We would – of course – want to get rid of this thing forever and heaven knows we will have tried. We’ll have gone on courses, read books, hired psychiatrists and psychotherapists, taken medicines. And through this, we would have veered between despair and hope that we might eventually be able to achieve a victory over our monsters.

But the more time passes, the more we have to take on board a bleaker, unavoidable reality: this thing is here for the long term. In the one life we’ll ever have, this is us. We’ll never be rid of the bugs. We have a chronic condition, not an illness.

Photo by Ron Lach, 2021, Pexels

How can we survive this ostensibly extremely dispiriting realisation? A range of thoughts come to mind.

– A certain mindset

First and foremost, we need a certain mindset, one combining intense doses of pessimism with bleak humour and the most tender compassion. We never asked for this, we didn’t do anything especially wrong, it’s not a sign of a sinful nature. We can speculate at length about where it comes from: an emotional inheritance, a biological condition, the outcome of certain choices we’ve made… It will be a distinctive mixture of all these and, in the grander scheme, it may not really matter. The task is ultimately just to accept that this is the fight of our lives.

– Celebrate Small Wins

Against a bleak picture, we need to redraw our horizons and expectations. We’re never going to solve the whole problem, therefore we need to be able to particularly celebrate when things aren’t especially awful; when we have a good day or two. We know – by now – that the problems are always going to return, which is why we have no option but to draw maximal satisfaction when, every now and then, we go through a steady and coherent passage. We need to become the sort of people who can say, without irony or bitterness, Wednesday went well and that’s a serious accomplishment. Other people climb mountains for a challenge, or go racing around a motor track at 200mph; our extreme sport is the challenge of staying alive.

– The Right People Around Us

We don’t want to be judgemental but a lot of people, perhaps most people, are really not going to be very helpful to us. They may have the sweetest dispositions and interesting lives, but in essence, they will never be able to understand us (to put it more accurately, their circumstances mean they will never feel a need to understand our minds and good for them, we would be the same if we were any luckier) and their experiences will always feel remote and alien as a result. We need to seek out people who either know the condition from the inside or – because of some fortuitous bend in their minds – feel somehow instinctively close to it anyway. We need people who can let us despair but also know how to encourage us to laugh; people who won’t accuse us of malingering, or making a meal out of nothing; who won’t look wide eyed and full of judgement as we detail what we have been up to and some of the wildest thoughts that course through us in the early hours. We need – more than most – a lot of love. And yet (of course) we’ll be unusually inept at finding it, as damaged people are.

– Care

We need to remain at all times vigilant, knowing how susceptible we are. One of the enemies we have to deal with is our own sudden assumptions that we might, after all, be well again. So we need to be always on our guard as to the likelihood of a relapse. We should formulate plans but hold on to them very lightly. We should realise the link between busy-ness and mania and take extreme measures to live soberly. We should acknowledge, and fully honour, the differences between ourselves and other more robust people.

We may be no strangers to worried moods. Something awful often feels like it is about to happen. We fret that we have a lot of enemies. Our pasts seem like they are full of things that are going to come back to ruin us. Perhaps someone will soon realise that something we said two decades ago offended them and they will come for revenge. Perhaps we spoke to a colleague in the wrong way last week and discipline and disgrace are on their way. Perhaps we were speeding and a camera caught us. Our kidney may be failing, our minds disintegrating. Or, more broadly still, civilisation may be on the edge of fracture.

We might – as we worry – be lying in bed. It might be Sunday evening. We might not be seeing anyone until tomorrow and may have been in the house by ourselves since yesterday. It doesn’t feel like we can be in touch with anyone, as they are mostly with their families. Or at parties. 

At this point, we might ask a question of our mood that sounds deliberately and provocatively strange: Might I principally, at heart, be lonely rather than worried?

Hotel Window, Edward Hopper, 1955

The question rests on a particular thesis about the mind: we may prefer the discomforts of persecution to the quiet torments of isolation. We may get into the habit of using panic to keep us company. It may be appalling to think that catastrophes are about to happen to us, but at least these imply that people – perhaps many, many people – are thinking of us. We may not have friends but we have an adjacent thing: a plethora of enemies holding us tightly in mind. We may favour persecution over neglect; the wail of a siren to the eeriness of silence. 

