the creative couple

(Delivered in April 2006 to Division 39 section V111 of the American Psychological Association)

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,  
(Robert Browning)

We all recognise that we have to mourn for what is being given up before we can move on; and that we do this from infancy onwards. It was Sigmund Freud (1917) who first differentiated this normal mourning process from pathological grief. He understood that when we can accept our losses in the outer world, relationships that have ended there become a part of and enrich our inner reality. Sigmund Freud also identified the Oedipal drama; the longing for that which we can’t have. I see the Oedipus complex as a template for the dilemma we all encounter from time to time; the undeniable truth that in the act of choice something is lost. The painful realisation that in order to move forward some dream or fantasy has to be relinquished often prevents us from moving on. Paradoxically, the moment we truly embrace life, we must know that one day we will have to relinquish it - which is such a difficult concept to accept that we often choose not to embrace life at all. Similarly a couple who choose to remain with and to love and care for each other ‘till death us do part’ face the awful reality that they will one day suffer a devastating loss; the loss of the most treasured other.

How does a couple who promised when they met that never again would either be lonely, face the ultimate loss?

I would like to begin by defining the words ‘creative’ and ‘couple’ as they relate to this paper.

When I speak of creativity I am not thinking of the capacity to paint a picture, write a book or design a house, although it is probably the case that we need to have found our capacity to be creative in order to those things – rather I am thinking of the ability to find a (triangular) mental space within which something ‘new’ can happen. Winnicott (1960) refers to the mother and infant as an inseparable pair, but one which needs a third party to intervene between them to allow the infant’s further development, and especially the development of creativity, to take place. And we all recognise the need to work through the resulting three-cornered Oedipal struggle, in order to find what Ronald Britton (1989) describes as the third position. For the purpose of this paper I am locating ‘creativity’ in the triangular mental space which is gained when the relationships between all three members of the family triangle can finally be recognised.

Let me explain what I understand Ronald Britton to mean when he speaks of the third position. The parental couple and the child are the three points defining the triangular space of the Oedipal family. The child wishes to form a couple with one or other of the parents; and in his phantasies can do so. In the working through of this situation the child comes to realise that he cannot have what he desires; cannot have the sexual relationship with his mother or her father - and what comes with this realisation is the knowledge that his parents are the creative couple. In developing the capacity to manage that painful situation, the child becomes capable of giving up what he longs for; having mourned, he internalises the creative couple and thus finds creativity for himself. You can’t have a differentiated couple, a twosome, without the possibility of each of the partners finding the third position. You can’t find creativity, be it intrapersonal or interpersonal, unless the twosome can each make room in their minds for a third.

This brings me to my definition of ‘couple’ for the purpose of this paper. What I mean by a couple here is two people who can move with ease between intimacy and separateness in relation to one another. Evelyn Cleavely describes this as a gate that can swing open and closed easily; it does not have to be stuck either tight shut or wide open (personal communication). If a couple can allow for space between them, and do not anticipate what the other is thinking or feeling, but remain curious and interested in the ‘otherness’ of the other, then, I am suggesting, there is a creative marriage in process.

When a couple comes to my consulting room I see two people and a third, a relationship, and it is the relationship that could be thought of as the client. Of course the relationship is made up of two people, but one could think of it as an entity in and of itself, with as much or as little developmental potential as either of its component parts.

In this paper I will give you an example of a younger couple and two older couples attempting to move on and find the creativity between them. I shall focus particularly on the older couples, both of whom are about sixty, and explore the difficult business of remaining a creative couple whilst growing older and into old age with another. At least half the couples I see at any given time are above the age of fifty.
I have noticed that there is a profound difference when working with a couple in their twenties, thirties or even forties than with a couple in their fifties or sixties, regardless of the presenting problem. Often a younger couple will arrive with seemingly insurmountable problems; the air is thick with hatred or fury, pain or despair, but there seems to me to be a qualitative difference in expectation and even (often deeply hidden) hope. The older couple arrives in a different space perhaps with a less florid problem, but with an air of weariness that is almost palpable.

Much of the work that I do with young couples is to think with them about their projective systems, to help them to understand that many of their problems stem not from each other, but from what they project onto each other from their earliest relationships: the present relationship hums and fizzes with a myriad of transferences and projections. The dependency often felt in the earlier years of relationships, when we are conceiving babies and rearing children, can be frightening and the cause of a great deal of agony within the couple. It is often the case that the fear of being too dependent on another will cause the relationship to break up, but it seems to me that even the breaking up of a relationship is a reflection of a deep hope within us that next time things will be better.

