by Craig Chalquist
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It's as if at birth
the child has an invisible aura around
— Michael Meade, Men and the Waters of Life
Only consider at
what price you sell your own will; if
— Epictetus, The Discourses
I have noticed, mainly among men, a tendency to settle for partners they feel attracted to but aren't in love with.
Asked about this, men themselves sometimes explain it in terms of biology: men are just like that, as some women maintain. The old testosterone "fuck it or kill it" pointed out by Ken Wilber, among others. Those of us who lack the scientific understanding put it differently but get to the same place: "She was nice, funny...and had a body that wouldn't quit. And I hadn't had sex for a while..."
I don't buy this explanation. I do believe that hormones and other factors color the differences between the genders. And that socialization plays a crucial role. And family-of-origin dynamics, values, beliefs. Religion, or rebellion against it. And for some men, sheer passivity combined with a hungry ego: "She chased me and I let myself be caught. It felt nice to be wanted."
But these and other quick-smart analyses leave unexplained what most needs explaining: just why does a man who knows he isn't serious about a woman, knows she'll wind up being hurt and angry, maybe even knows she realizes his state of mind, decide to be with her anyway? And why do some women make the same decision?
I think the answer boils down to two words: sexualized woundedness. With eerie consistency, the men (and women) who settle for nonpassionate sexual relationships nearly always were left with a heart broken by an unavailable parent early on.
Two centuries of psychoanalysis, object relations, research data, and clinical experience have taught us beyond the shadow of a doubt that we bring forward those psychological injuries we fail to make peace with. And we haven't made peace with them until we've reexperienced and worked through the full intensity of the accumulated pain. We may think we forgive and have grown beyond the alcoholic father, the rageaholic mother, the parent whose soul was absent thanks to drugs, overtime, neurosis, or indifference, but this is one of the most common deceptions we have about ourselves. It spares us, we hope at some level, the effort of sorting out and really dispensing with the baggage left to us by childhoods that were less than ideal, and sometimes less than loving.
With such early wounds goes a primitive logic known to therapists as magical thinking. As children we think magically; to a forming identity the distinction between fantasy and reality, what we wish and what we get, is a fairly late accomplishment. Wound a very young child —and bear in mind that all children, even babies, are exquisitely sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of the family— and that child's chief defense and guardian of sanity becomes the belief that the wound can somehow be magically undone. And the way to undo it is to please mom or dad, to be a better boy or girl, so that whomever created the injury will take it back again and leave one whole.
The years pass, the family grows up, the parents change, circumstances change, but the wound, untended, remains. And so does the magical thinking that shields one from the pain. The ache may feel so familiar that we get used to it. But, now adults, we find ourselves noticing parent-stand-ins (Freud's "repetition compulsion") selected by our magical thinking, partners with whom we can do the old dance again in the vain hope that this time it will come out as it should have and leave us unwounded. Our sexuality follows suit. And we decide to obey it, coming up with the various excuses after —"I told her it wouldn't work but she wanted me anyway"; "I was lonely"; "I thought she was the one," and so on.
Obviously, this is deeply unconscious —because very early— behavior. What's conscious is a strong sexual desire for a particular woman (or man) we may nevertheless not wish to marry. For some, love would even ruin the dance because the predictable outcome, a hurt partner, satisfies an unacknowledged desire for revenge on the parent-figure whose unavailability opened the original wound. (Sound unnecessarily devious? Work with batterers and would-be Don Juans if you think it's not a common dynamic.)
Aside from the unnecessary conflict and suffering all this acting out causes both partners —and this is the real point— succumbing to magical thinking by being with a lover one isn't serious about keeps one's old wounds from ever healing. The consequences go far beyond a few emotional smarts or the risk of VD or even AIDS. By staying stuck in an old dance, you stuff the early, unprocessed rage, betrayal, helplessness, fear, emptiness, abandonment, and basic anxiety —and stuffing them confines them to unconsciousness, where they fester. You grow older, but nothing changes.
Meanwhile your partner eventually goes off on you, embittered by your incapacity for love or intimacy, and, your own stereotypes confirmed, you have a fresh load of distrust, resentment, futility, and guilt ("Why am I always the bad guy?") to add to what you already carry. Nothing heals.
If, then, you've done this dance and are tired of it, of reacting instead of acting, then don't stuff the woundedness by sleeping around or any other self-anesthetizing evasion —which for men often shows up as workaholism, alcoholism, cyberaddiction, self-isolation, codependent caretaking, or chronic TV-watching. Look inward, take your best account of that hole in your heart, and let it bleed. Make use of whatever will help: a journal, exercise, self-help books, art, music, good therapy, spiritual resources, understanding friends. Don't be a martyr, don't hit back, don't overanalyze, don't whine, but validate that familiar sexual pull without burdening another parent-figure with it, then embrace the underlying pain —and count on it: it will gush— whenever it surfaces. Trace where it came from and who left you with it, and why. Feel it flowing through your mind, chest, body. Let it bleed, let it bleed.
Do this and a day will come when you'll turn within and find that the hole has closed, the magical thinking has gone silent, the pain has broken down into energy, and the sexualized woundedness has dried up.
If not by the presence of these, then you will recognize that day by an absence: the absence of the sort of partners you used to feel drawn to, and who used to feel drawn to you.
Comfortable with yourself by yourself, perhaps then you'll feel ready to begin a relationship that's for real.
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