“I’m a gay man looking for someone I both like and fancy. Why is it so difficult?”

I’m a single man in my mid-30s. I was something of a monogamist throughout my 20s with only three relationships by 30. I’ve now been single for six years. I’ve had one relationship that I felt very happy in, but it didn’t work out. My problem is, having experienced what I’d consider to be a “good” relationship, I’m now finding it very difficult to find another. Finding someone I fancy and like (in the friendship sense) and who likes and fancies me is like searching for a needle in a haystack. I’ve met guys I fancy and guys I like, and sometimes even guys I like and fancy, but never one where it’s been reciprocated. Maybe I’m being a bit idealistic, but it seems to take gay men longer to settle down than their straight brothers and sisters. Should I be more flexible? I suppose I’m looking for reassurance that aspiring to have this type of connection is a reasonable thing to be pitching for.

This letter appeared first in the Observer

My thoughts:

I like this letter. It seems simple at first, but somehow descends into chaos. You start off describing your relationship history (in numbers only) and then you go into this like/fancy, fancy/like stuff and you wonder if you’re asking too much in your search for both, if your difficulty is somehow to be found in gay culture and whether what you’re looking for really exists.

You ask if you “should” be more flexible, as though there are rules for finding the perfect mate and you just haven’t quite pinned them down yet.
What, I wonder, would being flexible mean? Having sex with someone you like but don’t fancy, or having sex with someone you fancy but don’t like?

You ask if you’re being idealistic in wanting to have a good relationship and seek reassurance that you’re not. You actually say what you want from your letter – you want the newspaper columnist to say that what you’re looking for is out there, just be patient and keep trying. Did she say that, I wonder? If so, win win.

But what are you really saying? I think you sound very confused by this separation of traits, as though liking and fancying someone are completely different things, not to be discussed together. There’s nothing to suggest in your letter that you might start with one thing and develop into the other, it’s as though they are distinct from each other in your mind. If you can’t put them together in your thinking then it seems unlikely that someone else will be able to bring them together for you (especially by embodying them both!).

You don’t give any history so I’m entirely out on a limb, but all your like/fancy confusion sounds as though you find it very difficult to reconcile sexual desire (perhaps experienced in your mind as negative or base in some way) with liking someone in a friendly way (possibly experienced in your mind as pure and positive). My suspicion (and it can only be a suspicion, obviously) is that you have a bit of virgin/whore thing going on. Just because your like/fancy stuff is so confused and fragmented and “good” was awarded inverted commas in your text.

I suspect you denigrate people you’re strongly physically attracted to because you feel there is something negative attached to that desire (and you perhaps feel denigrated by people who fancy you). And I suspect you elevate people you’re not physically attracted to as somehow being “above” sex so that sexual attraction can’t develop out of friendship.

Obviously, everyone finds the search for an ideal partner like looking for a needle a haystack, but perhaps in your case it’s a particularly good analogy you’ve chosen. The needle is the sex and the haystack is the purity and it’s pretty useless looking for one in the other. You want to be reassured that someone’s going to come along if you keep looking, but I’m not sure if you’ll recognise them until you get your internal splitting sorted out.

I’d suggest you look at your own thinking – about why you may feel you don’t deserve the full package of an intimate sexual friendship and about why you separate the two things in your mind in the first place. You wonder whether simply being gay might be the cause of your difficulty and it might be – but not, I think, in the way you suggest. It may be that you haven’t quite sorted out what being a settled couple would mean for you and how sex fits together with intimacy.

I’d like to know about your mum and dad, about early feeding experience (because your letter has a Kleinian good breast/bad breast feel), about your first sexual experiences, who is benign in your mind and who not, but you don’t say any of that, so I’ll have to leave it here!

Thoughtful Advice for Fundamental Change via email or Skype: anna@blundy.com

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“I hate my needy girlfriend but I can’t leave her. Help.” Proper Advice for Real Change.

I am a 30-year-old man in a professional job. My career is going well, but the one thing in my life I am not enjoying is my relationship. My girlfriend, 25, has a beautiful five-year-old daughter, who I adore, and a job, but is restricted due to being a single mother. I am no longer in love with her, but when I try to finish the relationship she cries, and it breaks my heart. I end up taking it back and telling her I’m just stressed by work.
She is a very anxious woman, and clingy, which I hate. If I don’t text her back she sends me messages which appear normal, but I can sense the panic in them. She constantly needs reassurance and it’s now becoming very annoying. What do I do?

This letter appeared last week in the Guardian.

My Thoughts:

Interesting introduction (possibly edited by the Guardian, but I’ll treat it as if it wasn’t). “A professional job” is an odd thing to say, but I think it means you feel you are doing well for you age, since your age is in the same sentence. You state that life’s going well in general, but your relationship is not going well. That’s striking because relationships are the most important part of our lives.

