Twenty-seven year old Carla sits crying in my office, her eyes red, shredded tissues in her lap. “I can’t believe it happened again,” she says. “I thought Martin was different – kind, sensitive. I couldn’t imagine him being unfaithful. I don’t understand why this keeps happening to me!”
And that, I think to myself, is exactly the question. Carla is tall, attractive, shapely, smart, articulate, funny and yet Martin is the third man who’s been unfaithful to her. For the moment, however, Carla needs to deal with the immediacy of her pain.
“I thought I’d surprise him,” she continues. “Bring us Thai food for lunch. I knew he’d be writing. Or I thought he’d be writing. I didn’t even register the strange car in his driveway. Until he didn’t answer the door. I rang and rang. My stomach started to get all queasy. He finally answered in a bathrobe, tried to make some feeble excuse, but I’m not stupid. I threw the food at him and ran. I wanted to key the girl’s car as I went, but I knew that would be dumb. So here I am, betrayed again. What’s wrong with me?” she asks, beseechingly.
Odd, I muse, I had a similar experience with a man I dated 40 years ago, showing up at his door only to find him with another woman. I was both devastated and enraged. But that was a long time ago, those feelings long gone, not distracting me from my role as therapist.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you, Carla. But I do think it’s important to understand why this scenario does keep repeating. What are your thoughts?”
“I don’t know!” she responds, crying. “My parents have been together for over 40 years. I’d be shocked if my father ever cheated on my mother.”
“And your mother?” I ask.
“What!?” she says, furrowing her brow. “You’re asking if my mother ever cheated on my father?” she asks, incredulously.
“That’s impossible. My mother was the least sexual person around.”
“Is that because she’s your mother or …?”
“My mother pulled away when my father tried to be affectionate. And sometimes I could hear them arguing. He was frustrated.”
“So why are you so sure he was never unfaithful?”
“Because he wasn’t that type.”
“Obviously, Carla, I’m not saying that your father was unfaithful. I have no idea. But I do think it’s interesting that you’re so convinced he wasn’t.”
Shaking her head, she says, “My father stressed the importance of good moral values, insisted we go to church, lectured us on being good people. He’s a wonderful man.”
I’m surprised by Carla’s naiveté. I think of the people I’ve known – both men and women - who were unfaithful to their partners. Many of them were good people.
“Two questions. Do you think only “bad” men are unfaithful? And are there similarities between the men you’ve dated and your father?”
“Actually, Martin reminded me of my father. He even looks a bit like him.” She smiles uncomfortably. “You think I have an Oedipal thing going with my father?”
“What do you think?”
Carla looks out the window. After a pause she says, “My father put up with a lot from my mother. She’s difficult, demanding, cold, particularly to him. He dotes on me. I love him a lot so, yes, maybe I’m kind of in love with my father.”
Well, I think to myself, that opens up lots of possibilities. Does Carla choose unavailable men so that she can remain faithful to her father? Is her father more of a womanizer than she thinks and is she choosing men who are like her father? And if they’re like her father does the relationship feel incestuous so that she unconsciously does something to subvert it? If her mother is cold, is she choosing men like her mother to try to win in the present that which she lost in the past? Does she try to be not her mother and end up being too smothering and intense? Lots of questions, none of which will be answered today.
“How do you feel, Carla, about being kind of in love with your father and how does it affect your relationships?”
“I don’t know. Right now, all I know is that I’m sad. I’ve lost again.”
“As in you’ve lost Martin and lost your father again?”
“I haven’t lost my father,” Carla declares emphatically.
“Except that he’s with your mother, not you,” I respond gently.
“Oh, I get it. I don’t know. This has gotten too Freudian.”
“It’s time for us to stop for today, but you opened up lots of things today and I’m sure we’ll get back to them.”