Dr. Jeanne Safer has dedicated much of her decades' long career in psychotherapy to exploring taboo subjects that we all think about in private but seldom discuss in public. From conflicted sibling relationships to the choice not to have children, Safer's work has always been unflinching in its aim to dive deep into topics that make most of us blush, but which are present in all of our lives. In The Golden Condom, Safer turns her sharp and fearless eye to a subject perhaps more universal than any other-love in all its permutations.
In The Golden Condom Safer interweaves her own experiences with those of a variety of memorable people, including her patients, telling a series of tales that investigate relationshipsboth healthy and toxicthat most of us don't escape life without experiencing at least once, including traumatic friendships, love after loss, unrequited or obsessional love and more. Never prescriptive and always entertaining, these stories will demolish any suspicion you might have that you're alone in navigating a turbulent romantic life, and will inspire you with the range of possibilities that exist to find love, however unconventional, and at any age.
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About the Author
Jeanne Safer, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City, is the author of several books, including Cain's Legacy,Beyond Motherhood, and others. Dr. Safer has appeared on The Daily Show and Good Morning America as well as numerous NPR broadcasts. Her work has been the subject of articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She blogs for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and is a contributor to Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.
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The Golden Condom
And Other Essays on Love Lost and Found
By Jeanne Safer
PicadorCopyright © 2016 Jeanne Safer
All rights reserved.
LEAVING UNLOVING LOVERS AND UNFRIENDLY FRIENDS
Out of the blue, the woman who had once been my closest friend and confidante left me a message that she was in the hospital. We hadn't spoken in two years. I decided, after several days of agitated deliberation, not to call her back.
It was one of the hardest, and smartest, things I've ever done.
At first I was gratified — even thrilled — to hear her voice again, speaking my name. "Hello, Jeanne," she said, informing me of her whereabouts in the slightly stilted tone that I remembered she always used whenever she was uncomfortable. "I'm getting some tests — an MRI and some others. I think I'm all right. We'll talk over the weekend." My first impulse was to try to reach her immediately. But something about her message and the way she delivered it, both what she said and what she omitted, gave me pause.
I remembered all too clearly our last conversation, two years earlier. She had used the same tone then. I had been the one in the hospital — for an entire month, with a dangerous but curable form of leukemia — and I had asked her to come and see me when I felt desperate for her company and some edible food, and she neither came, nor called, nor sent me anything, abandoning me on one of the darkest nights of my life. It took her two days to call me back with a lame excuse (there was too much traffic, and the hospital food couldn't be that bad, as if that was the point). Her voice was flat, vague, slightly disembodied, and subtly defensive, and she had gotten off the phone as quickly as possible. She promised to explain later, but she never called back.
"Why on earth would you call her?" said my husband, who knew our whole history and had witnessed most of it, both our long intimacy and its abrupt demise. "Be careful." His pronouncement seemed so bald, so final, so devoid of hope. What he said disturbed and frightened me because I didn't want his verdict to be true. Here was my chance to get back the one woman in the world who spoke my language when I thought I had lost her forever.
We had been soul mates and professional colleagues for more than twenty years before she vanished, each other's bulwark in life. She understood things about me I didn't understand about myself, and I never knew anyone more generous, more delighted by a friend's success, or more consoling in adversity. She was brilliant, mordant, and astute, and I loved that she never suffered fools. Our conversations were my stimulant and my solace; "I've never talked to anybody the way I talk to you," she told me once, and I felt the same way. But even before she deserted me, the fallout from an extended marital crisis had made her increasingly self-absorbed and subtly demanding, and I found those conversations less mutual as time went on. Her fuse also got much shorter, and I, who prided myself on addressing problems in relationships, never felt I could reveal my growing discontent without risking the fallout of her displeasure.
Despite her shocking behavior, I missed her so intensely that I wasn't ready to give up on her yet, so I made excuses for her, putting the best possible spin on that twenty-second message: clearly, I wasn't forgotten. She was seeking me out; she was turning to me in her hour of need. Maybe she felt all the things I hoped she felt, but couldn't put them into words. Being hospitalized must have brought me to mind. Maybe she identified with me, felt sorry about the way she had acted, and wanted to make amends. It must have taken a lot to make that call; after all, she risked getting me on the phone, and then she would have had to explain herself. I was glad I hadn't answered the call, because caught unawares I would certainly have followed my first instinct and engaged with her, even if all she'd wanted was advice. But shouldn't I at least give her the benefit of the doubt after two decades of intimacy, acknowledge the effort, and send her a brief e-mail asking what she wanted to talk to me about?
I couldn't immediately see the message for what it was: the presumptuous, self-absorbed expression of a person who now only thought of me to make use of me — for support, for attention, for the medical expertise I had often provided in the past. There was neither empathy nor apology in her voice or her words — no acknowledgment of how I might feel to get a call from her two years late, and then only when she needed me because she was in trouble herself. The person who left that message, regardless of what she had once been to me, was not capable of apologizing now; she could never again be a true or trustworthy friend to me. Slowly it dawned on me that the woman I wanted back in my life didn't exist anymore and hadn't for years.
