Good Grief! Or Fear, Loss, and Time

Our blog supporter, Santa, has noticed that there is a significant theme of loss running through this show. I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t picked up on that, but now that she has mentioned it, I certainly can see much evidence of it. In the case of Doc Martin, we have to consider the amount of loss, with its concomitant sense of grief in all its forms, as one way it incentivizes us to sympathize with the main protagonist as well as others who experience loss in the show. Although we can identify many characters in this show as having experienced significant losses, I want to focus mostly on Martin Ellingham as a means of investigating how loss is both subliminally and overtly accentuated and most likely forms the basis for how viewers become dedicated to the show. The regular inclusion of the experience of loss impacts viewers emotionally such that they find themselves receptive to the relationship between Martin and Louisa as well as Martin and the town. (I think the idea of loss is cunningly used to also make viewers more likely to tolerate the behavior of other characters in the show too.) As caring people, we are inclined to pity characters who suffer in some way.

Once I started thinking about the occasions of loss in this show, I began to notice that each series contains at least one example of loss for Martin Ellingham. S1: ME arrives in Portwenn after losing his ability to perform surgery. At the same time he has lost his home and his daily routine. S2: ME thinks he has lost his chance to have a relationship with Louisa because Danny has displaced him. Then, when things seem to have gone his way and Danny leaves, he goes one step further and insults Louisa by accusing her of stalking him, curtailing the likelihood of being in a romantic liaison with her. His parents come to visit and he is forced to realize that they never wanted him and they have no respect for him. Therefore, he could be said to have lost any illusion that his parents care about him, although we know he continues to believe his childhood was fairly normal. S3: He subverts his date with Louisa and once again loses her. He manages to win her back, but the series ends with her telling him she doesn’t want to marry him after all and she departs for London. S4: He appears to have lost any chance at reuniting with Louisa, especially after she sees him with Edith when she first returns from London. He certainly loses his chance at a job as a surgeon in London by still being unprepared and by giving it low priority, and then because he changes his mind. S5: Joan dies and he loses the aunt he had a strong attachment to. Once again he loses whatever family harmony they had developed when Louisa leaves after he neglects to consult her one too many times. S6: He loses control over his blood phobia and his emotional stability, and he once again loses any close feelings he’s had with Louisa as he sinks into depression. S7: He loses his home and his hope for recuperating his marriage. His concern for Ruth and effort to prevent her from leaving by rushing to the train station shows how much she means to him and that her departure would mean another loss for him.

In general the losses he suffers are ones most associated with family, either his childhood and his interactions with his parents or the times when he tries to create a family of his own. We can even link his original onset of haemophobia and his consequent departure from surgery to family in that the reason he could not perform surgery was the realization that a family and a real person were involved. Edith and he had been engaged at one time only to have her terminate the relationship; now Louisa has become his love interest, but their efforts to connect are cut off over and over again. We could say that ME longs for the family he never had.

We can start with the loss of his childhood, which may have begun immediately after his birth. We know his mother rejected him at the outset, that he was treated harshly from an early age including punishment by being locked in small spaces, that he was sent away to school at age 6 3/4, and that he wet his pants until he was 11. We are pretty sure he got no affection from his parents, and Ruth has noted that he went from an active and engaging little boy until the age of 4 to a withdrawn and quiet young boy thereafter.

They’ve made so much of his childhood and his summer stays with Aunt Joan that we can hardly ignore their effort to make a connection between those circumstances and how he behaves as an adult. However, what seems to be at the core of all of these scenes during which we either see or hear about what went on in the Ellingham family is they were all fundamentally rejected by their parents. We especially gain some insight into Ruth’s childhood when she first tells Louisa that her childhood “gifted her with a chronic case of social awkwardness…distant mother, overbearing father, a succession of quasi-sexual encounters at a very young age” and a tendency to alienate or overshare. Later she mentions that she was never allowed to call her father “Daddy.” That must have been true for Joan and Christopher too. Furthermore, both Joan and Christopher have had troubled marriages. Joan went the route of an extramarital affair while Christopher simply spurned his wife. Among the three siblings, there is only one child, Martin. Kind of says a lot right there! On the other hand, if Martin had a cousin that would have complicated the story unnecessarily. This way we have parents who rejected him, an aunt who loved him but whose influence was limited due to his parents and their Victorian ideas, and another aunt who is equally unemotional and repressed as he is but can relate to him on a professional level. Later Ruth becomes more personal and more protective of him, but by then he is in his forties. Whatever contact he had with his extended family involved losses — loss of summers with Joan and lack of regular interaction with Ruth.

