relationship, then finding another sexual partner is a way of devaluing the spouses
currency and perhaps even rendering it worthless. This is what the dissatisfied partner
does by going outside the relationship--for adultery is a form of communication. It is a
way of acting out a message in the language of behavior, and that message is: "For
me, this marriage isn't working."
An affair may be thought of as an emotional distance regulator. The
presence of a third person in the marital system indicates that the couple is having
trouble handling problems of separateness and closeness. According to the clinical
psychologist Betsy Stone, it is generally the case that in a marriage in which one partner
is having an outside relationship, the other partner has at least been fantasizing about
becoming involved extramaritally.
This view implies that sometimes there is no real "innocent
victim" and "vile offender," and that who happens to go outside the
marriage first has to do with matters of opportunity and timing. Both members of the
couple are at least dreaming of other partners, because both are feeling profoundly
alienated and disappointed. In this sense, an affair is not something that happens to
somebody, it is something that happens between two people. And often it is the weaker
spouse who acts first; he or she makes a strengthening move by getting into a coalition
with the extramarital partner. For this person, becoming involved in an outside
relationship is an adaptive maneuver--a way of dealing with the problems in the
relationship. The affair is a symptom of a global marital disturbance; it is not the
Someone is frightened about getting too close, or someone is
frustrated--hungering for an intimacy that is lacking. By intimacy I don't mean
candlelight, a table for two in a bistro, a violinist playing gypsy melodies as the
absorbed couple engages in mutually fascinating, intensely romantic conversation. What I
mean by intimacy in this context is something closer to each person's ordinary reality.
Intimacy is, in the sense intended, a person's ability to talk about who he really is, and
to say what he wants and needs, and to be heard by the intimate partner. This involves,
for instance, a person's being able to tell his mate about how rotten and defeated he
happens to be feeling, rather than having always to pretend to be masterly and adequate.
Or, to take another example, it involves being able to make his sexual needs and
friendship choices explicit, rather than remaining inarticulate about them and then
feeling exploited by and angry at the spouse.
If, however, the fear of getting too close (so close that the mate will
see and condemn his weakness and failings) is the husband's problem, an affair provides a
pseudo-solution. For if he has another, secret partner, he is not so close to his wife as
he feared he was becoming; there is something important about who he really is that she
does not know. The furtiveness, secrecy, and time constraints upon the outside
relationship, moreover, set certain limits upon the degree of intimacy that can be
achieved in it.
When, on the other hand, it is the wife who is extramaritally involved,
it is usually--though not always--owing to a hunger for emotional intimacy rather than a
wish to avoid it. The wife, hopelessly outdistanced in her emotional pursuit, has given up
the chase and gone outside the marriage to find what the husband will not give
her--acceptance, validation of her worth, a willingness to listen to her talk about who
she is and to learn about what she needs and wants. When intimacy in a marriage is
impossible, when talking about one's fears, needs, desires, sexual requests, and so forth
to the partner is out of the question, the unheard person begins feeling powerless,
resigned, alienated. The extramarital affair develops as a way of finding a comforter and
Emotional Triangles: The Family
An emotional triangle is an onging, repetitive cycle of interactions that involves three
people. Triangles develop, as a number of systemic theorists have noted, when a problem
that two people are having cannot be talked about (much less resolved); the focus of their
attention needs to be diverted onto something outside the dangerous area--outside their
own tense relationship. "Triangling in" a third party (a lover, a child, an
in-law, or even a therapist) offers a means of deflecting or detouring but in any case
lowering the intensity of the primary conflict. Emotional triangles come into being
because they offer a disaffected and distressed couple a way of not confronting the
problems and disappointments that one or both of them are simply too scared to think
about, let alone talk about openly. If the conflict is enlarged in such a way that a third
person becomes involved, the tensions in the relationship can often be successfully
obscured from every one of the people concerned. And while getting into a triangle
inevitably commits the pair to a series of endlessly repeated skirmishes, it helps them to
stave off the all-out battle that might well end in the defeat of one of them or the
destruction of the emotional system itself.
The mere mention of a triangle usually evokes the notion of the
"eternal triangle," the romantic threesome of a couple and an intimate other
(who, once she or he has made an appearance, is usually seen as the cause of all the
painful problems in the original relationship). But love triangles are just one of the
various kinds of triangular situations that exist. Less noticeable and dramatic, but
nevertheless ubiquitous, are the emotional triangles that develop within ordinary
families--mothers, fathers, and children, for example.
The psychiatrist Murray Bowen has postulated that because two-person
relationships are so inherently volatile and difficult to maintain in a balanced state,
triangles inevitably occur within any emotional system (and an emotional system is what
every family is). In his view, triangular situations always have two closely involved
players and one person in an outside position. "Patterns vary," Bowen writes,
"but one of the most common is basic tension between the parents, with the father
gaining the outside position--often being called passive, weak, and distant--leaving the
conflict between mother and child." Although the original difficulty was in the
parents' relationship, the father can remove himself from the battle and hold the coats
while his wife and child fight it out.
Bowen describes this triangular pattern of relating as the "family
projection process." The difficulty has been removed from the arena of the couple's
relationship and is now, by means of projection and displacement of the conflict, seen as
friction, strife, and contention between a parent and a child. "Families replay the
same triangular game over and over for years, as though the winner were in doubt," he
observes, "but the final result is always the same. Over the years the child accepts
the always-lose outcome more easily, even to volunteering for this position. A variation
is the pattern in which the father finally attacks the mother, leaving the child in the
outside position. The child then learns the techniques of gaining the outside position by
playing the parents off against each other."
What are the underlying advantages of a triangle to the distanced and
disaffected marital partners? The answer is that when anxiety rises in a two-party
relationship, the couple's possible responses are limited. The partners can resolve the
issues, by confronting and dealing with their relational problems, or be forced, as the
emotional pressures escalate beyond endurance, to end the relationship. Bringing a third
person into the interaction allows for a variety of responses other than these two
extremes (that is, settle it or break up).
