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Freudian Psychology

Why Do We Choose Unsuitable Partners?

Why do so many of us choose men or women who will harm us?

Probably the first answer to this question that comes to mind is guilt. We feel guilty and want to be punished for our illicit desires. Thus we choose someone who will accomplish this, someone obviously aggressive or even cruel. Hence the fantasies of beating that Freud writes of , or other sado- masochistic fantasies which we see around us and so prevalent in certain best selling books.

There is also the problem of low self-esteem for those of us who for one reason or another ( critical parents for example) feel that we do not deserve to be treated decently.

But here I would like to suggest that sometimes it may be just the opposite. It seems to me that some of us may fear for the other ( man or woman) and thus feel he or she needs our support, our love in any circumstances, however egregious his or her behavior. We may consider that without our help, the other would disappear. As we fear abandonment, we will put up with any sort of bad behavior in order to keep a partner from leaving us, from walking out the door.

Having lost a father when we were very young ( I was seven and my sister nine) my sister and I may have felt that men were fragile, that they might easily desert us, disappear, leave not a rack behind. Perhaps we feared that without our help, without us to prop them up, bolster their self-estime, they would crumble into dust.

Why is it, after all, that so many women seem to feel they are the ones who need to ask the questions, to draw the men out, to compliment, perhaps even flatter these beings supposedly so superior and powerful but obviously needing our help at least in the art of conversation if not in their lives?

In our case too this may have been compounded by the fact that the black men around us, in apartheid South Africa, devoted people who were often close to us, the ones who had brought us up, were humiliated and treated as hardly human. We saw the menservants in our household reduced on a daily basis to the hardest and most degrading work, down on their hands and knees polishing endlessly, or carrying rocks in the garden for hours in the hot sun.

The white men around us were often dead: our father, and even the white men who were honored in our boarding school where all the dormitories were named after dead High Commissioners like Kitchener, Milner, and Athlone, as well as, of course, in our church school, the dead Jesus. The black men were humiliated and humbled. Perhaps we felt it was necessary to put up with any sort of egregious behavior in order to keep these men alive, to keep them with us, even going to far, in my sister's case, to letting her husband beat her and ultimately kill her driving a car off the road.

Sheila Kohler is the author most recently of "Dreaming for Freud."

Sheila Kohler
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