A Simple Ecology

Before Andrew arrives for his next session, I prepare myself in a way that I haven’t done since my first years in private practice. I thoroughly wash my hands, scrubbing them as if I were a surgeon preparing for an operation. I elaborately shake the water off of them, every last drop. This is a ritual I learned from a supervisor during an internship, the idea being to enact an observance that makes conscious the need to clear the mind of the last patient, so you can be “without memory and without desire” for the next one.

Why, I wonder, do I need to prepare my self, to ritually clean myself, for this man?

I am receiving Andrew today in a continued, even heightened state of ambivalence. I look at my file and see I have assigned him with the benign diagnosis of Unspecified Adjustment Disorder for insurance purposes. Just as quickly I am gripped by a disquieting thought: How can I resolve my own unspecified adjustment disorder to him in time to really help him?

Andrew arrives on time for his appointment. When he sits down, he looks first at the display case full of the gifts from former patients and then out the window, at the wide-open view of sky and ocean. The Yin and the Yang of his new little world here in this office? Entrapment (stuffed monkey in a display case) and freedom (the unbridled sky over the Pacific Ocean)? And there was also the man on the roof who brought up concern in Andrew: The price of freedom?

I keep all of these thoughts as silent interpretations; I say nothing. He looks at me and smiles. Then he looks back out the window, toward the Center Tower Building. The man is still missing from the rooftop. I follow his gaze as I ask him, “What would you like to talk about today?”

“I’ve been thinking about the man on the roof.”

“Yes?”

He looks back at me. “I just hope he is okay.”

“Would you like to talk about him?”

“I guess I’m here to talk about other things.”

He pulls what looks like the paperback version of my book out of his bag. We both look at it. Winning at the Game of Love: Ten Surefire Strategies. My ticket to fame and fortune. And the bane of my existence.

The problem with writing a book where you presume to tell others what they should do is that you are bound by it forever more. And then there is the strange incarceration that comes with being deemed the "Authority of Amour,” as one reviewer mockingly referred to me. What should I have expected for having the arrogance to write a book that distills love down into ten simple formulas that don't tax the reader's ability to think. I have this strange feeling that I am being threatened by the book Andrew is holding in his hand, as if confronting me with some evidence of my misdeeds.

“You’ve read it,” I say.

“Yes, the night after our last session. I was curious.”

“How so?”

“I thought maybe you weren’t buying how I saw falling in love with Cara, like you thought there was another way to look at it, like I was being overly romantic, guilty of projecting, or something.”

“You thought I disapproved of you, then.”

“No, not exactly. But I did think that you thought there was another way to look at it. So I read your book.”

“And what did you find there?”

“That you do have a very different way of looking at things. For example, you say...” He opens the book and starts flipping pages. “Here, in your first chapter, or strategy, as you call it, you say, ‘When you walk into a room and see someone that you are attracted to, do not immediately go up to her. Signal her that you are aware of her presence but that is all. Let the tension build. Glance at her across the room, make eye contact, and then break it. Always be the first to break it.’” He looks up at me.

“And how do you see this as at odds with what you were saying last session?”

“When I met Cara, the whole reason I believe it worked was because I didn’t strategize it.”

“But she did. The bet and the purse.”

“Yes, but the point is that I didn’t counter that with any move. I stayed open to what was happening. That was the whole thing that I did differently. According to your book, I should have not gone over to her house that night to return the purse. I should have held back or done something to make her worry.”

“Tension. That’s what I say in the book, build the tension.”

“Still, I don’t understand that. If there is attraction, if you are truly turned on by the other person, isn’t that tension enough?” he asks.

I don't say anything; I am beginning to resent this inner call to defend my thesis.

He flips through the book until he finds a page with a marker in it. “Here it is. This struck me as...well, I guess I just didn’t understand it.” He reads, “'The world of relationships can become chaotic. We must learn to control it by predicting outcomes.’”

He looks at me. I am feeling challenged but trying hard not to show it. I say, “I am quite willing to respond to that but since this is therapy and not some colloquium on relationships, perhaps we can ground this more in your experience.”

He stops and glances at the window, looking like he wants to return there and the stories that those views suggest.

