Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Case of the Shitty Boyfriend

As always, I am grateful to New York Magazine for showing us what therapists really think. The magazine saves me from having to describe how they think. Coming from me, it will sound like I am creating a straw man, or should it be straw person, an absurd caricature thrown up to discredit hard working credentialed licensed therapists.

The good news is that even supposedly good therapists like Lori Gottlieb happily caricature themselves. In my wildest anti-therapy dreams I could not make this stuff up.

Anyway, today’s letter comes from a man who calls himself A Shitty Boyfriend. He describes himself as a compulsive cheater:

I’m a 27-year-old guy who has been in a mostly happy and loving relationship for the last three years. I say mostly because there is one problem that always threatens to ruin everything. I have had multiple incidents where I deceived my girlfriend by flirting and secretly communicating with other women, and have had two incidents where I actually kissed other women. I’m ashamed of it, but it’s been a pattern in all of my relationships.

Both times my girlfriend found out, and it created incredible upheaval for us. She’s always devastated and immediately wants to break up and wants nothing to do with me, which I understand. I have been lucky in that I have convinced her to stay, telling her how badly I want to change (I do) and what I will do to make this work. I think it’s also helped that the physical stuff has not gone very far, but she says it’s the lying and deceit that hurt her more.

I decided to start therapy after the last incident. I’ve been at it for a couple months and though there’s been some progress, I don’t feel like I really have the tools to be 100 percent confident it will never happen again. I don’t think it will. But I thought that after the first time. I’m not even sure I know why it happens. My therapist thinks it’s tied to my childhood, and she’s probably right.

I have a pretty difficult relationship with both my parents, but especially my father, who for my entire life has had a romantic relationship with another woman besides my mom. Though my parents remain married, my dad spends much of his time with this woman, even going on vacations with her. We rarely talk about it in the family, though everyone knows. The only time it comes up is when my mom is trying to get me to break into my dad’s phone so she can read his texts or is telling me it’s all because he “needs sex” or is crying about how deeply unhappy she is and that I need to move away from my girlfriend to be by her because she’s lonely….

I know all of this probably makes me sound like a huge jerk, but I promise you I love my girlfriend more than anything. I can’t imagine finding someone better for me. I want to marry her someday. But I know if I do this again, it will be the last straw. Our relationship is already suffering so much because she doesn’t trust me.

Please, how can I prevent this? I’m still in therapy. I’ve given up drinking (which is usually a component in my cheating). I’ve been working on telling my girlfriend absolutely everything and being completely honest with her. What else can I do? What is wrong with me? Will I be this way forever?
A Shitty Boyfriend

Allow me a couple of less-than-glib observations. In the world of cheating boyfriends this man is very minor league indeed. A stolen drunken kiss in a bar does not quite register on the Harveymeter. But then, just like Harvey ASB wants to solve his problem with therapy. Remember that HW announced to the world that he was a sick boy and needed therapy and rehab. If you think that Harvey’s problem is going to be solved by therapy, you are living in a dream world.

The second problem is this man’s lust for drama. Whatever possessed him to tell his girlfriend that he had kissed another girl? Does he not understand the value of discretion? Being open and honest about all things is extremely bad advice. I referenced a fine article by George Friedman a few days ago, where he makes exactly this point. No good relationship can survive complete openness and honesty. Anyway, the cheating is one thing; abusing his girlfriend by telling her is quite another.

No therapist will make the distinction, so I feel obliged to emphasize the point.

As for Lori Gottlieb’s response, it revolves around what therapists call the transference, a theory that says that people relive and reenact past traumas in their relationships with their therapists. This allows therapists to pretend to be blank screens, and to have precious little going on between their ears.

Anyway, Gottlieb seems to be especially proud of herself for offering the vapid observation that this man is cheating on his therapist by writing to her. Perhaps that’s her wish? Who knows? Who cares? Is he cheating on his mother by having a girlfriend? Is he cheating on his girlfriend by consulting with a therapist in the first place? Why did he choose a female therapist, if not because he seems to have difficulty dealing with men? This all means that his therapist is not doing a very good job and that he would have done better to consult with a male therapist. 

Anyway, here’s Gottlieb, pretending to be brilliant:

If you and your therapist were already exploring all of the questions you asked in your letter, what, I wondered, were you asking of me? Whether you’re doomed by your past? Whether you’ll ever change? How to ensure that you won’t cheat again?...