We may also unconsciously have found an answer to a problem posed by our companionless state. Why have we been left alone? Because we must have done something wrong, because we are fitting targets for neglect, because we are bad people.

Our way of thinking may have a history. We may have lacked suitably warm and supportive company since the start of our lives – and may have become accustomed to appeasing our alienation with foreboding and trepidation. The deserted child evolves into the always-worried adult. 

To attempt to reverse our way of thinking, we should learn to pay attention to what might be happening around the time our panicky moods set in. When did we last speak with someone kind? How long have we been by ourselves? How supportive are our bonds to those around us? We may – without noticing – have reached unsuspected levels of alienation.

We may at such times have to learn to trust our feelings a little less. These feelings might insist that doom is at hand, but we may need to remember that our real yearning could be for a proper friend. We may need to sit with ourselves, as we would with anyone we cared for, and try our best to be kind. We aren’t appalling people. We’re just not good at building and maintaining close connections – for reasons that go right back to the start. 

We need to hold on to what will at first simply feel like an idea rather than a native truth. We have done nothing wrong and nothing awful is imminent. We are just – below the surface – distinctly lonely and craving solidarity. And probably, a long tight hug too.

For some of us, happiness and excitement never seem to last for very long. Every time we finally take pride in ourselves and develop a confidence about the future, something adverse seems to happen within a relatively short order. It might be something that we find ourselves actively doing that collapses our spirits, or we start to worry acutely about a matter that suddenly enters our minds or an incident occurs from out of the blue that unsettles us. 

Photo by Steven HWG on Unsplash

Maybe we read something online that seems mean-minded and worrying. Or we catch sight of ourselves in the mirror and feel repulsed. Or we suddenly think of something we said or did seven and a half years ago that may have been misinterpreted and misconstrued – and start to panic. Or by some odd impulse that we don’t really understand and so can’t resist, we do something foolish and contrary to our normal values which brings on guilt and shame. And as a result, we are ‘brought back down to earth’ fairly sharply. We end up – only hours or days after the good mood began – in a familiar place of fear, anxiety and disappointment. 

It can be as if – without quite realising it – we are operating under some sort of secret law: thou shalt never be exuberant. Thou shalt never live life too much to the full. Thou shalt never be too happy. Thou shalt not believe in yourself. Thou shalt worry a lot.

Where might such a perverse and sad edict have come from? It may be the result of growing up in an environment where our flourishing was somehow deemed unwelcome and provocative. Had we ever been too conspicuously happy, we might have upset a parent who was battling a sense of despair or resignation and was furious at the deprivations they once had to endure. And who could not count countenance that a child of theirs might be any more content than they were. 

We may have grown up to associate a low fearful mood with safety. Sadness means you don’t get attacked, it doesn’t provoke envy. It keeps you out of trouble.

Whenever happiness does seem on the cards, a part of us will hence be very keen to return us to a lower altitude as soon as possible. To achieve our ends, there may be some favourite websites we like to go to that confirm that we are unattractive, or strange or in danger. We may provoke arguments, insults or offence. We’ve got a repertoire of secret skills to wipe the smile off our faces.

Were any of this to ring bells, we should ask ourselves: what incentives against happiness and self-satisfaction might there have been in our early lives? Who might we have upset with our joy? Was there a conflict between our flourishing and someone else’s sense of well-being?

Then we need to reassure the frightened child in us that the person who demanded our sadness as a price for their protection is no longer in authority over us. We don’t have to apologise for being attractive or intelligent or gifted or within reach of stability, sanity, potency and good spirits. We are – whatever we once believed – allowed to live without continuous sadness and fear.

We like to draw a firm line between the people we casually call ‘mad’ and the rest of us. The mad ones make no sense; they have gone into another world; they are – in a way that almost comforts us – no longer quite human.