“Andrew,” I prompt. “Is there something on your mind?”

He focuses eventually. “Yes. I suppose there is something I am thinking about.” He looks at me, seemingly not sure how to proceed. I wait and eventually he begins:

“There was something that happened last week...it’s, I don’t know, hard to...”

He is unusually stymied; perhaps he is having trouble deciphering his feelings. That could explain his typically male diversion of challenging me instead of talking about what is hurting or confusing him.

“Andrew, it seems you are having a hard time with something. Maybe you could just tell me what happened, and then we can figure out what it is all about.”

He looks relieved. “Okay. I can do that. Let’s see. It was last Thursday, kind of a normal day. Cara works from home doing her graphic art gig, and I had a complicated sound installation job at a big house in the Palisades. So it’s pasta night, which is her thing, just kind of one of those rituals that we have gotten used to. I bring home the wine, she makes the pasta. When I got home that night, she was in the kitchen, apron on, glass of white wine nearby, humming some goofy song from the eighties—a regular Martha Stewart only sexier. So I am thinking this is good, a good night, and one that will probably end in some good loving. I go up and hug her from behind, showing her the bottle of wine I brought, which was a great super Tuscan that my favorite wine store geek recommended, and I kiss her elaborately on the neck.”

I get the feeling he is avoiding something with all of this unnecessary detail. “Yes,” I say, “And what happened?”

“Nothing then. I helped chopped vegetables, and we chatted about our day in this really easy way, like we usually do. It always feels like foreplay to me, these times of easy camaraderie. It’s a calm before the delicious storm of sex.”

“Yes?” I prompt, still thinking he is avoiding something.

He takes a deep breath. “We sit down to dinner; it’s a simple penne with her rich plum tomato sauce. All was good. Then, without warning, sort of after she asked me to pass the pepper grinder, she told me that she had an abortion that morning.”

He looks down at his hands in his lap. “I feel so bad about it.”

“Yes, it is unfair to you.”

He looks up at me, surprised. “Cara. I feel bad for her.”

Immediately I realize I have made a mistake. My mind automatically turns to Why? Why would I immediately take sides with him against his fiancée when the therapeutic thing to do would be to hold his feelings, so he can explore them?

But just as reflexively, I plunge forward: “Andrew, your fiancée just destroyed your child without even consulting you.”

He looks at me, probably wondering why I am so intense. “Doc, first of all, I don’t see it that way. I don’t see her as ‘destroying’ anything, and I don’t see a six-week-old fetus as a child. It’s her body, and it’s her choice.”

This sobers me. “Yes, of course. I also believe in a woman’s right to choose; I’m not on the other side of the fence there.” I pause, trying to get my grounding. “I just...I don’t know...it strikes me as a relationship issue, something important to be dealt with together. How do you feel about her being so casual about it?”

The color drains from his face. After a moment, he says, “I am confused about this. It’s like the political side of me—pro choice and all that—and the other side, the ‘man side’ I guess you could say… it all kind of gets messed up.”

“Say more about the man side.”

“What can I say? It’s a man thing? No, that wouldn’t be right. But it is an entitlement thing. Isn’t that what you would call it?”

“I don’t know. What do you mean by that?”

“We did create this life together!” Now he is passionate, color returning to his face. “I mean we’re engaged. It’s not like I’m some one-night stand. It could have been a choice for us to have the baby, to start our family.”

“And she took that choice away from you.”

He gets up from his chair and goes to stand by the window. With his back to me, he says, “I didn’t really handle it very well.”

I wait. He turns to face me; “I think it was the casual way she told me, as if she were telling me about picking up the dry cleaning that day. I’m not usually physical when I'm angry, but something snapped in me. Before I even realized it, I jumped up and somehow knocked some of the dishes off the table. It was the kind of thing you see in the movies.”

He goes back to the couch and plops down, still agitated.

“You were angry, perhaps feeling usurped,” I say.