What I am suggesting is that a deep creativity comes built in with the younger couple, and that it is, at least in part, bound up with the biological urge to make a baby and bring it up. It is an undeniable fact that you need two to make a baby. Although it more often than not goes completely unnoticed, life itself is acting as a determinant. Life must go on and we, through our struggles and worries and seemingly insurmountable problems, must go on with it. And throughout there is a dream of things being different - of solving the money problems or finding the right school: of things changing for the better and problems being resolved.

And often they are.

The Younger Couple

Let me give you an example of work in progress with a couple who are in their thirties. I will call them Sarah and Tom; they have a little boy, Henry, who is three, and I have been seeing them for about eighteen months.

They would say that from the start of their marriage things had been difficult. They had been good friends for a long time before they became a couple, but almost as soon as they redefined their relationship, the disappointment set in and sexuality declined. When Sarah became pregnant they moved to Birmingham and when she had the baby they moved house.

The birth of their baby was traumatic, and by the time they got to see me their life was utterly miserable. The presenting problem was Sarah’s depression and her anxiety about not being able to mother Henry properly. It soon became apparent that Tom’s passivity masked his anger, which in turn hid his depression, and that Sarah had been getting a double dose of depression – hers and Tom’s. During the course of eighteen months we all came to realise that they shared an experience of a bullying father and a passive mother. They shared a response to their early experiences, which was to despise and be revolted by men. This resulted in Tom trying desperately not to be a bullying man, and Sarah hiding her femininity in order to avoid any advances men might make to her. They were a perfect unconscious fit - Sarah had found a man who was not manly, someone who would never demand sex from her, and Tom had found a woman who would not challenge his lack of manhood in any way. The result was a marriage without sexuality or potency both of which were felt to be dangerous, and so, sadly, without creativity either.

There isn’t the space to go further into Tom and Sarah’s story, but I use them to illustrate my theme. That is to say that although their story is tragic and that the first few years of their marriage have been quite dreadful, there is a determinant which keeps them coming to therapy and grappling with their problems. Clearly they both love their son, their creation, and want to give him a better start and experience than they had. Mostly I think they are involved in a developmental journey together. It is terribly painful for them to make conscious aspects of their childhoods which have been buried for a long time; and sometimes they have felt hopeless and despairing. But things are changing.

Recently Sarah was asked to be a birthing partner for her friend. The experience was wonderful and so different to Sarah’s that it brought back all the horrors of her son’s birth and the horrors of life thereafter. Tom was able to bear Sarah’s grief and express his own for the loss of such a potentially wonderful time in their lives. One could say that Henry’s birth symbolised so much of the disappointment this couple had to bear; and that the mourning they are doing together is allowing them to move on.

The Older Couple

I would like us to think about a couple who have individually reached what the Kleinians call the depressive position (Klein 1946), but what a lay person might simply call an acceptance of each other and a realisation that ‘he/she isn’t going to change now’. Jung (1934) would say that a deal of individuation had taken place, and that both had achieved a degree of selfhood. Whatever definition we use, for many of us a degree of maturing has taken place, with or without therapy, and we are no longer quite so enmeshed in a projective system.

This poses a question that Warren Colman (1993) once put – Is there a relationship when the transference is resolved? Perhaps another way of putting it is – is there life after the depressive position?

If we think then of the developmental aspect of the couple, the relationship, you might say that the young couple is in the paranoid-schizoid stage; that is that the relationship can split off its problems and project them onto the outside world, with the conviction that when life’s problems are sorted, so will be the relationship. It is we know an unrealistic stage of development but, it could be argued, a necessary one; because without that sense of hope and extrapolation into a future state where things will be different, no creativity can take place. Perhaps there has to be a vision and a dream to project our thoughts into, or perhaps we could put it the other way round, and say that something inside our psyches needs to be able to create a dream in order to find a route to creativity.

John and Clare

Let’s move on to what Melanie Klein (1946) describes as the depressive position with an older couple: John and Clare.

At this later stage of development we are able to recognise the ambivalence inherent in life; we know that what is good today will no doubt present problems tomorrow and that the anguish of the moment can be mediated and released. We can suffer our partner’s faults knowing that his or her virtues compensate for them, and anyway aren’t we just the same? We are reasonable people; but where is the creativity, where are the highs and lows and hopes and dreams? Where is the fun in it?

I have been seeing John and Clare for two and a half years. The presenting problem was that Clare had become suspicious of John’s relationship with his secretary; she decided he was having an affair and had become extremely upset and depressed. Tom insisted that her fears were completely unfounded, but Clare was not convinced.

Clare and John are in their late fifties; they both continue to be very successful; at the top of their respective professions. They have four children, the youngest still at home.

The first year of the therapy addressed the extreme upset of the ‘affair’, and Clare’s depression and John’s frustration with the endless questions about his feelings towards her. He protested constantly that he loved Clare; that he had never had an affair. He accepted that when Clare became suspicious he was working particularly closely with his secretary, but that wasn’t the case now. Clare would accept his story but fret that she still couldn’t reach him.