The first sensible thought I had was to do nothing, to wait and think it through. If she were sincere, if I really mattered to her still, she would certainly call again. I listened to her message twice more and asked my husband to listen as well in case I was misinterpreting. So much seemed at stake that I felt I had to be careful; one false step and she might retreat forever. The fate of the relationship seemed entirely in my hands, a thought that in itself should have tipped me off to its precariousness.
Then two songs came into my head. I found myself singing them aloud, over and over. "Cry me a river ..." I belted repeatedly as I walked around the apartment pondering my options. Julie London's bitter torch song segued into Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good," the unofficial anthem of all reformed masochists — and of masochists trying to reform. I hadn't thought of it since the seventies, and very satisfying it was to proclaim.
But why, I suddenly asked myself, was I singing about exorcising a tormented love affair after getting a cryptic call from a former friend? Because the state of mind that she evoked in me — the paralysis, the desperate attempts at self-control, the justifications that couldn't justify, the anxiety that a wrong move on my part could be fatal, the strangulated fury, the feeling that parting would be unendurable — was exactly the same.
I had heard that same cool and heedless tone she used from the first man I felt I couldn't live without. He was a graduate student on a time-limited fellowship from another university — graceful, sardonic, golden haired, with a motorcycle, and I was an intense, lonely, nineteen-year-old sophomore. My parents' marriage was disintegrating, and I tried, unsuccessfully, to make him my refuge. I would do anything to have him reach for me, even though I could never count on him, even after he told me he preferred an old girlfriend in another state. The night before he left town forever, my darkest until the one on which my friend forsook me, I had also waited by the phone that never rang. When he finally came to say good-bye the next morning just before he rode out of my life, he explained gratuitously that he had spent the night consoling another woman who was broken up by his leaving. Unprotesting and dry eyed by force of will, I let him kiss me good-bye and promise to stay in touch.
But even this did not break the spell of my longing for him. To my astonishment, he actually did write and call me over the next year, often to ask advice about other women and to tell me about his travails with them. "You're the first person I turn to when I want to talk," he said, and despite everything, I was gratified to hear it because it meant I was special to him — the same response I had when my friend said virtually the same thing to me decades later. When he came back to see me briefly the following summer, I welcomed him with a combination of vengefulness and excitement — a mistake I vowed not to make again with my friend.
My entire adult life, my long career as a psychoanalyst, and thirty-three years of marriage to the man who showed up every day I was in the hospital as well as every other day had not severed the bonds of hunger, despair, and enraged humiliation over my long-lost lover that I buried in 1967. My reactions to my friend's call catapulted me back to him and exposed a wound that had never healed, that I had not even realized I bore. I knew the outlines of my youthful disastrous attachment, but the full meaning and impact of the experience had lain, unmetabolized and radioactive, a long-dormant template I thought I had destroyed long ago, until I heard her voice and felt exactly the same way.
The parallels between these two people from opposite ends of my life were both uncanny and enlightening. The common denominator was that both seemed so essential to me that I would have done anything to keep them, to the point of ignoring information that would make a more rational person flee. Betrayal is gender blind, and sex is a sufficient, but not necessary, component; a woman can hurt you as much as a man, a friend as much as a lover. Anybody who feels indispensable has power over you, and your desperation can make you behave in equally self-damaging ways.
Masochism is an equal-opportunity destroyer, and crumbs from the table are the same, whether they are offered by a beloved who kisses your eyes and then turns away or an intimate who prizes you and then disappears when the going gets rough. Masochism can hide behind the most beguiling facades, and it can seduce you at any age if your history makes you susceptible. The bonds of empathy between friends even much later in life can be as deceptive and compelling as adolescent passion, as skin deep as beauty. And the cure is the same: walking away. It took me almost half a century to realize this and only three days to do it.CHAPTER 2
OF HUMAN BONDAGE
THE LURE OF THE UNATTAINABLE
He had a beautiful body (at least she thought so), and he knew — or seemed to know — his own mind. He experimented with shooting heroin and never called her, but toyed with whatever woman was close at hand. All these obstacles, which would horrify and repel a less besotted person, simply made him more fascinating and desirable to the naive, studious, and insecure nineteen-year-old who was in thrall to him.
He still had a beautiful body and a beautiful wife, but this fifty-five-year-old actor and former heartthrob fell for a wannabe filmmaker whose body was not only beautiful but half the age of his. After a brief affair, he continued to pursue her desperately and fruitlessly for five more years, driving hours for even a glimpse of her, jeopardizing everything and everyone he held dear. He put his emotional well-being in her inadequate and unwilling hands.
He was an appealing, multitalented, academic star at twenty, and he charmed myriads of young women who yearned to be his. But he spent his last two years of college as the self-proclaimed "love slave" of one who, though she had a deliciously sexy body, rarely had fewer than two other boyfriends.