A three-person group allows for a number of different coalitions. Any
two of them can join together, covertly or overtly, against the third member of the
triangle. The "perverse triangle" described by the therapist Jay Haleya--a
covert alliance between a parent and a child, who band together to undermine the other
parent's power and authority--is one possibility. Another was described in the example
above, in which the original conflict between the parental couple became an ongoing
quarrel between the mother and the child. When handled in this roundabout manner, a
couple's distress can find expression in fights that don't threaten the existence of the
In still another kind of mother-father-child triangle, the marital
partners are able to unite around the problems they are having with their "bad,"
incorrigible child. In this sort of circumstance, familiar to most therapists, the couple
usually see themselves as lovingly in unison; they have no difficulties aside from the
ones that they are having with their unmanageable offspring.
"One may find," the family theorist Lynn Hoffman writes,
"an unalterable pattern around the 'bad' behavior of a child." Hoffman gives a
schematic rendering of such a repeating cycle: "Stage one: Mother coaxes, child
refuses to obey, mother threatens to tell father (father-mother against child). Stage two:
When father comes home, mother tells him how bad child has been, and father sends child to
his room without supper." Then, however, the mother sneaks up after the father has
left the table, bringing the child a little food on a plate. The new configuration of the
triangle, Hoffman notes, is mother-child against father. In stage three, she continues,
when child comes down later, father, trying to make up, offers to play a game with him
that mother has expressly forbidden because it gets him too excited before bedtime
(father-child against mother)." Finally, at stage four, the mother scolds the father,
while the child, "overexcited indeed, has a tantrum and is sent to bed; and the
original triangle comes round again (mother-father against child)."
In this example there is covert dissension between the parents that is
being worked out through the ongoing struggles with their "misbehaving" child.
The parents need not be deflecting any particular and specific conflict onto the
offspring: their distress might have to do, more globally, with underlying feelings of
futility and emotional impoverishment which both of them are experiencing. There may be a
sense of deadness within the relationship that neither partner would dare to talk
about--or perhaps even to think about, consciously. Getting into a triangle helps the pair
to relieve some of their latent, suppressed emotionality without opening the Pandora's box
of their unmet needs or confronting directly their own feelings of disconnection. Fighting
with their child also adds some excitement to an atmosphere that has, because the
unsayable and the unsaid have a way of sucking up all of the available vitality, become
lifeless and flat.
Getting into a triangle with one of their children enables the marital
partners to contain their underlying uncertainties and anxieties for a period of time.
Eventually, though, the developing child will--owing to the inevitable biological and
psychological push toward separation and individuation--struggle to get out of the
repetitious three-person game. The other parties involved, whose own conflict is being
handled and rerouted through that particular child, will experience alarm and will
frequently react by attempting to block their offspring's self-differentiating efforts.
This occurs not as part of any manipulative plan but at an automatically reactive level.
For, should the third member of the triangle manage to leave, the tense
pair's pre-existing problems and difficulties would predictably return and intensify.
Their conflict, which the triangular situation has served to cover over, will now have to
be confronted and resolved, or the family system may be destroyed. At such a juncture the
chil--whose natural impulse toward increasing independence is running counter to his
parents' need to keep him in his special position--is highly likely to develop symptoms of
The triangulated child becomes involved in either destructive or
self-destructive behaviors, and lo and behold, it is not the couple but their son or
daughter who is deeply troubled. What's more, the couple can often unite around caring for
their depressed, or phobic, or anorexic child--or, alternatively, unite around fighting
with their promiscuous, drug-taking, thieving, or otherwise delinquent offspring. The
marital problem, whatever it may be, remains well underground and out of sight.
Emotional Deals: Projective Identification
In trying to understand couples and the ways in which they put their relationships
together, I have found no tool more powerful than the concept of projective
identification. This important theoretical construct explains just why it is that
marriages-- paradoxically, it seems--become stronger and more intimate to the degree that
the overall rules of the interactional system permit the partners to be separate and
different people. The basic idea of projective identification, once grasped (not only
intellectually but also emotionally) by the members of a couple, can alter the fundamental
nature of their transactions and turn their relationship completely and surprisingly
For once a member of the pair has had the experience of "taking
back" a projection--accepting that, for example, the craziness, hostility,
incompetence, depression, or anxiety that is being perceived in the partner may be
emanating from the self--everything has to begin to look different. Alternatively, once a
mate has refused to accept a projection--refused to behave crazily, angrily, become
depressed, or the like, in order to express the spouse's suppressed and dissociated
feelings--changes have to start occurring in the relationship. When the unconscious
trading-off of projections slows down or ceases, the emotional system itself shifts about.
The familiar, constrictive, inflexible, rigidly demanding yet never consciously
acknowledged rules of the game can be changed. Things can be different in ways that would
have been unimaginable earlier. Projective identification is at once easily intelligible
and complicated--by definition difficult to discern at work in one's own life, because the
exchange of projections is a psychological barter that occurs at an unconscious level.
The concept of projective identification (which is called by many
another name in the clinical literature-"irrational role assignment,"
"externalization," "trading of dissociations," to name a few) was
first introduced into the psychoanalytic literature by one of Sigmund Freud's early
followers, Melanie Klein. Klein was a forerunner of the object-relations school of
analysis, a deviation from pure Freudian thought. Freud conceived of human development as
a lengthy, sequential unfolding of instinctually based inner imperatives. His theory
focused on the internal, intrapsychic world of the growing child as it underwent
successive changes--as the infant and then toddler shifted from primarily "oral"
concerns to the "anal" and then "phallic" stages of psychosexual
growth, and ultimately confronted the Oedipal calamity.