Gradually things returned to normal; Clare found herself in yet another challenging job and John was kicked upstairs: well off and successful, but he found it tedious and unrewarding as he was no longer the boss. However, John says they are happy together and I think Clare would agree with that. So why do they continue to come to therapy?

John complains of a lack of direction: of not being able to find his old enthusiasm; he doesn’t really think it is related to Clare, but he just can’t find any real motivation to initiate anything. Clare says little about being dissatisfied, but wants to find a joint project with John now that she has decided to work less hard.

Both say that every so often they catch a glimpse of the way things used to be – the possibly exciting project - the buzz of a new challenge. But it is as if their hearts aren’t in it. They know how it used to be but it just doesn’t seem to work any more; they can look back to a hectic life of change and success yet they can’t see what to look forward to. They want to do the looking together but don’t know how.


I am suggesting that the initial problem that brought John and Clare to me was the beginning of a transition stage. The so-called affair, to stick to the Kleinian model, had thrown them into the paranoid schizoid position – terribly painful for them both, but I wonder if unconsciously it felt better than the alternative? Perhaps it was better for Clare to imagine John having a sexual affair than to face his aging. For John a working relationship with a pretty young secretary may well have led to fantasies of romantic possibilities, but I am sure they remained fantasies – an imaginative fling.
I am suggesting that the affair, albeit a fantasy, was a shared defence against the situation they were finding themselves in. John and Clare’s relationship was kicking and screaming against the beginning of the passage into old age. Retirement was looming on the horizon and their youngest child would be soon leaving home. How do John and Clare move on and what do they move on to? How do they find creativity?

Margaret and Robin

Margaret and Robin are both in their mid-sixties. When they first came to see me Margaret described their relationship as boring; Robin said the relationship was all right, but he felt frustrated, as Margaret rarely wanted to have sex with him.

To compress two years of therapy into a few paragraphs feels impossible, and probably accurately reflects how clients feel when asked to describe a life together of thirty years or so to their therapist in the first consultation. But I will begin as they began. Their youngest daughter, Jessie ‘died instantaneously when her car was hit by a lorry on the M1.’ Her death came just a few months after Robin’s early retirement from his dental practice, and a move away from an area where they had lived and worked for over twenty years, and in which they had an established position in the community.

Robin’s response to their terrible loss, after the first few months, was to put Jessie out of his mind; he had many absorbing hobbies in which he could lose himself. Margaret’s grief was always just beneath the surface, ready to erupt. Robin seemed like an eternal boy, he liked his cricket, his stamp collecting, and if he could get it his sex. Margaret’s thinly disguised scorn and her confiding in her women friends further excluded Robin; and he, feeling rejected, would turn more to his childish pursuits.

Over the course of eighteen months in therapy, Margaret and Robin were able to mourn the death of their daughter together. Robin came to understand something of his early life and how it had lead to his difficulty in maturing, and Margaret took seriously her scorn of men in general and Robin in particular. They explored together Margaret’s deep devotion to their remaining daughter, and her desire to be part of Jessie’s family life. Robin was able to own that he was terribly anxious that Margaret would turn all her attention to her daughter’s family and that there would be nothing left for him. Being able to express his anxiety enabled Robin to make an appropriate and necessary claim on Margaret.

They left their therapy a little prematurely because they had decided to follow their daughter to Wales, but they did chose a house that was a good three quarters of an hour’s drive away from her, and they chose to do the move only after having fully discussed the situation in their therapy, and with their daughter and her husband. I don’t think that their sex life improved enormously, but there was a little give and take on both sides, which meant it was no longer such an issue. Robin was able to find other ways of being close to Margaret and she was appreciative of that.


When I think of two older people in a long-term relationship, usually a marriage, I have two images in my mind. One is of Darby and Joan, a fused couple sitting side by side on the sofa often locked in a metaphorical deadly embrace, leaving no room for either of them to be alone. Perhaps too terrified of what they might see, if they looked into the eyes of their partner and saw another. The second image I have is of two people who have reaped the rewards of a fulfilled life and, in Jung’s terms, individuated, but are living parallel lives.

What allows a couple to continue into old age as a creative and vibrant couple? Like every other stage of life that is negotiated and moved on from, I am suggesting that the couple need to mourn for their losses.

Sarah and Tom, my young couple, are mourning for the lost opportunities of what has been a fairly short life together; their grief is palpable and they weep together for the loss of the perfect birth and happy years with their first born. In sharing the loss and mourning together not only for their early years in the marriage but also for their childhoods, I think they will be able to move on into a good enough life, being sad at times but not depressed. Their move to a house ‘that reflects the way we are’ seems to me to reflect a coming-to-terms with, and embracing of, who they are, both individually and as a couple.