She was a fortysomething executive, warm and vivacious, with devoted friends, who had caught the eye of more than one sophisticated and accomplished man. Yet for days at a time, she sat in front of her computer screen transfixed and tormented, surreptitiously scanning the Internet postings of a depressed, uneducated loser whom she found overwhelmingly desirable, even though his body was far from beautiful and his life was a shambles. For eight years, she had remained bound to him even though he continued to live with his ex-wife after they divorced and never even called to ask how she was when she had a dangerous illness.
* * *
The young are not the only ones wasting themselves on objects of desire who are unwilling or unable to reciprocate; the middle aged, and even senior citizens, fall under the same spell. This predicament is so common that it can hardly be called an aberration. Even though it inspires some of the world's greatest literature, music, and art, obsessive love is one of the most potent and compelling of tortures and one of the most difficult to overcome — especially because it feels beyond conscious control. Tormented lovers try the patience even of those who truly love them, because the sufferers do not desire help extricating themselves though they claim to be seeking it; this is an illness from which nobody wants to be cured.
Obsessive love, while it creates widespread misery, only becomes cause for alarm and an indication of deeper psychopathology when it goes on for decades, involves compulsive stalking (either digital or literal), self-destructive behavior serious enough to interfere with health or the ability to function for a significant length of time, massive anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, or delusional thinking.
The lovelorn give terrible interviews in the throes of obsessions. They all sound the same; age and circumstances make no difference. Even though unrequited passion can be spellbinding on the stage or the screen, the narratives offered by those in its immediate grip seem numbingly routine. They can talk forever about the beloved's charms or flaws, and give detailed reports of every meeting, every failure to meet, every lovemaking session, every rejection significant or petty (she didn't remember his birthday despite all the hints he'd dropped, he didn't respond to her meticulously crafted casual text message for a week), all of which is of little interest to anyone but themselves. How do they manage to turn so riveting a topic into a bore? Tunnel vision makes them lose the ability to observe or understand their experience. The world shrinks to include only two people, only one of whom — the beloved — has power. This inequitable distribution naturally breeds resentment and feelings of hopelessness that the dependent person dare not express for fear of alienating the necessary person even more. Hapless lovers are unable to analyze accurately why they feel what they feel or why they choose whom they choose and cannot seem to fathom why the object of their affection fails to respond. All they know is that he or she is indispensable, that life without this beloved has no joy or meaning to offer. Their self-absorption is paradoxical, since they believe that all they think about is the elusive other. Nobody has self-knowledge when immersed in a futile love affair; that only comes afterward — sometimes decades afterward, when the experience can finally be processed in relative tranquility.
To be consumed by unsatisfiable desire is to live in an altered state of consciousness. You are in a private realm, saturated with intense emotion, both positive and negative, that seems impossible to describe accurately to an outsider. In retrospect, when the person around whom your world revolved — who has been your world — shrinks back to human proportions, it is often difficult to imagine what you ever saw there.
Only when the folly and pain of a doomed romance is recollected in tranquility (a state not easy to attain, because the shame, the longing, and the bitter disappointment can persist long afterward) does the constricted perspective open up and insight and awareness become possible.
Adolescence and postadolescence are the prime times for hopeless love affairs. In most cases, maturity, experience, and exposure to those actually capable of reciprocal love eventually diminish the magnetic pull of the unavailable. The services of a good therapist considerably raise the odds of recognizing people willing and able to respond, as well as understanding why they never seemed to be around before (when in fact we were unable to notice them). Yet there are those who persist or even succumb to obsession for the first time later in life and still struggle to extricate themselves as the years go by. Some never escape from the imprisoning conviction that a cold or unattainable lover can be persuaded to become warm or attainable if they only discover the key.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM
Maggie Clark is one of the most accomplished women I know. An adept public speaker at sixty-three who appears regularly in the media, she heads a major accounting firm in partnership with her husband of forty years. She has a loyal and sensitive nature as well as business savvy and good judgment. I knew that she also had an insecure side, but I had no idea of the depths of desperation and inadequacy that had engulfed her in her youth until we spoke about the college boyfriend — if he could even be called that — whom she worshipped and who treated her with appalling callousness. She described their relationship with far more contempt, clarity, and candor than she felt at the time.
Excerpted from The Golden Condom by Jeanne Safer. Copyright © 2016 Jeanne Safer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I Hopeless Love
1 Leaving Unloving Lovers and Unfriendly Friends 7
2 Of Human Bondage: Obsessive Love 13
3 Vengeance Is Mine: The Dark Side of Rejected Love 57
4 Betrayal 74
5 Unrequited Love: My Golden One 89
Part II Difficult Love
6 The Man Who Could Not Love 125
7 The Tantalizing Mentor and the Passionate Protégé 147
8 Traumatic Friendship 184
Part III Fulfilled Love
9 Late First Marriage: The Triumph of Hope over Resignation 213
10 Love Is Stronger Than the Grave 246
11 Love Him, Hate His Politics: How a Liberal and a Conservative Stay Married 257
12 Recovering the Good from a Love Gone Bad 266