After having conducted only one official session with a client thus far, I decided yesterday that I was going to close my practice and go into semi-retirement so that I would have time to pursue a personal writing project. That’s when I received the emergency page from my answering service alerting me to the fact that M. from Ohio was in dire need of my therapeutic services. Admittedly, I briefly considered ignoring the call but if I had, it would have gnawed at me all day long, effectively putting a damper on my plans to lose myself in story writing. So, please, M., do come in and take a seat on the couch while I give the rest of the assembled psychiatric team some backstory.
M. recently caught her husband of many years cheating on her and is going through the attendant emotional upheaval inherent in being on the receiving end of such a betrayal. As is only natural, she feels conflicted about how she should be reacting to these upsetting revelations and has received the normal gamut of unsolicited advice from those who just can’t seem to keep their mouths shut about situations they foolishly think they understand. Lately, M. is harboring a good dose of rage for her ex and wonders whether it would be better to express her anger to him directly or continue to react to him with cold silence. The question she put to me was quite succinct: “How do I stop myself from trying to garner any kind of human reaction from Asshat?”
Now, this might sound a little strange coming from a psychotherapist, M., but it’s undeniably true: No one can tell you how to feel. Perhaps you’re wondering what kind of deliberate double-speak I’m dispensing here, since I’m a therapist and one would think that it is my job to tell people how they should be feeling, but that is a wildly inaccurate notion of an analyst’s role. If people try to tell you that you should be bitter and vengeful or you should forget all about him or you should find a new lover and move on or even that you should be the bigger person and forgive his transgressions, what they are actually doing on a subconscious level is attempting to manipulate you into their own delusional head space. In fact, I believe it was one of my own esteemed psychoanalytic peers who told you this: “You don’t stop yourself from having human reactions, M. You have them. The great thing about being human is we get to do all sorts of humanly things like get pissed and then work through the anger with friends. You have a right to this emotion, and I applaud you your strength in displaying it.”
I don’t think I could really say anything clearer than that regarding the truth that most of our attempts at controlling our emotions are actually attempts to suppress them, a strategy that is always doomed to failure and invariably results in an increase or strengthening of neurotic tendencies. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t tried and true methods of fine-tuning the control we have over our own minds. Since our own minds are quite literally the ONLY things over which we are afforded control (if we want it), working with the brain’s neuroplasticity to create new habits and outlooks in the interest of increased happiness might well be the only reasonable form of “self-improvement” that there is. But I will leave lessons in the finer points of meditation to the gurus. You came to me in search of psychiatric assistance, so that’s what I will try to provide. Just know that if there are no positive or mandatory reasons for contacting him, to do so is by definition an attempt to reinsert yourself into the ugly but comfortably familiar situation of imagined security and stability. And by now, I hope you are well-versed in the understanding that there are literally no such things as security or stability.
If I were to simply suggest that you stop thinking about your ex, this would be the equivalent of asking you to concentrate very hard in an attempt to NOT think about an elephant. As soon as such a directive is given and you attempt to put it into practice, BOOM! – there’s the fucking elephant and his big fat elephant ass all up in your psyche. So you need to work with what’s presently there in your mind, not what you wish was (or wasn’t) there.
Since I can give no hands-on directions for you to follow in the coming days, I will instead leave you with some truisms that you can recall as needed while you build a new and hopefully improved life for yourself.
