Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Diamond Ring in the Basement

At least, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist. New York Magazine advice columnist Polly is not. So, Gottlieb gives us a better sense of how a real therapist does her work. And yet, while Polly wants to strip people down to their feelings, at the expense of any sense of reality, Gottlieb basically wants to do the same thing.

Her column this week shows what is wrong with most therapy. It shows why a certain form of therapy is dying out. The profession seems incapable of dealing with practical issues. More than that, the profession has become girlified to such an extent that it sees everything from a female perspective. I would suggest that it sees things from a caricatured female perspective, but we’ll leave that for later.

So, it’s all about sharing feelings, unearthing feelings, feeling feelings, finding one’s inner truth… which means, ignoring the real world, forgetting about how real people function, and fundamentally ignoring the alternative reality of the male sensibility.

Gottlieb will respond to the following letter, from a woman whose boyfriend seems to be unduly attached to his former girlfriend, by giving her lessons in how to do therapy. It is appallingly disrespectful to the man in question. Since the letter writer, named Sara, has been trying it already, to little avail, it is doomed to failure.

At best it is infantilizing. Since Gottlieb believes, incorrectly, that we carry out childhood developmental issues and traumas with us throughout life, she is prescribing a type of conversation that would befit a child. A grown man will recoil at it. In truth, a grown woman should know better than to spray girltalk around the room and then to denounce her boyfriend for failing to respond. If we assume, no doubt correctly, that Sara works in the real world, we should avoid allowing her to think that she can use girltalk in the workplace.

In theory, this approach empowers women, or better, women’s sensibility. In fact, it renders women more dysfunctional in their relationships with men and renders them more dysfunctional in the workplace.

Anyway, Sara is living with her boyfriend. They seem to share a house together, though we do not know who owns the house-- him, her or them. The problem concerns a diamond ring. The man was going to marry another woman, but he did not. We do not know whether they were engaged, whether or not he proposed, or what happened. All that remains of that failed relationship is the diamond ring.

Apparently, the breakup was so painful that the man decided to keep the ring, as a souvenir, a memento or a reminder of a failed relationship. The relationship went south, for reasons that Sara doesn’t seem to know. The breakup was painful, so painful that the man kept the ring he had bought for his prior girlfriend. Huh? Why cling to reminders of past pain?

You might ask yourself whether the real issue is whether or not the boyfriend will ever propose to Sara. It is a salient issue. It has been discussed. But, how can she accept a proposal from a man who is still, excuse the expression, carrying a torch for another woman? The issue is less whether or not he will propose, and more whether she should accept it. If Sara does not know why the other woman left him, she does not know something that is probably relevant to her own situation. 

For all she or I know, the man stalked his ex-girlfriend. He might have abused her. We do not know. Clearly, the hidden reason is not going to make him look very good. Otherwise he might well have explained it. Just as clearly, Sara herself might find it to be a dealbreaker.

We would want to know whether the old girlfriend is still in town. We would want to know whether other people in town know the story.

For my part I would be curious to know whether she married someone else, and so on. No such details are forthcoming.

And that, my friends is the problem. Gottlieb is so mired in her touchy-feely world that she does not raise the issues.

Sara opens with this:

I have been with my boyfriend for about a year and a half. Before me, he was in a long-term, serious relationship in which he bought an engagement ring and was making plans to marry his ex. Clearly their relationship didn’t last, and the breakup was incredibly traumatic for him.

Was he making plans to marry the prior girlfriend? Did he offer the ring? Was his proposal rejected? We do not know. Beyond the fatuous issue of his true feelings, we would like to know what happened? We would like to know some facts.

Anyway, Sara continues:

Since then, he and I have had a very honest, serious, and healthy relationship, but the ring is still in our basement. When I bring up the ring (or her), he more often than not gets angry, defensive, and adamant that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Sometimes he’ll offer up the excuse that he doesn't want to sell the ring because he won’t get a very meaningful return on it, or he’ll say that maybe one day he’ll sell it.

So, she brings up the issue of the ring. You might ask why he does not hide it or why he does not simply put it in a safe deposit box. Sara does not. Gottlieb does not care. Clearly, the relationship is not completely honest, serious or healthy.

