Hostility at Home? What lessons can we learn from being stuck together?

In 1892 an American army captain has to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family across the US. Hostiles, is a great film, and it mimics the effect of the shut down. The film describes the psychological impact of what happens when you spend a long time with others, with no escape in sight.

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I recommend this powerful and tense film.  It has a special relevance to the shutdown.  Social distancing means that we are spending more and more time confined with close family members.  I promise not to give away the story.  But I will share the premise.  An American capitain finds himself cornered into a situation where he has to protect a feared and hated enemy on an arduous and dangerous journey.  Its my view that its an important aspect of what a long-term relationships is really like. Once the initial projections wear off, and you have face things that you have been blind to, but have been there along. 

In our culture we are generally shown images of people getting along well on TV, in rom-coms, in adverts, in Sunday supplements.  Isn't that model of e-harmony, a dating website that is supposed to match you with another person, just like you, based on a secret algorithm?  Just answer the questions correctly, pay the fee, and in fifteen minutes you will be matched with your potential true love, or your money back.  A life time of foot massages, bubble baths and "love you" notes awaits you. 

But hang on a minute.  In our heart of hearts we know this is an illusion.  Lies, deceit, infidelity, incompatibility, irritation, boredom, hatred, contempt, despair, low level of warfare, aren't these actually a better description of major stretches in long term relationships?  If only your partner would change, or die, or shut-up, or apologise, everything would be ok!  Not that there isn't a great pleasure too, but it seems to be mixed in with the other stuff: the pensions, the laundry, the rota, the in-laws, the children, the extension, the gum disease! 

Why stick with this.  Why not leave.  Or freeze them out.  Or just have the most minimal contact on a need to know basis?  Why not create impregnable defence systems?  In the case of thre American captain travellling with his sworn enemy, maybe he should shoot him and be done with it, and create an alibi?  There would be no witnesses, or he could get them all to go along with his story.

The analyst Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig reckoned that is worth sticking with it during these demoralising periods in relationship in the name of profound development.  His thinking was that a genuine encounter with the things we find hard to bear in ourselves or others was a path to growth for the individual and the couple.  Faithfulness and fidelity would make the experience of the encounter more painful, as there is no escape, but it would also be potentially more bountiful on the other side. The concern would be that if you just left or had an affair, you would be likely to repeat the same pattern with the new person, in a different form; the opportunity for development would be missed. 

During periods of your relationship with partners and other family members it may very tough going.  In the film, the Army captain and the Chief had others around them that supported them in truly engaging with one another on a deeper level.  In modern life, we don't need to travel across country in dangerous convey for week and weeks.  Yet, we do still need to travel psychologically, for even longer periods, as we live much longer than they did in 1892.  We would do well to respect the difficulty of this journey, and draw on all the resources we can to survive and develop through it.  This is where an analyst can be of great help.  The analyst can help you pore over these intricate and seemingly insurmountable difficulties with a view to thinking about what is in you, what is in them, what has been created by you as a couple.  Anyone can get along with sameness, but facing the opposite in yourself, or in your partner, opens the door to something much more.  

As government interventions move up a gear, and social conventions shift, there is more and more pressure for individuals to stay in the pressure cooker of the home.  This can be explosive!  It has also the potential of bring about development, if faced consciously.  None of us will emerge from it the same.  Family members will literally be infecting each other, or imagining they are transmitters or recepients of the virus (whereas in reality 93% of people who think they have it, don't).  Each breath, cough, sneeze will be analysed by self and others.  Personal hygiene and habits will be discussed in great detail.  There will be arguments.  There will be hygiene-slurs thrown about.  Hand-wipe diktats.  Gel interventions.  Mental charrts will be drawn up about who is most likely to survive, or go under.  The young feel smug, whilst the elderly family members feel vulnerable.  Periods of getting along will be interspersed with paranoia.  The Hostiles is a powerful film, but given our current reality, it might actually feel close to normality!

Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.