Unable to fall

I date great women and they say they love me, but I can't love them back. I feel I'm living half a life.

Published January 9, 2003 8:15PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 43-year-old bachelor who's been concluding lately that he lacks the capacity for love. I've had as girlfriends some of the finest women imaginable -- from super-successful showbizzers and celebrated intellectuals to down-to-earth, pure-hearted girl-next-door types -- most of whom loved me for who I was, warts and all, but couldn't understand why I didn't love them back.

Neither could I. Things typically started with us sleeping together early in the relationship, "falling in love," then some three to ten months later, I'd end it with, "I'm sorry, I don't love you. I don't know why, but I can't pretend any longer, hurt your feelings," etc. It's so immature, this cycle, and leaves undeserving damaged people in its wake. I've become an embarrassment to myself.

So, one sets to wondering: Did I not experience love as a child and therefore never quite learn how to feel and express it as an adult? My parents, though still together, have always been mismatched. Both neurotic in their singular ways, they often fought in front of my younger sister and me when we were kids. It was deeply disturbing to watch. I'm fairly certain my dad struck my mother in the face at least once, and I believe he fooled around with her best friend and got caught. So that was the "how to" example by which I learned about loving. I've never felt a close bond with my dad, and reflexively rebel against him to this day, though I wholly respect his achievements and vast erudition. I'm much closer to my mother, but she's in many ways still living in the 1950s and has always let herself be emotionally and intellectually hogtied by my dad, a taboo subject between all but my sister and me. The strange thing is, my sister has always been able to love people as easily as falling off a log.

Over the last year or so, I've backed off on a self-serving promiscuity routine, a staple for much of my adult life (when not in a relationship), and am trying to be a mature, understanding love-packin' man. But I'm driving without a steering wheel. I don't know my insides; there's a short-circuit between head and heart. I recoil with fear and revulsion and confusion when love, even platonic love, is offered to me. I'll admit to a pesky little superiority complex with humanity in general, and guess it stems from insecurities over my inability to meaningfully empathize with others.

Well, I'm fed up. I'm ready to take the bull by the horns and do whatever's necessary to become a full-fledged member of the human race. Think I can be repaired?

Half Life

Dear Half Life,

Your question poses a peculiarly Western riddle, rooted in our fabled split between head and heart, our belief in romantic love, our belief in individual freedom, and our privileging of the intellect. I'm not a psychologist or philosopher. I'm just a guy who works at Salon. But I do think, if you consider yourself broken, that you can be repaired if you find the right person to guide you. And I think the approach will involve learning to experience emotional pain.

You probably had a great deal of emotional pain as a child, from witnessing what went on with your parents; it's not that you didn't experience love, but that the love brought with it enormous pain, so today, whenever those tender childlike feelings of awe and desire to merge with another arise, with them come the awful childhood fears of abandonment, betrayal and possibly physical violence. You were probably able to hold your feelings in abeyance in your 20s and 30s while you solved what appeared to be more urgent problems of survival -- how to make money, how to score chicks. Now, however, that pain may be starting to surface, leaving you troubled, strangely numb and anxious, desirous of emotional connection yet so practiced in your personal art of pain containment that you can no longer remember or figure out how open yourself to deeper emotions. You may be distrustful of seemingly trite emotional displays yet at the same time sense that your comforting intellectual sterility comes at the cost of some greater and richer human experience.

And this is the peculiar disease of modern Western man, the cold, efficient, technocratic, pragmatic, alienated man whose American apotheosis appeared in the 1950s, and who was recognized by the Beats and the hippies as a tragic and frightening figure.

You could get into psychoanalysis and try to understand the real-world roots of your spiritual emptiness. That wouldn't be a bad idea, actually, if you're willing to do the work. You could find out a lot; it could force you to experience some of the pain that you may be holding back. But you don't need to spend years in psychoanalysis to cure yourself of emotional sterility; you just need to start feeling things.

It can all be done quite cheaply. Since you're basically afraid of pain, the solution is simple: Start feeling some pain. How? Stop doing whatever it is that anesthetizes you. And what is that? Every man has his drug. You tell me. It could be the cold intoxication of reason that keeps you from howling like an abandoned baby. It could be that little cultured laugh you give at an off-color joke where your lip curls and it looks like rage. It might be the way you lift weights like lifting the weight of the world. It might be the weekly massage with the happy ending. It's always something: the air-conditioned drunkenness of commerce over a bed of lettuce and the tinkle of glasses, a balm of blackened tuna with mango chutney, a manicure during which you dream of the manicurist's legs wrapped around your head, a drive in a Fiat Spider, nine holes of golf, backgammon on the terrace as the sun goes down; any niche you can store a little agony; any handkerchief into which you can spit your contempt, any pot you can piss your life into, any argument you can pour your rhetoric into, any container at all, a woman, a fist, an ATM: anything that will carry your guts away.

Whatever it is, if you stop doing it, perhaps you'll start to feel the first glimmer of the pain you've been putting off for so long. Perhaps it will come as a cramping of your belly, or maybe like an ice pick in your brow, or maybe just like a wet, itchy horse blanket of dread. Whatever it is, open yourself to it. It's the breath you took when you were born that told you the free ride was over. It's the waiting all afternoon for your father to come home that feels like seven years at sea. Whatever it is, you needn't be afraid; it's just the pain of the saints before the miracle occurred, the pain of the travelers who couldn't stop their horses, the pain of the mendicant on his knees in the desert. It's just the pain of the ages. It's just pain.

And then, after months of this, and perhaps under the guidance of a loving and experienced person, when your emotional pain has become your friend, the big howling ball of fear will start to break down into constituents, and you'll see the different kinds of pain, and the different strategies you use with the different kinds of pain. And perhaps you will see that among those strategies of containment, your feeling of superiority is king, that those critical and hateful things that you are afraid to say, like "That dress belongs on an Amish girl" and "When you order the duck, your voice sounds like Porky Pig," are used to bolster your impregnable superiority. That superiority is the cold ice pack you put on your wounds, the steak you put on your mother's eye to keep it from blackening at your father's blow.

Why else to leave woman after woman if not to preserve the fiction of your superiority? For if a woman were ever good enough for you, you'd have to keep her, wouldn't you? And you'd have to risk what happened with your parents all over again, wouldn't you? You'd have to risk feeling the anger your father felt toward your mother; you'd have to both feel it and contain it, and maybe you're afraid you don't know how to do that. But feeling anger is much like feeling pain: You just feel it; you don't disappear into it, you don't become a bawling child, you don't become a vengeful spouse, you just feel it.

Maybe up till now it's been safer to live in a sterile bubble of repetition. And, speaking of safety, if you start having thoughts about harming yourself or others, it's time to call in the pros. But you wrote to me because you want to break out, and I'm responding to you directly as I would to anyone. I can't teach you, but you can definitely learn. Good luck. May the gods watch over your journey.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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