And yet, if he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Would it not be worthwhile to respect his feelings… and to move out. Why is she deluding herself about her relationship when his lack of commitment is still in their basement. 

In the great scheme of things he has every right not to discuss what he does not want to discuss. We ought however to question Sara’s judgment. How did she move in with a man who could not explain anything about his previous girlfriend, apparently still the love of his life?

Of course, we do not know whether Sara or anyone else knows the woman. Might Sara or a mutual friend contact her? Do other members of his family know what happened? Does Sara know any of them? It's a thought, one that crosses no one's mind.

So, Sara thinks that he must deal with his feelings. She does not recognize that this is girltalk. If she presents the issue in these terms, she is going to alienate him and to make it impossible for him to say anything. Again, I believe that he should share some of the facts of the situation. Otherwise, she should look for a way to exit the relationship.

The fact that he will not deal with his feelings hurts Sara’s feelings.

Though I am aware that she and the relationship are a trigger for him, I still feel hurt that he won’t put in the work to deal with those feelings. I also feel very angry that he keeps an engagement ring meant for someone else when we’ve been talking about the possibility of getting married ourselves.

How do I deal with this issue in a way that’s fair to both of us?


Why is she discussing marriage with a man who is evidently hiding something that, if she knew it, might very well change her attitude toward marriage?

I raise these issues because Gottlieb ignores them completely. She thinks that it’s all about feelings, and about having deeper feelings. She sees it as an opportunity to share feelings. She does not know that good relationships between men and women are not about sharing feelings. She does not know that a woman who asks a man to share his deepest feelings is alienating him. I would say that this is essence of girltalk, but that would be disrespectful toward women.

For your edification, Gottlieb opens:

Although your boyfriend’s decision to keep the engagement ring in the basement is painful for you, this impasse and how you deal with it has the potential to help you get to know each other in a much deeper way. That’s because it’s not just the ring that’s in the proverbial basement—so are your respective feelings associated with it.
To get to those feelings, you’ll need to have a different kind of conversation. But first, let me offer some context to help you create a space in which your boyfriend might feel more comfortable opening up about his inner world rather than evading the topic altogether with some version of Maybe one day I’ll sell it.

And then, Gottlieb offers us the latest in psycho thinking. If you examine the examples she chooses, you will see that her own view of a good relationship involves each member of the couple doing half the laundry. Could she have thought of anything less efficient? 

And she recommends that Sara tell her boyfriend that it hurts her feelings when he does not tell her about a conspicuous failure. Could it be that his confessing would hurt her feelings every more? Gottlieb does not consider the possibility.

What you two have been doing so far is staying in what therapists call the “content” of the conversation. The content is what the disagreement is ostensibly about. It might be something like You don’t do your share of the laundry, or You need to defend me when your dad criticizes me, or I want you to get rid of your ex’s engagement ring. Just beneath the content is what’s known as the “process,” which is what informs the content. For instance: When I’m left with all the laundry, I feel invisible, unappreciated, and unloved. Or: I don’t defend you when my dad criticizes you because I’m terrified of standing up to him and I freeze, just like I did when I was a kid. Or: I avoid talking to you about the ring because I’m afraid that you don’t want to hear my complicated feelings about it, and I will have no way to convince you that I want to be with you without denying these other feelings that are also very much a part of who I am.

So, Gottlieb arrives at what she calls a fundamental truth about being human. Namely, that we never outgrow the past. It is not a fundamental truth. It is a choice. We might choose to drag all of our luggage around with us-- which the boyfriend is apparently doing-- but we might choose to follow the counsel offered by the apostle Paul, and put away the toys of childhood.

Let’s begin with a fundamental truth about being human: Our experiences in life stay with us and shape who we are. Our pasts aren’t magically erased when we meet a new partner; we all show up on Day One of an adult relationship with our own histories, ways of relating, ideas about ourselves and others, insecurities, pain, and losses. It’s unrealistic to expect a new partner to be a clean slate, especially with regard to significant relationships from the past. This means that if you’re going to have a strong relationship with your boyfriend, you’ll need to get acquainted with his losses.

Of course, no one is talking about a magical eraser. The boyfriend has chosen to keep the diamond ring around, and to keep it in Sara’s basement.