The message is – if I could just get out of this relationship then things would be perfect. So, already there’s a big red flag waving. Perhaps you need to be in a bad relationship so you can provide yourself with an explicable reason as to why you feel so guilty and hounded (the real reasons being much earlier)? Is the relationship a defence against thinking about things that are really going on for you? Have you been in this kind of relationship before? (Probably).

You say your girlfriend is “restricted” and I wonder what that means here. Perhaps you mean it’s hard to go out in the evenings or on holiday? Presumably, however, you knew she had a child when you got into the relationship, so these restrictions are unconsciously self-imposed. You chose someone whose personal freedom is limited and who perhaps feels very trapped. I wonder why?

Perhaps (taking the hint from your intro about being successful) having a girlfriend who very much needs you feeds a kind of omnipotent fantasy – if you are the powerful, successful one without needs then you don’t have to acknowledge the very frightened, needy side of yourself? Maybe, at least initially, it made you feel powerful to be with someone who has less freedom, money and power than you have? Interestingly, her daughter is described as beautiful and adored. [Were you brought up by a single mum, I wonder?] Probably the child is able to like you without needing you?

You go on to say that you “try to finish the relationship”, rather than that you do finish it. You are quickly manipulated by her need and your own guilt (about what, fundamentally?) keeps you in. Her love for you breaks your heart, particularly as you have none for her. I’m slightly tempted to leap to your mother here – was she very vulnerable, did she/does she need you, use you as a tool to meet her emotional needs while ignoring yours? But I think you are really in touch with a desperately needy side of yourself that has never been allowed out.

Perhaps your needs were never met – the people you wanted to stay did not stay? Something in you imagines that you know how your girlfriend feels – you know what terrible loss feels like. You also know (or are in some way in touch with the fact) that you are inflicting it, this pain, as a way of avoiding being that one, the left one, the lost one, the unwanted one. I think you have been in this position, or felt yourself to be in this position, in early life and it’s so unbearable that you must make sure you’re never in it again. An effective way of doing this is to do it to someone else, but because you know how it feels you are tortured by what you do. (In fact, of course, you do not know how your girlfriend feels – her loss may feel very different to yours, or to what you imagine).

It’s also important to point out that she probably would not want to stay with you if she knew what you really thought of her. So, in some ways, you are staying with her in order to protect yourself and her from the knowledge of what you are really like. You find it too difficult to admit your true feelings for fear of….? Being hated? Retaliation? Shame? You are, in fact, protecting yourself by staying with her and not protecting her at all. If she had all the information she would almost certainly leave you very quickly. But you continue to lie to her.

You say you hate anxious and clingy women (real loathing there – for all women excepting powerful newspaper columnists?), yet you chose one. You may hate them (again, seeing an unwanted part of yourself in them), but you are drawn to them. This might be you trying to rescue your mum as well as a projection of uknown/unwanted sides of yourself.

I’m fascinated by the messages that “appear normal” but in which you sense the panic. How, if they appear normal? The panic is yours. You are sensing panic. You want to believe it’s hers but, in fact, the messages are normal. And you then panic. I think this is probably because being needed is so absolutely unbearable. And yet it’s also so necessary to you, so that you don’t have to feel needy yourself. Again, if your mother was terribly needy and anxious then perhaps your own needs weren’t met so you ended up desperate too. Wild guess, obviously.

You say this woman’s need for reassurance is annoying and of course it is because you can’t offer it sincerely. If you did love her you’d be able to reassure her. But if you did love her then she wouldn’t sense that you didn’t and need reassurance. What do you do? Well, obviously, you leave in a clear and clean way and don’t get cowed by her manipulation. In an ideal world. But then what?

Then you have to look at what magnetic pull the very needy have on you, why you need to be in that position of power and how to allow yourself to be needy and thereby to allow others to need you. Easier said than done, of course….

Thoughtful Advice via Skype or email: anna@blundy.com

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“I followed a pop star to his hotel when I was 15 and he abused me. I’m still angry.” Proper Advice for Real Change

