Psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer has learned a thing or two about love through forty years of private practice and over three decades happily married to her self-proclaimed soul mate. She shares many of the insights she’s accumulated in her newest book, The Golden Condom and Other Essays on Love Lost and Found. The title comes from an incident almost fifty years ago when a hot and cold lover sent Safer a letter asking for advice on how to woo another woman. Instead, she spray-painted a condom gold and sent it to him—her wry way of telling him to use his obvious charm and to get lost.
The Golden Condom covers toxic friendships, spurned love, and late-in-life first marriages, just to name a few! I asked Dr. Safer about the ideas she presents throughout her book, as well as her own success in finding love and healing from lost relationships.
Q: Let’s start with obsessive love. You write, “With luck and with work, reformed obsessive lovers can discover that being involved with someone who loves them back is a lot more gratifying.” Can you explain what role luck plays in finding healthy love?
A: A personal example of the role of luck in love: If I hadn’t read a story in The Village Voice in 1974 about a Renaissance chorus in New York City and decided to audition to join, it is highly unlikely that I would have met my husband, who was also a singer, but who in most other respects came from a radically different world than I did—I talk about some of our most striking differences in the essay “Love Him, Hate His Politics” in The Golden Condom. But what made me receptive to him was the years of emotional work I did in my twenties (he was 22 and I was 30 when we met) to address my inner obstacles to loving a man who could love me in return. As Louis Pasteur said, “Luck comes to the prepared mind.”
Q: You explain psychologist Martha Stark’s idea of relentless hope: “a state of mind that drives a person to pursue a relationship that feels simultaneously unsatisfying and indispensable.” This differs from “’normal’ hope because it is actually the denial of hopelessness.” How can we know what kind of hope we’re holding onto?
A: Relentless hope has telltale signs: you are not really getting anything back, but keep believing that you might.
Q: How are stories of people who are able to stop compulsive behaviors in relationships the same or different from substance abuse recovery stories?
A: Substance abuse and true addiction have to involve the ingestion of actual substances like drugs or alcohol. Emotional dependency and compulsive behavior may mimic addiction in some ways, but are not the same. I discuss the distinction at length in my essay on obsessive love.
Q: You claim “what looks like sex and feels like sex can have nonsexual origins.” Do you think our country’s focus on the power of sex prevents a more holistic understanding of the nature of desire?
A: Most definitely! Acting out is not authentic self-expression, and imprisons many of us in the illusion of freedom.
Q: In the book there are references to self-absorption on both sides of unrequited love—the person obsessed and the person obsessed over. Are these different types of being self-focused?
A: Self-absorption can be a very different thing depending on the circumstances and the personality in which it occurs. In some people, it is a major character trait that colors every relationship; in others, it only comes to the fore when major unresolved issues—which are frequently involved in loving someone who does not reciprocate—come to the fore. Even people who are not particularly self-absorbed in other relationships in their lives become so when they are tormented by love. Both the subjects and objects of unrequited love can be major narcissists, or not.
Seriously self-absorbed people—those who would be diagnosed as having narcissistic personalities—rarely come to therapy, because they don’t think anything is wrong with them. We can all become regressed and obsessed with our own feelings when we feel wounded and helpless, however. These emotional reactions occur in all sorts of personalities, and often propel people into therapy. Such people, who might be considered “reactive narcissists,” can certainly change, and therapy can be of enormous help to them. It certainly was for me!
Q: You agree with Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg who claims that a “‘mature form of idealization’ is fundamental to a marriage of true minds.” In the book you present two examples of this—women who have healthy self-esteems and successful lives of their own, but still idealize their husbands. What is the difference between respecting someone else and idealizing them in this context?
A: Respect does not necessarily include love. Idealizing someone is a passionate, profound form of appreciation that goes beyond thinking well of someone.
Q: You relate this passionate and profound love to the Greek myth of two primordial halves, which romantics like me strive for, but have yet to find. Should we keep looking for someone that feels like our lost half?
A: Yes we should—after we take a good look at our criteria and realize that soul-mates come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes different from our fantasies.
Q: Do you believe love and relationships have changed much throughout history?
B: Not one iota! Human nature is the same as it has always been, even though circumstances change. Opportunities for superficial hookups and the illusion of intimacy with strangers have multiplied thanks to the Internet, but the longing for and the difficulty of finding love that lasts is always the same.
Q: One of my favorite sentences in the book is, “She needs a profound, emotionally alive understanding of what she endured and how it affected her.” Can you explain what this would look like?
A: This is a central theme of my book. In my autobiographical essay on unrequited love, I deal at length with how understanding how my relationships with my parents both led me into unloving bonds, and ultimately freed me from them.
Q: Grieving plays a huge role in the book, such as: grieving for your childhood-self or for the loss of love, even toxic love. Do you believe grieving is undervalued in modern therapy culture and/or mainstream American culture?
A: Absolutely. “Moving on” is more valued, and mourning can seem pathological in a throwaway culture. In my opinion, psychotherapy is a profound form of grieving.
Q: You’re very honest about ways that your clients impact you. It’s been my experience in therapy that I learn very little about my therapist. Are you more open in your books about your personal life than you are with your clients?
A: Although I was trained mostly as a classical Freudian analyst, I had the good fortune not to have one myself. Just as my office is no longer beige (you can see it in my video “How to Make a Golden Condom”), I am far more forthcoming about my personal experience—where relevant—than I was forty years ago. I think I write and conduct therapy similarly.
Q: Any advice for finding the right therapist?
A: My advice: find someone who speaks your language. This is more important than orientation. Don’t settle for anything less, and shop around. Make as sure as you can that you’re putting yourself in thoughtful, loving hands, and give your therapy your all.
Q: Most of your examples of individuals who foster toxic relationships as adults had unhealthy relationships with their parents. If we grew up in nurturing environments, why do we still find ourselves in similar situations?
A: I do not believe that anybody gets through childhood without experiencing some degree of ambivalence and pain and helplessness. No one is unconditionally loved all the time, and the fallout of our disappointments contributes to our unsatisfying experiences of love later on, even if our parents were basically nurturing.
Q: At the end of the book, you encourage your readers to hold onto anything good others gave you: “love, joy, and meaning can be resurrected from the most unlikely sources, from relationships saturated with sorrow, shame—even hatred.” Are you personally able to look back on the relationships you’ve lost with more gratitude now?
A: Gratitude for the genuinely loving aspects of the relationships that have most deeply affected me, even when I have lost or been devastatingly disappointed by people I have loved, is a state of mind. I find that once I consider the relationship in all its aspects, I can recover precious aspects of many of them. Although I have not forgiven or forgotten the anguish and do not want these people back in my life, I have recovered meaning, joy, delight, and sweet moments of passion, all of which I describe in the last essay of my book.
Featured image via YouTube
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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on her blog scarletchurch.com. She's an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Follow her on twitter @emotichew.