You related that in happier times (with the benefit of hindsight, of course, you now realize that they were actually more cunningly deceptive times), Asshat told you that you were his “soulmate” and that he couldn’t live without you. Here comes the part of my job that I find most distasteful to perform – that is, the destruction of cherished illusions in the minds of my clients. First of all, there are over 7.5 billion people on the planet which means there are approximately 3.75 billion people walking around with dicks in their trousers. What would you guess is the likelihood of you finding that ONE man right in your home town who is so tailor-made for you that he rises to the level of such a lofty title as “soulmate” (with the assumption implicit in that word that there can only be one such individual on the planet)? I’ll tell you exactly what the odds are: 1 in 3.75 billion. In other words, it ain’t happening. This “soulmate” thing doesn’t just get under my skin because it’s sappy and stupid. It is actually one of the most obviously unattainable ideals that we just can’t seem to dismiss out of hand because we wish so badly it were so. Similarly, he told you he could not live without you. These words have been oft-spoken in the annals of romance and there is only one thing common to everyone who has ever said them: he or she was alive and well before they met the object of their desire and he or she continued to live and breathe after the dissolution of the relationship with the object of their former desire. Simple as that. He can and does live without you, just as you do him. If it seems like I’m employing semantics to dissect words that are obviously meant to be hyperbolic, just look at your own reaction to them: “If by chance someone says that to me again…how will I ever believe them?” That is a crystalline example of taking overblown romanticism literally. I should hope that you won’t ever believe such words again from anyone, no matter how otherwise wonderful of a guy might spew them from his gob. To recap: there are no such things as soulmates and the dissolution of a marriage or romantic relationship is not a physical threat to an organism’s continued function. Keep these things in perspective because the rest of the love-weary world will continue to sing the praises of outright impossibilities and I don’t wish for you to get caught up again in the mass delusion. People believe in soulmates and perfect love because it brings imaginary meaning to their lives, but this game of make-believe comes at an enormous cost, as you are now experiencing in all its rawness.
Revenge is only an attractive notion to those who do not understand the immutable law of Universal interconnection. The mindset of a person scorned isn’t in an ideal position to internalize the difference between pain and suffering. But briefly, it’s this: if a friend approaches me out of the blue and smacks me across the face, I will experience physical pain for a period of time depending on the force of the blow. If, when the pain has subsided, I sink into a bitter mood and begin to obsess over why this friend would do such a thing, what I’d done to deserve it, and what I should do by way of retribution, this mental turmoil is called suffering. In other words, pain cannot be avoided but suffering is our own creation. Realizing this fact is the ONLY way that you can hope to – eventually – “let it go”.
Think about the word we use to describe the behavior of an unfaithful partner: “cheating”. According to Merriam-Webster, to “cheat” is defined as “to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination” (emphasis my own). Once again, our language gives us away. What would naturally be a magnetic and emotionally satisfying attraction between two kindred members of a species becomes a transaction, the exchange of a commodity. One cannot “cheat” his or her own emotions anymore than he can wink at his own eyeball. A person is only in a position to cheat if it has been agreed upon that the nature of a relationship is transactional. In order to view it as such, the other party needs to be viewed as a possession. Something over which he or she has power or control. Have we really taken the idea of unregulated capitalism this far? Have we actually reached a point where even our own emotions are something that can be bought, sold and utilized for material advantage? If this is so, understand that it doesn’t have to be so for you anymore.
Finally, stop trying to write the epilogue to the story of your life before you even finish with the main plot. I don’t know if you’ll ever find the right guy and neither do you. I also don’t know that you won’t, and neither do you. And before you jump in to remind me that you’re in your 40s and you aren’t getting any younger and all of that melodrama, remember another of the common justifications you hear from people regarding why they choose to stay in imperfect and unfulfilling marriages: “I don’t want to die alone”. Well, I hate to break it to you, Champ, but we all die alone. Even if you have the rare good fortune to die peacefully and gradually at an old age while surrounded by loved ones, at the moment the light goes out, it only goes out for you, not those gathered ‘round your convalescent bed. You’re going it alone. But don’t worry: death is the absolute final end of this thing that feels like it is living and loving and crying and hoping and being betrayed, so “you” will be blissfully unaware of anything once the final curtain is drawn.
In this life, you can go it alone or you can walk hand in hand with a partner. Neither of these options is inherently superior to the other. But whichever you choose, M., do so with no illusions. That is in your control.