I think it is more difficult for a couple in their sixties; but perhaps the process is the same. In order to move on as a creative couple, they need to mourn the loss of many years of life together – to do the work of grieving for a life of which more has been lived than is going to be lived. I would like to quote Evelyn Cleavely again.
She speaks of youth walking up the hill; then there is a long walk in middle age along the Ridgeway which has many ups and downs, at the end of which we pause, before old age, the last phase of life, to look at the view before the walk down hill.
To carry on with Evelyn’s metaphor (Cleavely, personal communication) we could say that John and Clare are still looking at the view. Still finding it difficult to accept that their years of being hugely successful and powerful are drawing to a close – I think that intellectually they have embraced the situation but not emotionally.

Robin and Margaret have been able to mourn the death of Jessie together and have also been able to take seriously the effect Robin’s premature retirement had on their lives. They have grieved over a double loss, which had had a profound effect on their stable and good enough life together. It is interesting that like Sarah and Tom they too are moving house.

Thinking about this subject hasn’t been easy – a bit too close to the bone I suspect; but a few weeks ago I went to the theatre to see a one-woman show. The woman, a young woman, did some wondrous and acrobatic movements for about an hour and a half, culminating in a marvellous act on a swing. The swing was supported by two very long ropes from the roof of the stage. As our star swung higher and higher the swing came further and further out over the audience – as a body we all held our breath, surely she would tip over backwards. Seemingly as if recognising our panic she began to talk, telling us how much she loved performing; and she talked about the dead spot, the point when the swing reached the very top of its arc, and the pause before it mercifully began its backwards descent.

This dead spot captured my imagination; perhaps you have to reach a dead spot before you can go anywhere else? In childbirth you have to go through a transition space, a dead spot in between the first and second stages of labour; in meditation the pause between the in-breath and the out-breath is considered of prime importance, and therapists speak of the need to grieve over a loss before you can move on: another dead spot.

It is hard for the older couple, because their dead spot is a forerunner of the actual dead spot of death itself. Mourning the loss of their past life together is a difficult passage because this time they are probably facing a real ending. Not probably: certainly.


 When I began to write this paper I wondered if there could be such a thing as a creative couple in later years. Did we just have to settle for the Darby and Joan couple, or the parallel lives couple? But, I think, like so much of society I wasn’t able to see the wood for the trees. Of course there are many couples out there with a creative relationship. It is just that they are difficult to recognise – because they are fading into old age and there is still a widespread prejudice against the aged, and few romantic images to conjure with.
I would like to share an experience I had whilst writing this paper. My husband had been away for a few days and would not be home for Easter. I was appreciating having the house to myself, but as I was laying the table for Easter Sunday lunch for my children and grandchildren I became aware of an enormous sense of loss. It felt like a forerunner of things to come. I was performing extremely familiar tasks but I became aware that I was alone; of course even if my husband had been there I would have been doing these things by myself; but to use Winnicott’s phrase, I could be alone whilst in the presence of another, and therefore not be lonely (Winnicott 1958). I was acutely aware that one day, there wouldn’t be a couple to greet the family. The feeling quickly passed, and later that day after everyone had gone home I was once again enjoying having the house to myself, but a small cloud had briefly flitted across the sun casting a shadow over a tiny corner of my world.

It is terribly hard for a couple to see aging reflected in their partner’s face; everything in us screams this can’t be so, and it is often the case that in an attempt to rid ourselves of the terrible truth we leave our partner, hoping that in splitting them off we will be splitting old age off too.

When we fall in love we believe we will never be lonely again – do we not promise each other lifelong companionship and support? To know that there will be a true separation and still to love, to find independence whilst allowing oneself to be dependent; to face the wasted years and mourn the glorious years that have gone; it’s all very difficult. The price we pay for love and creativity is grief.


Britton, R. (1989) ‘The Missing Link’, in J. Steiner (ed.), The Oedipus Complex Today, London: Karnac Books 1989
Colman W. (1993) ‘The Individual and the Couple’ in Psychotherapy with Couples Ed. S. Ruszczynski, London: Karnac Books
Freud, S. (1917) ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ S E Vol. XIV 243 – 258
Jung, C. (1934) ‘The Development of Personality’ In Collected Works Vol. XVII, London: Routledge 1991
Klein, M. (1946) ‘Notes on some Schizoid Mechanisms’, in Envy and Gratitude, London: Virago 1988:
Winnicott, D. (1958) ‘The Capacity to be Alone’ in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, London: Hogarth Press 1989
Winnicott, D. (1960) ‘The theory of the parent-infant relationship’ in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, London: Hogarth Press 1989

© Pauline Hodson