There’s a song by a band called the Wedding Present which like so many other songs is about falling in love. It’s called A Million Miles. It’s about that moment when you meet someone for the first time. The moment when your stomach spins. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep and yet despite this, as the song goes, you ‘can’t even remember the colour of her eyes’. The song connects with that first fleeting moment when a returned smile and a burst of shared laughter on the walk home together means everything. When your world is filled with subsequent endless telephone calls to each other (it was written in the mid 80s before text). It’s about that mad bit. The bit where the massive risk has paid off, even if it’s only momentarily.
I know it’s different for everybody but that song has always resonated with me because that’s how it feels when it happens. It’s a kind of prolonged Christmas Eve of anticipation. It’s mystifying, scary and the most exhilarating experience that you can have. Its the 1000-1 off-chance of a new human relationship that may lead to love and will involve lust and desire alongside, hopefully, some happiness on the journey. The risk you’ve taken was huge. The smile that might be unrequited, the humiliation of a misread signal, the shocking discomfort of a blind date from hell, the deeply personal hurt that comes from rejection if, as may be likely, a rejection is just around the corner. Yet despite that, despite all of that, we felt it was risk worth taking.
Love and falling in love. Seeing people fall in and out of love. Beginning and endings to relationships plays a huge part of our lives. I’ve completed two three year courses on issues around humanity and social care and I’ve completed countless additional training courses but I genuinely cannot recall ever being asked to write about love in any assignment that I competed. I have definitely never written the word love in an exam. I can’t remember a single lecture on love or certainly not one that didn’t medicalise it, or quickly move towards framing love in terms of ‘attachment’ or ‘obsession’. But love and relationships appear to be one clear thing that drives us. We don’t get to choose who we love or we can not prevent unrequited love. It is part of who we are, and can at times lead to terrible sadness. It is the essence of humanity. And yet, it is something that health and social care isn’t comfortable with.
As social workers you would think that our profession would be there when people needed help and support with love – it’s sort of in our job title. But in my career, I have found the most significant block in terms of our thinking about supporting people to experience the love, with all the risk it brings. I can recall on one hand the number of conversations I have had with people where there has been a positive approach to helping someone with any aspect of having that ‘Wedding Present song’ feeling.
It is particularly stark when it comes to people with a learning disability. Instead of love, I hear about sex a lot. And sexually transmitted infections. And grooming. The words sex and relationships in social care are invariably linked to risk and danger and professional worry, rarely love. I worked with a young man some years ago who according to his allocated learning disabilities nurse had had sex with his boyfriend who also had a learning disability after an evening party at the day centre. Within the course of that day over 20 professionals were made aware of what had happened. We knew what had happened in forensic detail and more or less where it happened. The police were mentioned. No crime had taken place but someone thought something needed to be done. What about the risks? What about consent? What about protection? Everyone focused on the sex. No one of course said anything about love. Whilst I find the term ‘making love’ a bit toe-curling, it was safe to say that none of the people who got to hear the intimate details of whatever happened between that loving couple stopped for one moment to consider it to be anything other than a physical act. The couple are still together. They are still upsetting people by having sex. No-one is mentioning that they love each other and may get married. No one is talking about how their lives have been enhanced through love. They often skip their allocated day centre to spend the day together travelling on buses. The fact that as a couple they want to stay in each other’s company all day every day, seemed to worry and upset professionals rather than be celebrated. But surely that’s what love does, it puts everything else outside of that relationship into context. For them, love is the answer, not social care.
Social care, day centres, endless games of ten pin bowling, coffee and cake in Merry England for ten people and two carers – all makes sense when there’s nothing in your life other than people who are paid to care for you. Especially so if you also do not have the comfort of love from your family. Add love into the mix and suddenly ‘outcomes’ and ‘achievable goals’ and ‘support plans’ find their context – in the bin. Love between two people makes sense of everything. Leaving the question – why don’t we embrace the possibility of love for the people we support rather than reframing relationships in terms of worry, risk and danger; The pain from love is a risk that we are willing to take ourselves, and not infrequently do so. Yet by worrying about others feeling pain from those very risks we embrace for ourselves, we inadvertently ensure love remains always just outside of reach and relevance of those we support.
Perhaps, as professionals we find this so difficult as it calls into question our professionally taken for granted assumption that our interventions are wanted and helpful. If we properly understood love and humanity we would have to understand our place in a person’s life is somewhere much father down in the pecking order. Our rules, our say so, our plans for you suddenly lose gravitas when competing with forces like love. What always strikes me about Mark & Steven Neary’s powerful account about ‘Getting Steven Home’ is that via the Court of Protection the Local Authority seem to very late in the day to be forced into having to grudgingly accept the fact that there is a relationship between Mark and Steven which must be respected and upheld in law (Article 8) but never really seem to get close to understanding that it is the love between them that drives everything about their words, actions and motives. It’s as if love is quite literally an emotion beyond us. We’ve typed ‘love’ into our health and social care computers and it’s come back with an error message and then crashes.
So we tend to stick with what we know and what keeps us safe as professionals. We’ve sort of come up with a fudged thing in assessments which is about relationships. This means that we don’t really have to talk about love but we can talk about other people – significant others, next of kin, nearest relatives and relevant persons. And we’ve got a form and a process for every relationship. Some relationships (nearest relative and relevant person) even come with special powers. Whether nearest or relevant relationship is loving never really crosses our minds. Love becomes relationships. Relationships become processes. Processes get processed. Health and social care box ticked. Love don’t live here anymore. Not that it ever did.