As with counselling and psychotherapy, relationships are central to fiction, even if the relationship under the microscope is between a character and a machine. However, more often than not, there’s a romance strand in adult fiction, even if that romance is unattainable, or turns sour. Yet, while therapists are increasingly cropping up in my reading, I’ve encountered very few working directly or indirectly with couples. Let me introduce them to you.
Thomas and Mary by Tim Parks is a tragicomedy about a couple who got together as students but after thirty years, two children, and a dog, their marriage is falling apart. The symbolism is writ largely from the first chapter when Thomas loses his wedding ring on the beach. The forensic examination of the small pleasures and irritations that make up a shared life provides this novel’s humour, the struggle to commit to either the marriage or separation its poignancy.
The reader views the marriage from the husband’s perspective, and Thomas can’t hide his flaws. He’s a particularly indecisive fellow, fraught with guilt at his continual affairs but somehow unable to take full responsibility for his actions. His childhood determination to avoid disappointing his parents as his older siblings did has hampered his psychological growth. A typical candidate for therapy, perhaps?
Towards the end of the novel, when the couple are no longer living together, Thomas sees his therapist after the Christmas break. He begins by blaming her for his unhappiness (p307-8):
if it hadn’t been to you, I wouldn’t have left my wife. I would still have a home and family and an identity that made sense to me … I came to you in a dilemma over my marriage; you took the decision for me after only two or three meetings. From everything that’s emerged in our conversations since, and that’s nearly eighteen months’ worth, it’s become clear that you are viscerally opposed to marriage in general, above all long marriages. No doubt you tell all our clients to leave their husbands or wives …
His childhood determination to avoid disappointing his parents as his older siblings did has hampered his psychological growth. A typical candidate for therapy, perhaps?
Keeping her cool, the therapist enquires about his Christmas and the ensuing dialogue cleverly demonstrates his progression from resentment to some kind of epiphany, leaving him “ashamed of himself and rather happy”. Wisely, Tim Parks avoids complicated professional distinctions by referring to the therapist by the slang generic term “shrink”, but I hope you’d share my reservations about her boundaries as she chain-smokes through the session and ends by inviting Thomas to call her before the following week’s meeting should he feel the need.
*The Course of Love by Alain de Botton also dissects a modern marriage primarily from the male point of view, but Kirsten and Rabih do attend therapy together. Although in places the novel reads less like fiction than a primer in adjusting our expectations of marriage in order to make a success of it, it’s a very erudite and entertaining one (p6): It will take Rabih many years and frequent essays in love … to recognise that the very things he once considered romantic … are what stand in the way of learning how to sustain relationships. He will conclude that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions; that for his relationships to work he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place.
The couple get into all too recognisable arguments and sulks sparked by “silly things” like disagreeing “about something as petty as which glasses they should buy (when life is so brief and its imperative so huge)” (p50). Eventually they meet therapist Mrs Fairbairn who proves a tenacious “champion of a truth that … is woefully prone to get lost in the surrounding noise: that love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm ” (p198). Mrs Fairbairn’s expertise is attachment theory, writing a book, Secure and Anxious Attachment in Marital Relationships:
An Object Relations View, that is the key to the entire novel, excerpts from which appear in the text. Like all of us, Rabih and Kirsten have brought their unprocessed hurts from childhood into this most adult of relationships.
*In Stories We Tell Ourselves by Sarah Françoise, we’re primed for tension when a couple and their adult children and assorted partners and offspring assemble for Christmas. A few family members have been engaged in therapy, although we only see it close up from the point of view of the eldest child, Lois, and her partner, Nick, after she’s confessed to an affair (p83-84):
‘She tells me she stopped all communication like she wants a medal,’ Nick told the marriage counsellor they had started seeing, back in the spring.
‘It’s common for spouses or partners to try to negate the attachment left over from the affair,’ said the counsellor. ‘There is usually a phase of abnegation.’
Lois kept her mouth mostly shut during those first sessions, for fear that more unnecessary truths would come dribbling out. The sessions provided an audience for her guilt and a witness to Nick’s magnanimity. They never quite got to the part where the cheating party considers why they’d had an affair in the first place. In fact, they stopped going to counselling the moment they regained a certain equality in their sessions – an equality Lois thought Nick was not ready to concede.
*In her novel Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain shows snapshots of therapy from the therapist’s point of view. Like many of her real-life counterparts, Ester is juggling problems in her own relationships when she settles down to a day listening to her clients’ woes. She’s felt particularly stuck with a seemingly mismatched couple, Sarah and Daniel, and has come to dread seeing them, having previously described her work with couples is like talking to frogs in boiling water (p180):
The water is bubbling. But they have been immersed so long, and the temperature has been going up and up and up – it’s only when it reaches critical that they try and leap out. And I have to help them do that.
Little wonder therapists get stressed!
Do these fictional portrayals of therapy seem credible? Have you come across any fictional couple counselling in your own reading – or have any other models caught your attention?
*This post is part of a series on fictional therapists, so if there’s anything in particular you’d like to see addressed, do let us know via the comments. We'd also appreciate any recommendations from your own reading; you can follow the link to check whether they’re already in Anne's collection.
Anne Goodwin writes a regular post on fictional therapists for the Counsellors Cafe. After a twenty-five year career as a clinical psychologist, and extensive personal therapy, she now explores issues of mental health and well-being in fiction. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in May 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, was published in 2018. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter.
Blain G. Between a Wolf and a Dog. London: Scribe, 2016.
De Botton A The Course of Love. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016.
Françoise S Stories We Tell Ourselves London: Head of Zeus, 2018
Parks T. Thomas and Mary. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016.