My parents raised me in a commune

Now I seem to date the same two types of men over and over again -- why can't I break out of this?

By Cary Tennis
March 16, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)
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Dear Reader,

As you read this, I am flying to Paris, or perhaps have touched down at De Gaulle airport. I plan to be there for 10 days. I have no idea what I'll be doing there. I have never left the country before. I'm not altogether sanguine at the prospect. But I'm trying to be a good sport. I had to get a haircut before we left, and buy a new suitcase. I think we'll see some museums and churches and eat some French food. I'll say a few words in French and try not to get arrested. We'll see how it goes. I'll miss doing the column. I'll miss your presence in cyberspace, and I'll miss the ocean and the dogs.

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This column will continue to run for the rest of the week, as I'm writing ahead. But there will be a hiatus as the hopper finally empties.

When that happens: Please, talk amongst yourselves.

Meanwhile, I'll try to find an Internet cafe and post some letters from Paris.

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Dear Cary,

It's like I have two life scripts that are completely incompatible, so I keep bouncing between them. Essential background: Until I was 6 or so, my family lived in a nice brick house in the suburbs. Daddy traveled a lot on business; Mommy took care of all our needs and apparently had no needs of her own. Then we moved into a commune in the city (this is the late 1960s) in which all the kids were pretty much abandoned while the adults worked at finding themselves. Here, the ideals were intelligence expressed by clever sarcasm and insightful philosophical/political discussions. Emotional neediness was held in contempt. I missed being taken care of, but I got plenty of attention by matching wits with the adults (which wasn't all that hard, as they were usually stoned).

Since age 13, I've dated two types of men. Most of the time I live a version of my early childhood: neat brick house in a quiet neighborhood with a very nice, caring guy (the mommy) who loves me unconditionally and where it's all about my emotional needs. Generally, after two to five years I get bored, lose respect and leave them. Then I move to a downtown loft and fall for a daddy: brilliant but emotionally distant, and my challenge is to attract him with my intelligence while never letting on how much I crave his love, because that would surely drive him away. These end either with my giving up after lots of angst and game playing (which they hate), or, once, getting up the nerve to ask for what I need (unconditional love!) and being told, "No, let's just be friends." This has also played out with brilliant but distant bosses, but at least there, without the distraction of sex, I realized what I was doing, which broke the spell.

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Now I'm coming up on the five-year mark with my current mommy. This guy loves me so much, and I love that he loves me. He's not stupid, but he's not as smart as I am; he can't help me grow, as I am his whole world, and I never feel challenged to do or be my best. He's happy with who I am. I would have a comfortable and safe life with him. He's supportive and an affable companion. Why isn't that enough? I've tried to break up with him several times over the past year, but he won't let me go. He's eager to do all he can, whatever I want; he's willing to try to talk about politics and go to art galleries and travel around the world with me. Let's go to therapy; that'll solve all our problems, he says. It never does. Unless the conversation is about how wonderful I am, I'm bored.

A few months ago I met a daddy -- actually a guy I've known for several years, but the sparks started to fly this summer -- and have been thrilled. Not just at our amazing conversations (we talk about everything! Not just about me!), but at all the interesting things he does (he leaves the house!) and all the stuff I can learn from him. The intellectual appeal turned into something more, and we've become very close. This one is, as it happens, available emotionally but not legally; he's married with young children. We've talked about our attraction to each other but are not having sex, both because we feel it would be ethically wrong given our situations and because (we've discussed this, too) I think it would set me up for more emotional trauma. I would want him, need him, and not be able to have him. Which is already the case, but sex would make it even more so. But I don't know how much longer we can hold out -- we seem to need to touch each other a lot (hugs, hand-holding under the table, that kind of thing), and the heat is building.

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I guess my question is, which direction do I go in? Do I work the mommy angle -- figure out what more I need in my current relationship and get it from him? Or do I resolve the daddy issue, perhaps by having it come out right with this daddy (which would require his leaving his family for me, and oh what a vindication that would be)? Or do I leave them both and hold out for a mommy who is challenging, a daddy who is nurturing? Can everything I want exist in one person, or am I doomed to going back and forth? How do I reconcile my opposing needs -- to adore and be adored, to want and be wanted, to be the learner and the leader?

