Fifty Shades of Grey and the Longing for Redemption

What?  That's what I imagine you said to yourself when you read the title.  Just bare with me for a few seconds, I think I can get us there.

So the very smart women of the feminist therapy reading group I belong to decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey.  We were all a little ambivalent given the criticism the book has received, but there was also curiosity.  Why was this book such a huge success (bigger than the Harry Potter seiries)?  Why is this poorly written novel so compelling to women? What need is it meeting?

Let me begin by admitting that according to my Kindle, I only completed 35% of the book.  So all of my thoughts come from those few pages and the discussion that followed in the reading group.  Let me also acknowledge that, based on my limited experience, much of the criticism the book received is true.  It is poorly written with almost no character development and not much of a plot.  It's like a modern version of a Harlequin Romance or Cinderella story in which a highly anxious, clumsy, super-naive, disempowered young woman with painfully low self-esteem is swept away by a dashingly handsome, extremely controlling, billionaire.   Obviously, the power dynamics are the theme of the book, both overtly and covertly. He initially has all the power, but apparently that gets re-negotiated over the course of the series, as he continues to fall in love with her.  

And that's what I found compelling: what seemed to me in the first 35% as the longing for redemption.  By redemption I mean the hope that we can heal the most damaged parts of ourselves by fully engaging in a deeply intimate, loving relationship.  Through the healing, we find hope, not fairy-tale hope, but real, grounded, based-in-reality hope.

A couple of nights ago, I woke up at 4 am from a dream about my father.  I don't remember the dream, but I was instantly flooded by a memory from college.  I was probably 20, and was going to his house for Christmas.  I was scheduled to have all four of my wisdom teeth pulled before the holidays.  At the time, my father was living with his wife and my two siblings in a beautiful house in northern Virginia.  The older part of the house was built in the early 1600s and sat on 60 acres of beauty, complete with a stocked pond, an old barn, and several quarter horses.  It was an amazing place.  The kitchen of that house had a false ceiling where escaping slaves were hidden as they made their way up the underground rail-road towards freedom and hope.

The experience of that Christmas was less than idyllic.  

A couple of days before Christmas, my father took me to work with him.  His extremely nice secretary (that's what administrative assistants were called then) took me to the dentist then brought me to her house to recover.  In the course of my recovery coma, I tossed my cookies all over her floor. Nice.  She cheerfully cleaned it up.  So awful.  When he was done with work, my father drove me back to the house.  Now, don't get me wrong, my father is not a bad person, he's just not much of a hands-on dad.  Like most fathers of the time, taking care of his family financially was more his thing. For the next four days, including Christmas, I stayed in bed in a Percodan fog.  it was kind of nice.  I told myself I needed to take it for the pain.  Thinking about it at 4 am, yeah, it definitely helped with the pain, but what I was really doing was sleeping through that empty feeling and false, somewhat manic cheer that was my family at Christmas.

Fast forward many years.  As my husband and I were talking about having our own children, a multitude of questions, longings, beliefs, and values coursed through my thoughts.  One of the stronger feelings was my need for redemption, though I don't know that I had put it into those words yet.  It just felt like hope.  That unarticulated feeling was that I could somehow heal my painful childhood by doing it differently with my children.  I really believed that my husband and I could create a very loving home for our children, and I knew I would throw myself into that commitment.  In working through that decision, I started to feel hope for the first time in my life. What really grounds my beliefs and hope is my husband, and his experience of family.  Consisted, involved, day-to-day loving, comes naturally to him.

So now, when I spend time with my family, and my children are not being annoying, I feel grounded in hope.  As I'm with them, I feel like I've been given the opportunity to rework the broken relationships that I experienced early on and have carried throughout my life.  I believe in myself and in them, but more importantly, I believe that we can work through life's challenges together. 

Back to the Fifty Shades series.  Apparently, as I've said before, the relationship changes both people.  They are able to work through some of their deep hurts and move away from the patterns that have reinforced their isolation and loneliness.  Feels a little like redemption.

After the Honeymoon: When Your Partner Becomes Your "Tormentor"

Something happens after the honeymoon.  The person you love, and have agreed to spend the rest of your life with, becomes your emotional tormentor.  How did this super-great person become the enemy?

This is a scenario I see a lot in couples therapy.  Two lovely people come into my office after a few years of marriage (and I use "marriage" to mean two people in a committed relationship, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation) unsure if they can continue.  They hate their partner.  What happened?

Marriage can be a powerful, archetypal experience that unleashes all of our primitive longings and unmet needs.  The unconscious expectation is that our partner will make us feel whole again; they will heal old wounds created by childhood traumas.  I see this idea displayed in marriage ceremonies, in which there are three candles at the altar:  two candles lit, with the one in the middle left unlit.  At some point during the ceremony, the two side candles get snuffed, while the center one gets lit, representing the union of two separate individuals into one whole person.  I strongly dislike this ritual: it's a set-up for failure.  The question isn't how can my partner make me whole, but how can they support me in my journey towards wholeness. 

One of the many reasons we are attracted to our partners is that on a deeply unconscious level they stir up longings and unmet needs, and then begin to meet them.  This experience is intoxicating in the beginning when the relationship is the focus of both people's lives.  How amazing and exciting to have all of your needs finally met.  Then life happens.  The relationship is still a priority, but other life commitments take up time.  There's a reason why Romeo and Juliet's relationship didn't last long.  It's hard to maintain that level of engagement.  So, for many people, disappointment and loss start to settle in.  Your partner and the relationship are not what you thought they would be.  Early on in the commitment process, there's often a period of adjustment.

So how do you work through this early adjustment?

The first step is to take a deep breath (or several).  The intensity of the disappointment, hurt, and anger is often extreme.  It might help to realize that the feelings are partly about your current relationship, but mostly about very old, unresolved, and often festering emotions from the past. That explains the intensity.  Our partners are inadvertently pushing our buttons.  And even though it's painful, it's an opportunity to heal.  We unconsciously pick relationships that will re-stimulate unmet childhood needs so that we can heal the wounds and grow more whole.  

Step two involves identifying the feelings to yourself or a therapist.  Are you disappointed, frustrated, angry, hurt, sad?  When have you felt that way before in your life?  Do you have an early memory of feeling that way?  Spend some time reflecting on and feeling past hurts. Journaling is often a good way to remember.  This process feels like grieving:  remembering, acknowledging, and feeling the impact of the losses.

Step three is differentiating childhood pain from present pain.  It's not fair to carry childhood expectations into our adult relationships.  Your partner can't re-parent you, and that kind of neediness is a turn off.  Questions to ask yourself include:  What can I reasonably expect from my partner?  What do I have to work on myself or get met through other relationships?

And finally, can you have this conversation with your partner?  Can you tell her/him what your needs/expectations are and discuss whether s/he can meet them?  This is best done explicitly and in behavioral terms.  "I need to feel more connected" may be too vague and unhelpful.  My experience with couples therapy is that partners want to meet each other's needs when they can, and when it doesn't feel like they're sacrificing their own boundaries, but they need to know what they are. The key is to be honest and explicit, knowing that your partner may say "no."

This process is very hard, and it may be why many relationships don't make it.  If you and your partner are struggling, contact a therapist to help you sort it out.