Yet what the last hundred years of psychotherapy have taught us is that the so-called mad are in fact much closer to the apparently balanced majority than is typically countenanced – and that if we look with sufficient rigour at the unusual and counter-productive behaviour the mentally unwell exhibit, we almost always find a logic within it that can be decoded, listened to and in many cases dealt with. We might say: mad behaviour contains a complex, frightening and baroque flight from an unmanageable.

William Dyce, King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, 1851

Let’s look at some typical presenting problems of people diagnosed with mental illness:

1. Someone who says that they control the entire world and that they are at all times secretly influencing everything that happens in major events in public life.

One way to understand this kind of grandiosity is to see it as what is called ‘a manic defence’ – that is, a defence against its very opposite. Someone who has been made to feel utterly invisible, who has been controlled from a young age and stripped of a sense of agency and dignity, may in time flip psychotically into an opposite conviction – as a way to avoid a reckoning with a suffering that cannot be assimilated. This is a common feature of many mental illnesses: they stem from a failure to mourn something overwhelming, as here the idea that one has apparently never mattered to a soul.

2. Someone develops a refusal to go outside because they think that at any moment, a stranger in a park or in a shop might turn around and try to kill them.

Like many varieties of unwellness, this one reverses and then generalises its underlying truth. We start to think that ‘everyone’ is trying to kill us when, in fact, there may be one person we are boundlessly angry with, but can’t bear to acknowledge our rage against – perhaps because they are our own mother or father and maybe because they did something no parent is ever meant to do to a defenceless child. Unconscionable events are to be found behind almost every case of so-called ‘madness’.

3. Someone who develops a phobia against all sharp objects and spends hours removing from their house anything that might pierce through skin: knives, but also forks, spatulas, tweezers and so on.

A talented mental health professional will here immediately wonder: Who is this person furious with and why? They will try to move them from trying to prevent a murder to wondering who they might be very angry with. The more we can bear to think, the less we will need to colour the world with the legacies of our unconscious losses.

4. Someone who shows up in hospital in an excited state with a 300,000 word book spelling out in enormous detail how everyone on earth is actually an alien sent by a foreign power inhabiting a gigantic spaceship making its way around another galaxy.

Sometimes ‘madness’, behind the outward drama and mystification, really contains a basic metaphor that speaks of a simple, poignant truth. Perhaps, in this case, everyone feels horrifically ‘like an alien’ – and it might be far easier to think that that this is what they actually are, with their brains connected up to an invisible foreign satellite, than to absorb a more awful humdrum reality: that other people are quite human but that they have nevertheless, tragically, ignored our own humanity for as long as we’ve been on the earth.

5. A conviction that we might have touched a child sexually – and a horror of ever seeing a small child in case we suddenly do something untoward with them. An accompanying fear that the police is likely to knock at the door at any moment and accuse us of a crime.

Once again, this phobia contains an inversion of the likely truth. The sufferer takes on board extreme degrees of guilt and responsibility because – though it isn’t easy to make a detour around every park or playground and to panic at the sound of every police siren – it is still easier to do this than to square up to the horror that may have befallen us at a helpless age: we prefer to inhabit the role of the perpetrator than to face up to a catastrophic instance of our violation. 

As for the thoughts of the police, these constitute a paranoid defence against something yet worse: being totally alone. After all, the upside of the police is that they are always thinking about us; they are about to show up to see us at any moment, even in the middle of the night, when it’s otherwise deadly quiet and eerie. Someone is thinking about who we are and the details of what we have done at 3am. Terror can be the closest thing we know to a feeling of being held in mind.

6. A constant need to clean ourselves of the germs and pollutants that lie all around. We’re in the bath at least five times a day. We disinfect anything we touch. 

Once more, we’re dealing with a pain that has jumped from reality to metaphor. Someone somewhere along the way has made us feel unclean and ‘bad’ and we are manically trying to rid ourselves of a sense of unwantedness that we are unable to master in any more cognitive way. We’re craving acceptance – but have the strength to think only of ever more harmful and devastating germs that might be pursuing us.