This is, of course, the pained renunciation of the opposite-sex parent
as a possible erotic partner, which Freud viewed as the central tragedy of every human
being's early life. Freud emphasized the internal struggles of the developing, changing
child, whose inborn sexual drives were opposed by the civilizing demands of the society,
which inevitably overwhelmed and tamed them (often producing neurotic symptoms along the
The object-relations theorists, while not in essential disagreement
with this model, came to see human personality development as determined less by
instinctually based sexual forces (and, as Freud later added, aggressive forces) than by
the newborn's crucial experiences in the primary intimate relationship. There was no such
thing as internal world, they suggested, that existed independent of what happened in the
magical first human attachment between parent and child. Theirs was and is a concept of
the self as an organizing, experiencing system into which the "other" is
The blueprint of the personality comes into being, according to these
thinkers, far in advance of the Oedipal crisis (which occurs somewhere around age five);
it emerges within the first months of life, in the caretaking duet between the nurturer
and the dependent child. The utterly needful baby's internal programming develops within
the setting of his or her powerful first attachment to the protecting, caretaking parent.
Object-relations theory is, clearly, a far more interpersonal than intrapersonal,
or individual, approach to the understanding of psychological growth and development.
This branch of Freud's intellectual descendants tends to emphasize the
importance of what happens between emotionally bonded people in the long-lasting
attachments that characterize human life. The earliest, deepest wish of every newborn,
according to W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, M.D., (whose series of brilliant papers, published in
the 1940s and early 1950s, established him as an important founder of the object-relations
movement) is for a loving, satisfying connection with the nurturing parent. The forming
and maintenance of this crucially important connection--rather than the mere gratification
of instinctually based sexual tensions--is the ultimate goal toward which the infant's
powerful libidinal strivings are directed.
Here let me note that the word object refers to love object;
the term object relations denotes the emotional attachment between the one who
loves and the image of the beloved as it exists in the lover's mind. The term is used, in
other words, to differentiate between the inner picture of the love object and the
actuality of the person who is loved. The subtle distinction being made--which the term object
is meant to underscore--is the distinction between an internalized image of the loved and
needed other (an image that is colored by one's own experiences and fantasies about those
experiences) and a reality external to the self. The object-relations theorists suggest
that we all have internalized mental representations of people and relationships about
which we have felt deeply. These internalized objects (Melanie Klein termed them
"imagos") have become incorporated into our mental landscapes; they are part of
our subjective terrain. Our inner pictures of the world, formed in childhood, provide the
framework for perceiving "objective" reality in adulthood. If, for example, my
vision of my father was of a distant, unapproachable man, then I will be predisposed to
view intimacy with a male as virtually impossible. My "inner father" will
incline me to see all other men as cold and emotionally unreachable.
We relate to our inner objects--old intimacies, shards of intense
emotional relationships that once existed--as if they were real. And why shouldn't that
happen, given that our first human attachments are at the deepest strata of the
personality, are the stuff of our internal subjective reality? Difficulties and confusions
arise, however, when such mental images affect our perceptions so profoundly that it
becomes difficult to discern the differences between the inner object from the past
and the real attributes of the intimate partner in a relationship in the present.
Let me give a brief example of how an early fantasy could affect the
way in which a person came to see his world in adulthood. A young toddler's attachment to
his mother may have been disrupted by an illness that she suffered, which took her away
from her baby for a period of time. If her absence occurred during the critical stage when
separation distress can be overwhelming (say, at around age one and a half), the child
would predictably respond with terrible anger and fear. She who had been experienced as
magically omnipotent would now be perceived to be weak--instead of being kind and loving,
Mommy would be absent, sick, ungiving.
Because something has greatly disrupted his small world, and his sense
of its safety and predictability, the child would be likely to take in (or
"introject") an internal picture of a relationship between himself and an object
of his powerful feelings who is frustratingly not there, although she is desperately
needed. This mental representation of the intimate other--from whom his sense of self is
still poorly differentiated--may be an inner picture of a vitally wanted being who is
frustrating, rejecting, and perhaps experienced as full of hatred and rage. This image of
the mother is, clearly, only the dependent child's frightened imagining; because he lacks
the capacity for self-reflection, he finds it hard to differentiate his feelings of loss
and rage from those of his caretaker. At this stage of development the boundary between
self and other is still so uncertain that he is unclear about what the source of the
hostile feelings might actually be. No matter: that helpless fury, which threatens to
overwhelm him, must be thrust out of mind--or, as the object-relations theorists would
phrase it, "split off" and repressed from the needful youngster's conscious
The bad, frustrating love object, and the internalized picture of the
relationship with her, is still suppressed--because the possible loss of the relationship
is experienced as a threat to survival itself. And survival is the evolutionary bottom
line of this first, intensely important human attachment. Also, in the magical world of
the child's thinking, the wish to hurt and the capacity to do harm are not clearly
separated, and so there is a lurking fear that his hatred and negativity could destroy the
beloved other completely.
The real individual who is Mommy was, all the while, merely ill and in
the hospital for a necessary stay. But this depriving, frightening episode, albeit long
lost to her child's conscious memory, may leave a residue of irrational fears of being
abandoned by the needed other to whom the child is emotionally tied. Thus, whereas later
experiences with the good and loving mother might eventually overlay the "bad
object" (the internalized image of the evil, frustrating, and withholding intimate
partner), they may never fully eradicate the child's horrendous experience of believing
that he has been abandoned--or the expectation that it will happen again.
Often in our adult relationships active yet unconscious efforts are
made to shape the intimate partner to a model that exists within. That inner model, which
is an image of a once loved and desperately needed other, can pre-empt our capacity for
seeing a partner in appropriate and realistic ways. Melanie Klein, when she first defined
projective identification, spoke of it as "splitting off parts of the self and [then]
projecting them on to another person." Later she added that it also involved
"the feeling of identification with other people, because one has attributed
qualities or attributes of one's own to them. In other words, in the example given above
the adult who once felt forsaken--and who had internalized an image of a rejecting,
rageful, untrustworthy intimate partner (the mother)--might have no awareness of his own
anger at having felt deserted, and yet he may struggle to incite hostility (or even the
wish to abandon the relationship) in his otherwise non-angry, non-abandoning mate.
