what your therapist really thinks

‘I Found the Perfect Woman — Except for One Problem’

Illustration: Eugenia Loli

Dear Therapist,

After ten years exclusively short-term dating (primarily due to my inability to choose a partner that I’m sufficiently impressed with) I’ve finally found the one. As cliché as it sounds, everything is perfect. I’m thrilled and happy and we’re already talking about moving in because we “just know.” Except one thing … she has VERY strong feelings about not having children.

Do I want kids? Maybe? Probably, I guess. It’s definitely not a deal-breaker right now. But perhaps that’s only because in my head I think she’ll change her mind.

But what if she doesn’t? Can I accept that my line ends with me? We’ll live a spectacular rich and famous child-free life, to be sure. But then that’s it. No birthdays, graduations, weddings, grandkids. Is it absurd to cross my fingers that she changes her opinion on the subject? Is it unfair to plan on giving the occasional nudge over the course of our next few years and hope she feels the pull of maternity? If I fail, will I forever be disappointed (or worse, resentful) that the love of my life disdains the concept of procreation? Or will I accept it and find sufficient solace in being an uncle, mentor, friend, teacher, pet owner? In my mind it’s her or eternal bachelorhood, with the slight possibility of finding a second unicorn when I’m 60.

So I’m in … right?

Signed, Smitten

Dear Smitten,

There’s a saying among therapists: If you keep banging your head against a wall while trying to find an answer to your question, rotate the question. Tilt it slightly to the side, turn it upside down, and that rotated question will lead you to your answer.

So let me help you rotate your question, Smitten. When I was studying for my board exams, I practiced by going through hundreds of sample cases that looked a lot like what you sent in — a short scenario. On the test itself, we’d get only a few minutes to assess each case. So, to get through the exam, we were taught to “circle what stands out immediately.” Our task was to parse the relevant nuggets from the potentially distracting material. That way, we could get beyond the “content” — the story that the patient tells — and focus on the “process,” the underlying dynamics that might inform the patient’s problem. The patient would likely be unaware of these dynamics, because most of us tend to believe that our problems are circumstantial, situational, and above all, external to us. But these dynamics were, at least on the exam, often the map that led to the answer. At the time, I thought this was simply a test-taking strategy, but soon I discovered how useful it is in real life, too.

I’ve got circles all over your letter, Smitten.

Here’s circle No. 1: You say that for the past decade, you haven’t been able to find a partner you were “sufficiently impressed with.” What does “impressive” mean to you — accomplished, warm, attractive, intelligent, witty, a dollop of quirky? Statistically speaking, if you’re young enough to be contemplating parenthood, there are plenty of single women around with these qualities, particularly in the “rich and famous” circle you seem to travel in. Maybe a relationship with any of them wouldn’t lead to marriage, but in a ten-year span, there should be enough to choose from to get something going for more than the short-term. Why is it so hard to impress you? Your bar may be high, but even very impressive people — like Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and, I don’t know, George Clooney — manage to find sufficiently impressive partners for more than the short-term. Which leads me to …

Circle No. 2: At long last, you say, you’ve found somebody sufficiently impressive, and “everything is perfect.” Great! Oh, wait, except for one thing. I’ll call this the perfect-except paradox. You present your dilemma as, “She’s perfect, except for X,” where X equals your girlfriend’s views on having kids. But I think the real issue is this: “She’s perfect, because of X.”

Let me explain. If I asked you why you fell in love with your girlfriend, I’m sure you’d give many reasons: she’s impressive (of course), she’s witty, you both love sushi, she does that adorable thing with her hair when she’s embarrassed, whatever. But that’s your conscious brain talking. In fact, the reason most of us fall in love with our partners is because our unconscious brain, the brain mapped out in childhood and now pulling the strings of our adult minds, recognizes aspects of our moms or dads or whoever cared for us growing up. Some of these are positive qualities, and some are qualities that hurt us deeply (even if our parents didn’t mean to; humans are complex and no parent is perfect).

Now, when the unconscious brain registers these qualities in a potential partner, it gets so excited it can barely contain itself. It screams, Wait, you seem familiar … come closer! Because the familiar feels like home. And if what felt like home growing up was warm and stable and reliable and emotionally aligned, you’ll gravitate in that direction. But if it wasn’t, these people will feel foreign to you, and you won’t be attracted to them (or, perhaps, “sufficiently impressed” by them). Instead, like moth to flame, you’ll be drawn to something familiar that you aren’t even aware of, and when you find it, BOOM! You’re home! So what if home made you feel edgy or confused or unseen? No matter, because this time, your unconscious imagines, maybe there can be a re-do. Maybe whatever hurt me earlier can be healed with this fantastic familiar-but-new person with whom I also want to have sex twice a day!

On the surface, of course, your girlfriend might seem nothing like your parents. She might even seem like their exact opposite, because your conscious brain has said, “I had a critical mother and a distant father, so I’m not going to choose a partner with either of those qualities.” But it’s striking how sneaky our childhood brains are, because they operate outside of our awareness. In fact, your unconscious brain is rather ingenious. Not only does it have radar for choosing the exact person who will stir up uncomfortable feelings from childhood, but it simultaneously signals “DANGER!” and protects you from getting too close to the person who will stir you up in this way.

It’s like having a love-hate relationship with, well, love. Not just the getting hurt part, but the being loved part. For some people, being loved (which feels unfamiliar to them) can be even more painful than getting hurt (which feels familiar, like home). We’re all cautious to some extent, but based on your decade of no long-term relationships, I’m guessing that a loving experience is something you both crave and avoid at the same time. The ambivalence you have about fatherhood likely pales in comparison to the ambivalence you have about love. So, understandably, you write in and say, Hey, I’m not sufficiently impressed with the thousands of single women out there in my city, and the ONE TIME IN A DECADE that I am, there’s a Big Issue, but if I don’t pick her, it will be impossible to find anybody else before I’m 60 (again, circle No. 1) because I’m looking for a unicorn.

Your childhood brain has done a brilliant job of protecting you: The only person I can be with is somebody I can’t actually be with. Your girlfriend is “the one” precisely because of this ace in the hole, this escape hatch. What your unconscious brain “just knows” is that your girlfriend stirs up something very strong and visceral in you, which makes your conscious brain believe that she’s The One. Except. You’re “thrilled and happy” and everything feels perfect right now precisely because the “except” is there. If the except weren’t there, my guess is that you’d find something else, a new “except” — or she wouldn’t have made it past the screening process in the first place.

Here’s circle No. 3: I know that you feel “thrilled and happy,” but what is it like to be in a relationship where you and “the love of your life” have avoided having a candid conversation about a significant long-term compatibility issue? You say that she “disdains the concept of procreation” — not just that she doesn’t want kids, but that she disdains the very idea of having them. When she says this, do you hide from her the fact that you “maybe” or “probably” want kids and worry that you might feel resentful about not having had any later on? Have you asked how she feels about being with a guy who might enjoy doing the very thing that she finds disdainful? If you can’t express yourself openly and directly, if you have to conceal important parts of yourself from her, if your way of dealing with an issue together is to “give a nudge” to your partner and hope that she’ll have a personality transplant, I wonder about the depth of emotional communion you believe you two share.

Right now, Smitten, you don’t need to know if you want to be a father one day, or whether your girlfriend might change her mind. You need to know something else, something much more relevant to your future happiness.

You asked, “So I’m in … right?” Here’s the rotated question: “Why are love and connection so painful for me?” When you can answer that, you’ll know pretty clearly whether or not you’re in.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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I Found the Perfect Woman — Except for One Problem