This article was originally written for a submission to a counselling publication which I hope you will find interesting
Just at this moment I’m wondering if the whole country could do with a mass group therapy session to talk through the feelings that have been evoked and seemingly not fully resolved by last year’s referendum. As a relationship therapist, I have wondered what learning from the world of counselling could help begin to heal the apparent divide that exists. It has always been considered polite not to mention politics at the dinner table, Brexit appears to have raised that advise to a whole new level with the topic having an instant polarising impact amongst families and friends.
In the spirit of transparency, I need to be upfront that I felt devastated the morning of the referendum result. I felt my children’s future would be worse and many in deprived areas who had voted for change were most likely be negatively affected by the eventual new order within Europe (or more accurately outside). For weeks, I raged inside – how could this be possible, don’t people realise what they have done and much worse, I am ashamed to admit. Listening to phone-ins on the radio seemed a form of re-traumatising myself and no matter what the subject matter, Brexit seemed to be shoe-horned in as either the solution to everything or the reason why we were all on our way to hell in a hand cart. The personalised abuse of the opposite side indulged in by many from both sides was unnerving – bremoaners or bigots seemed to be how many viewed each other.
And then in a moment of calmness something had struck me – this all seemed very familiar and something I’d often witnessed but in a very different context. As a relationship therapist, I often see couples shortly after the discovery or disclosure of an affair as they struggle to deal with the aftermath of a breach of trust.
Now at this point I should say upfront that I am well aware of the limitation of the analogy I will draw here. I am not suggesting that voting leave is akin to having an affair which for many has a social stigma1, but that as a country many citizens feel betrayed by “the other half” and had the result gone marginally the other way that sense of betrayal, I feel, would have been equally felt by another section of the population. Also, I ask you to, as far as you can, take a neutral position2 and engage your curiosity in an attempt to understand why the referendum seems to have perturbed a generally tolerant nation to engage in open abuse over the airwaves let alone in the darker recesses of on-line chatrooms.
There are many types of affair and many reasons attributed to why affairs take place3. Whilst affairs can be purely about sex, the majority generally stem from the dissatisfaction that exists within the relationship. I am often presented in the therapy room with a devastated spouse who just can’t understand how their partner could have betrayed them by having an affair. For them, their world has been turned upside down and initial shock and disbelief turns to anger. They feel they no longer know the person they have been with for years and wonder if they can have a future together.
Whilst their partner may feel guilty (this is one element of the analogy that doesn’t work as I don’t believe many people will have felt guilt about how they voted), there is also an element of defiance. As the therapy continues the partner begins to talk about how they tried to explain how they felt, how their spouse had not been there for emotional support and whilst they may have listened to concerns they never really heard what was being said. In effect, there are often many attempts to communicate the emotional desert that was growing within the relationship which subconscious processes conspire to address by becoming involved in an affair as a mechanism for highlighting the difficulties the relationship was in. For some having an affair is akin to pushing the big red panic button so that their concerns can be taken seriously. Indeed it is argued that an affair is not signalling the end of a relationship but more an inefficient joint venture by a couple to transfuse life into their relationship4.
Part of the delicate challenge in counselling a couple where this type of affair has taken place is to help the person who has not had the affair to come to terms with the fact that they had a role to play in the affair taking place, and whilst not seeking to assign blame, helping them to accept some responsibility for what has happened5. Indeed, it can be helpful to blame the relationship at that point for being unable to contain the dissatisfaction the couple were feeling.
This is where I feel the Brexit vote felt most like an affair. Those who voted Remain cannot deny they were aware that some people may not have been gaining the benefits of EU membership – Remain supporters, although not exclusively, were more likely to be better educated and more affluent and in a better position to benefit from the continuing existence of the EU. Despite the concerns of others being raised frequently they could easily be ignored as the views of the prejudiced or ill-informed and somehow less important. When one looked at the facts (or at least the facts taken form a certain perspective) it was obvious that membership of the EU was a given. Right up to the evening of the vote the expectation was that the status quo would be maintained. And so, it can be in relationships, where one party minimises the others concerns because they “know” what is in the best interests of the couple and then are horrified by what was taken as a given; fidelity in this instance, seems to have been so easily tossed aside.
Following revelation of an affair, hurt, shock and anger take centre stage and in the worst instances lead to bitter name calling with little effective communication. Each side can get so wrapped up in the pain of their own story that any thought of understanding the other perspective is in the far distance. Either party trying to explain their perspective often get short shrift as the focus is on justifying the others hurt. Again, this resembled radio call-ins following the decision to leave where often reasonable moderate arguments on either side were shouted down with little consideration given to the point put forward.
Following both an affair and the referendum the same process appeared to occur. As times moves on the aggrieved party wants to ask lots of questions whilst the other wants to move on quickly and put it all behind them. Post an affair, the person who had the affair begins to get irritated by the constant questioning and begins to say that everyone just needs to move on and put it behind them as we can’t change what has happened. This approach tends to lead to more resentment from their partner who feels they are left not fully understanding what has happened and who is reluctant to just sweep it under the carpet. Similarly, after the vote people who sided with Leave increasingly voiced the view that going on about the vote was just about being bad losers and everyone just needed to move on. Perhaps this explains why the tautological statement “Brexit means Brexit” gained such popular resonance with those who just wanted to move on.
In therapy, couples are challenged to understand what lay behind the affair and offer a reasonable opportunity for questions to be asked and answered without this becoming the only topic of conversation. In the therapy room couples are given the opportunity to contemplate their feelings and communicate their confusion and hurt with the support of a non-judgemental therapist. Sadly, for the nation, there appears to be a lack of such calm space with the national press, chatrooms and radio airwaves seemingly full of people holding to polarised positions seemingly in fear that reasonableness may undermine their position.
The nation, like many couples, could spend years holding tight to views of right and wrong waiting for the moment one or other or indeed both sides can claim victory and say “I told you so”. As counsellors we may be familiar with the idea of situations being not necessarily better or worse but different. Whilst in the therapy room the “both and” dual position of the therapist – with empathy for the loss of stability and the yearning for change – could help create the holding environment necessary for reconciliation6, however for the nation, reconciliation over this matter may take years as protracted negotiations continue to re-open old wounds and every setback or step forward claimed as vindication of one view or the other.
For me I can only say that the similarities I see between couples dealing with an affair and the referendum result have a message that has helped me and may be of value to others. The decisions on either side make sense when one sees it from their perspective and given their life experience. To consider as someone who voted to Remain that in some sense that those who voted similarly have to take responsibility for the outcome as much as those who voted to Leave is a moment of realisation that may release some from the frustration and anger to make way for a calmer process of reflection.
1) Levine, S.B.,(2005) A clinical perspective on infidelity Sexual and Relationship Therapy Vol 20, No.2, May 2005 Routledge
2) Cecchin, G.,(1987). Hypothesising. Circularity and Neutrality Revisited: An invitation to Curiosity, Family Process, 26: 405-413
3) Cole, J. (1999) After the Affair. London, Vermilion
4) Peck, B.B, (1975) Therapeutic handling of marital infidelity, Journal of Family Counselling, 3. pp52-58
5) Brown E (2001) 2nd Edition, Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment. Philadelphia, Brunner-Routledge
Scheinkman, M,(2005) Beyond the Trauma of Betrayal: Reconsidering Affairs in Couples Therapy, Family Process 44: 227-244, 2005 FPI, Inc.