Projective identification is a defensive activity of the ego which
serves to modify a person's perceptions of his intimate partner while reciprocally
altering his image of himself. When, for example, a man has been struggling with an
underlying, denied, and dissociated depression, he may find himself attracted to--and
marry--the very woman who can give expression to this aspect of his internal world for
him. He may then play out the role of the logical, unemotional, unneedy husband of the
openly vulnerable, dependent, moody, often frankly despairing wife. The problem is,
however, that the same underlying motivations that led him to select that mate--as part of
an effort to relieve his own anxiety--will inevitably result in his wanting her to remain
depressed at the same time that he finds her recurrent depressions unbearable. This is the
equivalent of his wanting her to be tall and short, or fat and thin, at the same time.
Predictably, the more he projects his repudiated, intolerable feelings
of dejection and sadness onto his wife, the more he is likely to dissociate his own self
from them--and from her as well. She will then be carrying the depression for the pair of
them, but the more she does what he at an unconscious level wants her to do for him, the
more their mutual estrangement and tension will grow. For the husband, both in flight from
and wanting to connect with his internal experiences, will induce her to express his
dissociated feelings and emotions but also criticize her roundly for doing so.
It may be assumed that the wife in such a projective identification
system has agreed to carry those aspects of her mate's inner experience which he cannot
consciously tolerate and, further, has given aspects of her internal world into his
safekeeping. Perhaps it is her competence and independence that he must hold for
her--because she learned, early in her life, that it would be impossible to be both
independent and nurtured in an emotional relationship, and that it was therefore necessary
to choose one or the other. Only when one becomes aware of the collusive arrangements that
couples make does it become apparent that there are no victims and villans--or saints and
devils--in marriage. There are, instead, only active colluders, each carrying a disclaimed
area of the spouse's internal territory as part of a mutually agreed upon, unconscious
Although it is true that projections of the internal self (and
identifications with the partner's projections) are probably always going to play some
role in close emotional attachments, the degree of mutual gratification that a couple
experiences will depend greatly upon how much of the personality of each partner is being
disposed of in this fashion. It will also depend, as Lily Pincus and Christopher Dare have
observed, upon "the degree of violence with which the mental act is carried out, and
the rigidity with which it is maintained."
The hardworking wife, who keeps herself, her home and her children meticulously clean
and runs around complaining about her dirty drunkard of a husband, may well be worried
about the bad, dirty aspects of herself, perhaps her "bad" sexuality. It may be
this anxiety about herself which makes it so important for her to keep ill the
"bad" things firmly fixed onto the husband. Her demands for help may express, on
one level, an unconscious striving to relieve her of her guilt about herself which has
been intolerably increased by her destructiveness towards her husband.
Similarly, they add, "the rigid man with high moral standards who is desperately
anxious about his slovenly, promiscuous or delinquent wife may need her to express similar
drives of his own which he has never dared to face and has repressed into the
unconscious." What is notable in these examples is how strikingly different the
marital partners appear to be--so different that one would question why they ever married
in the first place. One mate is all cleanliness and order, the other totally dirty and
Once one realizes, however, that in such situations a trade-off of projections has
occurred--an unconscious deal has been worked out in which one partner has agreed to carry
the "badness" and one to carry the "goodness" of the couple, as if
they were parts of an undifferentiated whole organism--what needs to happen becomes
apparent. Each member of the couple must re-own and take responsibility for those aspects
of his or her internal world which are being put onto the partner. This means learning to
experience ambivalence: the good and the bad within the other, and the good and the bad
within the self. It involves, in plain words, seeing one's goodness and badness, one's
craziness and sanity, one's adequacy and inadequacy, one's depression and elation, and so
forth, as aspects of internal experience, rather than splitting off one side of any of
these dichotomies and being able to perceive it only as it exists in the mate.
Learning to contain one's ambivalent feelings about the self and about
other people is a part of growing up; it is a developmental achievement. Many people
cannot, however, acknowledge their feelings of badness, weakness, inadequacy,
incompetence, or anger, or certain other proscribed feelings. Or, as I noted earlier, it
may be that it is strength, competence, or other positive qualities that must be kept out
of conscious awareness--for the person has learned that these qualities and attitudes will
threaten the existence of a vitally needed emotional relationship.
Emotional Deals: The Hysterical Marriage
No connubial relationship is, I think, more celebrated in the clinical literature
than that of the remote, unavailable husband and his desperately frustrated, perhaps
frankly depressed wife. Should either partner in such a marriage seek psychiatric
attention, the male partner is very likely to be diagnosed as an
"obsessive-compulsive" and the female as suffering from a "hysterical
personality disorder." Actually, the latter label has recently been altered (although
the content of the diagnosis remains pretty much unchanged. It is now known as a
"histrionic personality disorder."
The most recent version of the standard psychiatric reference book
nevertheless states that a histrionic personality disorder can be viewed as behavior that
is "a caricature of femininity," whether it happens to manifest itself in a
woman or in a man. The histrionic person is "superficially warm and charming,"
but also "egocentric, self-indulgent, and inconsiderate of others." She or he
is, moreover, "dependent, helpless, constantly seeking reassurance," and may be
given to indulgence in frequent "flights into romantic fantasy." She is a love
addict, in need of a continual supply of affectionate attention.
The histrionic individual has poor control over her impulses, and tends
to say and do things that might more wisely have been left unsaid and undone. The partner,
however, is her polar opposite--overly orderly, somewhat inflexible, and often lacking in
spontaneity. He is always apprehensive lest something unexpected happen and his anxious
sense of mastery over himself and his environment be endangered. While she is sick for
love, he has very little to give her; the more she craves affection, the more she
threatens to overwhelm him.
