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“He lets me down every time.  Why did I think this time would be different?  Was it because I needed him so much?”

We sat in silence, in my office, while I gave my client the space she needed to have her tears.  She had just crossed the country to Oregon to visit a father she barely knew.  The visit was intended to give their relationship another chance, but sure enough he was worse than ever – drunk and abusive.  His first comment when she stepped off the plane was about her weight.  She was crushed.

I was reminded of another client I’d seen the week before, preparing to come out as gay to his Venezuelan mother.

“I can’t tell her.  It’s killing me to live this lie, but she’s all I have – my only family.  If she disowns me, I’ll be alone.”

He, too, shed tears.

These clients are two examples of people navigating parental separation.

You will go through this, too, like everyone else.  It is inevitable.

You might be close to your parents.  They might be wonderfully supportive, and good friends.  You may love them deeply.  But love and anger go together – two sides of the same coin.  If you love people intensely, you must also have your anger towards them.  A child cannot own his anger at his parents – he requires their care to survive, so if there is any disruption in that care, he blames himself for failing to please his care providers.  In the child’s mind, it must be his fault that the parents are failing to provide the care he needs.  Above all else, he knows he cannot survive without his parents’ care, so he must please them, and that means he cannot have anger towards them.  As an adult, you can own your anger at your parents – and so you must, just as you must begin to provide care for yourself.

As an adult, you digest the reality that parents are people, no different from yourself – not the omnipotent gods of your childhood.  Your parents will fail you.  They will disappoint you – even the very most well-intentioned parents.  All parents disappoint their children, because parenting is an impossible job.
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A patient told me she couldn’t get over a guy she’d been seeing.

He was no good for her.  He didn’t even seem to want to go out with her.  But she couldn’t let go.

“But I love him,” she explained.

Well, in a manner of speaking.

She was in love with him like a child – the way a child loves a parent.

A child’s love is based upon dependency.  A child loves whoever takes care of him, because he cannot take care of himself.

When a young child says “I love you,” he means “I worship you and you are all-powerful and I depend upon you utterly and you are everything and I couldn’t survive without you.”

It’s the same way religious people relate to their chosen god-objects.  It’s no coincidence they often kneel before statues or altars and refer to “Lord” and “Almighty” and “Heavenly Father,” and so on.

If you live in an island with a volcano and it erupts and burns down your village, you can respond as an adult, and take up volcanology research.  Or you can regress under the stress into a child, and talk to the volcano as a parent-object, asking what you did wrong to make it angry, and trying to please it.

A child is so utterly dependent upon a parent that, if he displeases the parent, he will always locate the fault within.  He will not think – oh, it’s just a volcano, they erupt sometimes.  It must be about the child, something he did – his fault.

My client was relating to the guy she was dating the same way.  And she was beating herself up pretty bad.

Adult love is very different from child love.  It begins with loving yourself.

Then you add three ingredients:

Attraction, Trust, and Respect.

That’s what it means to love someone else, romantically, as an adult.

1.  You are attracted to him.  This is simple enough.  The common mistake here is trying to ignore sexual attraction and turn a friendship into a romantic relationship.  You cannot go out with the guy you SHOULD go out with.  You have to go out with the guy you WANT to go out with.  “But he’s so nice” is not a reason to date someone.  You have to be into him, too.

2.  You trust him.  If someone values you, his attention is focused on you.  Monogamy is the clearest manifestation of a mutual fascination.  But even in the early months of dating, before monogamy enters the picture, trust is already an issue.

Are you worried he might not call?

You shouldn’t be.  You should trust his interest in you.  If you don’t, there’s probably something wrong.  If you value yourself, you will find someone who values you as well.  And if he values you, he won’t leave you wondering if he’s going to call.

3.  You respect him.  The best relationships contain a note of mutual awe.  You think your partner is pretty darned terrific – and he returns the compliment.

Happy partnerships are a bit mysterious – they are secret clubs, with only two members.  We don’t know what Napoleon saw in Josephine, or Gertrude saw in Alice B, or John saw in Yoko – but these famous partners were clearly fascinated with their spouses, and their fascination was returned.

A mature, respectful relationship between equals might seem pretty dull stuff compared to the headlong thrill of worshipping a parent-object like a child.

Yes, it is a bit calmer.  Far less drama.

But believe me, it has its pleasures.

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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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