Love and let live, Eric Medcalf

Love For All Seasons
Suzanne Innes-Kent
Penguin
$24.95
ISBN 0 140 27767 6

For as long as words have been recorded, people have used them to offer guidance on love and relationships. Through their wisdom, learning, skills and insight, people have become experts in describing, analysing and advising on the arts of loving and living with others. Therapists and professional counsellors are new phenomena, and share their paths with priests, philosophers, wise friends and artists who, through their words, music or images, give us inspiration and insight into both ourselves and humanity.

Suzanne Innes-Kent’s book is not an in-depth study of the nature of love, it is not a book that will inspire, nor does it search deeply into the complex motivations and needs which influence our relationships. It is a practical book for an intelligent audience, a guidebook to help us through the complexities of late-20th-century life. It succeeds as the product of many years of fruitful reflection on professional practice, observation of others and learning gained from personal experience. Innes-Kent is a Wellington-based professional counsellor who also writes and broadcasts. New Zealand radio personality Kim Hill, known for her challenging and intelligent interviewing style, offers a foreword which epitomises the placing of this book on the shelves of an intelligent middle-class audience prepared to both challenge and be challenged.

To whom we turn, and eventually listen, will be personal to each of us. We may learn more about the influence of our parents on our romantic relationships from reading Sons and Lovers than from this book, or turn to Kahlil Gibran for inspiration rather than seek instruction in a crisis. In facing the inevitable crises of bringing up children, Gibran’s statement that “Your children are not your children” has often helped remind me that they have their own lives to lead and their own lessons to learn.

Just how effective is the passing on of experience in preventing problems? Marginal, I would say, especially when passion is the driving force, and we should recall in this context that the etymological root of passion is the Latin verb patior, meaning “to suffer”. Most people learn best from direct experience and consequent reflection.

In his poem “The Mess of Love”, D H Lawrence observes that we’ve made a great mess of love / since we made an ideal of it.” Perhaps he is right, but I think we have made an ideal of it for many thousands of years, continue to make messes, and in making those messes learn to love better. That is certainly both my personal and professional experience, as it is Innes-Kent’s. However, the justification of this book, and the many thousands of others, lies in the belief (of authors and publishers) that we find them of some help in sorting out, or avoiding messes, and that they enable us to live better lives. How much this is true I do not know. Whether people turn to books like this in crisis, to reflect on old crises, or to meet our curiosity about others’ relationships, I am not sure. It is probably a mixture of all of these, which will account for their success with a general readership, not all of whom will currently be in crisis but would certainly have lived through one relationship crisis or another.

In a wide-ranging and helpful way Innes-Kent extends her thoughts to the very many crisis points that challenge relationships. These include affairs, children, grief, employment (especially redundancy – what an emotive word that is!) and violence. She looks beyond traditional sexual partnerships and offers interesting insights for gay and lesbian relationships, including the implications of bisexual infidelity. She is reflective, often pragmatic and occasionally dogmatic.

My sense, however, is that Innes-Kent has covered too wide a range in an attempt to be comprehensive. There is much in Love For All Seasons that is rich and helpful, there are also other parts where important topics (such as having adult relationships with parents) are given less space than they deserve. The shift from being a child to an adult can only successfully take place when we have changed our relationships with parents, either in our heads or in actuality. As the author observes, many points of tension in relationships occur when we resurrect child-parent and feelings and use them inappropriately in new situations. This is a particularly important issue for men in relation to their fathers in this time of changing images of manhood. The challenge is to do this before our parents die, for only then is the umbilical cord finally cut and the opportunity to forge new relationships lost, to all parties.

The counselling movement, coming out of the post-war development of Western humanist/ existential psychology, was almost single-handedly responsible for the loss of the words “should” and “wrong” from the English language. So convinced was the movement that people needed a facilitated discovery of truth, to develop insight, rather than be given instruction on living that it cast out the Ten Commandments in exchange for individual moral learning from experience. From “free love” developed “open relationships” where basic human emotions (such as jealousy) and needs were subsumed to higher ideals. However, experience shows that, in the author’s words:

In the context of an ongoing commitment to your primary partner … I would say that plural sexual relationships do not work for any of the parties involved or affected by them.

No longer should we not covet our neighbour’s wife, commit adultery, feel guilty and seek forgiveness. We must accept that it may happen, identify the paths trodden towards it and look for strategies for dealing with its consequences. We form a view on whether it is symptomatic of a dying relationship or a human failing which, in the context of an already strong relationship, need not have disastrous consequences. This is the author’s position. We are frail human beings and we can learn to minimise the consequences of our frailty by learning not just from our own experience but also from the stories of others.

In her distillation of her own experience, Innes-Kent moves perilously close to new Commandments about relationships; not rules, but checklists and principles; The path to adultery now has its definite signposts, or “points of choice”. This is perhaps a symptom of our post-liberal, new fundamentalist times. Not a moral dictatorship, more awareness that at times we might profit from being told, in the name of realism, “Hey watch out, if you do this it will lead to this” or “Don’t kid yourself”. In the political arena realism has become a byword of the New Right, and I have become suspicious of anything that claims to be “realistic”, but often really means see things the way I do. As a therapist, I prefer to establish shared understandings with my clients which are real in that context but may not be universally so. The trouble is, the more experience you gain the more often the answers seem obvious and the harder it is to hold back the advice.

However, I do not accuse Innes-Kent of New Right Realism, just the questionable sin of giving us the benefit of her considerable experience. As Kim Hill says in the foreword, “she talks sense”, and that sense will resonate with the experience of many readers, who, in buying the book will have recognized a kindred spirit in the perilous journey through life. Fundamental to the art of living is the art of loving. Sometimes we fall in love, other times we learn to love or love grows through acquaintance. Occasionally the challenge is to find love in the midst of fear and mistrust. As human beings we often fall short of that challenge and fight wars, hurt others or fail in our personal relationships.

Some of the greatest human achievements have been the triumph of love over mistrust and hate. Those achievements may be as personal as the renewal of a relationship between lovers or as widely significant as the newly forming solutions in Northern Ireland. The contributions of those whose skills in mediation have developed from their work in understanding relationships and conflict cannot be underestimated.

If we can learn to love better our partners, families, friends, workmates, neighbours and fellow citizens we will all benefit. This book deserves its place on your bookshelf somewhere between your cookery books and great art, philosophy, religion and literature as part of a range of sources of help and inspiration in living our complex and challenging fin de millénaire lives.

Eric Medcalf is a Wellington-based psychotherapist.

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