As a result of all of the information we’ve been given about Martin and the Ellingham family, I think we have to put some thought into how loss in this show is heavily placed on family and parental rejection. Therefore, rather than look at loss from the perspective of death, despite death being a factor here too, I want to introduce a different angle from all the theories related to death and dying.

The theory that has really intrigued me is that of Ronald P. Rohner, professor Emeritus of Family Studies and Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. He has developed the PARENTAL ACCEPTANCE-REJECTION THEORY or PART which grew out of cross-cultural studies he’s done to determine how children cope with parental rejection. In an article entitled “Introduction to IPARTheory,” several pertinent statements stand out beginning with “many rejected persons close off emotionally in an effort to protect themselves from the hurt of further rejection. That is, they become less emotionally responsive. In so doing they often have problems being able or willing to express love and in knowing how to or even being capable of accepting it from others.” We have certainly seen ME protect himself by using distancing methods like medical speak or inappropriate comments. He rarely leaves himself open to accepting expressions of concern or love from others. Aunt Joan can grab a hug now and then, but Martin is usually very uncomfortable with it. And any time Louisa tries to demonstrate her feelings for him, he is quite edgy or embarrassed. (As always I want to remember that much of his behavior is meant to be funny, and it makes us laugh to hear him make remarks that are clearly so off-putting. Here I’m just trying to apply some rational thinking to it as well.)

The article also notes that “insofar as children and adults feel their attachment figures don’t love them, they are likely to feel they are unlovable, perhaps unworthy of being loved.” In addition, this research asserts that “rejected individuals develop a fear of intimacy.” This exact sentiment seems to get played out when Martin is told by Ruth that he doesn’t think he deserves Louisa and when Martin is unable to confide in Louisa. (Adult attachment figures are usually romantic relationships. In 1987, “Hazan and Shaver argued that adult romantic relationships, like infant-caregiver relationships, are attachments, and that romantic love is a property of the attachment behavioral system, as well as the motivational systems that give rise to caregiving and sexuality.” (A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research by R. Chris Fraley | University of Illinois))

Martin seems to have carried over his childhood attachment issues into adulthood, which is not always likely to happen. Studies also quoted in the above overview note “attachment styles in the child-parent domain and attachment styles in the romantic relationship domain are only moderately related at best.” I cannot expect that the writers of this show would have looked up any of this and simply may have made an educated guess that Martin’s experiences in childhood would lead to having problems with attachment in adulthood. Regardless of the exact conditions, Martin and Louisa’s rocky love life is connected to their childhoods and their relationships with their parents. The loss and recovery dynamic they go through time and again could easily be associated with their latent insecurities due to their perceived rejection during their childhoods.

That the Doc Martin writers, et. al. planned for the members of the Ellingham family to show signs of suffering from these sorts of repercussions is unlikely; however, we can retrospectively observe how some of their behavior fits the theory. (My personal position is that much of the development of these characters comes post-hoc. They started with the irony of a surgeon who can’t perform surgery due to the sudden onset of a blood phobia, and who moves to Portwenn to be near his aunt with whom he spent several nice summers, and who is skittish about fitting in. After the first series, they realized his behavior needed some sort of origin and bringing in the family would add conflict as well as more sympathy for him.)

All of the older Ellingham generation show different levels of coping skills. Martin’s behavior has some signs of Asperger’s, but PARTheory points out an alternative diagnosis: reaction to being rejected. More than anything, however, the Ellinghams are a family in which loss plays a significant role and they have compounded the losses encountered by Christopher, Joan, and Ruth by passing those on to Martin. The family heritage is filled with doctors along with emotionless misfits.

