Ben is a shy, anxious, good looking man in his mid-thirties. Although we’ve working together for several months, Ben continues to feel uncomfortable around me, as he does around most women. He has difficulty looking at me directly, often staring out the window or at the floor. When I try to address his discomfort, he shakes his head, indicating his unwillingness to pursue this avenue of exploration.
Not surprisingly, Ben has never had a girlfriend, although he desperately longs for someone to be with. I’ve tried to ask if he’s ever kissed a girl, but even this feels too intrusive. I want to ask if he masturbates, but I can’t manage to get the question out of my mouth. I have, in fact, become as inhibited as Ben in our sessions – anxious, careful, not wanting to offend, not wanting to cross an unspoken boundary.
That this constrained interaction has developed between Ben and myself is not all that surprising. Ben’s parents divorced when he was five. His father, always a womanizer, saw Ben only occasionally, leaving him to the welcoming embrace of his mother, who turned to Ben for solace after the divorce. Ben became her “little man.” She hovered over him, over-protected him, and preferred that he never leave her side. She interrogated him whenever he left the house, even to go to school, particularly interested in whether he talked to or was interested in a girl. She drank more and more heavily, Ben increasingly becoming her caregiver. She died when he was in his twenties, leaving him bereft, relieved and guilt-ridden.
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” Ben says. “I go to strip clubs.”
Of course, I think, not a surprise; a “safe” way to meet women who are not easily confused with mother.
“I met this girl, Crystal,” Ben continues. “She’s different. She has kind eyes. She’s sweet, not harsh or loud like a lot of them. And she likes me. She told me she likes me. I think she even implied that she’d meet me outside the club. But I’m kind of scared to do that. I mean, I’m not sure what I’d do, what she’d expect me to do. Like would I need to pay her? I’d rather not pay her. I’d rather we went out like on a regular date. Do you think she’d do that?”
“I don’t know, Ben. I don’t know what she’d do. Can you tell me what you and Crystal have done so far?”
“What do you mean? I’ve watched her dance. She has a beautiful body, but I try not to look too much. I’ve bought her some drinks. She’s sat and talked to me. She’d had a sad life. She’s been an orphan since she was a baby and grew up in foster homes.”
I’m aware that I want to push. I want to ask Ben if he’s taken her into the back room, if he’s had sex with her, if he knows she has sex with men all the time and that she plays men like him every minute of every night. And then I’m surprised at myself, at the obvious cruelty and sadism of these unasked questions. I would be being with Ben as his mother was with him. What’s going on here?
For my part, I’m angry at Ben’s presentation of himself as a victim. Although I have tremendous compassion for the scared, vulnerable child he carries within him, I have a hard time with victims. I prefer that someone fight for themselves, fight against the odds, fight as I fought against the tyranny of my father. So that’s the part I bring to the interaction. But I think that by presenting himself as the victim, Ben is also eliciting this sadistic response from me, from his mother, from Crystal. It’s as though he’s saying, beat me, take advantage of me. It’s the only way he knew love in the past and it’s the only way he understands love today.
Too complicated for an interpretation. I say nothing. I wait.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Ben finally asks.
“How do you feel about my not saying anything?”
“I don’t know.”
I have a glimmer. “How do you feel about my not saying anything?” I repeat.
“I already said, I don’t know,” Ben says slightly raising his voice.
“It sounds like you feel angry.”
He shrugs. “Annoyed, maybe, not angry.”
So this is part of Ben’s contribution to the interaction. He plays the victim so that others will feel the anger he cannot allow himself to feel. He will be the victim, the suffering child who feels nothing but kindness and compassion while others, like myself, feel angry at his passivity.
We haven’t solved Ben’s difficulties, but I understand more and have a better handle on myself.