“Yes, that, but it’s more complicated. The dishes, food, and everything made a terrible mess. I think we were both shocked. I know I was. But then Cara started laughing. At first it sounded eerie and kind of thin, but it soon escalated, and then it sounded hysterical and haunting. It was like I was in one of those Alfred Hitchcock movies, with the guy in an echo chamber in his own mind, being taunted by a mocking laugh.”

He stops and looks at me. I nod for him to continue.

“I saw red. I can’t even remember what I said, but I laid into her, telling her she had no right to do what she did without talking to me, that she was unfeeling, only thinking of herself. I even said something horrible like it was probably for the best because she would have been a terrible mother. I lost my shit and the whole time, she just looked at me with this increasingly smug smile, almost as if she were satisfied, like she was getting exactly what she wanted.”

“What do you think she wanted?” I ask.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Perhaps she found some satisfaction in you ‘losing your shit.’”

“I don’t get it!”

“Perhaps it put you on a level playing field, in her mind at least. She isn’t the only one who loses it.”

“I did feel like she was triumphing, when she looked at me that way.” He seems to shake off this thought, and then continues, “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I stormed out of the house. When I was younger I would have headed for the first dive bar and done shots with whomever was sitting there. But this night, I drove down to the beach and walked for miles, trying to get my head straight.”

“How did that work out for you?”

“I calmed down eventually and drove back to the apartment. When I came in, she was sitting in front of that damned Frieda Kahlo thing, tears streaming down her face. Something immediately shifted in me. I could see she was in pain. I could sense that all that had come before—the casualness, the stupid laughter—it was all some kind of way to ignore the pain of choosing abortion. I got out of my own loss, and myself and went to her. We sat there most of the night, together, silently sharing all of it.”

“Did she ever say why she did it? Why she unilaterally decided to have the abortion?

“I asked her, but she didn’t answer. Later, out of the blue she told me, ‘Ever since I can remember, I never knew love without terror. They were always intermingled. My wires just got crossed.’”

We sit with this for a few moments, then I say, “I think she was giving you an answer.”

He nods. But something else is on his mind. “What is it, Andrew?” I ask.

“There’s more.”

“Go on.”

“The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I went back and forth between anger and sadness and feeling so sorry for myself and then for Cara. I was still working on this big house project under a deadline, but I took some time to go shopping, looking for something to give her, something that would bring her comfort, maybe help with her grief. I probably wasn’t thinking straight, but I brought her home this beautiful baby doll. She was asleep when I finally got home after eleven. She looked peaceful, sleeping. I was relieved, and I gently placed the doll near her on the pillow.”

Andrew gets up again from the couch and wanders over to my display case, peering in, seeming to focus on the stuffed monkey.

Andrew, with his back still to me, speaks, “When I got up the next morning, the doll was sitting by my sink in the bathroom. Its head had been ripped off.”

He comes back to the couch and sits back down, not looking at me. “It was grotesque.”

After a few moments, I ask: “What are you thinking, Andrew?”

“This happened yesterday, so I’ve had a little time to think about it. Once I got over the shock and outrage, I settled down and started thinking about fear. I was remembering what Cara had said the night before about her wires getting crossed.”

Then, he looks at me, with some emotion brewing in him. “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I sometimes feel this awful pull to take advantage of Cara when she’s afraid.”

“Take advantage—how?”

“Oh, you know, fix it for her, so I can be the big powerful guy who saves the day. It takes so much more effort—courage, I guess—to just sit with her with all her twitches and all of those goblins in her closet.”

“Andrew, you seem sad when you say that.”

“Sometimes I just don’t think I have it in me to really get it, to really see how powerful I can truly be with Cara by simply being with her, by helping her to not feel so alone.”

“Is that what she was experiencing after the abortion? Afraid and alone?”

“I always have the feeling that she is all alone in the world. And it is my job to, to...I don’t know, keep her company.”

“Maybe what you are saying is that you understand the importance of availability.”

He looks at my quizzically. I continue: “That’s how many women feel loved, through the availability of their mate.”

“I’m confused, Doc.”

“Why is that?”

He picks up my book and finds another marked passage. Why am I always feeling like I am about to be caught when he picks up that book?

