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.

Deepening Intimacy in Your Relationship

One of my clients recently asked me how she could deepen the intimacy in her relationship.  This got me to thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a step-by-step guide to intimacy?"  Here are some steps I think might be useful.

  • Self-Awareness
  • Communication
  • Listening Empathically
  • Repair
  • Time Together/Time Apart
  • Working as a Team  

Self-Awareness is actually harder than it sounds.  I think we all go through life unconsciously repeating patterns.  The question is, "How do you improve your relationship with yourself?"  "How can you feel more present in your own life?  Self-awareness means understanding yourself without judgement.  This involves knowing how you're feeling at any given moment, understanding your relationship patterns, and understanding your hot button issues and how to handle them when they're being pushed.  Two good ways to improve self-awareness include individual and/or group therapy and writing in a journal daily. Sometimes I give people the homework assignment of setting the alarm on their phones to go off four times a day.  The specific times don't matter.  When the phone goes off, ask yourself the following questions: "What am I feeling?" "Why?" and "What do I want?"  This simple check-in increases your emotional awareness in the moment.

Deepening your self-understanding is a prerequisite to sharing yourself with someone else.  Sharing yourself with someone does not necessarily involve disclosing deep, dark secrets.  It involves being present with yourself and what you're feeling in the moment, with someone else.  Good communication involves blurting diplomatically.  In other words, thoughtfully sharing what you're thinking or feeling in the moment as appropriate.   In addition, having really good boundaries, and being comfortable saying "no" when you need or want to, goes a long way in helping you feel comfortable in your own skin around the other person.  Self-betrayal. or crossing your own boundaries, just breeds resentment.  

Listening empathically involves paying attention to your partner and trying to really understand what they're saying and how they're feeling, even if it makes you uncomfortable.  Unless someone asks for advice, don't give it.  Statements that reflect feelings are much more supportive and tend to deepen the connection. 

M favorite of these steps, and I think the most important one, is   repair.  Hurting someones feelings happens regularly in relationships.  It may not be what we're shooting for, but it can't be avoided.  This is where repair comes in.  If hurts go unaddressed over time, they start to poke holes in the foundation of the relationship.  If you're partner is hurt by something you did or said, even if that was not your intent, acknowledge their feelings and apologize.  Explanation is OK, but only after you've said "I'm sorry."  This process goes a long way towards rebuilding trust and maintaining a strong foundation.

Balancing   time together and time apart is good for the relationship.  I'm thinking of a tree metaphor.  Time together is about deepening the connection, or building roots, while time apart develops the limbs and enriches the crown.  Time apart keeps things fresh and new between you.  A tree can't thrive without both.

And then of course there's working as a team , or maintaining a united front.  This is especially important if you have children. Children need to know they can't divide and conquer (but that's another topic).  This step is the belief that your partner has your back in all interactions with the outside world.  Nothing and no-one can come between you.  It feels like an imaginary boundary that separates the two of you from the rest of the world.  It's not rigid, and both people can have their own relationships, but it is secure.

I've tried to keep it short, but there's so much more to say.  Let me know what you think.