Saturday, May 20, 2017

Is It a Dealbreaker?

Here we have it, your weekly dose of therapy. What would we do without New York Magazine and its latest therapist, Lori Gottlieb? At the least, and for our purposes, it shows us how a real therapist thinks about a real issue. It will not be very encouraging, but we are fearless truth-tellers, aren’t we?

This week Gottlieb presents us with the case of Smitten. This poor sod is smitten with a woman who hates the idea of having children. He wants to have children. Like someone who is not merely smitten, but bewitched he thinks that she is the One and that, if he does not marry her he will be consigned to singlehood, at least until he is 60.

If he were in your office and you are only interested in his rather defective reasoning capacity—clearly he is being manipulated by his lady love—you would be missing the point. So, keep in mind, we do not know how old he is. We do not know how old she is. We know nothing of his background or of hers. We do not know what he does for a living or what she does for a living. And, of course, we do not know how his family feels about her or about how her family feels about him. We do not even know whether she can have children.

Of course, this all feels a bit too similar to the case of the new president of France. But, I digress.

In short, we are not dealing with human beings with lives. We are dealing with love machines. Under the circumstances there is no way any therapist is going to be able to help poor, pathetic smitten.

What does Smitten have to say? Here it is, in slightly edited form:

After ten years exclusively short-term dating (primarily due to my inability to choose a partner that I’m sufficiently impressed with) I’ve finally found the one. As cliché as it sounds, everything is perfect. I’m thrilled and happy and we’re already talking about moving in because we “just know.” Except one thing … she has VERY strong feelings about not having children.

He continues:

Do I want kids? Maybe? Probably, I guess. It’s definitely not a deal-breaker right now. But perhaps that’s only because in my head I think she’ll change her mind.


In my mind it’s her or eternal bachelorhood, with the slight possibility of finding a second unicorn when I’m 60.

Before examining the mess that the therapist will make of this, consider the possibility that if he has not found a woman who is sufficiently impressive, this might mean that no other woman has found him sufficiently impressive to be the father of her child. Since he has been ensorcelled, and has no idea what is going on, this must count as a possibility. Whatever does he mean to say that she is a unicorn. We would be more encouraged if he saw her as a mermaid.

Of course, we know nothing about him except for his feelings for the One and his intimation that he wants to have children, so we are flying blind:

What does the therapist say? Glad you asked. In her words:

What does “impressive” mean to you — accomplished, warm, attractive, intelligent, witty, a dollop of quirky? Statistically speaking, if you’re young enough to be contemplating parenthood, there are plenty of single women around with these qualities, particularly in the “rich and famous” circle you seem to travel in. Maybe a relationship with any of them wouldn’t lead to marriage, but in a ten-year span, there should be enough to choose from to get something going for more than the short-term. 

Heaven knows what he means by impressive. Gottlieb does not know and neither do we. She remarks on his use of the phrase “rich and famous” and suggests that his social circles contain many women who want to have children—but, do they want to have his children?—and besides, if their friends have children while they do not, they will soon see their friends drift away.

Salient point, that went unmentioned.

Gottlieb continues:

“everything is perfect.” Great! Oh, wait, except for one thing. I’ll call this the perfect-except paradox.

I am not sure that we need to invent a special paradox for incoherent thinking, but Gottlieb is correct to point out that if his beloved does not want to have children, that can only mean that things are less than perfect. If she loves him, why doesn’t she want to have his children? Perhaps she wants to be president of the world and believes that motherhood will stifle her career ambitions. Think Theresa May and Angela Merkel. Yet, most men's mothers will never forgive her the dereliction. Why do we all pretend that the man's family has no say in these matters.

I will spare you Gottlieb’s musings about the man’s unconscious motivations for falling in love with a woman who does not want to have his children. They are superfluous and irrelevant. Especially when they amount to saying that perhaps he loves her because she reminds him of his mother and  perhaps he loves her because she does not remind him of his mother. This kind of mental drool passes for serious thinking to people who have never had a serious thought. No one seems to have noticed the salient point, namely that the argument cannot be refuted by any evidence. Thus, that you need to take it on faith.

Then, Gottlieb brings up the more important point. Has he or has he not shared with the One his own preferences, and certainly the preferences of his family:

You say that she “disdains the concept of procreation” — not just that she doesn’t want kids, but that she disdains the very idea of having them. When she says this, do you hide from her the fact that you “maybe” or “probably” want kids and worry that you might feel resentful about not having had any later on? Have you asked how she feels about being with a guy who might enjoy doing the very thing that she finds disdainful? If you can’t express yourself openly and directly, if you have to conceal important parts of yourself from her, if your way of dealing with an issue together is to “give a nudge” to your partner and hope that she’ll have a personality transplant, I wonder about the depth of emotional communion you believe you two share.

If you start worrying about “the depth of emotional communion” you are lost in a miasma of psychobabble. If he has never expressed his preference to her that can only mean that he is afraid of her. Or that she has completely unmanned him. The notion of nudging people comes to us from behavioral economics. It is not going to work here.

In some cases women are ambivalent about whether or not they want to have children. If such were the case Smitten might want to take the risk that she will change her mind. Or that she will choose to let God decide. Again, for all we know she cannot have children. No one considers this possibility.

Otherwise, the solution to his problem is frightfully simple. I am sure that you know it already. He needs to tell her that he respects her decision not to have children… and that it’s a deal breaker. At that point he will discover whether she is a woman who wants to live a normal married life or an ideological zealot who wants to deprive him of children. Some might see this as calling her bluff, but there is no other way of finding out where her true loyalty lies. For now it seems to lie with her careerism or even he wish to travel the world and have fun. If that is true, he should look elsewhere. If he cannot do that, he lacks testicular fortitude and deserves what he gets.


Ares Olympus said...

Agreed. Certainly, this is place a necessary honesty, and yet people "in love" don't want talk about differences. The psychologist Erich Fromm didn't have anything good to say about the passive state of infatuation either, called it an enlarged egotism.

One of my cousins knew she didn't want kids since she was her her teens, and married the first man who asked her, then they were about 20, and they divorced within 2 years, largely because he wanted kids and she didn't.

Not everyone is so sure either way on kids, but if you're sure, the decision is easy. And the problem would be much worse if this woman loved him enough to say "maybe someday" to keep him if she really thought "probably never".

JPL17 said...

I've seen this "Smitten" story play out in real life, and it goes exactly as any sane person would predict. Over a period of 25 years, I watched as 2 friends dated, discovered their differences about having children (he desperately wanted them, she was vehemently opposed), kept dating anyway as he kept hoping and trying to change her mind, got engaged when she finally promised to have children, married, stayed together and childless for about 10 years, and finally divorced when it turned out she never meant it. About 5 years later, he remarried and soon had kids with his new wife.

My friends and I who knew this couple could never figure out why our male friend invested so much in his relationship with his first wife. It was obvious from the start that neither of them would ever change their minds about kids. And when she finally "caved" and promised to have kids, we all doubted her sincerity. He, however, though an extremely bright guy, couldn't see what was happening. Why not?

Probably because he too was smitten and weak. And as a result, suffered and lost 10 years of fatherhood, exactly as several of his other friends and I predicted.

So the advice I'd give to this "Smitten" in Lori Gottlieb's column? Man up, dude. And practice saying these words to the object of your infatuation when says she won't have children despite knowing it's a deal breaker for you: "That's too bad. I'm going to miss you."