Daddy's Girl

Dear Daddy's Girl,

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It seems clear that that your parents essentially abandoned you to a chaotic and frightening system, to which you adapted as only a child can. You created this personality -- full of charm, seductive, winning -- to counter a threat to your survival. This adaptation resulted in a kind of split. As an adult, you inherited two competing modalities of desire; they seem external to you. They seem to come alive in the form of different types of men. My guess is that they're actually versions of your parents. So you are fatally attracted to certain types of men who, as stand-ins for your idealized parents, seem to offer that wonderful, life-giving support, unconditional love and emotional nourishment that you have craved ever since that moment when you left that safe brick house in the suburbs and were plopped down on a beanbag chair amid some paperbacks by Fritz Perls, a copy of Arthur Janov's "The Primal Scream" and some overplayed Zappa LPs.

These two modalities of desire, one maternal and one patriarchal, one nurturing and one challenging, are simply two faces of the same person -- you. They need to come together as you. You ask how you would reconcile what you think are your opposing needs. I would say that they aren't needs so much as modes of being, parts of your personality, archetypes. How I would reconcile them is by bringing them back inside where they belong. Integrate them into yourself.

I don't think you can do that on your own. I suggest that you get into a program of deep therapy -- psychoanalysis or Jungian analysis, something that takes you to the very reaches of your existence. If your trouble with men has its roots in this very early experience, then it's too far inside you for you to work on by yourself. It would be like trying to look at the roof of your own mouth without a mirror. If you're going to see what happened, you'll need some help at least to hold the mirror.

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There might be a period in such therapy where you are stranded, for a time, between the way you've learned to live and the way you want to live, where your childhood adaptation is dissolving but you are still constructing the strong, flexible, adaptive adult self to fill the void. It might get kind of spooky for a while. I'll bet a good psychotherapist or analyst could get you through it, though, if you're willing to try.

You would need to understand intellectually, and then viscerally, what happened to you. Just thinking of it is scary enough -- the removal of an innocent child from that safe, solid brick house, the shattering compromise you made when, suddenly without unconditional love, you found you could trade cleverness and charm for attention.

As a young child, you were given a problem to solve, and you solved it well. But you solved it existentially, as only a child can. You survived it not by acting but by becoming the act. It's not like being an adult with a core self who can pretend when he needs to, knowing that he's pretending. At that point in your development, all you've got to bargain with is you, the whole you. So you bargain yourself away. It's pretty amazing, actually, that a 6-year-old could figure out the game so quickly. But it's a tragic bargain. That's what makes it so hard to go back and make it right.

As you revisit that period, you may feel angry and disoriented. After all, what a poor bargain! For a stack of Fritz Perls paperbacks and a bunch of Zappa records, you gave up that sweet, serene house of all needs met, of glorious sanctuary, of childhood recognized and rewarded for its own unashamed innocence. It would not be surprising to find that you harbor some considerable rage at those who forgot their own childhood long enough to rob you of yours. And so this could be a difficult journey.

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But here is the sweetness that makes it worth it. This running back and forth between one type of man and another is not what you want, right? It's not the path of wholeness that the human soul wants to travel, is it? You would prefer to be a whole person conducting relationships with other whole people, right? What if, in fact, you could reverse the terms?

What if, as a way of obtaining that wholeness, you were to become the center around which both these character archetypes, the all-giving mother and the cold, brilliant father, were to dance, competing for your attention? After all, they are in you. You can address them. They are split aspects of your being. What if you could fix your gaze on these archetypes, stop them from gazing outward and get them to gaze back at you? What if, in gazing at you, they were to look past you and discover each other? Would there be some world-ending battle?

Or would there be, perchance, a wedding?

You could hold the ceremony for them. You could house them, be the temple of their union, the priestess who joins them and the house in which they are wed.

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And then maybe you could stop dating archetypes and instead find a real man, neither Mommy nor Daddy but a strong, handsome stranger.

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