“Well...in here, you say, ‘Be available. But not too available. Chances are she had an unavailable father. Too much availability might overwhelm her, make her suspicious, and bore her. Try going away for the weekend...without her! Do something with the boys. Make sure it is a manly thing. Women love men who do manly things.’” He looks up at me, smiling. “So according to your book, I should go to Alaska fishing with my buddies instead of staying home and letting her know I am there no matter what.”

“You seem to have other ideas.”

“Well, if I don’t give into Cara’s fear thing, and I succeed in seeing her as a scared little girl who just looks like a big scary grownup woman, then I would do what you would do with your child, like soothing and reassurance, right?

“And what if this ‘little girl’ of yours is throwing a tantrum, what if she doesn’t have words to tell you what’s scaring her?”

“First I’d make sure there weren’t any loaded assault rifles in the house. Then I would remind myself that she is not a demon sent up from hell to torture me, just a scared little kid who needs to feel more secure, so that she can tell me what’s really going on.”

“Your little jokes about assault rifles and demons lead me to wonder if you aren’t still feeling a bit on the defensive in this situation.”

“Am I? Is that how I sound?”

Or is it me who is feeling defensive? Why is it that I have a hard time accepting this man’s need to stay intimate and connected with this challenging woman?

“I don’t know Andrew. You tell me how you are feeling.”

“I’m feeling for her, how it must have been for her to have chosen to rid her body of a potential life growing inside her, how desperate and scared she must have been.”

“You’re feeling empathic.”

“It’s the only way I know to step aside from my own need to defend myself.”

He is making a good point. I say, “The whole situation does look differently from just this small shift of perspective. If you empathize, you are automatically shifting yourself out of the defensive posture that is the place from which we all wage battle. You stop defending your turf or your ego.”

Andrew replies, with that thoughtful look in his eyes that I am coming to know well, “Yes, I get it, but I’m still having trouble getting there. No matter what I do, even the empathy thing, it doesn’t seem to calm her.”

“Perhaps she doesn't have the psychological-neurological pathways to know how to be calm in the confines of an intimate relationship.”

Andrew furrows his brow. "I don't know what that means. But I do know, after my last relationship failed, I realized I had better stop my own complaining about what was tragically flawed in my women and figure out what it was that she may have not gotten from her parents and, once I figured that out, I would have to decide if I could live with that. And, if I decide that I could live with whatever problems came from that, then I would have to commit myself to this as an issue in my life, not just something that was hers.”

“Maybe you should sign up for my job. You’re sounding more like a therapist than a boyfriend.”

He laughs at this but then shifts as he gazes out the window:

“Before I came here I was at the gym. I keep thinking about this older man I saw in the shower room.” He stops and looks at me.

“Go on.”

“I was standing next to him, letting the water run down my back, looking at the floor, and lost in my own thoughts, when I happened to see his toenails. They were really long and kind of tobacco colored and thickened. A couple of them even curled over. It made me really sad to see those old ugly toenails. I started spinning a story in my head about him. It seemed to me that he must live alone. That there was no one who loved him or touched his body or cared for him. If he had someone who loved him, surely they would have offered to cut his nails? It would have given that person pleasure to do that. I looked over at the man and smiled at some point. He nodded to me and then turned away. He was obviously uncomfortable with me looking at him. I noticed he had a wedding ring on. Now that I realized he was married, I started imagining that his wife had become angry with him, maybe over an affair or over a lifetime of neglect. Somehow they had stopped being generous to each other, doing little things that were simple and caring. One day she probably noticed that his toenails were long and disgusting, but she refused to do anything about it. She refused to see that he had stopped feeling good about himself and that’s why he had stopped making the effort to bend over and cut his own toenails. She didn’t notice how he no longer felt loved. She only noticed her own indignation. She now reveled in his disgusting feet because they confirmed to her how horrible and unlovable he was. It confirmed and justified her own unloving behavior.”

I am struck by his empathy and by the common tragedy of this story.

