In Residence: face to face or side by side ? by Keith J. White.


“Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about  their Friendship. Lovers are  normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends,  side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”

CS Lewis, The Four Loves


This distinction between lovers and friends is a memorable one in book rich with potential quotations. It came back to me one evening recently when I was in conversation with a child therapist.   We were chatting about the best settings for therapy, and suddenly using this image from CS Lewis a very creative distinction began to emerge.

Both of us were engaged in therapy.  In his case it was mostly formal one-to-one sessions with children, and in mine it was in the context of Mill Grove where there is no formal therapy on the premises, but where daily life is organised in such a way that the place is a therapeutic milieu.  In fact there is a lot of overlap because he often uses play as part of his way of working, and recreation is at the heart of our family life.  He listens actively to life stories and so do we.  He is aware of conscious and unconscious mechanisms and so are we.

But what struck us both at roughly the same time was that formal therapy had much in common with the idea of lovers talking “face to face”, while life in a therapeutic milieu was more like friends living “side by side”.  The purpose of setting aside a time and a place for a therapy session is often to allow two people to engage with each other (using a range of means and resources) in an appropriate setting without unwanted distractions.  The purpose of life together in a residential setting is to engage in a range of activities and tasks together in such a way that healing and growth are facilitated.

You could argue that the therapy session (of say, 55 minutes) is a microcosm of the therapeutic community.  But there is still a distinction to be made which I will try to identify with some examples and reflections.

I have often found that it is when walking or driving together with our eyes focussed on the way ahead, (or sometimes on the environment through which we are passing) that some of the most significant conversation takes place.  I recall a boy in the back-seat of my car leaning forward so that his head appeared between mine and that of his mother as she and I sat on the front seats talking about her life story.  I think it was the movement of the car, the changing of the scenery that made such a memorable exchange possible.  If we had been in a room with a limited time, I am not sure it would have been possible.

Then there are those times when a pet or wild animal dies and we bury it.  Absorbed in this common interest or activity again and again I have found that deep reflections on personal loss and grief have been shared.  The purpose of the interment was not to have such a conversation: it emerged within that process.

The same sort of conversation between two or more people often occurs at the meal-table: possibly over meals more than in any other setting.  Shared meals may be at the very heart of the therapeutic milieu.  They are by their very nature repeated with predictable regularity, and over the years the whole of human life is likely to be discussed in one way or another, with hilarity, frustration, irony or deep feeling.

Holidays epitomise this dynamic: a new setting and distinctive activities related to that setting provide a context for being alongside one another absorbed in a common interest.  In our case it is likely to be hill-walking, swimming, kayaking or sailing.

The movement (often physical and literal, but sometimes in mood and narrative) models the “journey of life” itself.  We are fellow companions on that journey who may be together for a short or more prolonged period of time.  We did not come together to talk or engage in therapy: the conversation or therapy emerged in a particular place and context.  It was not intentional in the sense that it was planned this way.

By way of contrast much therapy deliberately takes place outside of ordinary life:  time and place are set aside for a particular purpose.  It is quite possible that the therapist and the child see the time, the place and the dynamics quite differently, but without some agreement or alliance between the two of them no therapy can be said to have occurred.

I do not want to make too much of a distinction for two reasons.  First because some of the commonalities are so important; second because like love and friendship, they are in many ways complementary. But it is in my view worth exploring.  Among other things it leads us to ask about the preferred settings for formal therapy, which is where our conversation headed on the evening in question.

The therapist had begun some personal educational tutoring of children who had experienced separation and loss.  The primary purpose of these tutorials was to help the children with particular subjects and skills such as English and Maths, but the therapist had been chosen for this because of his understanding of their intra-personal experiences and feelings.

Might it not be, we wondered, that in such tutorials, side by side, much therapy could take place spontaneously?  What if the common interest meant that it felt safer for the child to talk about feelings when it was clear that this was not the object of the time together?  It has been said after all that people often talk about medical issues with anyone but their doctor: it is safer to employ this strategy if you are anxious about your condition.  Perhaps the same is true of those in debt who might just wish to avoid seeing their bank manager.

For the therapist in such an informal setting there is the safety of knowing that there is no intended therapeutic outcome to be described in a document or on a form justifying the validity of the session; for the child there is no pressure or expectation that anything personal will be shared.

Be this as it may, I am so thankful that daily life at Mill Grove provides a myriad settings, times, seasons and contexts for being side by side with no pressure to share anything personal or difficult, but with the constant knowledge that it can be done if and when the time and the occasion are right.

There are times when we are face to face engaged in a focussed conversation, but the norm is the journey of life side by side.  And it is C.S. Lewis who has helped me to see this when it may have been the very last thing he actually had in mind!  Be this as it may, I am very grateful to him.


Keith J. White