Almost every incident of ‘madness’ involves truths that the sufferer doesn’t have the resources to handle, normally because they were never shown a bare minimum of patience and concern in their early days – and now can’t reflect steadily on their pains and losses. Almost every case of madness contains within it instances of cruelty that could not be borne in ordinary, everyday ways, that could not be thought about and shared (because no one was around, because the adults were out of control) and that a sufferer therefore had to erect a superstructure of folly in order to cope with. There have had to be aliens and satellites and prescribed rituals and obsessions because one can’t find any other way to come to terms with the simpler but more devastating underlying truths: ‘no one loved me’, ‘someone who should have cared didn’t’ or ‘I could die and no one would notice.’

We start to take on board a lacerating but in the end almost hopeful idea: that it is nothing more nor less than a lack of love that – ultimately – drives us mad. And its opposite could save us.

Many of us dimly sense that, despite ourselves, unfortunately and mysteriously, we keep ending up in some very similar dark places: perhaps another relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to love us properly, or another breakdown of trust at work, or another panic about reputation or sex. Or else the repeated patterns involve a return to a background mood: yet again we feel highly anxious. Yet again we feel convinced that everyone hates us or that something terrible is about to happen.

Edward le Bas, Anchovy Packers, c. 1950

Psychotherapists have given all this a name. In so far as we keep steering ourselves back to some familiar negative circumstances or emotions, we may be in the grip of what is known as a ‘repetition compulsion.’ We aren’t here again by coincidence, we are – in an unconscious part of our minds – steering ourselves to a place of pain with hidden intent.

This is a hugely perplexing notion to have to take on board. It’s bad enough to keep winding up in particular trouble, it’s even worse to have to think that we’re being driven towards it by an ineluctable internal force. We naturally want to repeat pleasure; but why seek to repeat frustration, sabotage and alarm?

Psychotherapists have a suggestion. We can never let go of any negative experience, they tell us, until it has been fully understood. An issue will remain active for us – even if it is decades old – so long as it has not been acknowledged and its emotional resonance identified and allowed to dissipate.

The experiences that we are driven to repeat are – these therapists go on to say – precisely those that we have not been able to square up to. We repeat what we have sidestepped and left unacknowledged. A part of our minds is committed to forcing us back to a zone of original difficulty not in order that we suffer aimlessly, but so that we may eventually find freedom through understanding. 

Therefore, in this account, we aren’t seeking simply to be unhappy. An emotional conscience is pushing us towards the location of our buried truths in the name of eventual release. Our sad and anxious rehearsals are like ghosts that keep manifesting themselves until a foundational injustice is uncovered and worked through.

Psychotherapy points out that the patterns we are most likely to be repeating are ones that date back to childhood, because this is the period when we are both least able to understand what is going on in ourselves and most at the mercy of the adults around us. 

We may – in our search for release from our repetitions – need to be very brave in remembering what might have gone on many years before. Matters were perhaps not as simple as we might have assumed. If we keep nowadays finding ourselves in a panic that someone will try to humiliate us or if we seek love from distracted and incapable people or spoil our professional chances, we may need to wonder: how might our negative patterns be following in the tracks of earlier pains? 

What our impulse to repeat is in essence inviting us to do is to pause and mourn. Just as we have to do when someone we love dies, we need to stop evading our suffering and give ourselves time to absorb it from a range of angles, at multiple points of day and night, and in relation to different moods.

We may have to mourn that our father’s sexuality was far too complicated, or that our mother couldn’t deal with our vulnerability. Or that a sibling was favoured. Or that we have made a mess of our adult love lives because we have grown up without an ability to trust or assert ourselves. 

The reward for doing this painful work is that eventually our minds can be expected to relent. Once we have kept an appointment with our primal griefs, we can gradually hope to drift away from them and the patterns to which they have given rise. The part of us that isn’t able to rest until the truth has been exhumed will let us plough new, less frightened tracks once it is sufficiently convinced that we have – finally – mourned and understood. 