In an article titled "The Hysterical Marriage," Dr. Jurg
Willi says that the mate of the "hysterical" woman is most usually
"unremarkable, taciturn . . . shy, and almost overly well-adapted and thoughtful or
respectful. In contrast to his often extravagant wife, he is pedestrian, pale but sturdy,
the 'good guy' type." "In contrast to their wives, most husbands of hysterical
women rarely dated because they feared rejection," he writes. These men, he says,
seem to adopt a submissive attitude toward women; their own exhibitionistic and aggressive
tendencies are so strongly suppressed that they themselves are not aware of their
existence. They cannot, in other words, allow themselves to be aware of their resentful
and angry feelings; such feelings, if they had them, would be profoundly dangerous and
destructive. To experience their hostility could lead to harm, either to the self or to
someone close and important. All anger (and much healthy assertiveness) has, therefore,
been banished from the marketplace of consciousness to a dark storehouse where that which
is "uncivilized" is kept.
The mate of the histrionic woman would, Willi writes, "like to see
himself as a totally unique and absolutely incomparable creature who stands above and
beyond all normal requirements." His wife's responsibility in the relationship is to
express all of the emotionality that exists in the two of them (and to bear the guilt when
her hostility and aggression have gotten beyond her control). He stands aloof, uniquely
without feeling, and may deplore her overemotional, somewhat exhibitionistic displays.
The story of their marriage very frequently begins with the rescue of
an unhappy maiden-- from her miserable home life or from a disastrous involvement with a
difficult, rejecting (but exciting) lover or boyfriend. The wife tends to need the man she
marries in some way and this lends him a sense of great importance; he wears her ribbon on
his visor. He is the knight in her service, not fully loved for himself, perhaps, but
willing and ready to save her. The mission that he undertakes is that of assuming
responsibility for her existence and providing her with stability and security. He vows to
be her good parent, in other words.
Content with their marital bargain, the couple may live quite happily
f6r a period of time. But eventually the husband, who has suppressed his own dependent,
vulnerable feelings--satisfying them vicariously by giving his spouse the devoted maternal
caring that he himself actually desires--begins to feel more and more depleted. While he
still wants to placate his needful partner and to meet her never-ending demands, he begins
to experience himself as running short of emotional provender and having little to spare.
After a while, having warmed himself initially at the fires of his beloved's emotionality,
the husband finds himself unable to provide her with the constant validation that she so
desperately requires. Although he denies his own needs for attention and affection, he
actually wants and needs some of the emotional goodies for himself. But he cannot ask for
fulfillment of, often cannot know about, his dependent needs and his wish to be the center
of attention--the loved child, who is admired and cared for.
One thing that he is aware of, and has always known, is that he can be
self-contained. He can take care of his rather limited needs handily enough, if only he
can get rid of the incessant burden of having to deal with hers. The symbiotic fusion, in
which she was the good, needful child, and he the perfect, boundlessly caretaking parent,
gives way when, inevitably, he pulls back in order to give some nurturance and attention
to himself. His behavior is an almost unbearable disappointment to his spouse. Her
profound sense of herself as an unlovable, thoroughly ineffective person has tendered her
an emotional hemophiliac: she needs a stream of self-esteem-enhancing affirmation, from
outside herself, on a fairly regular basis. Her partner, having promised to be an
unstinting and reliable provider, has now inexplicably refused to continue in his
cherishing, caretaking function. She feels dismissed, ignored--as she has felt so many
times previously in her life.
"Hysterical patients," the psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes
in The Art of Psychotherapy, "are defeated persons. They do not consider
themselves capable of competing with others on equal terms. More especially, they feel
themselves to be disregarded, and, as children, often were disregarded in reality."
For such a person it is clearly the case that the opposite of love is not hate but
indifference. The histrionic wife cannot tolerate her mate's turning away, and is
hypersensitive to any signs of his withdrawal. She is deeply convinced that she doesn't
quite exist when she is alone, and fears being by herself and facing her own terrifying
emptiness. What had been promised to her in the beginning of the relationship (or so she
believed) was that her mate would always be there for her, to provide her with admiration
and attention. He would replace her low self-opinion with his inflated estimate of her
beauty, intelligence, and value. She would receive from him the unstinting parental love
that she had never been accorded before.
The mate, who once reveled in his expressive wife's open emotionality,
now desires nothing more than to find some way to shut off the flow at its source.. He,
who rarely or never experiences anger, is appalled by the depth of his spouse's; he is
appalled, too, by the vicious, almost unbelievable cruelty of the things that she says.
Her wild overstatements are viewed as disordered, "crazy," too devastating to
merit his forgiveness, ever. His reaction is to withdraw even further--and she then
pursues him with her stream of endless woes, complaints, and accusations. They are in ,in
interactive cycle, in which the more she emotes, the less he listens, and the less he
listens, the more strident and emotive she becomes.
She struggles to take charge of him and of the relationship, to turn it
into the marriage that she yearns for--one in which both partners arc perennially and
completely intimate, and always emotionally expressive (especially around the subject of
her own ongoing difficulties). He struggles just as hard, but in the opposite
direction--to control her behavior, and the relationship, so as to ensure the preservation
of his personal autonomy. If he did permit himself really to listen to her, he fears, he
could get swallowed up in her uncontrolled and uncontrollable affect. What he fears is not
only her emotionality but also his own.
"Obsessional personalities, for a variety of personal reasons,
have an especially strong propensity toward control both of themselves and their
environment," Anthony Storr writes. "For them, as for the child who fears the
dark, both the external world and the inner world of their own minds are places of danger.
Only perpetual vigilance and unrelenting discipline can ensure that neither get out of
hand." Such a person, as Storr observes, lives in fear of an unspecified yet imminent
disaster--the emergence of a barely controlled wild beast that is straining at the leash
within. This beast is, he suggests, "principally an aggressive animal." Often a
compliant, pleasant-seeming person, an obsessive is sitting on a tinderbox of
unacknowledged, unprocessed, unimaginable (to himself) rage. Like a ventriloquist, he
often communicates that anger only through the medium of his more expressive,
The obsessional person, although he has chosen a radically different
form of psychological defense from that of his histrionic partner, has suffered from
difficulties that are similar in kind. He, too, has been badly nurtured, and has had
problems getting his developmental needs duly recognized and met. In his earliest
adaptation his way of dealing with his parents was to become unusually attuned and highly
sensitive to what they (or one of them) was feeling. He developed methods of placatingthe
parental authorities-- who may have demanded that he care for and comfort one or both of
them--but avoided facing up to them directly or expressing his rage at never having gotten
his own needs attended to.
