Friday, May 25, 2018

The Case of the Childless 40-Year-Old Single Woman

It’s a good example of how a seasoned therapist misses the point. A 40-year-old single woman writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb. Her problem, according to her is that she cannot get her ex- out of her mind. He seems to have been her one and only true love. She wanted a home with children. He did not. 

She doesn’t quite say it but she has clung to the hope that he would come around. She broke up with him. She hooked up with him a few times. It did not work out. She is alone and bereft and she asks a therapist how to stop thinking about him.

Here is the letter:

I’m a 40-year-old single woman. Never married, no children, and I’ve been struggling for years to get over my ex. He was my first love and we met when I was in my early 20s. It was a very immature relationship that culminated in me breaking up with him finally (for about the third or fourth time), mostly because of a growing fear that I knew I would want kids and was worried that I was wasting my time with someone who wasn’t willing to work on a future with me.

This was more than 10 years ago, and although my ex and I have occasionally stayed in touch, been intimate, and reconnected after a few years of separation, we have not been able to have a healthy relationship. I’ve tried to be honest about my wanting a different type of relationship with him, but he doesn’t seem to want that. I have tried moving on by ignoring my feelings for him, ignoring him when he has reached out to me, and repeatedly reminding myself that ours is not the kind of relationship that I want. But it all feels like a lie.

The truth is, here I am, thinking about the last person I had the strongest romantic relationship and potential with. And I feel like a fool. I tried blocking him on my phone, but I still saw his calls. I have avoided his social media since it just triggers sadness instead of happiness and joy. I need some practical help to get him out of my mind.


Therapist Gottlieb responds reasonably that the woman will need to give up her hopes for a future with this man and move on. It is self-evident. She correctly points out that most therapists want their patients to live in the past, not the future. And that Anonymous is living in the lost past.

If she moves on and develops new dating habits, Gottlieb continues, perhaps she will find true love.

It sounds unobjectionable. And yet, I am happy to offer an obvious objection. At age 40 Anonymous has a much bigger problem than finding true love. Her problem is: to have or not to have a child.

Since we know nothing about Anonymous’s living conditions, her family, her career or any other relevant details about her life, we cannot evaluate her options realistically. I have often remarked that letters written to advice givers rarely give anything close to the amount of detail that you would need to offer decent advice. They seem to be suffering from too much therapy; they see themselves as a bundle of mental or emotional processes.

And yet, in this case we do know one salient fact. We know, because it has been widely publicized, that Gottlieb herself had a child at age 39 through the aid of a sperm donor. Now, we do not expect that Gottlieb will go all Ask Polly here and fill up an endless stream of pages by oversharing about her own very personal experience. It would not be very professional.

And yet, as long as the information is public record, it would have been more constructive to say a word about single parenthood, to address this woman’s manifest desire for a child, before droning on about Freud’s idea of the repetition compulsion. The truth is, the time that it takes to find a new man, to develop a relationship, to marry and to start a family will probably decide the issue.

Having a fatherless child is certainly the exception. Naturally, a woman who is contemplating such a move would want to know how it has worked out for someone who has done it. And she would ask a woman who has undergone the experience, who knows what it's like to be pregnant and alone, to have or not to have family support, to explain the situation to the child... who it is working out.

Unless of course Anonymous has simply given up on the prospect of having a child of her own. I suspect that she has not. But, at the least, a savvy therapist should raise the issue and discuss the different options. A therapist who had undergone the experience would have some direct personal knowledge of the issue.

On this score, therapist Gottlieb misses the point completely. For all the fancy psycho theories about repression, this therapist has a rather large and obvious blind spot.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

It might have been better if the writer had written her at least 5 years earlier.