Standing the Strain

In Steven Shainberg's Secretary we see an interesting and unusual relationship develop between James Spader's 'Mr. Grey', and 'Lee', played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It's interesting for a number of reasons, but what I'd like to look at here is the way that Mr. Grey behaves towards Lee.

From early on we sense that Mr. Grey has feelings for Lee that go beyond the professional; that he is taken with her in some way. With this in mind his subsequent behaviour towards her can often seem bafflingly cruel. He appears to show little regard for her feelings, reprimanding her, dominating her, and belittling her. Yet we know that through this cruelty - beneath it - lies affection.

It reminded me of something I read in Adam Phillip's book on psychologist Donald Winnicott (Winnicott). In it he talks about Winnicott's conception of the 'True Nature of Home', and the idea that a child must be able to test his parents in order to trust and believe in them. This testing could, typically, take the form of 'bad' behaviour, with the child misbehaving in the hope that he will be forgiven - this forgiveness shows that his worst, his misbehaviour, has been seen and, importantly, accepted. By extension the child, in all his extremes, has been accepted. This routine allows for what Winnicott refers to as 'almost ... the child's most sacred attribute: doubts about self'. The child must 'test over and over again their ability to remain good parents in spite of anything he may do to hurt or annoy them. By means of this testing he gradually convinces himself, if the parents do in fact stand the strain.'

It is this 'standing the strain' that we see in Secretary, through Mr. Grey's continual bad behaviour, which we could now interpret as a kind of testing. In the way that a child may misbehave as challenge to the robustness of parental love, Mr. Grey's misconduct can also be seen as a way of verifying love. In testing Lee, Mr. Grey shows her his worst, and challenges her to accept him in the face of this. The film's exaggerated denouement, the final test, confirms that Lee has accepted him, despite his doubts about himself.

There is something of this in most relationships, a continual revealing and accepting, with the test of the strong relationship being whether it can, amongst other things, 'stand the strain'.

[...] at certain stages in the treatment, as one would find as the mother of an infant or small child, 'the analyst's hate is actually sought by the patient'.

Winnicott offers the analogy of a child from a broken home to reach the surprising conclusion that is the main point of his paper ['Hate in Countertransference' (1947)]:

"It is notoriously inadequate to take such a child into one's home and love him. What happens is that after a while a child so adopted gains hope, and then he starts to test out the environment he has found, and to seek proof of his guardian's ability to hate objectively. It seems that he can believe in being loved only after reaching being hated."

If he is not hated, if what is unacceptable about him is not acknowledged, then his love and loveableness will not feel fully real to him.

[Adam Phillips]
Winnicott, p.89

If knowing the world often enough means burrowing through complex swathes of self-deception, knowing oneself involves this even more.

Only someone unusually secure could have the courage to confront themselves in this way without either rationalizing away what they unearth, or being consumed by fruitless guilt. Only someone confident of being loved and trusted can achieve that kind of security.

Since fear is one of our natural conditions, men and women can only truly make themselves known to those whom they love or trust [...] only if one knows that one will still be accepted can one dare to encounter the truth of oneself.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.137

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

He is "bad": short-tempered, violent, aggressive. He says the "wrong" things

She is "crazy": "irresponsible", "unpredictable". She also seems to keep saying the "wrong" things.

And yet, despite their darkness, neither is cast out.

He knows that she is, by conventional standards, "crazy." And she can not be blind to his aggression; she feels his hand across her face. And yet neither is willing to condemn the other to being "bad"; neither is willing to to give up. Their bond - their world - contains them, with all their problems.

He says, "I love you", and she knows that he speaks the truth. Not only this, she knows that his "love" is not a deception designed to cover up or explain away "bad," that it is as honest as love can be.

Their love is an unconditional attachment, one that does not allow easy dismissals. It demands an understanding and a carrying. It says, "I see that you are weak, and I will carry you." Marriage becomes an archetype of the accepting environment, and a microcosm of the accepting community, the accepting society.

In this sense, to know love is to be on the path towards true citizenship.

To know that another person accepts one just as one is, unconditionally, is to be able to accept oneself, and therefore to be able to be oneself, to realise one’s own personality.

It seems probable that this irrational acceptance, this sense of being loved as a whole without reservation, is the basis of adult confidence in oneself as a person, and also of satisfying relationships with others; and that neurotic disharmony occurs as a result of real or imagined lack of acceptance.

[Anthony Storr]
The Integrity of the Personality, p.37, 74

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Contain conflict 
Positive space 
One Love?
Laziness (and other fictions)