Full of suppressed resentment himself, the obsessive fears confronting
the resentment of others. In adult life, Anthony Storr observes, such people tend to
"be authoritarian . . . or else unduly submissive. . . . Faced with possible
hostility one either conquers or submits. In neither case can one achieve equality and
mutual respect." Such a person can relate to someone else in a superior-to-inferior
mode or in an inferior-to-superior mode but has great difficulty relating to another
person as an equal. This need for hierarchy makes the formation of an intimate
relationship with a cherished peer an impossible--if not unthinkable--dream.
The obsessional person, disconnected from his negative thoughts and
feelings, usually finds it difficult to deal with situations that elicit his anger, which
are inevitable in life. Frequently, rather than experience his hostile emotions and
respond to the real challenge, he will alter his mental processes. He may, for instance,
deal with a disturbing situation by pretending to himself that whatever upset him is
actually unimportant (and therefore requires no reaction). Or he may question his own
manner of looking at the incident so strenuously and meticulously that it becomes
impossible to deal with it in a direct fashion. It is as if, when someone stepped on his
toe, he were unable to respond with a straightforward "Get off!" but instead
pondered the legitimacy of the other person's being there (even though he was suffering in
Still another method for handling his anger might be that of thoroughly
repressing it--failing to process the disturbing occurrence and thrusting it out of his
conscious awareness completely. He might then react as if nothing whatsoever had
happened--which would of course preclude his making the appropriately assertive or angry
response that might bring him some satisfaction. This head-in-the-sand strategy, like the
other ones, is a device for stifling the obsessional person's recognition of the intense
rage against which he is so anxiously defended. But alas, trying to control emotion by
exerting control over one's cognitive processes doesn't really result in the bad feelings
going away. Anger, like nuclear waste, remains toxic. Unprocessed and undischarged, it
simply remains where it is--but the threat of its emergence is constant.
While his partner has no control, he has nothing but control; each
seems, in a way, to have brought to the other a missing segment of his or her personality.
Together they have what each of them entered into the relationship needing--access to
emotionality, and the ability to set reasonable limits upon it. The pair ought to live
happily ever after. . . or so the observer would imagine. Two people cannot, however,
merge into a single undifferentiated being and remain in that state of fusion
indefinitely. They may feel extraordinarily close at first, and their needs may fit
together like the interlocking pieces of a puzzle. But inevitably that initial sense of
relief--at having found the very person who makes it possible to establish contact with
unacknowledged, repudiated, and thoroughly unintegrated aspects of one's own
personality--gives way to alarm. There is a sense of not only fitting together--but of
also being glued there.
The bower of contentment, when the exit doors appear to have closed,
starts feeling like a small, claustrophobic cell. The need for personal space inevitably
asserts itself. In an effort to assert their separateness and distinctness, the mates
begin to exaggerate those qualities that differentiate them from one another. Each moves
in the direction of becoming as much unlike the partner as he or she possibly can--in
technical terms, they polarize. The rift between them yawns ever wider as she becomes more
attention-seeking, childish, and theatrical, and he becomes increasingly withdrawn,
unavailable, and isolated. Soon enough he begins to criticize in her the expressions of
open feeling (especially anger) which he had once criticized severely in himself--so
severely, in fact, that he had repudiated them completely. She, in turn, criticizes in him
the independent strivings and self-sufficiency that in her view make intimacy
impossible--her underlying reason for having disowned such needs and wishes entirely. What
was once unacceptable within the self is now what is so intolerable and unacceptable in
the partner. The war within each member of the couple has been transformed into a war
between them. And each believes that peace and harmony could be achieved, if only the
other would change.
The Man Who Listens to Horses- Monty Roberts
Afterword pp. 241-246
Monty Roberts is sometimes the horseman of last resort. Horses under death
sentence are brought to him for one final attempt at solving their phobias; if he fails,
the horse boards a trailer and is never seen again.
During some time I spent with Monty early in 1997, I watched on
successive evenings as he worked in the round pen with a bright-eyed brown mare named
Robin. I remember how she looked right at me when I fit my pipe, how keen her interest,
how alert her gaze. I had wanted this sweet and gentle Thoroughbred to succeed in any
case, but from that moment I wanted it a little more.
Rehabilitation for this horse had been a roller coaster. Tuesday was a
nightmare; Wednesday was a dream; this evening, Thursday, offered a little of both. Monty
had until Sunday to undo the terrible damage that a human had done to the horse.
Otherwise, she was a dangerous horse who would have to be put down.
Robin's conundrum was this: She was terrified of standing tied. Perhaps
someone had whacked her one time when she balked a little at a rope; perhaps that person
had continued to hit her, escalating matters until he or she had inflicted on the horse a
full-blown, deep seated phobia.
When Monty tied Robin to a post on the rim of the round pen where the
good doctor typically attends his equine patients, all hell broke loose. To see what
transpired there was to be reminded that a horse is two animals: There is the horse
amiably led on a halter rope or grazing in his paddock or snoozing in his stall, the horse
we think we know. The one we instinctively want to stroke and pat on the nose and spoil
with carrots. But this mare at the end of the rope was another creature entirely. Monty
had led her to the post, quietly tied her there, then gingerly backed away--as if he had
just lit a stick of dynamite and sought cover behind a rock. Monty was the mare's comfort
and within seconds she realized her plight and began to thrash like a marlin, diving and
leaping to spit the hated hook. From my vantage on the elevated walkway around the pen, I
winced every time she hit the turf, rolling like a felled tree in a storm. She tore up the
ground and when her hooves hammered the wall of the pen I silently pleaded with her. Please
don't break a leg. Please stop. Please.
