Psychotherapy often deals with cases of fractured love so I will begin this post with a couple of cases in point. They are based loosely on two actual cases, though not on any cases of mine. In fact, I hardly know the people involved at all, but even so I have taken the precaution of changing their names and certain details so that if the subjects of these tales ever happened to read them they would not be able to recognise themselves. Perhaps then these should be regarded more as fictions than factual accounts, though I hope that this entails no loss of their essential truth.
Julie was an only child whose parents divorced when she was five, but nothing was ever explained to her. One day her father simply moved out of her house and her mother had to take a job at the local supermarket. While her mother worked, Julie spent a great deal of time at home alone watching television. Although her dad used to visit once a fortnight, he never mentioned that he had married again or that his second wife had given birth to another daughter. But one day when she was ten, a beautiful five year old girl got out of the car with her dad who explained that this beautiful little girl was actually her little sister. She stared in disbelief and as she watched her half-sister playing contentedly with dolls that she had outgrown, she couldn't quite shake the feeling that this was all a very strange, but rather terrible dream. The feeling intensified as she watched the little girl get back in the car to go back home with her dad--to go to their home, leaving Julie behind. She began to feel angry at her dad and wrote him a letter which said that if he wouldn't see her more often then she didn't want to see him at all. He wrote back and said fine, Julie, you won't see me at all, then. His letter left her with a feeling of nothingness which seemed to engulf her. She felt as if all her feelings had been hollowed out of her, leaving her feeling strangely disembodied. A single mother on benefit now, she has had a succession of relationships with men who invariably mistreat her before leaving in a cold fury. She always feels nullified afterwards, just like she felt when her dad left her. Then she gets together with another man who invariably mistreats her before leaving her, making her feel nullified... and so on.
Everyone agreed that there was no trusting Conor. A small, weedy boy of sixteen, he seemed all too eager to please and appeared annoyingly desperate to make friends. Unfortunately, Conor was a petty thief who had a habit of stealing objects that were practically worthless in themselves, but important to the people who owned them. Rulers, pens and other small items all had a way of winding up in his possession, though he would always deny that he took them. He had found them, he would say, as if the items had simply dropped into his hands by accident. No one believed his ridiculous excuses so his reputation as a thief was fatally coupled with his reputation for being a liar. Eventually, he was caught in the act of stealing a pocket calculator and some of the harder lads who had always hated him anyway, decided they had had enough. They would teach him a lesson that he would never forget. Conor sensed that he was in danger and was agile enough to evade his attackers for a time. But finally he was cornered in a secluded place and beaten savagely. Conor didn't show up to school for a week after that and people thought perhaps he would never come back at all. But he returned later as if nothing had happened. In fact, a beating wasn't unusual for Conor. His father used to beat him regularly, usually for small mistakes, but sometimes for no other reason than his mere physical presence. The actual, underlying reason was that Conor wasn't his real son, but was the offspring of a casual night of sex between his drunken mother and a man she had barely known and could not have remembered if she tried. After giving birth to Conor, his mum was usually too drunk to deal with him. So it was his stepfather who looked after Conor, though in a way that was entirely bereft of affection. "Useless bastard," his dad always used to say after a beating.
For psychotherapists there would be nothing unusual about these two cases. The difficulty would be to see past the massive damage inflicted on the victims to find emotional possibility from the ruins of their childhood experiences. Indeed, these two stories offer textbook examples of childhood abuse, so much so that we must be careful not to suppose that we know more about the victims' suffering than they do. Nevertheless, it is easy to see what they manifestly do not. A pattern of misery which had been laid down at childhood keeps repeating itself through actions that the victims initiate, yet fail to understand. When Julie goes into yet another abusive relationship, it is both new and strangely familiar to her, though seen objectively its novelty might seem to depend on her wilful blindness. And when Conor antagonises those whose approval he craves, the futility of his behaviour is exceeded only by his lack if self insight. Like everybody else, they too, want love and approval. But it as if in their desperation for love and acceptance Julie and Conor set out to demonstrate that they do not deserve it.
The writer and psychotherapist David Smail argues that love is dangerous because people will surrender almost anything to get it. Moreover, a consumerist culture demands that love must always appear to be in short supply and tries to convince us that only the beautiful, the intelligent and the well-adjusted really deserve it. Love and approval can thus appear to be unattainable prizes of a cut-throat competition. In any such competition, people like Julie and Conor would enter the contest condemned to lose. For it is a game they hardly know how to play and whose unspoken rules seem designed to trip them up. Of course, it can be objected that true love is nothing like this and that true love is precisely what they need. But this begs the question: what is true love as distinct from its baser variants in desire and gratification?
Irving Yalom describes himself as love's executioner, meaning that as a psychotherapist he sees it as his task to shatter the illusions on which romantic love thrives. I admire Yalom and agree with him. Yet a therapist must wield the executioner's axe with caution, as illusions, especially about those whom the client claims to love, may offer precious insights into the self experience of the client. Julie, for instance, always feels hesitant before going into another abusive relationship. Her lack of self insight suggests the intensity of her self needs and conversely, the intensity of her self needs thwarts the development of her self insight. All of this might be dismissed as little more than the rat run of a pathological process. Yet Julie's moment of hesitation may hold the key to the self insight that would prevent her from going into yet another bad relationship. To be sure, her hesitation will likely be unarticulated and filled with anxiety. But it is in expressing her anxiety, in giving voice to her dark intuitions about her future, that Julie may discover why her relationships always replicate the pattern of failed love that she first experienced with her father. This, however, may only tell her why desire fails to become realised as love. It gives no clear answer as to how love might actually be found.
Buddhist psychology has very little to say about love and relationships in the modern sense. But it does offer a rich abundance of wisdom on the cultivation of positive emotions by practising equanimity, kindness and compassion. Buddhism also tells us that craving is the primary cause of all suffering, even the craving for love in its most chaste forms. But for people such as Julie and Conor, love does not so much represent the satisfaction of craving as it seems to offer rescue from the emotional isolation that they have suffered from childhood. Psychotherapy can, in fact, offer the possibility of rescue, but an ethical therapist will be careful not to cast himself as a saviour. "Why can't I find love?" is the burning question that takes many people into therapy, often with the belief that the therapist can provide an easy answer. That there are no easy answers, certainly none that the therapist can provide, is the place for therapy to begin. But gradually, as the therapeutic alliance develops, a deeper self awareness may develop in the client which not only makes finding a loving relationship more likely; it also frees love of its compulsive force and its self alienating urgency. Love is no longer seen as a possession. It becomes way of knowing oneself and wanting to know others.