Contempt, Disgust, Love…

Published in The Observer 10.02.2013

By psychotherapist Phillip Hodson

No wife should have to listen to her own marital profanities on tape in front of strangers. No son should have to look down on his Dad in public. The cliche about ‘too much information’ was surely never more apt than in relation to the saga of the Huhnes?

I’m saddest for the son. I shouldn’t even know the boy’s name is Peter and that he’s going to Oxford. You shouldn’t know how much he despises his dad. Peter shouldn’t have to live with a permanent record of his disdain. Because ALL of us require a private life in which to remain human where we can safely express family rage, grief and hatred.

Of course, not every son has to manage a father careering from hubris to nemesis with an ego the size of Berkshire but every family will recognise the motifs. Teenage is a physically difficult and emotionally disturbing time. Fathers and sons collide like atoms. The most telling image is of two males jockeying for position to stare into the bathroom mirror. The child to see whether the beard is finally coming through; the elder to count how many hairs fall daily from his head.

The boy’s crisis is naturally greater. He has a brain that will not manage to think ‘objectively’ until he’s 25, remains less worldly and he didn’t ask to be born. Indeed, since his task is to fashion a separate identity from the bare bones of childhood under the influence of what probably amounts to testosterone poisoning, it’s natural he should be outspoken.

Characters from Oedipus to Siegfried illustrate how many rising sons reach a point where they wish to eviscerate their Dads. I did… in a lot of swear words. My sons did… explicitly. The point is these conversations don’t bear repetition. Whatever the provocation, we should never have to live with an indelible Internet reminder of how a relationship of affection becomes – for a while – suffused with contempt.

And there’s the rub. If it’s on the record, how on earth do we get past it? I hold no brief for Huhne Senior and he was never my friend. But I can see that he didn’t want to lose his son’s love even while he rejected the boy’s mother and lied like a politician. What should have happened is a face-to-face exchange where the father could admit his faults while accepting his son’s distress. Tall order – and taller still in the midst of a public and legal struggle by the Senior to minimise his own shortcomings.

Obiously, the barrier now is social shame – or at least a perception of mutual betrayal. When we go public with this stuff (as certain divorcing journalists do, for example) we damn, we escalate, we stigmatise, we formalise, we ritualise and we deliver a verdict that stands in stone, squashing forgiveness at birth. Much harder to claim: “I didn’t mean what I said” when your judgement’s gone viral.

My hope is that – as time and feelings evolve – the Huhnes begin to realise that this absolutely monumental family fuck-up is of fascination to the rest of us partly because it’s familiar. Our feuds may be smaller but we are no different except we can keep our secrets. (At least 300,000 couples have surreptitiously swapped penalty points, says the AA).

At present, the son will feel torn in two, eager to protect his mother and furious with his febrile Dad. But this is the only father he’s ever going to get so it’s ultimately sensible to explore whether there are sides to his Chris Huhne that even now can offer reliable love – once Dad’s offered a reliable apology.

Phillip Hodson is the author of ‘How “Perfect” Is Your Partner?’ (Carol & Brown)

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