Good Pair Bad Pair

3 Minutes Read

We are not alone.  The pair is a fascinating conjunction.  In Gestalt theory, which is reality, it is the only place of contact. It is Buber’s I-Thou, the fullest meeting. Hands touch or eyes meet or a laugh is simultaneous or words interlock so both people physically register a gratification, a kind of unity lasting from a nanosecond to possibly far longer.

Other theorists have other truths to state about the pair.  For Wilfred Bion, it could be the denial of the group. At an obvious level, two people may sit quiet in a therapy or PD group, then walk to the station together making vitriolic process observations about the other group members, secure that what they say will not be subject to the scrutiny of the people they are discussing.  At societal level, much Western architecture supports this retreat into the pair for the middle-aged and elderly.  Community living arrangements are rare, seen as interesting anomalies worth an article in The Guardian. Yet in very many parts of the world living happens in groups.  Pairs are not tucked away behind separate front doors.  

Bion for a time suggested that the group tolerates the pair, as it holds Messianic promise, or as we might call it, an optimistic wish that things will get a bit better. Back in the nineteenth century Georg Simmel, friend of Weber and. Husserl, was a great deal more positive about the pair, declaring it to be basis of all social organisation.  In one sense a biological form of the pair, the mummy and daddy, is incontrovertibly the cause of all social organisation.

Lovers who live and are prepared to die for each other are the pair most celebrated in literature. We remember Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet.  In The Iliad, Patroklos falling in battle when he was taking the place of his friend, lover, mate, Achilles is perhaps the most ancient and heart-rending record of total commitment to the pair.  

In a television news lately a Ukrainian soldier was asked who he was fighting for: was it his family, or for Ukraine?  “For my mate,” was the immediate answer, and I found it immensely moving.  I do not know if he had read The Iliad or knew he was living out a tradition we have proof has lasted five thousand years, and may have lasted from far earlier, back perhaps to the Mesolithic era. 

Simmel’s observation that the pair is the basis of all social organisation seems an understatement in this context.  It is the building block of society. The pair on occasion seems to allow the apotheosis of human interaction.

But Gestalt Theory encourages us to look for opposites and polarities. Good pair, bad pair.  At The Tavistock Clinic they sometimes categorise marriages as either dependent relationship or a pair.  By pair, they mean a loving relationship which enables rather than shackles both partners.  If Patroklos had thrown a hissy fit when Achilles talked to other generals, it might have been thought that he was in a dependent relationship. But I think the Tavistock clinicians, hearing Achilles’ lament over his friend’s lifeless body, would have been clear that Achilles and Patroklos were a true pair.

Friendship circles are in part a collection of pairs. Some of them know each other and become a group. But for some people, each friendship is separate, even jealously guarded.  As a therapist, I sometimes look out for patients’ talk of the pairs and groups in their lives.  It looks as if some people can only comfortably manage the pair.  Perhaps they are forever resisting the vile presence of an intruder, their next little brother or sister. Things were okay when they had mummy all to themselves.  

In many parts of the world people have no difficulty in believing that the group precedes the individual.  But in the egocentric West many people are rather pleased to tell you that they don’t like groups, that groups make them feel uncomfortable, so they have nothing to do with them.  Were they only kids?  Did they have difficulty with their family of origin?  They are certainly denying the Gestalt axiom that we are indivisible from our environment.

The internet has been a pair preserver during the last two years of Covid, specially for people like me who live alone. And by omission it has pointed up some of what makes or reinforces and invigorates a pair.  Touch is foremost, then the sense of the other, the easy reading of when to speak or how I have been heard.  Rather than an interminable talking head, I need the sprawled presence and clumping shoes and moving from place to place that used to be taken for granted. Good pair or bad pair?  Sometimes perhaps they can co-exist, between the same two people.

Gaie Houston.


Advisor Emerita to The Gestalt Centre London, Gestalt trainer since 1974, therapist, writes plays and novels, now mostly supervises.

United Kingdom

[email protected]