In previous posts, I addressed the relationship between sexual difficulties and such powerful negative emotions as guilt, shame, and rage. I briefly addressed the emotion of grief in this article, but I also wanted to take the opportunity to expand on the ways in which grief affects sexual functioning, particularly because it is such a prevalent experience for so many people.
When we experience grief, inevitably we are dealing with some kind of a loss. Grief is the emotional response to loss. Typically, we may think of the loss of a loved one, but loss doesn’t just have to be about the death of a person– it could be about the death of an idea, a hope, a dream, an identity, and so on. In many ways, grief is a normative process in human development. We’ve all had to (or will have to) grieve the loss of childhood dreams and opportunities; we have to accept that we will never be an astronaut or professional ball player. And we also have to grieve the natural effects of the aging process– we cannot stay young and keep our looks and health forever. So grief is an inevitable experience for all of us in one way or another. We cannot escape it. But there is also a large gap between this kind of normative grief and the unresolved, perhaps pathological, grief that causes long-term difficulties.
When grief becomes unresolved it is typically because an individual is stricken with grief but does not allow him or herself to fully experience it. Essentially, the person is afraid to experience the grief, and develops something resembling a phobic response to the possibility of ever having to experience it at some point in the future. The ramifications of this deep-seated fear of grief can manifest in pervasive long-term difficulties for the individual, particularly in the area of forming and maintaining relationships.
If an earlier formative relationship that was painful or did not end well is not fully grieved, it often feels difficult to form healthier and happier relationships in the future. This is because, paradoxically, forming a new, healthy relationship threatens to provoke a fresh round of grief because it is a stark contrast and harsh reminder of what was painfully wrong in the earlier relationship. In other words, newfound happiness often provokes grief because it forces us to face what had been missing all along. It is only by facing this grief head-on do we allow ourselves to finally bury the past and make new, fresh choices moving forward.
Let’s take a look at a few specific examples. For most people, their earliest relationship experiences in life are with their parents, or with some other kind of caregiver. These early relationship experiences are so crucial that they form the foundation of how we view and interpret all future relationships in life. It is almost like a wheel of fortune, in that it is pure luck whether our early relationship experiences are felt as warm, safe and nurturing, or as chaotic, confusing and dangerous. And this pure luck depends on the well-being and emotional stability of these early relational figures. In other words, we have no control over the nature of these early relationships, even though we may often end up feeling guilty and responsible in hindsight. As children, we don’t have the ability to change our environment or to even have a realistic, multi-dimensional understanding of the situation. The child experiences the pain and hopelessness of a less than ideal relationship but has no idea what to do about it except to blame itself.
And herein lies the heart of the matter: if it is our human nature to bear the brunt of the responsibility for the pain of early relationships, it is also in our human nature to (even if irrationally and/or unconsciously) believe that, if given a second chance, we could make things right. So, a typical example of this scenario is when an individual takes on a partner that is reminiscent of his or her mother/father– the same personality traits, the same behavior, and so on. On some unconscious level the person feels that, if only this new partner could be straightened out, it would make right all of the wrongs of the past. In this way, the individual never has to grieve that the first relationship is dead and buried, never to be revived again. Instead, it feels alive, like it is happening in real time all over again. And so, the old relationship never needs to be buried– it lives on in perpetuity through each successive relationship. Freud called this the “repetition compulsion.”
Another scenario is that instead of repeating the same relationship themes over and over, the individual just shuns all relationships at all for fear of reviving old pangs of grief. If the individual never gets close to another person, he or she never has to experience the same old hurts of disappointment, rejection, and inevitable abandonment. But, by doing so, this individual never gives him or herself the chance to heal these old wounds through new, corrective emotional experiences. Nothing wagered, nothing earned. So, in this case, protecting oneself from pain only serves to reinforce it.
For those with old relational trauma, grief is a very painful and formative emotion that must eventually be faced in order to pave the way for new relational experiences. Those with unresolved grief may either shun all close intimate relationships entirely or find themselves on a continuous hamster wheel of identically themed relationships that all resemble each other. As a therapist, it is my role sometimes to gently help people gradually face the painful emotions that they have been avoiding for years, so that they can finally master them instead of being in their control.