Archive for January 19th, 2010

The People’s Therapist is a big Stevie Wonder fan.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love),” from the legendary 1972 album “Talking Book”:

You can see what makes it a classic.

First – it’s Stevie Wonder.

Second – who can resist a song whose chief lyric is “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever”?

We all want to find perfect love – and have it last forever.

But listening to this song feels like a guilty pleasure – there’s something that nags at you, even as you want to go along with it.

In reality, it’s impossible to know how long a relationship is going to last.  You can “believe” all you want – but no one can predict the future.

Stevie married his first wife in 1970, divorced in 1972, then, after multiple relationships, married again in 2001.  He has seven children, the product of what Wikipedia describes as “his two marriages and several relationships.”

For Stevie, where relationships are concerned, I think it’s fair to say “it’s complicated.”

That’s true for most of us.

Relationships are organic – like plants.  No one knows whether they’re going to flourish or wilt, and there’s only so much you can do to control them.  You can’t pull on a leaf and make it longer – it has to decide to grow that way on its own.

I try to avoid valuing a relationship based on its longevity.  We all know people who have had meaningful relationships that lasted only a few years.  And we all know couples who have been miserable together for decades.

At some point, what matters most in a relationship is not whether it lasts forever, but whether you enjoy being in it.

When I treat couples, I ask them right away:  “How much of the time, as a couple, are you having fun?”

I’m not trying to be flippant – it’s an important question.

My general rule is that they should be having fun more than 50% of the time.  Otherwise, it’s trouble – and I begin to question why they’re sticking it out.

In an existential sense, having fun – being happy – is what life’s about.  We’re here to experience joy, and our relationships should be a source of that happiness.

There are a lot of things I could say about relationships – that they should be balanced, that partners should treat one another as equals and relate as adults, that they should be two whole people pursuing a shared goal, that a healthy relationship requires attraction, trust and respect between the partners.

But the most important thing – the starting place – is that you should be having fun.

The truth is most relationships end in break-up – and that’s not necessarily a disaster.  It might be an evolution to something different. People grow and change over time, and having several loving relationships – like Stevie’s – might not be fundamentally better or worse than having only one.

It’s having fun, together with a partner, that really counts.

Here’s another song (lyrics by Eddy Arnold, performance by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole), called “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

I think gets a little closer to the truth of what relationships are really about:

Sometimes I love you.

Sometimes I hate you.

But when I hate you.

It’s ’cause I love you.

That’s how I am

So what can I do?

I’m happy when I’m with you.

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Pretend for a moment that you have been captured by terrorists.  They shackle you up in their torture chamber, where you are confronted by their fiendish leader.

“So,” he sneers, “Are you going to cooperate?  Or are we going to have to make you cooperate?”  And he emits an evil cackle.

At this juncture, you are faced with two options:

Behave nobly, and stubbornly refuse to have any part in this travesty; or

Break down and sob like a child.

I suspect you’ve played this scenario through your mind at one time or another.  Hollywood represents our collective unconscious, or at least our collective imagination, and this set-up arises with predictable regularity in action thrillers (including every James Bond movie ever made).  It seems sensible enough to ask yourself what you would do in this situation, all the while knowing perfectly well  you’ll never know for sure (unless – god forbid – it ever happened.)

The real question is – why do those two options spring to mind as the only alternatives?

The answer is that you contain two selves – the adult and the child.  Under stress, you can either resist the urge to regress and stay conscious as an adult.  Or you can permit stress to regress you, go unconscious, and return to the young child.

It doesn’t take terrorists to trigger this voyage back to infancy.  The collapse fantasy, as I call it, lurks as a temptation in our minds most of the time.

One of my patients recently found himself on his knees, weeping and pleading with his partner to take him back.  Her response, as you might imagine, was disgust and horror that this man she’d respected had collapsed before her eyes into a helpless child. His adult self might have realized you sometimes have to step away if you want someone to follow – but the child wanted what he wanted and was going to scream until he got it.  Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Later, filled with remorse, he told me he didn’t know what came over him.  When a patient tells me something like that – some version of “I don’t know what came over me” – I know he’s describing unconscious behavior.  And when we go unconscious, the child – and the collapse fantasy – tends to take over.

Once the child’s in charge, here’s how things operate:

He experiences solitude as abandonment.  An infant abandoned even for a moment in his cradle, if he registers the slightest need for care, will scream as though in mortal danger.  For all he knows, he is.  He is utterly dependent.

He goes victim and broadcasts his upset.  He perceives his scream as his only means for survival.

He is impulsive and pleasure-seeking.  He wants what he wants.  Now.  Put a shiny toy in front of an infant – he wants the shiny toy.

Essentially, the child is an infant – your earliest incarnation. The temptation to regress into that infant state is strong because it reproduces a time when you received total attention and care.  All you had to do was register your desires – any impulsive desire – and it would be satisfied.  Mom would come running – someone would come running – if you only yelled loudly enough.

My client, stressed by his partner’s stated desire to leave the relationship, succumbed to the temptation to regress, and began relating to his partner as an infant to a parent – weeping, crying, begging for the care he needed.  He entirely forgot her needs – which only drove her further away.

The collapse fantasy haunts us – especially when we’re under stress.  In fact, “nervous breakdown” is a code word for the collapse fantasy in action.  That’s when you announce you are overwhelmed and can’t take it anymore – you are giving up…and they cart you away to the looney bin. I’ve run into this syndrome mostly with younger patients – adolescents or people in their early twenties.  They “lose it” and do something crazy, or make a half-hearted suicide attempt – whatever it takes to end up in a mental hospital.  At that point, in the vast majority of cases, they realize they’ve made a mistake (mental hospitals are not relaxing places.)  That’s when they begin to see that the collapse fantasy doesn’t work as a life strategy.  The help you really want – mommy – doesn’t arrive.

Why does the collapse fantasy present such a strong temptation? Consider the trajectory of your life, for a moment, in terms of loss.  As you grew out of childhood, the first, profoundest loss was the total, unqualified attention of a parent.  Have you ever watched a young child at a playground calling for his mother to watch him do some trick on the jungle gym?   “Mommy.  Mommy.  Mommy!  Mommy!!  MOMMY!!!  MOMMMMMMMYYYYYYYY!!!!!”  …until she finally breaks off her conversation, turns, and acknowledges him with a wave.

As adults, we have to parent ourselves, and assume responsibility for our own needs (as well, perhaps as the needs of our children and even our parents.)  That can feel overwhelming.  It’s no wonder we unconsciously long for a return to the past.

The good news is that adulthood brings benefits as well as losses.  It’s a trade-off in some respects, but independence can be sweet.  It feels good to make your own decisions, and rely on your own judgment. If you’re not busy screaming for someone else’s attention all the time, you can begin focusing attention on yourself – and give yourself the care you need.

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