I could, of course, point out that you aren’t destined to be like your father, because your father didn’t go to therapy like you’re now doing to try to understand your behavior and its impact on your girlfriend. I could help you to see that unlike your father, you’re open to talking about the infidelity and are making concrete changes, like drinking less. I could help you to unpack the terrible dilemma you face in being torn between protecting your mother from heartache and protecting your girlfriend from heartache — and allow you to see how the rage and resentment you likely feel at being obliged to make your mom feel safe might get played out in making your girlfriend feel unsafe by not being faithful to her. I could help you to recognize that in doing so, you protect only yourself, because it’s safer for you to betray your girlfriend than it is to betray your mother. I could tell you that you don’t sound at all “like a huge jerk” and that I believe you when you say you love your girlfriend deeply. And I could point out that chasing guarantees will get you nowhere: nobody, even someone who has never cheated, can be “100 percent confident” that he or she won’t one day stray….

But I was sure that your therapist had already told you some version of all this, and that’s when I realized that I couldn’t edit down your letter because the entire letter is, in effect, another betrayal — only this time, you’re cheating on your therapist. You see, Boyfriend, by writing to me, another therapist, you’re doing what you do with your girlfriends when you start to get close to them — you run away to someone else.

Gottlieb does not recognize that life is not a romantic psychodrama. So she goes on and tries to send him back to his first therapist. Apparently, she believes that all therapists are the same and that they all say the same thing:

Don’t cheat on your therapist, Boyfriend. Talk to her about your discomfort, about how you’re struggling to trust her, about how intellectually what she says makes sense but emotionally you’re conflicted and all stirred up inside. Tell her about your lifelong anger and pain and disappointment and the deep, deep sadness underlying it all. Tell her that the only way you know how to deal with this stew of excruciating feelings is to run away and make any reliable person who comes close to you furious with you, as furious as you are every minute of every day with your parents and yourself and your therapist who can’t provide a guarantee and the girlfriends who love you when you don’t believe you’re worthy of it. Tell her that when you’re not enraging the people who care about you, you turn that rage inward, because though it feels bad, it also feels good, like relief, like a way to atone for your so-called sins, the only real sin being that you’re so unfairly cruel to yourself.

Like your other mistresses, I may seem all shiny and new, all full of promise and insight and a brilliance that your therapist doesn’t possess, but I ain’t all that. The women you stray with aren’t all that either. Don’t waste your time on us. We — the people you run to — can’t give you what you want. It’s the people you’re running from who can.

So, she fails to distinguish between herself and his other mistresses. One notes that when you kiss a girl in a drunken stupor in a bar, she does not automatically become your mistress. Could it be that Gottlieb is trying out for the role? Is it her very own wish fulfillment?

Or better, look at it from a different angle. Perhaps he is unhappy with his therapy. Perhaps his therapist is not really helping him. If you consult with your physician and he offers a diagnosis or a treatment that you question, you might reasonably decide to get a second opinion? Are you therefore cheating on your doctor? Of course, not. No one thinks that way… except in the theatre of the romantic absurd constructed by therapy.


James said...

" she believes that all therapists are the same and that they all say the same thing:"
They're not?! But I've seen Woody Allen movies!

whitney said...

I'm actually torn in my belief about whether or not any of these letters are real. And that probably stems from the fact that I would never write one so it's hard for me to fathom someone that would but assuming this is real, I bet that guy is very attractive and charming. There seem to be lots of women in his life trying to help him

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Whatever possessed him to tell his girlfriend that he had kissed another girl? Does he not understand the value of discretion? Being open and honest about all things is extremely bad advice.

Its an interesting question. I'm not sure confession is "extremely bad advice" but of course it depends on your goals, including unconscious ones. If someone, like a girlfriend, has put you on a pedestal, confession is a way of grounding yourself away from that temporary grandiosity. And since he calls himself a "shitty boyfriend" that's another way of lowering himself. And since he's also confessed about his father's unfaithfulness it makes sense he's ashamed of his father, and taken his mother's side, which is a sort of gender betrayal. So you might even say his "cheating" is a backwards way of reclaiming his masculinity.

So we're agreed this is all bad for relationships, but it might be worse, if he failed to act out, and failed to acknowledge this "shitty" side of masculinity. And I agree it is all looks orders of magnitude wimpier than HW's sexual predator status.

Anyway, so I'd guess his confession served a very important purpose, in making himself untrustworthy in his girlfriend's eyes, so he won't hurt her more down the line. He's giving her a chance to walk away, and even if he says he doesn't want this, in either case, he's helping her not be a victim, like his mother.

JP said...

"I'm actually torn in my belief about whether or not any of these letters are real. And that probably stems from the fact that I would never write one so it's hard for me to fathom someone that would but assuming this is real"

While this specific letter might not be real, you can rest assured that someone out there would write a letter pretty much exactly like this.

The presence of things like in the general population is...extensive, although rare.

This is a very minor example of wackadoo.