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The relationship trap

Kiaras Gharabaghi

“Hey Joe, where are you going with that gun in your hand?” — Jimmy Hendrix

I am partial to problems much more so than solutions. That’s probably not a good thing to admit to at a time when solution-focused approaches to therapy are all the rage. But solutions are all about endings: to problems, to reflections, to contemplations, to feelings. When we find solutions, we celebrate and move on. And herein lies my concern: why do we feel that we need to move on all the time? Many great minds have argued that the need to move forward is destructive. Karl Marx argued this in the context of economics. Many environmentalists argue this in the context of global warming. Plato warned against democracy in part because it would empower the masses to pursue progress, and he saw little more than oppression in many disguises coming from such progress. And so I too think there is something to be said for avoiding solutions; there is something to be said for accepting our problems long term, living with them, getting to know them, and reflecting on them. We tend to learn best when we are challenged, and problems certainly do just that. At any rate, it seems to me that most solutions yield additional problems in no time, which renders the whole enterprise of problem-solving little more than a perpetual ‘kick at the can’, a meaningless promenade through the barren forest of illusions.

Oops, sorry, this rant is supposed to be about child and youth care. So let me get to that now. I started thinking about my preference for problems when it occurred to me that in our field, we sometimes talk as if we have found a solution. That solution is the ‘relationship’. Sure, there are still lots of uncertainties about how to manage relationships, what the appropriate boundaries are, some of the ethical concerns entailed in this and so on. But fundamentally, it is very difficult to find anyone these days who will openly argue that relationships may not be the way to go. It is interesting to note, however, that at least some of the more engaged writers in our discipline appear to be sidelining the concept of relationship in favour of the concept of ‘relational’; this is, in my view, a major development in our field, and I think a very good one. More about that in a moment.

My opening quote this month is a line from a Jimmy Hendrix song. If you were born before 1960, or if you attended Woodstock 1, you probably know how the song continues. If not, let’s just say that it’s not a “good news” song. Something about ‘my old lady’ and her ‘messing around’. Joe is planning to use his gun. Nice relationship!

Let’s face it; the concept of ‘relationship’ in and of itself provides very little comfort if viewed from the perspective of its role in popular culture. Most relationships don’t work all that well. Most of the kids we engage with are there precisely because of the failure of relationships within their families and their communities. Adult relationships appear to have less than a 50% chance of lasting if we consider the divorce rate these days. Judging from the rise in the rates of bullying in schoolyards across the country, kids don’t do much better in their relationships either. Some might argue that the entire history of gender has been the history of failed relationships between the sexes. The relationship between the rich and poor is solid, as long as we ignore the ever widening gulf between the two. It seems like the best relationships are the ones that involve the least engagement!

But it’s not just a matter of popular culture. In fact, relationships are just as likely to be oppressive as they can be nurturing. Power and control issues are ever-present, and I think it is a little naïve to exempt child and youth workers from this dynamic. I read a great article recently in a new book edited by Bellefuille and Ricks. It’s called Standing on the Precipice, and Hoskins and Ricks contributed a chapter about dealing with difference in our relationships. It is a wonderful chapter, and I found myself agreeing with virtually every point. And then it occurred to me that I know not one child and youth worker whose relationships with kids are contextualized by the complexity required to mitigate the oppressive features of relationships. That doesn’t mean that all relationships between child and youth worker are oppressive only; but I suspect that most, if not all, such relationships entail both virtuous and oppressive features.

The oppressive features of child and youth worker relationships are promoted by three factors: first, we don’t choose the child with whom we have a relationship. We have that relationship with an ‘assigned’ child and for a particular purpose. When a woman is compelled to accept an arranged marriage to someone she doesn’t know, our Western interpretation screams oppression, even if the man is a really nice guy. When a youth is forced to live with strangers we recognize at least the potential for misery, even if the strangers mean well. But when a child is assigned to a child and youth worker, we develop relationships and call it good work.

Secondly, we have that relationship in the context of an organizational culture, policies and procedures, rules about confidentiality and boundaries, and so on. So this is hardly a free and unmitigated relationship. It is one that is contained, pre-defined by context at least to some degree, and based on performance expectations of the child (either our own or those of the outcome-expecting employer). Within this relationship, we don’t offer ourselves; we offer our professional package. But we still have expectations about reciprocity. So if the child rejects us even though we are really nice, the child clearly has a problem. These days, we like to diagnose every child with an attachment disorder, which fits amazingly well for any circumstances where our ‘relationships’ don’t work. I am pretty sure that even the mildest understandings of oppression would include the unilateral ability to label the other as a symptom of oppression.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, our relationships come with time-frames that we (or our employer) control entirely. If I think about what the worst thing is that could possible happen to me, short of my unexpected death, it would probably have something to do with losing valuable relationships. And yet we offer relationships to children and youth we already know are vulnerable to such loss, with the full knowledge that we will withdraw whatever relationship evolves at the time of service termination. Imagine the message: ‘trust me, rely on me, I am here with you and for you, and by the way, as of tomorrow you will be discharged and we are done; NEXT!’

As I am writing this I can feel the reader’s wrath; I sense the upset, the hurt feelings, and the move toward dismissing what I am saying. Relationship is the solution, isn’t it? How dare I create a problem that has already been solved? At any rate, for most readers this characterization of relationship will appear as foreign, perhaps even as amateurish. If that applies to you, I urge you to read and then contemplate the new language of ‘relational’.

When I first encountered that language, I thought to myself ‘how brilliant, with a minor linguistic adjustment, someone can add to their publication record without actually saying anything new’! But then I read this language again, and again, and it happens to be used by people who I hold in high esteem. So what’s that about?

Well, I have no idea what it is about for them. But I figured out what it means to me, and why I like the relational language. I like it because it is the language of problems, not of solutions. Relational work claims no victories, no progress, no outcome (it actually does claim an outcome, but not in the traditional way – perhaps someone else can speak to that). It is a philosophy of being, of being with someone, and of being in spite of someone. It says ‘there is much going on around us, some good, some not good, and here we are, you and I, so how will we be together’? It’s a problem in the best possible sense. Why move on from this problem? It is about being comfortable with this state of affairs, about relishing the opportunity to explore, and about accepting the moments of misery and collapse. But is it not about relationships. It is as close as we can ever get to being neutral, to putting aside agendas and interests, and expectations, and to just be, for better or for worse.

At the National Child and Youth Care Conference in PEI just a few weeks ago, I attended a few minutes of Jack Phelan’s presentation. It was called CYC Work is Complex! Jack’s message resonated with me: ‘what we do is simple, but the rationale is complex’. Relationships are not simple. We shouldn’t ‘do’ relationships. Relational work does keep things simple, but thinking about relational work is pretty tough. I’m just getting started, but I think it’s a road worth travelling.