Finally she lay there, grounded, chest heaving, the taut rope around her neck
straining at the dead weight of her, her eyes wide and circling. As wrenching and pitiful
a sight as I had ever seen.
"It's like heroin," Monty said aloud to the gallery, where
four of his students had gathered to watch their professor. He was staring at the mare as
he spoke, his look, like his voice, at once compassionate and detached. "She's
addicted to pulling."
In previous days at the farm the mare had broken all manner of ropes
and halters, including some guaranteed by their manufacturers. But Monty now had her
attached to a device that he hoped would endure her manic pulling and awesome strength.
"Pound for pound," said Monty, "this is the strongest horse I have ever
A thick rope circled one of the massive round wooden pillars set
outside the pen to support the roof; this rope then led to a buckle, more rope, then a
three-foot length of tough inner tube. The rubber--perhaps--had enough give and strength
to take pressure off the rope, and the mare might thus be spared yet a little more trauma
and the danger of injury that a snapped rope could bring. But now she rose, dug in with
her hooves, squared herself to face the pillar and, with every fiber in her body, began to
pull. She seemed to grow in statute as a fierce and mostly silent battle ensued. The inner
tube lengthened ominously, the rope slowly twisted under the strain. I watched and waited
for something to give: the rope, the buckle, the rubber-the horse.
Robin went on pulling, seemingly oblivious to the pain that the
nooselike rope must have inflicted on her neck. I hated what I saw but could not look
away. All eyes were on the bright-eyed mare. Monty warned away a student near the pillar,
worried that if a link in the chain of rope-rubber-rope snapped, the mare would be
catapulted backward and the buckle might go the other way, like a missile from a lethal
slingshot. But the apparatus held, and the mare eased up a little. The war of tugging had
taken a toll on her. Monty approached her carefully, looking to the ground as be always
does with unfamiliar horses before patting her on the head, soothing her with his hands,
talking to her, encouraging her. How sweet the calm in the tempest's wake.
Monty was wary--a life with horses had taught him that, but at his age,
his body battered by all he has been through, he is nowhere near as nimble as he once was.
There is no doubting that to touch that mare at that moment required courage, no doubting
that Monty Roberts has deep wells of it.
At times the tethered mare seemed ready to flap again, like that hooked
marlin, and to stand too close to the wall within range of her was to risk being crushed
or kicked. The horse had learned that pulling would liberate her, end her rope-induced
agony. Now she would learn a new and hard truth--that pulling got her nowhere. Monty
understood that she had to see that for herself. The heroin addict, he would say, must be
allowed to hit bottom before rehabilitation can begin. The mare seemed to possess the
intelligence to grasp that, but did she possess the will?
Monty took her off the apparatus and moved her into the center of the
ring. He used the halter rope to lead her forward, then laid the rope against her chest to
urge her backward. She responded freely and willingly, never once hesitating. Good girl,
Robin. Good girl. Then he attached her once more to the rope and rubber, and though she
seemed discomfited, she managed. The addict said no to the needle. Now a student led the
mare away to another post in a big covered arena, and again she passed the test. Flying
colors this time. I lit my pipe as they led her to the gate where I stood, and there they
paused while Monty talked to a student. The mare seemed enchanted with my pipe and the
smoke, and I wondered where the other creature, the phobic one, had gone. This mare seemed
almost tiny--that other one had grown tall in her terror.
Weeks later, when I returned to the farm, the mare was still there.
'The owner was no longer willing to spend money on her rehabilitation but neither was he
insisting that she be shot. It would take time to heal her, but Monty believed it was
possible. So he had simply taken her under his wing, as he had so many other
outcasts--troubled children, wounded deer, reject horses--determined that he succeed,
determined that she have a good and decent life. Of course, I want that mare in her
stall, not in some trailer bound for an abattoir. Monty Roberts wants that, too. But he
wants a lot--a better world for horses (and indeed all animals), a better world for
What has Monty learned about horses that might prove useful to the way
that humans deal with one another? Horses, he says, have been his best teachers, but
surely the round pen and the rodeo ring are one thing, the human arena quite another?
Not at all, argues Monty. "It's the same psychology." If Monty Roberts
would recast humankind's contract with horses, he is equally passionate about rethinking
our contract with each other--in our working relationships and business dealings, and
especially between parents and children.
Monty often calls himself "a horse psychologist," but when he
was a student at Cal Poly he was drawn to human psychology, too. By the time he and Pat
were themselves parents of three children, he had had extensive experience working with
street kids damaged by drugs, physical abuse, indifferent care, and a host of other social
While Monty's world of horses was taking its many varied, and sometimes
tortured, turns, the idiosyncratic Roberts household was also taking shape. Over time, Pat
and Monty took in forty-seven children, some staying for years and living like brothers
and sisters to Deborah and Laurel and Marty. By Monty's reckoning, every one of those
forty-seven children had cause to falter. Typically twelve to fourteen years of age, some
had tangled with school authorities or the law, some had been dismissed as backward, some
were hooked on hard drugs or suffered from eating disorders. Most came from dysfunctional
families. Here were nestlings with broken wings, but--again by Monty's own
reckoning--forty of them learned to fly, many of them well. The rest landed in jail or
returned to the streets and died there. Their fates were, of course, distressing blows to
Monty and Pat, but he argues that given the baggage these children came with, their
overall outcome reflects well on his approach. And it is his approach that Monty wants the
world to consider.
Monty tells the story of a boy and a horse and water, and it
encapsulates the spirit of his thinking. The story is perhaps too neat, too close to
parable, but I found myself dwelling on it later. At one point in their lives, Pat
and Monty took in a nine-year-old child. Let us call him, for the sake of the story, Matt.
