We are, at times, most excited by those lovers who are the worst possible people for us. More and more we are becoming conscious of the wild mazes of eroticism that define everybody’s private lives, but especially those of women. The global success of the sexy bondage saga 50 Shades of Grey surprised everybody but the millions of women who were reading it. When we look at the meaning of “erotic,” it is important to distinguish that sex and love are not always the same thing. “Erotic love is not merely sexual,” Erich Fromm writes in The Art of Loving, “It craves fusion, and overcoming separateness. It loves from the essence of the self to the essence of the other. Erotic love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together.”
My client Olivia is well educated and was raised a good Catholic. She is well-traveled and speaks several languages. She came to me with a particularly complex psychological problem. It wasn’t a chronic affliction such as alcoholism or drug addiction, but it was compulsive and endangering her sanity. It required what might be called innovative emergence.
She had been rejected by a man she loved, or at least it felt like love to her. She took it hard. They had been an extremely erotic couple. She was introspective and intense but loved to laugh; he was wild, a playful chameleon who adored playing sex games. They were a great lustful fit. Once their honeymoon phase ended, he was ready to move on. He would disappear for days without warning, then turn up unexpectedly with a new sex toy. His behavior was crushingly hurtful. Olivia was going quietly out of control.
She began stalking him at all hours, even driving by his house at four in the morning to see if the light was on. She wasn’t getting any sleep and as her jobs were freelance, she was highly dependent on making a great first impression. However, now she was looking like hell as she’d go in bleary-eyed to meet with her prospects. She felt she was going mad, but couldn’t do anything about it.
For a newbie lover, there’s the risk of falling in too deep; and until we make sense of our needs and wants, it’s doubtful we’ll learn how we communicate and behave. There is always a dynamic that plays upon two distinct categories of need in a pair of lustful lovers. In the first category — which defines Olivia — there is a terror of abandonment coupled with a high that comes of being wooed and seduced. In the second category — that of Olivia’s lover– there is an almost obsessive attraction to the neediness and vulnerability of someone like Olivia. She, on the other hand, coming from a strict religious upbringing, feels the pleasure of being “a bad girl.” Their relationship becomes a dance in which her need translates into jealousy and anger while for him the exciting terror is not fear of abandonment but of being overwhelmed by her need.
One lover fears being left, the other fears being devoured. This can be a turbulent cycle, and as Olivia discovered, even possibly lethal.
I took her predicament very seriously. “You’re going mad,” I told her straight out. If she didn’t pull out of this tailspin, she might break down altogether and be carted off. I was serious!
Smart and sharp a soul that she was, she agreed, but told me she felt helpless. “I don’t know how to stop.”
Someone else may have scolded her, threatened or shamed her over stalking. My attitude was, that’s her indulgence and it cannot be stopped: Let her act upon the impulse, but improve her strategy by giving her a healthier new action. If anything, this was a pre-step to get her into therapy.
First, I sat her down, put on music. “Close your eyes and picture him,” I said. “What is the light like in the room where he is? What do the floorboards feel like under his feet? Is he with anybody?”
Olivia was open to such suggestion and complied. She stayed sitting there, eyes shut, and projected herself toward him in her imagination. She was stalking him in her mind now, but in a way, that did not step over a boundary nor put herself at risk in terms of exposure or well-being.
You may call what I proposed an insane suggestion. But it worked. It provided a stage where there was protection. The more she stalked in her mind, the less she felt the need to do so in reality. Her obsession died quietly in her armchair over a series of nights with a glass of merlot and the blinds drawn.
Although Olivia’s is a particularly grey story, we need to be aware that our deepest sexual fantasies can interfere in our hunt for that ideal partner. This is the most dangerous aspect of our searches.
Love doesn’t exclude lust, just the opposite. Because the passion it can inspire cuts directly past all our layers of polite social disguises. The pleasure can be all consuming and the danger is that we will put its gratifications ahead of our own survival.
If we exclude everything that is not love, what are we left with? If erotic love is not a selfish act, then the core of true love must be about giving.