Martin does suffer some loss through death too. The biggest blow would have been from Joan’s sudden death. He may try to comfort himself by judging her age as within expectations for lifespan, but she was the only source of affection for him apart from Louisa. Although she is replaced by Aunt Ruth fairly quickly, Joan had been the one member of his family who had had some history with him. Her death leaves him more than ever in search of a family circle. It isn’t long before he abruptly learns about his father’s death. In both cases, Martin is given no time to adjust to the news. The loss of his father intensifies the loss of control he feels from the return of his haemophobia and he retreats even farther into his protective cocoon. Nevertheless, even when he is in the doldrums in S6, he considers his family to consist of his wife, his son, and Ruth. That he essentially chases Louisa away and finds himself alone again after she leaves for Spain with James, accentuates the losses he has engendered in his life.

Whenever there is loss, it is usually accompanied by grief, or a grieving process. The stoic in Martin Ellingham never exhibits much behavior associated with grief with the exception of the scene following the concert date when Louisa decides to end their dating, and some scenes in S6, e.g. when he sits in the car with James while Louisa is in the hospital and again when he becomes tearful after the operation on Louisa. In those two occasions his emotions get the better of him and we are intended to empathize with the pain he experiences from knowing that he has come close to losing Louisa. The sight of ME struggling with his feelings pulls at our heartstrings, and it may be the best reason to have taken such a dramatic turn in S6.

I have already mentioned Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her 5 stages of grief in a previous post. She expressed her theory in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. These stages are self-explanatory I think, and we should keep in mind that not everyone goes through each stage and the stages may be experienced in a different order. They were primarily developed for people who had been given a diagnosis of a terminal illness. Her theory has been supported by other studies, but, not surprisingly, there also have been studies that have modified it or come to other conclusions. George Bonanno argues there are four trajectories of grief: resilience, recovery, chronic dysfunction, delayed grief or trauma. And Susan Berger, Ed.D., LICSW, has identified 5 ways we grieve. In her model there are nomads, memorialists, normalizers, activists and seekers. I think both of these theories can add dimension to our basic understanding of grief.

Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, did his work in the early 2000s. He’s credited with using scientific studies to support his theories and with replacing older notions about grief with the demonstration that most people exhibit a lot of resilience following a loss. Resilience surfaces even when people face extreme stressors or losses, which contradicts the stages model of grief. His article “Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience” explains his theory.

Following the loss of control over his haemophobia, Martin’s ability to handle the arrival of his mother is compromised. Her news of his father’s death, and her imposition on their home life, are rather traumatic. Due to the adjustments Martin has had to make to having a wife and child, perhaps his depression is more like PTSD and that’s why it doesn’t last into S7. (Admittedly, I am groping here, but it’s fun to speculate.)

Berger notes that most people fall into the category of nomads, and Martin could easily fit into that group. We could also make a case for him as a “normalizer.” He doesn’t have many friends, but he has decided to emphasize family first and then the community, mostly consisting of Morwenna, and possibly Penhale and Mrs. Tishell. They all contribute to returning his life to its former state.

Other losses registered in this show are:

  • Louisa essentially has lost her mother and father during childhood. She has lost her job in Portwenn and in London. She has felt the loss of having the occasional closeness she has gotten from Martin. So many times he’s told her he can’t bear to live without her, he loves her and will always love her, he thinks she’s beautiful and a caring mother, etc. However, he has also shut her out time and again, treated her disrespectfully, and embarrassed her in front of others. He’s also shunned many of her efforts to be affectionate. She can’t help but be confused and disoriented by his erratic behavior towards her.
  • Joan has lost her association with Martin when he was a child. She’s lost her husband and her relationship with her brother is very strained. She is on the verge of losing her farm and possibly her car/driving privileges. The loss of her farm would be devastating to her. Some of her friends have died and her lover, John Slater, is terminally ill. She’s a fighter, but her life has been very tough.
  • Ruth has never had much of a family life and her attachments to siblings appears fragile. Moving to Portwenn has meant losing her life in London and her professional interactions. At least she takes trips back to London to refresh herself from time to time. She has probably gained a few things too. She has never had as close a relationship with a relative until she establishes herself near Martin, and this has led to becoming close to Louisa and others in the town. But her constant refrain is that she isn’t ready to stop working, and continuing to work now means traveling. By the end of S7, we see a Ruth who may be thinking of being more active at the B&B rather than attending more conferences.
  • Bert has lost his wife and then his fiancée, and now he’s lost his home. He flits from job to job with little attachment to any of them — perhaps until this new plan of making whiskey. His most recent venture, the restaurant, has had many ups and downs until failure finally overtakes it.
  • Mrs. Tishell has lost her dignity and her mind. Her husband’s long absences mean that she is alone much of the time and she doesn’t seem to have any friends.
  • Al struggles to find his way. He’s lost his mother, although his father did a good job of filling that void. He’s abandoned many ideas and he’s lost in love. He may now have lost his independence from his father.
  • Penhale has lost his wife, his brother, and has a lonely existence. This new attraction to Janice seems pretty pathetic and destined to go nowhere. Once we hear that she’s been married 3 times at such a young age, we can’t expect anything reliable to come of her potential romance with Joe.
  • Many townspeople have lost much. There are many broken families, and several have had deaths in their families.

All in all, for a comedy/dramedy, we have a lot of loss in this show. It’s fascinating to consider how they have managed to make us laugh while depicting characters with so much deprivation. It does make for a show with an undercurrent of misfortune that I would speculate causes viewers to feel closer to the characters. At the same time, the tribulations are varied enough and often arise from such zany circumstances that we can’t help but find them funny. Bert’s restaurant certainly made me think twice before eating out!!




Originally posted 2016-03-18 16:10:42.

6 thoughts on “Good Grief! Or Fear, Loss, and Time

  1. Laura H

    What a great post about loss and grief exhibited in the characters of Doc Martin. Kudos to you, Karen, for the thorough review of loss with insightful articles referenced that give some new perspectives on the subjects. One that stood out for me was that concerning human resiliency in regard to loss. And your funny last statement about Bert’s restaurant causing you to pause to consider whether to eat out or not jogged my memory that perhaps Bert, himself, in Season 7, gives us the example of one who has lost the most in the shortest span of time. When Al finds Bert sitting on the cliff in E3, he questions him as to how Bert can be so optimistic in the face of having lost his fiancée, his home and his business? Bert says Al just has to see it through Bert’s eyes..,’tain’t so bad. That, to me, is resiliency, though we did see Bert go through some of the stages of grief in earlier scenes of emotionally reading the letter from Jenny, tearing it up but eventually taping it back together. A point could be made that Bert needed “peace and quiet” as he tells Al, which is the reason he disappears not wanting to talk with anyone but work through it in his own way alone. I had never paralled this to Martin’s loss and grief of the return of his blood phobia, death of his father, and loss of childhood stirred by his mother showing up in S6. Now I can understand better how maybe Louisa’s urging him to talk to someone or even her just might not have been what Martin needed. Her suggestion they go away for the week-end was not what he needed either. Like Bert, quite likely Martin needed not to talk to anyone, time alone and peace. We may think we know what is good for someone who has gone through loss, but maybe we are thinking more about how we want them to react or what’s good for us.
    Great post, and thanks, too, to Muse Santa.

  2. Post author

    Thank you for your compliments and for your thoughts. I agree that sometimes people just need some time to themselves, and in S6 Martin sure acts like that’s what he wants/needs. But as a new wife his desire to be alone had to have been hard to accept. We keep saying throughout our discussions that we wish he would talk to her. We want him to tell her he just needs some time to decompress, but he can never tell her his needs, nor can she express hers, and that’s the plan for the show. Their total inability to communicate is so pronounced, particularly in S6, that what was a hopeful start to married life very quickly becomes incredibly stultified.