The boy had an interest in horses, wanted one particular horse to ride and work with on
his own. Fine, said Monty, but you must respect the horse; you will be responsible for
keeping that horse brushed and fed and watered. Matt agreed. A few weeks later Monty
noticed that the horse lacked water on a hot day and was pawing at his bucket; Monty
watered him. When Matt got home from school he was upset at his forgetfulness. At this
point, he and Monty entered into a written contract in which a four-ounce water glass
figured prominently. If Matt neglected to water the horse, he would have to fill the
horse's bucket by degrees, using that glass and water from a faucet fifty feet from the
stall until the horse was satisfied and the bucket was full.
The glass would sit on a shelf in the tack room, and need never be
used, only serve as a useful reminder. But three weeks later Matt forgot again. Glass in
hand, he set about his task. Each time he returned with the tumbler and emptied it into
the bucket the parched horse would drink it in one swallow. By midnight Matt was still at
Pat had gone down to check on him (the stalls are some distance from
the farmhouse), and she worried aloud to Monty about how exhausted he seemed. "Should
I let you stop before the bucket is full?' Monty asked Matt. The boy shook his head. By
the time the bucket was nearly full and the horse was clearly sated, the boy had probably
moved seven to ten gallons of water, a glass at a time. It was two A.M. when Monty put his
arm around Matt's shoulder. "I'm very proud of you," he said. "You accepted
responsibility for your actions." Together they walked up the winding road to the
That day, says Monty, was a turning point in Matt's life. "The
change was remarkable. His schoolwork had been on the bottom, and he went to straight A's.
His self-confidence went from a one to a nine. He had been a meek, withdrawn boy who had
been urinating on the playground and labeled by his teachers as severely learning
impaired. Eventually his gift for mathematics was discovered, and before leaving grammar
school he was tackling university-level math." Matt later graduated from college and
started a successful business. While living at the Roberts's farm, he never again had
occasion to use the glass.
If parents and their children sometimes need to renegotiate--to learn
the nature of respect and self-respect--so too, says Monty, do corporations and employees.
"We used to have whips on ships, it used to be OK to beat a child or for a husband to
beat a wife, and we still possess a strong thread of that in our corporate structure. It's
wrong, and it's not effective either."
Since 1990, thousands of corporate officers, educators, physicians, and
others--the list to date includes more than 240 firms and organizations from around the
world--have come to Flag Is Up Farms to hear what a man known for his horse skills has to
teach about people skills. Monty's philosophy is rooted in respect and ends with
expectations clearly defined: People must be allowed to fall, he says, but do not protect
the lazy or incompetent; above all, people must be allowed to succeed and be rewarded if
they meet or exceed the terms of the contract.
"For centuries," says Monty, "humans have said to horses
you do what I tell you or I'll hurt you. Humans still say that to each
other, still threaten and force and intimidate. I am convinced that my discoveries with
horses also have value in the workplace, in the educational and penal systems, in the
raising of children. At heart I am saying that no one has the right to say you must to
an animal--or to an another human." It is a great leap, of course, from a contract
written on a tackroom blackboard about watering a horse, to the complex interplay between
an individual employee and a multinational corporate entity. And Monty is the first to
recognize that point. But just as trust has to be won with a horse, so must it be won
between people and the organizations that employ them. Monty Roberts hopes that his
pioneering work in the human-to-horse field has so opened up the potential for
communication that decades hence the relationship will evolve and change beyond
recognition. Similarly, our understanding of human-to-human interactions might also take
great leaps forward. That, too, is his hope.
Meanwhile, Monty Roberts goes around the world working with horses and
spreading the word: inflicting pain does not work. The occasional public demonstrations,
especially those involving abused horses, have stirred deeply buried emotions in some
onlookers. For any in the audience who have themselves been abused, the horse in the ring
becomes an almost too-potent metaphor. During one demonstration at Flag Is Up Farms, five
women--all of them, as it turned out, victims of violence fainted. On another occasion,
Monty was doing a demonstration in England when a young girl approached him during the
intermission. "I knew instinctively she had been abused," he said. 'I invited
her back later, and then I took her and her father aside and told him we had to talk about
his daughter, and that I had as much sympathy for the abuser as for the victim." The
man began to weep. Subsequently, Monty helped him get counseling.
But the most compelling incident took place in Dublin. Monty was
working in a round pen with a so-called mad horse before a throng of people. The horse's
owner, a handsome, agitated woman, had previously explained how impossible it was even to
catch the horse in the paddock. "My husband," she told Monty, "is a good
horseman, a tough horseman, and he says this horse is a maniac."
In the ring, Monty used hand motions to prove to his satisfaction that
the horse had been beaten. "I am going to tell you what the horse is saying," he
told the audience through his lapel microphone. "Maybe I'm misinterpreting;
maybe he's lying. So we'll take it with a grain of salt, but let's listen." A few
minutes later he went on: "He's saying he's been kicked in the belly and head, and
had a whip across the hocks. This horse is full of stories."
At that point Monty looked over to the woman, who was frozen in her
aspect, her mouth open. Her face betrayed her sudden doubts about the wisdom of letting
this man tell all about her horse and more. 'She was looking across the ring to her
husband, and when I spotted him I knew the horse was telling the truth. Horses, in fact,
never lie, and this horse was no exception. The horse comes to me, I saddle him and get a
rider on, and the horse is moving around like a million dollars. By now both the man and
his wife are extremely distraught.
"Someone," Monty said into the microphone, "has to
apologize to this horse."
The demonstration over, the crowd began to leave the arena. The woman
approached Monty in the ring.
"You're in danger," he told her.
"I can't talk about that," she replied. "I'd rather give
up my life."
When her husband joined them, Monty told them that their lives would be
a shambles until they got a handle on the violence. Monty had cut to the quick, and the
response was immediate and emotional. The man threw his arms around Monty, and pleaded,
"I need help, I need help." It must have been a riveting scene: in the ring
where a mad horse had been proven sane, three people, their arms entwined, linked by a
common history of pain. The man did get the help he needed and now conducts seminars
for other men who use their fists on the people they say they love. And so the man who
listens to horses, and bids us to do the same, has an added task: imploring humans to
listen to each other.