“Recent investigations into Jimmy Savile and others make me want to tell you about what happened 38 years ago.
At 15 I was ‘in love’ with a member of a glam-rock band. I’d never had a boyfriend but collected pictures of the guy (who was aged about 27 then), watched him on Top of the Pops and wore his initial around my neck.
In October 1974 my friends and I bought tickets to see the band in concert. I found out their hotel, went there and managed to sit next to my ‘crush’. Then everybody piled off to a club.
There, he put his arm around me and I felt like it was a real date. Afterwards we went back to the hotel and had more drinks — and he invited me to his room.
I seriously expected a chat and another drink. We hugged and kissed then he asked me to undress. I was a rabbit in headlights.
He took off all his clothes and persuaded me to strip to just knickers. I did it because I longed to be in a relationship with him. I also felt it wasn’t really right but couldn’t say no.
We didn’t have full sex but he groped me and asked me to touch him. Next morning he gave me taxi money to get home.
My parents believed I’d spent the night at a friend’s. Upset afterwards, I wrote to him but he never replied.
After four months the band returned, and I went to the hotel. I thought there were things to discuss and still believed I was in love.
One of the roadies invited me to his own room, saying unless I washed his hair when he was in the bath he wouldn’t tell ‘my guy’ I was there.
He obviously thought teenage girls were there for the taking. This was total abuse.
After the concert I went to the hotel, met ‘my guy’, told him I’d missed him, asked if we could talk.
He said he remembered me, kissed me, and asked me to lie on the bed with him — it was the same as before.
He asked me to perform a sex act and when I refused he got angry. I left in tears and haven’t seen him since.
Of course I was stupid — I dreamed of marrying him! He should have told me I couldn’t be his girlfriend — not take advantage then reject me. It upset me terribly for years. 
He’s still performing (in another band) and I feel sick when I see their tour posters.
I don’t obsess about it and have never told anyone, but believe it affected my self-esteem all my life. 
None of my relationships have worked out and I’ve been clingy, always expecting to be dumped.
It makes me so angry and I don’t know what to do about it.”

This letter first appeared in the Daily Mail. 

My Thoughts:

This is a very difficult letter to read. It’s important to stress, before I start thinking about what’s going with you, that this man was abusive, that what he did may have been illegal. You are not to blame for the abuse you suffered – he was the one doing the abusing. However, he hasn’t written to an agony aunt and we can only deal with and look at your part in what went on, at your motivations and the psychological consequences for you of what happened.

The slightly strange thing about this letter is that, although this happened a very long time ago, you tell the story in almost titilating detail. It feels important to you to outline exactly what took place, saying you didn’t have full intercourse (are you defending him here?), that he ‘asked you to perform a sex act’ – the kind of language used in newspapers presumably denoting oral sex, but not the kind of thing most people would ever say. It almost sounds written up for tabloid readers who might be excited by the detail. You almost seem to describe yourself in the male gaze, suggesting perhaps that you have always thought of yourself in this very objectified way.

Of course, you were young and naive and expected to be treated well because of the idealised fantasy you’d projected onto a stranger. It’s not uncommon to project a fantasy personality onto an unknown celebrity, but neither it is uncommon to be shocked by the reality that this person isn’t a product of your imagination, but a real and potentially (in this case actually) dangerous person. In many ways you had objectified him, you imagined and wanted a specific outcome, and he objectified you, imagining and wanting a specific outcome. He got his because it was more attainable – casual sex. What you wanted from this stranger was something that perhaps nobody ever gets – instant love, adoration and a proposal. And, from what you describe, you stalked him down to his hotel to get close to him – you were determined to end up alone with him. Of course, you had your own ideas of what this would mean and you felt you knew him when you didn’t.

Again, I’m not saying he wasn’t a sleazebag – he was. But it’s important to realise that you wanted the impossible from him, saying; “He should have told me…”
We should all behave better, but it is striking that you expected such good and honourable behaviour from some man in a band and I wonder why. It seems to me that the low self-esteem that has plagued you all your life probably predates your first encounter with this man. The fact that you disappeared to such an extent into this obsession with a stranger, someone whose personality you invented, suggests that there were very serious needs not being met at home. A fantasy person who would love and treat you well was your escape from a place where you were not loved and well-treated in the first place. A guess, obviously, and you don’t say it.

You do describe yourself as a “rabbit in the headlights” though, obeying instructions for fear of offending your idol. This is an “I wish someone else was different from how they are” letter and, of course, there are probably a lot of other girls and women who wish this particular creep had been different. But perhaps you are more angry with yourself than with him – angry about having had such impossible expectations, about having been so obedient, about setting yourself up for the loss of a very precious fantasy. Afterwards, once the fantasy had crashed down around you, real relationships with real men have been very difficult.

It sounds as though you expect them to serve the same purpose this pop star was supposed to serve – to look after you and save you. The fact that you describe yourself as “clingy” suggests that you still don’t feel the equal of the men with whom you involve yourself. Are you still idolising people and feeling unworthy of them, fearing you’ll anger them if you’re not obedient? “Clingy” is a very contemptuous word to use about yourself and is, obviously, demonstrative of feelings of worthlessness. Your needs are not being met and you are still trying to get them met by prostrating yourself (by the sounds of it) in front of men you fear.

The abuse you suffered was horrible, but I suspect the root of the problem is the way you were brought up to view yourself – as something to be accepted or rejected, rather than as a person with whom to engage. I’m tempted to lurch at your father’s attitude to you, but there’s just too little evidence in your letter. In any case, you created a fantasy person (essentially objectifying a stranger and using that fantasy to feed something in yourself) and felt horribly let down and objectified yourself by the real (and very abusive) person.

