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July 2012

CARING RELATIONSHIPS – A STUDY IN NURTURING

By Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.

Human beings are born so completely dependent on basic care and protection that our survival is in danger without it. A newborn baby depends entirely on caring adults (or in some cases, caring older children if the baby is orphaned) for its physical needs to be met: to be fed, kept warm, kept sufficiently clean, made safe and healthy. In the best-case scenario, an adult who is well-attuned to an infant – preferably two, maybe three or several – will respond in a timely way to be sure that these physical needs are satisfied. And since this website is dedicated to psychological well-being, we must include being attuned to the baby’s emotional, intellectual, and social well-being as part of that picture.

One way to consider all of this is to think of life as a process of ongoing development. From cradle to grave, we all face significant and never-ending “tasks,” as Eric Erickson wrote about them. By feeding, bathing, clothing, sheltering, taking care of the baby’s medical needs, we adults help that child to not only survive, but to develop basic trust: to know and believe that the world is basically safe, that a sufficient number of people are fundamentally caring, and that the baby itself is worthy of being cared about.

A baby’s very basic psychological development also depends on caretakers who are well-attuned. How else does a baby develop eye contact, vocalizations, verbalizations and language, social interactions, and basic motor skills, too – only within caring interactions. Yes, there is some trial-and-error, some guessing by the caretakers, some delays and frustrations for the baby, which involve crying and waiting, but the basic needs are eventually met. And, the baby learns that although some frustrations and delays are inevitable, its needs are indeed taken care of within a reasonable timeframe.

So, by feeding a baby when it is hungry, by holding a baby when it is cold, and by providing warmth and emotional caring, we are doing more than keeping that child alive. We are insuring that its psychological development moves forward: that it develops language, engaging social skills, intellectual capacity, and motor skills. This process continues into a child becoming a toddler, a pre-schooler, an elementary school age youngster and adolescent, and on into adulthood. In some ways, our development does not stop – hopefully until our demise, we continue to learn, adapt, and maintain flexibility to allow us to meet life’s challenges with as much success as we can.

Abraham Verghese writes about this in his eloquent first novel, Cutting for Stone. In a sweeping epic story, starting before the birth of twin brothers, he chronicles human development with many of its challenges, complications, and desperate struggles, as well as its more caring, loving, and nurturing moments, all within the context of people of Indian descent living in Ethiopia. People familiar with Mahatma Gandhi may know of the large Indian diaspora living in Africa; this book brings it to life. It also includes some fascinating Ethiopian history and culture. Cared for by nurturing parents, these two boys go through many adventures – and mis-adventures – as told in moving passages, poetic language, and thoroughly engaging story-telling.

In a similar, non-fiction vein, Verghese writes about himself caring for AIDS patients in rural Tennessee in the mid-1980s in My Own Country: a Doctor’s Story. He struggles to care for the first AIDS patients in a small town in Eastern Tennessee when medical care for them was limited to relieving the symptoms and growing complications of the disease as it progresses. So much of this care is getting to know their stories, providing them with comfort and compassion – as much ministering to their spirit as to their bodies. Also eloquently written, he provides nurturing and timely care, often when medical science has so very little to offer. And, he profiles his AIDS patients as eminently human and worthy of care.

Why write about this on IPN’s website? Well, first of all these are both “good reads” – excellent books that enrich and inform, as well as tell powerful stories in completely engaging ways. But, just as importantly, they bring to life the qualities that are essential to good psychotherapy. For good psychotherapy is based on nurturing, support and timely confrontations, too, when needed, within a caring, trusting relationship, all committed to helping people move forward in their own development.

Many research studies have shown that the quality of the relationship between a therapist and client is the one factor that makes therapy work. Whether the techniques being used, or the model employed is focused on an individual’s behavior, thinking (or both – cognitive-behavioral), life history (psychodynamic), or relationships (marital or family therapy), it is the relationship that a client has with her/her therapist that makes it work. This must be a relationship of trust, of the therapist coming to know the client – deeply, and the client feeling that they are known. This kind of relationship allows a client to face his/her challenges, find understanding of oneself, solutions, answers, and strategies that truly fit the individual, and help them move forward in their own life.

Try reading Verghese’s books. They will bring this to life for you. His second book (Cutting is his third), The Tennis Partner, is next on my reading list. I expect it will be very worthwhile, as have the other two.

Dr. Solomon is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. He can be reached at (310) 530-2772 or amsphd1@gmail.com

Copyright 2012 by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.

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