Why relationships?

My focus on relationships has developed from a number of different directions.
Firstly, in previous research on households in Poland and Slovakia (with colleagues Adrian Smith, Darek Swiatek and Alena Rochovska) we concluded that the families that struggled most with tough economic circumstances were those without good relationships with family, friends and neighbours, who found themselves isolated from all sorts of support networks, through which information, money, and love, amongst other things, might flow. We argued: “Amongst those living in or on the margins of poverty, those without strong family and friendship networks appeared to be especially disadvantaged.” This conclusion got me thinking harder about the importance of relationships.
Secondly, becoming a mother in March 2011 drew me towards writers who have explored early childhood and, in particular, the mother-child relationship. For many, the mother-child relationship is the starting point for all relationships (for recent accessible examples, see Naomi Stadlen’s How Mothers Love (And How Relationships Are Born) and Sue Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters), influencing our ability to relate in later years.
This idea led me to the work of the British object relations school. As far as I understand, the British object relations school of psychoanalysts (including Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfrid Bion and others) argued that the primary human motivation is relationship-building (not sex or death, as Freud would have it).
They argued that humans need important others and seek relationships:
  • To build a sense of self and identity: we understand ourselves through our relations with others
  • To feel secure, ‘contained’, or ‘held’ and to fend off anxiety: others care for us in a way that makes us feel secure (hopefully)
For these psychoanalysts, our relationships create a ‘holding’ or, later, ‘facilitating’ environment that, hopefully, is good enough to enable our well-being (or “going on being”), within which we can be and be ourselves. Our ‘natural’ state is one of (inter)dependence.
As I’ve suggested, this idea is linked primarily to our earliest intimate relationships, with our mother, and then our father, and then our other close family and friends. But the idea of a holding or faciltating environment might be extended, as Steven Hyman (2012, 208) has argued:
“Besides the mother-infant relationship, there are a number of other potentially influential holding environments throughout the life span … Other holding influences are provided by the family and extended family, the community, educational, religious/spiritual institutions, friends, clubs, team, the workplace, the social/political and even the environmental/natural world around us. Each of these environments widens the holding ‘village’ in which we live. They all play a role in enabling individuals to develop and mature in ways that can allow for individuality to be nourished within the context of relating to others.”
This is an idea that other social scientists (such as Martha Nussbaum and Valerie Walkerdine) have developed in different ways and, in this project, I’m interested in exploring it further, both conceptually and empirically. In a forthcoming post, I’ll present some more ideas which try to get to grips with the geography of these ideas, building especially on the writing of Donald Winnicott, and seek to link them to the experience of austerity and insecurity.