I’m a 33-year-old who’s poor at long-term relationships with women; looks rather than love have been the priority. It’s taken me a while to understand what love is. I’ve suffered depression since my early 20s and feel that this has had a significant effect. Four years ago I spent a year abroad and ended up spending an awful lot of time with a colleague and, towards the end of my stay, we became more intimate. Four months ago I came out of a three-year relationship – someone chosen for looks, primarily – and now I’m thinking about the original girl a lot. I know I’ve not felt the way I felt with her with other girls. I’ve learned lessons and don’t want to make the same mistakes. Do I enter the dating scene again or tell this ex how I feel?
This letter first appeared in the Observer.
There is a slightly scattered feeling to this letter and it sounds as though you are profoundly unsure of yourself. You say you are ‘poor’ at relationships and it’s a striking choice of word as you do, indeed, sound impoverished in complex ways. I’m interested in the idea that you chose your girlfriend of three years ‘for looks’. It is not clear to me what you mean by this. It sounds as though you went out with her because you found her physically attractive and nothing else. However, physical attraction is attraction to someone because you like the look of them – their demeanour, smile, choice of clothes etc. What you call ‘for looks’ might well be a complex choice based on that person seeming right for you – she was attractive to you and ‘looks’ encompasses a lot of features, many of which display personality or, indeed, are components of personality.
However, I don’t think that is what you mean – you seem to say that your choice was shallow, which suggests that ‘for looks’ means that you tend to select partners whom other people, other men, might find attractive, who are somehow ‘universally’ attractive (though, obviously, this is a fantasy). In that case you are or were basing your selection on trying to make others envious – by having a mate who makes your lifestyle look worthwhile. This suggests you feel insubstantial, are unsure of who you are on a basic level and are envious of others who seem surer and more solid, so you need to find ways of making them envy you so that you don’t feel as lacking (In love? In emotional support?).
There are various red flags flapping about in this letter – your struggle with depression, most obviously, not knowing what love is, this apparent tug between looks and love as though they are mutually exclusive. You suggest that you have idealised women on a superficial basis and have then felt disappointed, as though your own choices were shallow. So, usually, you project a great deal of fantasy into the shell of a person and then, when the real person emerges from behind your fantasy, you feel you have let yourself down (again). I wonder if your soul-searching has led you to the idea that this relationship with the colleague, who is apparently less outwardly attractive than other women you have been drawn to, must be significant because it lacks the initial superficial thrill of attraction? Or are you idealising a different feature of this woman that might also evaporate when you get to know her better?
After all, you are thinking about this colleague in her absence, but did not, apparently, fall in love with her when you were actually with her. Reality, it seems, tends to disappoint you.
When you say ‘I’ve learned lessons and don’t want to make the same mistakes’ you sound as if you fear this might happen in a way that has echoes of addiction. You are worried about being sucked back into a way of behaving that is damaging to you, collecting meaningless trophies in an attempt to boost your self-esteem. It is only when you have the trophy that the meaning evaporates, and it may well turn out to be the same with this colleague. I wonder if you yourself feel like a meaningless trophy? Are you superficially handsome but you fear you lack substance?
You say you suffer from depression and you are, of course, right in saying that this is very significant. It sounds as though you are hoping that a woman will rescue you, that love will rescue you. I imagine that we are talking about a fantasy mother figure who will make everything okay as, perhaps, your real mother failed to do in childhood? Perhaps she was/is a very attractive but narcissistic woman who continually disappoints you? Underlying your questions about relationships and love is a sense of real desperation, a fundamental sense of not having what you need to survive and not being sure where to seek it, always feeling that your attempts will be doomed.
It is this despair that needs to be addressed before you will be able to be fully intimate and vulnerable with a woman (or anyone else), allow her to accept you as you are and, of course, be able to accept her – looks, personality, flaws, qualities.
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