The black holes of relationship constellations

Written by
Laurie Cohen

01 Sep 2016

01 Sep 2016 • by Laurie Cohen

The days of having only one ladder to climb are long gone.

In tandem, most individuals now take more responsibility for their own careers. We can survey all those ladders and decide which to ascend and when to leap from one to another. This brings both autonomy and accountability.

One corollary of the above factors is that we’re nowadays much more likely to seek guidance from a wide variety of sources as we make our way in the world of employment. The resulting networks – or “relationship constellations”, as academia dubbed them some 30 years ago – can have a huge impact on how we progress through our working lives.


More often than not, we tend to think of career guidance as formal or “official”. As to how useful much of it is – well, the jury is out. There’s certainly a growing acknowledgment that such support isn’t always perfectly tailored, appropriate or beneficial for the recipient.

Meanwhile, much less recognised is the role of informal guidance, as solicited from or proffered by friends, family and colleagues. And perhaps still less appreciated are the lasting – and sometimes devastating – effects that such interventions can have when they prove a hindrance rather than a help.

This was a recurring theme when, as a PhD student, I interviewed a number of women about their careers. I carried out the study in the mid-1990s, when recession was cutting deep and policymakers were championing entrepreneurship as a source of hope.

It was also a time when outmoded ideals were giving way to individual liberty – or at least so we thought. As it turned out, many of the women related stories of being diverted, derailed, hampered or held back by informal “advice” – to use the word very loosely – that ultimately had a significant and enduring bearing on their lives.

Take the following recollection:

“When I was at school the choice was to go to university, do nurse training, be a secretary or work in domestic science. I didn’t want to be a secretary, and I didn’t want to go to university. My father, who was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, said: ‘Any fool can do domestic science. You will be a nurse.’”

Sure enough, this respondent – let’s call her Joan – did as instructed and began training to be a nurse. To that extent, on the strength of a single edict from a determined relative, her route through working life was set. To her credit, she went on to achieve great things and a high profile in her profession – although throughout her career she wrestled with a chronic lack of self-confidence.

Path to success

Seventeen years later I tracked down Joan and the other original study respondents and interviewed them for a second time. The idea was to find out what had changed – and what had remained the same – in terms of how women perceive and pursue their careers.

It was wonderful to see how many of the respondents had prospered. Several had done very well for themselves, in some cases in spite of others’ efforts. Yet the enactment of their careers continued to be shaped by the entanglement of their own lives with those of others.

By way of illustration, consider the following quote:

“I can’t remember what I planned to do when I sold the shop. But I was pregnant, and that was that. [My husband] is a bit old-fashioned in that respect – wants the mum to be at home and all that.”

Like Joan, this respondent – we’ll call her Donna – did as instructed. Her notion of a career was moulded to a decisive degree by her partner’s wishes. She pursued part-time jobs but was dissuaded from keeping them. She dreamed of gaining academic qualifications but convinced herself she wasn’t clever enough. She described herself as “the lowest of the low” and “bottom of the pile”.

These are just two examples of the ideological sway that informal “guidance” can have. Thankfully, there are positive stories to tell as well – but in each of the above instances the recipient felt she had been left with an impossible choice in the face of highly a judgmental message whose power lay not only in its delineation of what we might call the rules of engagement but in its suggestion of the dire consequences of transgression. Despite forever questioning her own worth, Joan somehow made the best of the constraints placed on her; Donna never really escaped hers.

This sort of problem is perhaps less prevalent that in the past, yet there’s no doubt that it still exists. In an age of multiple career ladders, an era of unprecedented freedom of choice, women’s views and concepts of their own working lives are still at risk of being fettered by the sometimes destructive input of others – even those nearest and dearest to them.

Maybe the simple lesson is that every “relationship constellation” contains its fair share of suns and black holes alike. This being the case, we would do well to bask in glow of the former and avoid being sucked into the latter, whatever our attachment to the source.

Remember, too, that even the worst advice is useful if we employ it constructively. Treating it as it deserves to be treated doesn’t make us disloyal: it makes us sensible, confident, realistic and more self-reliant. As another of my study respondents remarked: “I think: ‘What would my family do in this position? Great – I’ll do the other!’”