I think it’s important to look at what you were up to in your obsession and what purpose it served, as well as what this man had in common with other men in your life. I suspect the pattern didn’t start here. But whether it did or didn’t, it seems very important that you process the experience either in therapy or in a group of abuse survivors. The Courage To Heal is the bible for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and there is a lot in there that might help to liberate you from your anger and feelings of worthlessness.

Proper Advice via email or Skype: anna@blundy.com

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“Men don’t notice me. What am I doing wrong?” Proper Advice for Real Change

“I’m writing in hope that you can offer some clarity. I’m 32 and soon my mum (my only family) will pass away after a long illness.
This in itself is incredibly distressing, yet the reason I write is selfish and I feel ashamed to admit it.
I have never been involved in a romantic relationship. No man has ever shown any interest in me, other than one time when I had just started university, when a friend said that he liked me (I just didn’t feel the same way).
At school no boy would look at me — a trend that has continued.
Also, I live in a small town where the opportunities for meeting men are very limited.
Without wanting to sound vain, I just don’t understand it, as I’m not ugly, though not attractive. A classic ‘Plain Jane’, I suppose.
There’s just no beauty in my features, nothing to entice.
I regularly go out with my friends, some married, some single. Not once has a guy approached me on the dance floor, come up to talk to me, anything.
In fact, when a group of men join our group I’m usually totally ignored. I try to break into the conversation but it soon ends once the time for polite response has passed and the gentlemen can resume chasing my friends.
I’m so scared of being alone for the rest of my life. I’ve tried dating sites but no one ever seems to write except men who are much older.
My GP put me in counselling but while that helped how I felt about myself, there has been no change in getting people to notice me.
I don’t have a lot of friends as I recently stopped spending time and energy on people who didn’t offer their time to me unless they needed something.
As a result I have only a couple left (though I know they’re true friends and I’m very grateful).
This only serves to increase my sadness at the prospect of loneliness once my lovely mum passes.
The thing that’s most difficult to bear is that now people have no expectation that I might have someone in my life. I seem to have entered the realm of an 18th-century spinster, doomed to be alone with cats and knitting needles.
I understand that there must be a fault in how I behave — something I emit that says ‘go away’.
If so, I don’t know how to correct it. My friends say I’m smiley and friendly. Is there any advice you can give me?”

This letter first appeared in the Daily Mail.

My Thoughts:

You start this letter talking about your dying mum and she is, of course, in the background of what you write. You say she is your only family and you sound immediately very lonely. You are ashamed to admit your loneliness or the fact that you have needs, and you immediately write yourself off as selfish in wanting to end what has been, by the sounds of it a lifetime of isolation.

It’s instantly striking that responsibility for approach is given over entirely to the men who don’t approach. The one person who ever did (reportedly) like you wasn’t interesting, but you don’t say who you do like. You make it sound as though you are sitting around waiting to see who wants you but you yourself don’t like many people. You’re baffled by the lack of approaches but don’t give the impression that you’ve made approaches that have been rebuffed. You wonder what you’re doing wrong (already a good start since you’re aware that you are somehow repelling people) but it sounds relatively simple. You’re not interested in them.

Your ‘Plain Jane’ statement, ‘lack of anything beautiful or enticing’ in your features is desperately sad. You seem to feel very blank about yourself and about others. Very empty of interest.

In the same way as you rejected the university man who was interested in you, you reject the older men who come forward on the dating site. Nothing wrong with that if you are looking in a particular age range, I suppose, but are you? Do you start conversations with men your age? Do you chat with the older men to see if anyone agreeable is out there? ‘…the gentleman can resume chasing my friends’ sounds very angry and contemptuous indeed. You feel rejected, but you’ve rejected them (and yourself) before you even start.

You worry that you might sound vain for declaring that you are ‘not ugly’. You could hardly sound less vain, but you do sound cross and bitter. You seem to be asking why people uglier than you have more luck finding partners. You have hit upon something, of course – perhaps it’s not all about what people look like. And this is difficult, because the more important areas of you actually seem to feel very empty and dead.

The bitter feeling continues with the statement that your GP ‘put you in counselling’ as though this was something done to you while you were entirely passive. You seem to feel you have no choices really, no autonomy. I wonder why the GP recommended counselling, and imagine it was because she or he noticed that you are depressed. You mention ‘getting people to notice’ you, but I wonder to what extent you notice them. You have rejected your needy friends and you seem to despise the need in yourself, perhaps not approaching people you find attractive or not feeling able to find anyone attractive because that makes you vulnerable and needy yourself. You are asking them to do all the work and wondering why they don’t.

You’re worried about being a spinster with all the negative connotations that carries – condemning yourself in the harshest possible way, with no sense of real compassion for yourself.

