Exploring the Other
“I alone must become myself; I cannot become myself alone.” ~ Pittman Mcgehee
My mother always told me that she and my dad met, fell in love, and were married just like Cinderella and Prince Charming. This kind of love story was literally my mother’s milk. Never mind that the “happily ever after” part didn’t quite jive.
Not only was this myth well-entrenched in my psyche, but it seemed to me early on that it was much better to be a man than a woman. I remember, at 8 years old, thinking: I want to be a man; they can do what they want.
In fact, the story my mother was living out was more Madame Bovary than Cinderella. This passage from Flaubert’s novel represents another, different message I received:
“She hoped for a son ... this idea of having a male child was like an expected revenge for all her impotence in the past. A man, at least, is free; he may travel over passions and over countries, overcome obstacles, taste of the most far-away pleasures. But a woman is always hampered. At once inert and flexible, she has against her the weakness of the flesh and legal dependence. Her will, like the veil of her bonnet, held by a string, flutters in every wind; there is always some desire that draws her, some conventionality that restrains.”
So, since I couldn’t be male, I made an unconscious decision to do the next best thing, the only thing I could do: ally myself with the male figures in my life in order to annex some of their power and bask in the reflected glory of being chosen by them.
Unfortunately, this played out in a lot of sexual acting out, but that’s a different story.
Cut to the present. I am 57 and have been separated for 3 years after having been married for 24. Since I split up with my husband, I’ve focused on my relationship with myself as well as changing my dynamics with men. I’ve done that by working with a male therapist on my transference issues; dancing tango; and having (heterosexual) guy friends for the first time in my life. I taught classes called Exploring Masculinity through Film, in order to understand the other gender in new ways, trying to walk a spell in men’s shoes.
I also belong to a large psycho-spiritual group that meets twice a year, and so have the opportunity to get to know “my brothers” there as human beings, who have “stuff,” just like me. Through all this, I’ve gotten my bearings in a whole new way with men. I feel more equal, not feeling either inferior or superior, under-powered or overpowered, intimidated or intimidating.
In terms of ever being romantically involved with a man ... well, I thought that maybe that part of my life was over. And I felt okay with that.
And then. I had my first post-marriage dating experience with “Mike”. Three dates in three weeks. I hadn’t gone out with anyone in decades. I got to see more fully where I was with men. I saw ways I had changed significantly, and ways in which I hadn’t.
Mike was compelling, a version of a kind of man I used to get involved with. For one thing, I was getting mixed messages. In the past, if I were confused, I chalked it up to my insecurities. This time, I could see that if I was feeling confused, there was a reason. Things just weren’t adding up.
In the past I felt a longing to be “seen” fully by a significant Other. Through my experience with Mike, I saw that not only do I feel seen by lots of people in my life, but because I am more comfortable with more aspects of myself, I am showing more of myself all around, parts I had hidden before. So I saw that I didn't need that special person to be the only one to whom I revealed my whole self. I saw as well, that I can set boundaries, instead of going along with a compelling scenario that isn’t going to be good for me.
I also saw how quickly I could get “hooked in,” and how some of my same patterning was still in place (also material for a different article!). I realized how I’ve repressed my wants and needs because I hate feeling frustrated when I don’t get what I want, and the anger, even rage, that ensues.
At first, when I got so hooked into Mike, I felt like something was wrong with me. How could I get in so deep, so quickly? What I’m seeing from this experience is that many things are true at once. That although it’s important to develop the Self and self-sufficiency, there are important factors that play into the drive for relationship.
First, I keep forgetting that there is a natural drive for one-on-one connection! That there are parts of oneself that can only be expressed in the context of a dyadic intimacy.
Second, there is the unfinished psychological/emotional business that people who attract us often present, what’s called “repetition compulsion” or “reenactment.” Not only are we sensing a familiarity with this Other on an almost radar-like level, but there is often the unconsciousness hope that the same kind of man/woman that wounded us will be the one to heal us. We want to finally make the wrong thing right; this time it’s going to be different.
It’s a great idea, but chances are that it won’t happen – unless that person has done their own inner work, and the couple can deal together with the dynamics that come up, consciously.
Third, we all face existential aloneness. The fact is: no one can get inside our experience with us, as close as we might get, and as interrelated as we might feel. It seems natural to want to soften, with an Other, the harshness of how aloneness sometimes feels.
Lastly, most of us have been under the influence of cultural romantic conditioning. We need only look at films, books, songs and ads that reinforce ideas that romantic love is a holy grail. For some of us, romantic relationship has unconsciously replaced the role of religion: something bigger than us that gives our life meaning.
You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You
One current idea tells us we should be whole and complete on our own. But what about the Mcgehee quote I started with? “I alone must become myself; I cannot become myself alone.” How can I live this paradox? How do I locate and develop new “self-and-other muscles”? How can I find the place of being both together with an “other” and separate at the same time?
How can I see through the illusion of romance, without becoming cynical, while still retaining its beauty?