He continues: “After I left the gym, I started thinking about how we always have a choice between fear and no fear. Maybe Cara doesn’t know this, but for me that thought was liberating. When I saw that headless doll, it scared me. I guess when I get scared, I get angry. Strangely, I wanted to rip Cara’s head off, but I calmed down, and that’s when I realized that if the woman I love is hurt, then that is the only reality that matters. Of course, there are dual realities here—hers and mine. She has her version, and I have all the reasons and justifications for mine. But the only reality that needs attention here is that someone I love is hurting! You know?”

“Yes, I understand.”

“There has been a big pile of shit accumulating in our relationship lately, and we can still add to it or not. We have a choice.”

“Yes, I get it. You can choose to add to the pile or start composting it.”

“That’s right! Like ecology.”

“It’s easy to forget that love made the two of you into this...this interlocking system.”

He leans forward. “Yes. That makes sense to me. Love is a simple ecology. When it works, it is simple. I see my job as simply to make her feel loved. If she feels loved, then chances are she will act better. She could be more generous. She wouldn’t be afraid to give more to me. Her fear would lessen. Have you ever known a stingy person who wasn’t afraid? She will love better in return. Simple.”

“So, it’s an inverse relationship that you are proposing. The more love, the less fear. The more fear, the less love.”

"Yes, that sounds right to me. When you’re committed to loving someone, then things just naturally and ultimately work in balance. This is the way I’ve been trying to look at it with Cara. I have nothing to lose, only everything to gain by being generous with her. And, what’s more, I can do all of this without measure because all gifts I give to her will impart value to the whole, which is our relationship.”

"No zero-sum game for you."

“Well, I know that I don’t want to become like that wife, the one I dreamed up for the old man in the shower.”

“How do you mean that?”

“I don’t want to fall into that awful habit of becoming blind to her, like all those guys who stop looking at their women because they’ve decided that they are just impossible and can’t be satisfied. If I start doing that, next thing you know, I’ll be refusing to cut her toenails.”

“That can be hard for some of us to do...sometimes,” I say.

Andrew ignores this ridiculous intrusion of my own despair. “That’s where that idea about ecology comes in to play, don’t you think? I need to go to her fully invested in the concept that we are both part of the same system, the same ecology, and I need to find out what’s going on with her and why she got so scared about keeping a baby. If I can find out what she's missing from me and find some way to give that to her, that may restore her balance. And, according to this ecology idea, that would restore balance to our relationship!”

I am struck by his enthusiasm, as if he had just gleaned the epiphany he has needed to succeed in his relationship. Yet, despite my silent acknowledgement of his spirited endorsement of these sentiments, I feel strangely compelled to get out my psychological hose:

“When we are too afraid to learn about what surprising things love has to offer us, we start referring everything back to our deepest, most unconscious beliefs.”

He looks at me strangely. “What does that mean?”

“I am thinking of what Cara told you, that she entangles terror with love. If deep down she truly believes that she doesn’t deserve love or that it will bring her terror, then she will most likely need to test her world, especially her most intimate partner, in such a relentless way as to confirm this unconscious belief. ‘See? There goes that one...this one didn’t work out...he couldn’t love me.’”

He picks up my book and flips through it until he finds a page. He looks at me. “Doc, I understand that, but what I don’t get is this. You seem to be saying that Cara would rather control her world by predicting its outcomes. And you seem to also be saying that this is not a good thing for a relationship. And yet here...” He holds up the book to me, pointing to a page, and then he reads from it: “‘Predicting the outcomes is the smartest way of managing a relationship and getting what you want. Learn the science of a woman’s response to matters of the heart. She is highly predictable.’”

I feel trapped; my mind gets foggy. “Yes?” is all I say.

A big grin spreads over Andrew’s face. “Hey, Doc, I was just having some fun with you.”

I stand up, perhaps a bit too quickly. “Then it is probably a good thing for me that our time is up,” I say, trying my best to look good humored.

He stands up, shakes my hand, and walks over to the door but pauses and peers more closely into the display case holding the artifacts of my tenure as a psychotherapist. Looking at me, he points to the small stuffed white monkey with a striped bow tie. “Doc, does this little fella have a name?”

“If that is a serious question, we can explore it further next week, Andrew.”

“Sure thing, Doc. See you next week,” he says as he closes the door behind him.

I go over to the case and look at the monkey. He does have a name. Manny.