Of course, this is guess work now, but your attachment to your mum and your fear of her death is consuming you at the moment. It sounds as though you were very close and some important part of you feels very morbidly linked to her death, making your current state feel final, making you feel far older than you are, preparing yourself for the grave. This is an identification with her as, perhaps, is this anger at the men who don’t notice you and the friends who demand things from you. You don’t mention your father, but you do say you have no other family, so perhaps men have been categorised as deserters and abandoners for a long time already. Certainly you don’t sound as though you like them or expect anything from them, and you obviously don’t feel able to demand anything of them – their attention, love, interest.

You say you are perceived as smiley and friendly but you don’t sound very friendly in this letter. It sounds as though your life has always been very bound up in your mother’s life and as though it has been very hard to develop separately from her and develop a life of your own. Perhaps she was very demanding and controlling or very needy, or perhaps you felt an enormous guilt towards her and feel that if you were happy and in a relationship apart from her, having children and doing well, you would destroy her?

I don’t know, of course, but it seems to me that you expect men to objectify you and judge you entirely on your looks and, at the same time, you do the same with them, ruling out the older men and apparently not expecting to make friends or find things in common before attraction kicks in, or doesn’t. It feels as though your chronic loneliness is deepseated and has perhaps been with you since childhood. It is very telling that your letter is as much about rejecting others as it is about feeling rejected.

You are very confused and angry and obviously going through a period of terrible grief. In essence though, it sounds as though you really aren’t interested in anyone else (feeling so depressed) and you project that lack of interest into others and then wonder what’s going on. There’s a lot of work to do before you feel happy enough about yourself to have the confidence to want and need someone else enough to make approaches and really try your luck at happiness. At the moment you really aren’t available, and others can sense that.

Proper Advice via Skype or email: annablundy@gmail.com

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“My new boyfriend prefers porn stars who don’t look like me to real sex with me.” Real Advice for Lasting Change

“I have been dating my boyfriend for almost seven months.
We have had our ups and many, many downs, but we are still working on our relationship — physically and emotionally. Recently, I’ve become aware that my boyfriend has been watching porn. I figured it would improve our sex life — but it has become a daily thing.
I have watched porn constantly with him, but it doesn’t really help at all. I prefer the real thing to something that’s not even real. Whenever he downloads pictures, it’s always a certain type of white girl — I’m not — and I honestly get jealous.
When I confront him about it, he yells at me. I honestly worry he’s doing more than just watching porn. And when I ask, he always says that he doesn’t have anyone on the side and that he only wants me.
I just feel like my time is being wasted and I don’t like that. Should I continue to date and live with him? I’m tired of this abusive and neglectful relationship. How do I get the truth out of him?”

This letter first appeared in the Chicago Tribune

My Thoughts:

A short response to this very sad letter. The last line is the most important. “How do I get the truth out of him?”

As far as I can tell, he is not hiding anything. The truth is right in front of you, but you don’t want to believe it. If he said; “I prefer sex with you to pornography and I find you far more attractive that the girls I watch,” you would, probably rightly, not believe him. This is a new relationship and one you already describe as “neglectful and abusive”. You say it has already contained “many, many lows”.

You hoped porn might improve your sex life. You say it “hasn’t helped”. So, your sex life isn’t good, at least for you. Do you feel to blame for this? Are you watching porn with him out of guilt at not enjoying sex with him? Is all this need to put him in the wrong really a projection of your own feeling of being in the wrong – guilt at not, in fact, finding him and his body type attractive? Possible.

You say you ask him whether he is unfaithful (in the real world) and he says he isn’t. You mention “confronting” him. It sounds as though you find it very hard to tell him how all this makes you feel and, instead, you accuse him of wrongdoing. Accusation is bound to put him on the defensive. You think he might be lying to you but you are lying to him in the sense that you show him anger and jealousy but not the more vulnerable feelings this horrible situation brings out in you. The reason what he does seems wrong is that it makes you feel rejected, sad, lonely, unwanted – very uncertain. It sounds as though you don’t tell him this but go in combative. You manage your uncertainty by handing responsibility for your own mood to him, demanding that he provide information that makes you feel better. He can’t.

You have all the information and you know how it makes you feel. So, I then have lots of questions to which you don’t provide the answers here. What is it that makes you examine his motivation, wonder about his secrets, disbelieve his answers? You don’t like pornography but he is addicted to it. Rather than walk away, you want to hear his reasons, his justifications, want him somehow to convince you that all that your thinking is wrong. You are pretty much asking him to dismiss your feelings and argue you out of your emotional situation.

So, I suspect (as you might expect) that you have a fundamental confusion about your own emotional reality. You know your thoughts and feelings but you are ready to hear them invalidated, are ready to have him put neglect and abuse through some kind of political spin machine and described as attention and care.

You must know that the columnist you wrote to will say leave, but you need this to come from outside because you’re insecure about your own perceptions.

