I came downstairs from my last session of the day to find Fiona sifting through a lifetime of photographs. She wanted to know how to decide what to keep and what to chuck. I didn’t have a very helpful answer. In the end, we settled on imagining that, if she were writing her life story, what would she keep and what would she leave out. I was especially concerned for the things she might have been holding onto; that might be keeping stale pains alive. It’s a worthwhile task, when the time is right. A task worth doing when you have reached a point in your life when you can look back on its pictures, letters, postcards and memories with a bit of clarity. There is always the risk of holding on to things too long and too tightly. Even to the pain in the hope of one day revisiting it to find a better understanding. Alternatively, there is the risk of letting go of things too readily, even the sense of your own resilience. As we sit with ourselves in lockdown for longer now than we would like, this sorting process might start to happen all on its own in the backdrop of our minds. Such a process can be dangerous if not met with compassion. “So often, within the privacy of our inner worlds, we take the difficult thing and make it worse. Our own subliminal hate speech coats our experience and gives an added layer of meaning to things that are already difficult enough”, warns Dr Mark Epstein.
She skips past an intimate photo of a past lover, “Oops, sorry!” It’s an unusual position to be in; to once have been your lover’s therapist. As a therapist, I got to hear her life story with somewhat impartiality. Care in the absence of judgment. Wishing for her that she would flourish without feeling threatened by that. As a lover I find myself reluctantly wanting to shrink her story just to the chapter of her and I. I inevitably want to be the most significant part of her life. In this way, we rob each other of past and future. I try and remind myself of that therapeutic love. It guards against what Irvin Yalom’s critiques as “Marriage and its entourage of possession and jealousy [that] enslave the spirit.”
By the time we were lovers, I knew more than most people would know about their partners (after even decades of being together). We are, often, more honest with one another on our first date than we are on our first wedding anniversary. Concealment of our true thoughts and feelings becomes an anxious strategy to sustain a relationship’s security. The greater the insecurity, the greater the concealment. Infidelity gets a pretty bad moral wrap, but it’s just one of many dangerous concealments. In fact, infidelity is often simply the onset of an un-concealing.
The problem with saying “I do” is that following through on this runs the risk of having to conceal too much, even from ourselves. These parts of ourselves splinter off from who we say “I am” and, as a result, parts of us go on pause. Often, for so long that we become almost unrecognisable to ourselves.
I still don’t know what to do with this picture, she asks. Well, what does it mean to you, I answered. What does it mean to me, if she keeps it, is the question I would be asking.
What is it about this need to possess? To have thing for ourselves. Stephen Batchelor argues that our need to “have” engenders an anxiety that increasingly gets in the way of our ability to “be” and estranges us from knowing who and what we are.
It’s so much more joyful to strive to “be with” you rather than to try and “have” you.