What does it take to love well and wisely? Risk, resilience, and a good enough childhood—not a great one, just good enough. Ethel Person talks matters of the heart with Cathleen Medwick.
On my way to interview Ethel Person, MD, the celebrated psychoanalyst and Columbia University professor who teaches and writes about love, I took a little detour into my past. Around the corner from Person's home was the quaint old brownstone where, long ago, a handsome stranger arrived on my doorstep. He wasn't looking for love; he was looking for an apartment. My latest bad-news boyfriend had just suggested I get silicone implants; suddenly, I was ready to supplant him. The apartment hunter and I talked, we had coffee, and a year later, we got married. Where did I go right?
Ethel Person can answer that. She is a dark-haired woman with warm eyes and an air of absolute confidence. If love is a battlefield, she's a five-star general. Her mission, these days, is to help people understand how love can turn their lives around—though not necessarily in the ways they expect.
"I think romantic love is one of the great change agents," she says as we sit in her book-lined living room overlooking Central Park. "We come to know ourselves in a different way when we fall in love, and whatever happens to that relationship, we are changed. We know something we didn't know before. We discover capacities that we didn't think we had. You did it," she tells me. "You had a relationship that didn't work, and you changed. You said, 'Enough!'"
"True," I answer, "but look at all the years I wasted." Ethel Person disagrees. "People should not judge failed love affairs as failed experiences but as part of the growth process. Something does not have to end well for it to have been one of the most valuable experiences of a lifetime."
Try telling Cinderella that. Most people I know still cling to the idea that love has to have a happy ending. When a relationship breaks up, they feel cheated of their future. And if they've never fallen in love, they become desperately afraid they never will.
"People can love more than once," Person assures me. "And love happens to people of all ages, because one's internal life changes, as well as one's opportunities. I don't see love as something that if you don't get it by the time you're 30, cross it off the list."
When you're a therapist, she says, people come to you in anguish about a love affair that's gone sour, a marriage that's gone wrong. And some people worry that they'll never be able to let go enough to love anybody: "The reason is usually buried in their childhood, in some fear of being found wanting, or in parental disapproval. Not that the parent doesn't love the child, but that the parent doesn't see the potential beauty or the soul in a child, can't really endorse her in some way. People may also find it hard to love if they've been abused by their parents or were so overmonitored that they feel any relationship means being imprisoned. Or someone may have had parents who were miserably mismatched and says, 'I will never let myself be in the situation that my mother was in. To get married is to give away my autonomy, and I'm not going to do it.' So our capacity to love often depends on having a good enough childhood—not a great one, just good enough."
Next: What every love affair needs to flourish
Can we ever undo the effects of a really disastrous childhood? (I've been married for 27 years now, and I'm still working on that one.)
"Yes, through experience, sometimes through therapy," Person says. "Some people go away from home for college or a job and find out that not everybody is like the family they grew up in. What's great is that we can relearn, recondition, and see other possibilities."
Okay, but how do you preserve your hard-won sense of self and still experience the enraptured merging that most of us see as the essence of romance?
"In fact," says Person, "all love has this internal dynamic between togetherness and oneness, and independence and separateness. I think that for a love affair to flourish, there have to be independent interests that can be shared, as well as interests that are the same. One person described it well in talking about his parents. He said they were looking out in the same direction instead of always staring into each other's eyes. Intense physical passion waxes and wanes. Once you've had it, it can always come back. But what sustains you in between is having something that interests you both enough that you can share it, talk about it, do it together."
A confession: My husband and I have had some of our biggest arguments about which video to watch. Mention the Three Stooges if you want to see my hackles rise.
"Well, you have to pick your fights," Person says, confessing that she herself is perfectly capable of fighting to the death over the color to paint a bedroom. "Look, in any good relationship there have to be bursts of anger and disagreement. And in those moments, if somebody asked, 'Are you in love?' you'd say, 'Are you kidding me?' But those become part and parcel of the journey. We have the capacity to repair relationships—it's like having a scratch that heals. In other words, our psychological makeup has built-in healing mechanisms the same way our body does. You have to have enough conviction in the strength of the bond that you can risk some disagreement. You have to be able to take a hit."
A tall order if you're already one of the walking wounded. Having grown up with parents whose fights were soul shattering, I thought relationship was a code word for pain. Giving up that preconception felt like a giant leap into the dark. It took years of dead-end love affairs (and a healthy dose of therapy) to push me over the edge. I not only had to find someone who could love me, I finally realized, I had to take the risk of loving him back.
That's the kind of risk Ethel Person fully approves of. "People are so different in their ability to let go. They need to know in the back of their minds that if it doesn't work, it's not the end of the world. If I sorrow for anyone, it's for someone who has never rolled the dice, rather than for someone who has rolled the dice and lost a hand or two."
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Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 16, 2014
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