[VERY SPECULATIVE SECTION – I imagine that you have suffered emotional neglect and abuse before, had it denied, been made to feel rejected in favour of some other physical “type”. I wonder if your mother was of a very different physical type to yourself and you felt your father preferred her, rejected you. Or perhaps your father had girlfriends of a different physical type and neglected you for them. This, of course, is wild speculation, but there is a feeling in your letter that suggests you feel inadequate as a sex object (tragic in itself) and, whilst you know on some level that you want and deserve to be found attractive on your own merits, you also find it hard to see yourself as anything other than a sex object (accepted or rejected).]

Your arguments aren’t about your boyfriend’s addiction, your feelings of self-worth, what pornography means for men and women, how you might compromise and use it differently or whatever – the situation is that you feel he prefers a fantasy of something very different to you to the real you.

Whether he does or not isn’t the issue here. The issue, I think, is your inability to trust your own perception, your pre-existing lack of self-worth and what the background to that might be. Only looking at what you are trying to get out of him (and what he is refusing to give – because he hasn’t got it) will help you choose differently in the future. Instead of wondering about him, wonder about you.

Real Advice by email or Skype: anna@blundy.com

 

 

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“How do I banish all negative or morally dubious thoughts, please?” Thoughtful Advice from a Psychoanalytic Perspective.

“I am a 34-year-old woman who (probably like many others) lies awake from 2 or 3am most nights. There is a calm but doggedly persistent stream of thoughts, images and scenarios running on a loop in my mind. I think about moving to our new house, all the things we won’t have and will strive to get but don’t really need, how life is just an accumulation of stuff and then you die, how none of my things are packed and how I pretend to like change when really I don’t. I think about the man at work who would have an affair with me if I said yes. I think about what we might do and how badly it would end, whether I am too weak and greedy for monogamy. I tell myself I should be a better mother, and then wonder if I have time to have another child. I don’t know what to do to break this cycle. I am very tired.”

This letter first appeared in the Observer.
My thoughts:

I love this letter. It’s such a good example of how and why people come into therapy. The message here is: ‘I’m completely normal and there’s nothing wrong with me. However, I have this annoying little glitch that’s ruining my life so could you please give me some tips for getting rid of it. Thanks.’ And yet there’s such desperation here.

The ‘probably like many others’ is poignant. Partly it anticipates the recipient’s response, projecting a kind of dismissive attitude into her (a newspaper agony aunt). You’re expecting someone to say; ‘Hell, doesn’t everyone? Just drink some valerian tea and try mindfulness. Worked a treat for me.’ You’re used to being fobbed off, I think, told you’re happy when you’re not. You distance yourself from what is obviously something quite debilitating by massively generalising in the assumption that lots of people share the problem and then by moving into the third person ‘who lies awake…’

I suspect the response you got contained the life tips you requested. Your letter is very succinct, very clear and carefully designed to diminish and conceal the anxious and desperate state you are in at the same time as exposing it.

You sound as though you’ve had some CBT and talk in that language. ‘On a loop’ and ‘how to break the cycle.’ A loop and a cycle are a strange way of describing your own thoughts. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy basically suggests there’s a tape playing in your head and you need to learn to change the tape. Psychoanalysis would say something like; ‘You can’t change a tape if you don’t know what the tape is, where to find it, why it’s playing, who put it on and what kind of tape you’d like to replace it with?’ The CBT approach is a bit like putting plasters on skin cancer lesions. It might obscure the problem for a bit but it’s not a cure (in my – much contested – view).

You don’t seem to take yourself seriously. You bring up so many issues that might warrant real consideration and yet you hate yourself for having the thoughts, somehow feeling that the thoughts aren’t allowed. It sounds as though you strictly censor your thoughts all day but, at night, when the censors relax a bit, all the serious issues of your life come to the fore. Perhaps if you really talked these things through with a therapist, really addressed the things that obviously worry you, you might find they didn’t keep you awake at night.

You are worried about moving house. It will be a huge upheaval and it would be odd if you weren’t worried about it. You are 34 and are perhaps moving into a house which is supposed to be forever. This is bringing up acute anxiety about death, about the new house representing the end of things. There is, of course, existential angst here, the futility of life in general and fear of death, but you may also be talking about a real reluctance to commit to this life, to your partner, to this family future. You are unhappy. This isn’t a choice you feel you made freely and you’re sounding trapped. Why you dismiss these issues as some kind of condition that besieges you at night and might be cured by imagining your thoughts as passing clouds or some rubbish like that, I don’t know. It sounds as though nobody has ever really listened to you or taken your thoughts and feelings seriously before.

‘None of my things are packed’ is interesting. Perhaps you are saying that your thoughts and feelings haven’t been properly packed away, they’re sneaking out at night. ‘I pretend to like change’, you say. It sounds as though you’ve pretended to like a lot of things for a long time.

