Counselling in Cheshire - providing a service for Knutsford, Northwich, Tarpoley and Crewe

Forever Partners: An Oxymoron?

Published: Oct 18, 02:00 pm

We’ve recently had a new kitchen put in which involved two weeks of intense work by a local trader and his team, full on, with a skip heaving with discarded wood and old fittings, workmen traipsing in and out of the house and curious neighbours across the road wondering if they’ll get invited for a cup of tea so as to view the upgrade once finished.

During this refurbishment one of these neighbours happened to stop by with her dog whilst I was doing some weeding out front. She mentioned the new kitchen and wondered aloud if this now meant this was our ‘forever’ home, interpreting our commitment to such an expensive project as a commitment to stay.

This question made me think about the never ending ‘upgrading’ of our material belongings, characteristic of the society we live in. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that all things pass, and nothing stays. I don’t think he was referring to the ephemerality of consumerism with its collective compulsion to replace. Things that we do want to hold onto will eventually fade away, without us ever wanting or needing to replace them.
But consumerism wants to speed up this process of change. Everything has a nano-second of sell-by-date on it. This is particularly so in the digital world. Upgrade demands pop up all the time on my computer. Time and again, new issues are identified in popular software, and it’s your responsibility to download yet another new version to fix them.

And occasionally there’s the major upgrade, which promises to deliver not to be missed features and better performance while flushing out old bugs.

Newness has become a compulsion. It reminds me of the character Thaddeus Toad out of Kenneth Grahame’s book ‘Wind in the Willows’ (2015). Toad represents the radical proponent of change versus tradition. He is forever keeping an eye out for the next fad and his behaviours are quintessentially selfish in nature. At the start of the story, Toad buys a canary-yellow gipsy caravan in which he plans to travel the open road: “Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that is always changing” (The Wind in the Willows 2015). Toad looks condescendingly down on the traditional role that Rat, Mole, and Badger attempt to persuade him to fill. When Toad encounters his first car, he becomes infected with “motor-mania,” and like a change junkie he enters an altered state of consciousness, bewitched by this latest upgrade of travel, reduced to hypnotically intoning the words ‘poop, poop’, transfixed by the sound of the cars horn.

Have we all been mesmerized by this compulsion to change and replace? The world of consumerism has its hidden persuaders cajoling and convincing us that to covet the latest thing is ok, in fact you’re abnormal if you don’t. In his book ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ Vance Packard (2007) targets these behind-the-scenes marketeers, busy at work creating a culture of discontent and dissatisfaction. Written in the 1950’s when consumerism really came of age, we now have our neo-hidden persuaders (not so hidden) weaving their seductions via algorithmic scheming.

As a counsellor I sometimes wonder whether this relentless drive to upgrade our material possessions has somehow infiltrated the realm of human interactions i.e., the commodification of love. The saying goes ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ If our relationships are fragile, broken, in need of mending it’s much easier to just get rid of and replace with a better version nowadays than make the effort to ‘fix’ them. Erich Fromm in his little book ‘The Art of Loving’ (Fromm, E. 1995), has some very interesting things to say about the objectification of interpersonal relationships:-

‘Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labour market.’

In couple counselling I often come across this ‘commodification’ of the partner. The premise for having formed the intimate relationship in the first place was ‘what’s in it for me?’. Again, Erich Fromm: – ‘Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love.’

This arises most noticeably when in sessions partners run up against the impasse of incompatible agendas. The aim would be to help partners develop a joint mindset of behaviour change that includes mutuality and compromise. Above all compromise, with each partner cutting their losses in order to meet the needs of the other. This means switching from viewing my partner as an ‘object’ expected to cooperate in order to meet my needs (here partner = means to an end) to a ‘subject’ who has his/her legitimate desires and interests. But to achieve this collaborative balance between two ‘subjects’ requires a paradigmatic shift in attitude from love seen as gain (we gain commodities) to that of sacrifice (we ‘give’) to people (which may mean settling for less). If you may excuse me for recalling the cliché: – ‘It is better to give than receive.’ I will let Fromm have the last words:-

‘A second premise behind the attitude that there is nothing to be learned about love is the assumption that the problem of love is the problem of an object not the problem of a faculty. People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love—or to be loved by—is difficult.’ (1995).

Fromm, E. (1995). The Art of Loving. Thorsons.

Grahame, K. (2015). The Wind in the Willows. Pook Press.

Packard, V. (2007). The Hidden Persuaders. Ig Publishing.