    I suppose depression makes it even harder to talk and clarify what’s in one’s mind, but things sure got horribly bad almost immediately. S7 continues their inability to find a way to communicate and therapy does nothing to improve it. The relentlessness of their taciturnity then takes on a farcical nature, and we’re off in another direction. The loss of much success in interacting is something we should also include, huh?

    Bert does seem to be the most resilient, although it’s somewhat ridiculous that he should be our model for resilience since he is the least capable of holding a job or managing his home life. Then we’re left with laughing at ourselves for taking him too seriously, or taking the show too seriously.

  3. Santa Traugott

    Thanks for this post, Karen. You’ve covered the ground wonderfully, and I think that my only addition is this: By the end of S7E7, Martin seems to have reached the stage of acceptance of his loss of Louisa. That is, he tells her that he can’t go on like this, and they now have to have a discussion about how to terminate their marriage, since apparently she can’t see a way forward (that she is willing to take or even to discuss). At least, that is how I interpret his comment that they have to “decide about James…and everything.”

    I think what we are meant to conclude — based in this episode on his interactions with the art teacher and her daughter — that he recognizes that he is what he is and he cannot change enough to be the man that Louisa thinks she wants, again, should she ever be able to specify that. That being so, he must face up to his loss, and get on with his life as best he can.

    This is surely a healthier posture than the depressed state in which we first see him in S7, and even in the being willing to bargain away aspects of himself if he can get Louisa back.

    I continue to think that it’s only when Louisa recognizes that he’s reached the stage of accepting the loss of their marriage, that she can begin to think constructively about whether she really wants to end her marriage or can herself accept the loss of her hope for the idealized version of her husband and accept him as he is. Actually, Louisa has a trajectory in S7, too, from anger at Martin for not being the man she thinks she wants, and denial of her role in their marital troubles, to a kind of acceptance.

  4. Post author

    I’m so glad you are pleased.

    I know you have always believed that Martin is supposed to appear as if he is conceding to being unable to convince Louisa of his commitment to her. There may not be much of a difference between feeling defeated and accepting a loss, but I’d like to draw that distinction. To me, he has given up or felt defeated by Louisa’s intransigence, but I don’t think he has accepted the loss. I think they are trying to make that distinction because as soon as Louisa shows any glimmer of making a concession of any kind, Martin immediately responds. Therefore, when we reach the final episode and he hears Annie Winton on the phone with Louisa, he quickly starts referring to his wife being worried about him and needing to call her. When he knows that Louisa has come looking for him, he tries to make an escape. And, finally, when all is said and done, he’s the first to profess his continuing love for her.

    He has perhaps realized that he is who he is, as the art teacher notes, and it takes Louisa to redeem the situation, but I think he is presented as never being willing to give up entirely. We don’t get to see the dinner conversation played out, but even under those circumstances, to me it seems likely that Louisa was planning to tell him she wanted him to return to their home and that he would have been happy to do that.

    Louisa, IMO, is supposed to have had some time to reflect on her own behavior and come to realize that all of their marital problems do not stem from Martin. That was a huge step for her, but I’m willing to bet that in the next series she will continue to try to mold him in some way. It’s a lost cause, but we all keep trying. I’ve been married for over 40 years and I still can’t get my husband to put things away. I should just accept that, but hope springs eternal! Now that the show has returned to being less serious, I expect conflicts of a lighter nature, but there will be conflicts!

  5. Santa Traugott

    Well, as we’ve so often lamented, there’s a missing conversation between Martin and Louisa that has to have taken place between their parting at the end of E7 and their doorstep meeting at the beginning of E8. It was in that period of time that Louisa decided that their conversation couldn’t be about splitting up, but about a possible way forward and conveyed that to Martin. And her manner showed that, in that meeting, and also in the very careful preparations she had made for a dinner that would please Martin. I continue to think it was the realization that Martin was prepared to let her go, rather than continue to be frustrated by her ambivalence, that galvanized her thought process.

    As to messy husbands — almost 50 years here! I’m not sure I’ve accepted the trait but I’ve figured out sort of how to confine it, and that’s the best I can do.

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