Then we have the affair. Strangely worded. He would have an affair, you explain, if you said yes. So he’s asked you? He’s a man who wants to have an affair with you and it’s only at night, censors drowsy, that you allow yourself to want to, to consider it, to imagine it. Then your guilt kicks in immediately and you think about the messy end to this and how you’re a terrible person for thinking about it at all. Your censors (your super ego) are extremely strict – apparently no negative thoughts are allowed at all (assuming you believe sexual fantasy to be negative). I suspect you keep on a false jolly personality in public at all time, pretending everything’s great and you have no doubts, fears or desires. You’re not allowed any of these. You feel anxious, weak, greedy and tired, you say. Keeping the pretence up then, must be exhausting.

When you say you’re wondering about another baby and feeling inadequate with the first, it sounds as though someone (your partner?) is expecting you to have another baby and this is making you feel trapped. You don’t want to move house, you want to have an affair, you feel guilty about all the things you aren’t and can’t do and you don’t want another baby. These are huge issues and all need a lot more air time than a couple of hours a night with no help. Presumably you are ambivalent and partly do want to move house, partly don’t want an affair, are partly proud of your mothering, partly want another baby. But you only allow the upbeat, morally marvellous feelings and thoughts out most of the time, the other side of things doesn’t get a look in and it obviously needs one.

Maybe your anxiety is very deep-seated and has always been there. Maybe you attach the feelings of fear and hopelessness to whatever is going on in your life in the present, regardless of circumstance. But that would need properly looking at too, rather than dismissing and diminishing. You are asking for life tips, but you need to think very deeply about all kinds of things that are going on in your life, about all your repressed desires and self-loathing, and about your depression which is exhausting you. You have sectioned off the thoughts you believe make you a bad person and want an agony aunt to get rid of them as though they are not your thoughts, not a part of you. When you say; ‘Playing on a loop’ you really mean ‘I think.’ These are your very valid and important thoughts that part of you hopes you can delete and be left with the ideal you who sleeps soundly, safe in the knowledge of being perfect. What you can do is allow them out during the day with a good therapist.

Real Advice for Lasting Change via Skype or email: anna@blundy.com

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“I’m impotent and my wife’s having an e-affair with a martial arts expert.” Real Advice for Lasting Change.

“One night about six years ago, on my way home I was assaulted by a drunken female and punched in my groin area.
The hospital told me that I wouldn’t be able to father any more children.
I found it hard to make love and my wife and I were devastated. But, to our delight, my wife did become pregnant and had a lovely little boy, who is our world.

However, since the birth, our sex life has become non-existent because I simply cannot perform. I tried Viagra, but the side-effects were bad. My wife’s understanding has slowly run out.
She’s often said that her need for sex is important and that if I can’t give her what she wants, she’ll find someone who can.
I’ve always brushed her comments aside and said I’ll seek further medical help. But I’m reluctant to discuss it again with my GP.

Between 2010 and 2011, six family members passed away — all men, one of them my father, whom I absolutely adored. Over four years on, I can’t even think of him without breaking down. He was the man I aspire to be and he’s been taken away.
My wife always felt that he never accepted her, but that’s just not true. She didn’t attend his funeral, which was awkward, with my relatives asking after her.
For a long time now I have been trying to find a job. I spend most of my day scouring websites and get rejections constantly, which I take quite personally.
But I won’t give up until someone sees I’m a worthwhile employee. If all of this wasn’t enough to deal with, I’ve discovered my wife has been in contact with a man on Facebook. He’s a martial arts instructor she knew many years ago.
My wife has always had a ‘thing’ for men who can fight and take care of themselves, but I’m a very sensitive person who’ll do anything to avoid trouble. I don’t know why she found me attractive.
This guy is separated, with children. She left her laptop switched on one night after she went to bed and I saw their messages over eight months. I feel totally sick.
I worry he’ll be the one she turns to for sex and I really won’t be able to just forgive and forget if that happens.
Her messages are always full of compliments when she hardly ever seems to notice anything I ever do.
We’ve been together a long time and I couldn’t bear to lose her. How do I approach her about this other man without pushing her further towards him?”

This letter first appeared in the Daily Mail.

My thoughts:

It’s interesting that this letter begins with a literal castration-type experience. You obviously recognise that this feeling of having been castrated is important to what goes on in your mind. The description is very concrete and you recognise the literal experience as catastrophic, but I imagine what happened was already familiar to you in some way. There is a lot of distance in your style – ‘a drunken female’, ‘groin area,’ ‘The hospital told me,’ ‘father children.’ Given that you have a young child you’re too young for this style of speaking or writing to feel at all natural and it seems as though there’s shame around before you even start – an unwillingness/inability to look at things directly. You sound distanced from yourself, as though you’re writing about someone else. ‘I found it hard to make love,’ is a tortuous phrase that displays your shame around what was happening (in fact, to you both).

