Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Powerful Unconscious

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 25, 2013


Liz, fifty-six, recently suffered from her thirty-year husband’s infidelity, and subsequent divorce. She is devastated and shocked to see her “perfect marriage” end this way. Her friends, by contrast, always saw her husband as self-centered, and “not good to her,” as she reported to me, what her friends reported to her. Liz’s apparent denial of her husband’s character served her well for decades. Even though Al, her husband, was often away on business for long stretches of time, she believed that her marriage was the best thing in her life. Al would come home, spend little time with her, devoting most of his home time to his hobbies, she still managed to convince herself that Al was devoted to her. Liz can see some of her denial, in retrospect, but at the same time, she still wonders how she missed the clues. When his latest (she now believes he had many) affair was disclosed, Al had been with Eleanor for ten years. Now, Al and Eleanor are getting married, and Liz is flattened. Some days, Liz comes in to say “it is all because I am thirty pounds overweight,” as if the entirety of their marriage can be reduced to one, rather superficial issue. The need to avoid complexity comes out strongly under stress. Liz’s pressure to summarize her thirty-year marriage, in a tweet, is painful. I gently remind her that there are probably a lot of psychological factors at play, in a relationship which spanned decades and now leaves you feeling painfully confused. She agrees, but she cannot hold on to that thought for too long. Like sand grains running through fingers, she quickly loses traction and returns to her platitudes. This grinding repetition of the complexity of the human mind  is what psychoanalysts call “working through.” This is the process where the mill has to keep turning in order to penetrate to the deeper levels of consciousness. The work is long and hard and intense, but without the work, the obstacles to psychological growth grab on tight.

9 Responses to “Powerful Unconscious”

  1. Shelly said

    Don’t you psychiatrists call this “rationalization?” When Liz gives excuses for Al’s poor behavior of her and she explains it away? I wouldn’t necessarily call it a need to avoid complexity but rather, I would explore her need for rationalization. If Al had been cheating on Liz for 30 years, what is wrong with Liz’s self-respect and self-esteem that she would put up with this behavior and stay in the marriage?

    • Jon said

      While “rationalization” could be the name for Liz’s initial statement about being overweight as the cause for her marital problems, it seems to me that she has other issues as well. This is indicated by the fact that when she is confronted with the need for deeper explanations, she at first agrees, but then returns to more rationalizations in the form of platitudes. Shirah’s description of “working through” seems to be a psychoanalytic method of internalizing the understanding to a conscious level. Specifically, in this case, working through the many psychological factors in this sadly failed marriage.

    • Rationalization is a form of denial. She managed to convince herself that her marriage was fine, so in her conscious mind, she did not see it as an issue of self-esteem. It is only in retrospect that she can examine how her sense of herself led to her profound denial. Thanks.

  2. Ashana M said

    I think perhaps she comes back to this because there’s something fundamentally true about it, even if the details are wrong. It doesn’t quite fit, which is why she keeps backing away from it, and there is also something that does fit, which is why she comes back. What may be true about it is that she believes she played a part in the dissolution in her marriage, and she’s looking for what that part is.

    It may also be true that her husband was good to her as long as she lived up to his very particular expectations–if she were the right doll, he played with her nicely. She failed at being the right doll.

    Because, really, what does it say about a man if he’d leave his wife for being 30 pounds overweight? It says he is controlling, excessively concerned with appearance, shallow, and deeply selfish. She may very well be right. And that would be a tremendously painful realization to need to come to grips with.

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