My friend asked the question out of the blue. I was spending the night with my friend, Larry, and I was lying on a twin bed in the corner of his room.
“What do you think about your mom being gone?” he asked.
It didn’t strike me as a difficult or important question, but something about the experience has burned everything about it into my memory. I was about 10 or 11 years old. Although my mother had been away from us off and on for years, the divorce had been final only for a year or two. She had no custody or official visitation.
I considered Larry’s question for a long moment. I felt very cold. Very hard. There was no emotion in my voice.
“I couldn’t care less if she moved to the Sahara Desert,” I said.
That’s all I said and Larry didn’t ask any more. It’s a good thing, because I might have cried if he had pushed to know what I meant. I was confused. I couldn’t tell if I felt nothing or if I felt more than I could handle. I swept the feelings under a rug in my heart — and I left them there.
I’ve talked before about losing my mother — to manic-depression and to abandonment — when I was young. She first tried to leave my father when I was about 5 and my sisters were about 3 and 1. The first couple of times she left, she took us with her. Eventually, she concluded she couldn’t leave and take us, too, so she left us behind.
She was in and out of our lives — living with us for weeks or maybe months, but then gone for more weeks or months — and we never knew what to expect. I was relieved when they divorced, because I thought I might at least have some stability. I was mistaken.
I thought I adjusted to her absence very nicely. In fact, I thought we were better off without her. After she tried to get one of my sisters to come live with her — when I was about 15 or so — I called her on the phone and told her very curtly to leave us alone.
“You’ve done enough damage already,” I told her. “You’re not going to take away the family I have left.”
It wasn’t until I was in college that I started trying to process the confused feelings about her that I had left buried. And it was many more years until I realized the degree to which I was affected by losing her. But slowly, even I couldn’t miss the obvious effect that her loss had had on my romantic relationships with women.
It took me a long time to piece this together — and I had the help of a good psychologist — but I eventually realized that losing her made me fear that any woman I loved would abandon me.
Because I didn’t have another woman to take her place when I was young, I came to unconsciously associate love with a painful longing for someone I couldn’t have.
A psychologist told me about 10 years ago that I almost certainly wouldn’t have had the same experience if I had been able to transfer my need and my desire for a mother figure to someone else at a fairly young age. But because there was no one else, I learned an unhealthy pattern connected with love — one of pain and fear and loss and longing.
In a couple of key romantic relationships — only the most important ones — I have tried to replay that old script. When I first discussed this issue with the psychologist, I was afraid this meant I didn’t really understand how to love in a healthy way, but the therapist said that wasn’t the issue.
“Oh, you love her very deeply,” she told me of the first woman with whom this happened. “It’s real love. You’re not wanting her to be your mother. But there’s something in you that thinks if you can win her back, it will finally be like winning the love of your mother.”
I was stunned to realize she was right.
I’ve come to understand that I have very clear instincts about who to love, but I don’t know when to let go of someone who’s not going to give me what I need. On some unconscious level, I’m running an old script. I’m feeling the painful longing for a love which I can’t have — and I think that if I can just get this one woman to love me, that ghost from the past will finally die.
I will finally be able to feel that I’m worthy of love.
It’s hard for many of us to consciously understand how strongly we’re affected by some of the losses we suffer. Especially when it comes to a relationship as key as the one with our opposite-sex parent, our romantic relationships are almost certain to show a powerful effect. Even though I know that today — on a conscious level — the pull of painful longing is more than I know how to deal with. Even though I know I’m playing out one of the oldest emotional scripts of my life, I keep playing the part — and hoping that I’ll find love instead of confusing rejection.
The very fact that I do this says pretty powerfully that the old wound hasn’t healed. What’s more, I know from experience and from study that we tend to be attracted to people who are just as wounded as we are. Could I unconsciously be choosing to fall in love with someone who will reject me — to play out the hurt that feels so familiar? Maybe.
While we all think we’re making rational decisions about what we want and about what’s good for the people we love, we’re acting in ways that are consistent with our fears — about abandonment, about loss, about fear, about pain.
I feel as though there’s a part of me that’s hiding from the world — just as I was hiding in that picture above when I was a little boy. If you think about it, I was hiding but I was sticking my head out and making myself visible to my mother in a way that said, “Please find me.”
I wanted for love to find me. I needed for love to find me. I needed for love to say, “I love you so much that nothing can take me away from you.”
As an adult several decades later, I’m still doing the same thing. I’m still longing to be chosen — to be found, to be adored, to be loved.
It seems as though I’m going to keep on replaying this old and painful story — either until someone loves me and choses to stay or else I run out of time in life and it’s too late.