You say your wife’s understanding has slowly run out, but you don’t give the impression that it was really there in the first place. Threatening you with ‘finding someone who can’ is, of course, extremely humiliating and castrating and not something an understanding person would say. However, you ‘brush aside’ her comments, unwilling to take her seriously or talk to her about this, let alone hate her for it? Not only has she been extremely cruel, but your apparent meekness and feeling of humiliation (which I suspect predates the relationship) has, by the sounds of it, prevented you from having a satisfying sex-life that is not dependent on your erection. You blame her in this letter for tiring of your hopelessness in bed, but she may well have felt humiliated herself by your lack of desire to enjoy sexual contact, erection or no erection. She then hits back at you and your point (that you are a pathetic creature) is proven – you can go back to masochistic self-flagellation.

Again, when you talk about your father dying, there is some awareness of the root of the problem – you say that all the deaths in the family were men, knowing then that this is significant. And here’s the most important line in the letter; ‘He was the man I aspire to be and he’s been taken away.’ Going a bit over the top here, but I could almost translate; ‘His is the phallus I aspired to have and it’s been taken away.’ You say you ‘absolutely adored him’, the first passionate line in your letter and clearly sincere. You don’t say this, so I’m guessing now, but perhaps he was the dominant figure in your life and the fact that you aspired to be him suggests you feel you failed, you could never measure up to this man, even, possibly, in your mother’s eyes? You always felt unmanly beside him and, as a little boy, were aware that you could never be as potent as this wonderful father. ‘Taken away’ is interesting too – you blame someone for his removal in the same way as your drunk attacker is blamed for your impotence.

You then attack your wife in a very roundabout way. You don’t say; ‘My wife hurt me and my family by not coming to my father’s funeral because of her delusional beliefs.’ You dismiss her feelings as ‘just not true’ and then describe her absence as ‘awkward’. Obviously, you felt her absence to be an attack on your father and on yourself so it’s hardly surprising that you didn’t want to have sex with this person who’d hurt you. But, instead of thinking about that, you drift into masochism again (a comfortable retreat – the place you feel at home).

You talk about the endless professional rejections you suffer, determined to be seen as a ‘worthwhile employee’. This is interesting – you say you scour websites and ‘get rejections constantly.’ Instead of wondering what isn’t working, you resolve to plough on regardless. Very masochistic – keep doing the thing that gets you rejected and wait for the world to change.

Now we find out that this woman who didn’t like your beloved father and taunts you about your impotence is having an affair with a He Man to whom you imagine you can’t begin to compare. She is flattering him while humiliating you. Not only this, but you trusted her little enough to go through her computer gathering evidence. Your pitch here is that your wife has ‘a thing’ (your inverted commas) for fighters (large phallus?) whereas you had your genitals mutilated by a mere woman and didn’t fight back? You don’t know why she found you attractive, you say, but you can’t bear to lose her.

It would be easy to write a sympathetic response about this cruel and impatient woman who blames you alone for a sex life which (surely?) involves both of you, who compares you unfavourably to butch men, who is deceitful and, most importantly, did not share your affection for the most important person in your life – your father. All the above is true and she sounds like someone you’d be well rid of. However, you chose her and you want to stay with her, you wallow in self-flagellation, humiliation and rejection going back again and again for more, assuming your impotence is your fault instead of seeing that you perhaps don’t find this cruel and humiliating person sexually attractive because you don’t trust her. (And perhaps your own focus on your feeling of castration prevented you from caring about what your wife might like, might feel.)

The two women in your letter are cruel castrators. The men are idealised and dead. My (admittedly wild) guess is that your father was fairly absent but absolutely idealised within the family, particularly by your mother who perhaps made you feel like a very poor imitation of this manly man? Or perhaps she hounded and criticised him to your horror and you are now playing his part in order to feel closer to him? In any case, there is a strong feeling that men are idealised (your son is your world) and women demonised.

You definitely should seek help, but not necessarily for erectile dysfunction as a problem in itself but for the underlying causes – chronically low self-esteem to the point of masochism (which, of course, is the other side of sadism – a glimpse of which we see in your very repressed rage with your wife whose aggressive absence was ‘awkward’ at the funeral), a great deal of anger towards women, an idealisation of your father (who, at best, was only human but, at worst, may have damaged you) and, finally, are you projecting the ‘thing’ or do you at any rate share the ‘thing’ for manly fighting men, the man you’d like to be or even desire yourself?

Of course, like so many agony aunt letters, this reads as ‘people are mean to me, how can I change them?’ but it’s an awful lot more complicated than that. Is your lack of desire to give your wife what she wants (you don’t need an erection to have great manual and oral sex and to enjoy yourselves) actually a compromise solution – she gets punished and you get humiliated – a dynamic you unconsciously need?

Real psychoanalytic advice via Skype or email: anna@blundy.com

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