The Maturity of Regression
One of the most striking features of relationships is that, after a while, if things are going well, one or both partners will almost naturally start to refer to the other as ‘baby’. They might, alternatively or in addition, stick a diminutive on to the end of their name (‘-ie’), buy them a teddy (or show them their own from way back) and late at night speak to them in an unusually high pitched, soothing and sing-songy way.
We all invest a considerable part of our energy and our pride in growing up, in ensuring that we no longer need help in tying up our shoelaces, don’t need to be reminded to wrap up warm on cold days and can take care of combing our own hair. In short, we try very hard to be adults.
But successful grown up relationships demand something rather peculiar of us: while we are rewarded for the overall maturity of our characters and way of life, we are also invited – when striving properly to be close to someone – to access the less developed, and more puerile sides of us. It belongs to authentic adulthood to be able, at points in an intimate relationship, to curl up like a small child and seek to be ‘babied’ as one might have been many decades before, when we wore pyjamas with elephant prints on them and had a lisp and a small gap in our front teeth. It belongs to health, rather than pathology, to realise how much one might at difficult moments want to be ‘mummied’ or ‘daddied’ by a partner and to connect for a time with the helpless, frightened, dependent child one once was and at some level always remain.
Sadly though, this selective regression is no easy or charming journey back in time for those whose childhood involved them in scenes of petrifying suffering and humiliation. For them, growing up has involved a superhuman effort never again to place themselves at the mercy of those who might take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Returning into imaginative contact with ‘mummies’ and ‘daddies’ therefore holds no particular charm; their teddies will not be having a picnic any time soon. These bulletproof characters are likely to walk through the world with defiance and strength. They will have built a heavy shield of irony around their hearts. Sarcasm may be their favorite mode of defence – and they will have ensured in a thousand ways that no one would ever attempt to ask them, even in the briefest, most lighthearted and humorous way, to ‘come to mummy or daddy’ for a hug.
The defensiveness is hugely understandable, but it is not necessarily aligned with the real requirements of maturity. True health would mean recovering an easy and informal contact with one’s less robust dimensions; it would mean being able to play the child because one knew one was resolutely the adult, it would mean being able to be ‘baby’ because one was in no doubt that one had safely overcome the fears and traumas of the defenceless past.
The more difficult the early years have been, the more of our undeveloped self must be disavowed, the more we must appear grandiose, impregnable and daunting. Nevertheless, we will know we have acceded to genuine adulthood when we can hold out a protective hand to our frail younger self – and reassure them that we will from now on be their reliable guardians and protectors and allow them to visit us for a cuddle and a play whenever they need to.