But, Gottlieb continues, Sara ought to be letting her boyfriend feel his feelings and to have his feelings… and whatever. Trust me, if she sprays him with essence of girltalk, she will alienate him. He will shut up and shut down.

The conversation you need to have will be made harder if your boyfriend has gotten the sense (and based on your letter, I imagine he has) that this is less a discussion that allows room for his messy feelings and more a means to get him to stop having the feelings he’s having. There’s a big difference between Tell me more about the pain of that relationship so I can understand you better and feel closer to you—this will make it easier for me to not take so personally your wanting to keep the ring (process) and Let’s talk about how we can work together to make any trace or memory of this woman disappear, specifically by selling the ring (content). (By the way, this is also a common dynamic when a person whose spouse died begins dating a new partner. Sometimes the new partner feels threatened by the pieces of the past, while the other person has a deep need to preserve them in daily life.)

Moreover, it’s still about emotion and care and concern and compassion:

To talk on a process level, you’ll want to focus not on determining what’s “fair” but on sharing your more tender emotions and treating the other person’s with the utmost compassion and care. Instead of asking your boyfriend to sell the ring, you can share with him what it means for you that he’s kept it (maybe: that you believe he wishes he were still with his ex, or that his feelings for her are deeper than his feelings for you), and how you feel when he shuts down conversations about it (maybe: lonely or unimportant). In turn, perhaps he can share with you what the ring means to him (maybe: a tangible memento of an important chapter of his life, in the way that many people save photos from past relationships rather than deleting them from their archives), and how he feels when you try to engage him in these conversations (maybe: pressured, attacked).

Again, it’s about his unresolved feelings.

He may find your questions to be intrusive, judgmental, or controlling. If so, you’ll want to get curious together about how much of his avoidance of this topic is about your approach in the present; or about a familiar feeling from his past—perhaps an old experience of getting the message that his feelings were “wrong” or unacceptable—or about his unresolved feelings about the breakup that he’s not willing to look at because he fears that if he gives them any air time, he’ll become sad and overwhelmed. Maybe he believes that he can keep them in a box (an emotional box represented by the ring box) and has taken great care not to open the lid, because he’s afraid of what might come out.

As for a more constructive approach, Sara should tell him that she will not marry him if he cannot explain why he clings to the old ring. And she might even put an end to the relationship, because whatever he is hiding might well be worse than she or Gottieb imagines. The man should explain what happened, not feel his feelings or wallow in emotions. 

In the meantime, Sara might also do a Google search to see whether the old girlfriend has an order of protection against him. 

Otherwise, she should check out the portrait in the attic.


Sam L. said...

Spell check: "And she recommends that Sara tell her boyfriend that it hurts her feelings when he does not tell her about a conspicuous failure. Could it be that his
confessing would hurt her feelings
++++++++ every ++++++++ more? Gottlieb does not consider the possibility."

Should she tell him to "take his ring and get out of my house and my life"? I think so.

DocVinny said...

They seem to share a house together, but it doesn't say who owns the house. Sam, you can't throw him out if its HIS HOUSE.

Also, you can not gauge his level of commitment by him refusing to talk about something painful. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. She can decide to stay or decide to go, as she sees fit, and as her feelings dictate.. That's up to her. He may be totally in love with her, but not ready to face what was a very painful episode in his life. They don't necessarily have anything to do with each other.

UbuMaccabee said...

“What you two have been doing so far is staying in what therapists call the “content” of the conversation. The content is what the disagreement is ostensibly about. It might be something like You don’t do your share of the laundry, or You need to defend me when your dad criticizes me, or I want you to get rid of your ex’s engagement ring. Just beneath the content is what’s known as the “process,” which is what informs the content.”

That’s about as far as I can get before I my eyes glass over and I stop reading. The language of therapy isn’t worth the effort to understand what it is trying to say. Life is brief. I’d rather read what Caesar has to say about the Gauls, it’s more pertinent.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't care at all about the ring in the basement. It is in the basement, not sitting on an altar in the house. I'd forget it even existed if I, too, had a diamond ring of my own. If she doesn't have one, then yes she is being treated shabbily. If she does have one, then she is worrying about something irrelevant.