It’s a feature of the way we’re built that we don’t generally go around asking why we feel as we do about ourselves. Our self perception strikes us as ‘natural.’ It has been with us for as long as we can remember. It seems ingrained. It is who and what we are – not something created by partial, circumstantial forces. And therefore, very consequentially, we take it as both true and beyond enquiry.

Photo by Alina Scheck on Unsplash

It may be neither – which is why we have good cause to lean in on one of the most fundamental laws of psychological functioning, which states that the way we feel about ourselves is an internalisation of how others felt about us during our formative years. Our self-esteem is a mirror of the esteem in which we were held by those around us. What we expect of ourselves is a reflection of what others expected from us in childhood. What we think the future will bring is shaped by what the past brought us.

It sounds a simple principle but it is an enormously hard one to keep in mind – let alone thread back through our own experience. We may understand the idea intellectually; it can be the work of much of our lives to feel its truth – and untie its legacy – in our own particular case.

The past has a habit of leaving few active traces. We register emotions without being able to follow them back to any source. But we can and should work against the forces of forgetting. We should re-historicise our self esteem. We should trace our thoughts about our likely futures back to our pasts. We should learn to sense the verdicts of other people where we have until now registered only a verdict from nature or ‘reality’.

To see how this principle of self-esteem works, we can look at its positive manifestations first.

The thought: I am a valuable, lovely person.
Indicates that: Others once found me lovely. 


The thought: Things are going to be OK for me.
Indicates that: Nice things once happened around me.


The thought: I can contribute.
Indicates that: Others once thought I could contribute. 

But it’s an exploration of the negative side of the principle that yields the greatest dividends.

The thought: I’m not good enough.
Indicates that: Other people once didn’t find me good enough.


The thought: I’m terrified I’ve done something wrong.
Indicates that: Other people once constantly accused me of doing something wrong (in other words, did something wrong to me).


The thought: I can’t do anything.
Indicates that: Other people once thought I was hopeless.


The thought: I’m an idiot.
Indicates that: Other people once thought I was stupid. 


The thought: I’m clumsy.
Indicates that: Other people once got impatient with my natural childhood inabilities and locked me into a description that deprived me of confidence.


The thought: I feel invisible.
Indicates that: I once wasn’t seen. 

All this is particularly difficult because our feelings about who we are and what might happen to us aren’t just passive elements but are in the habit of actively determining our futures. The person who feels a failure will end up failing; the person who feels a bore will end up boring. And so on. We haven’t just suffered once; we may get stuck in a loop of sadness.

The priority is therefore to stop taking our self-esteem as a given and to start to look at is the outgrowth of a period of personal experience that we have not been able to keep in mind – and that can be questioned. Once we have properly absorbed this principle of psychology, it becomes open to us to reassess our value and prospects by a more just means. We no longer need to judge ourselves through the eyes of people who were too unwell and in pain to see us properly.

It may sound ungenerous to throw the emphasis on the negative but we can fairly say that people who are good at love know – first and foremost – who not to fall in love with.

Gustave Courbet, Self Portrait/Man With a Pipe, 1848-9

While they may have all sorts of friends and a wide sympathy for the vagaries of being human, when it comes to who they opt to tie themselves to, this is some of what they will avoid with determination:

— People who have no sense of how difficult they are to live with.

— People with a heightened belief in their infallibility.

— People who will, when something is pointed out to them, quickly chose the occasion to simultaneously inform you that: ‘It’s not as though you’re perfect either…’ 

— People who will label any criticism of them (however sensitively delivered) as ‘rude’ or ‘offensive’ and contrary to the rules of true love as they define these.

— People who deliberately drive you to the edge of frustration, then turn and say: ‘why are you getting cross so suddenly?’

— People who smile and say, ‘I get it completely now; I’m going to change,’ and then go and do whatever it was all over again a few days later. People who combine an exquisite talent for upset with an even greater talent for sentimental apology.

— People who will flirt with others, then call it ‘only a bit of fun’ and label you a prude for minding.

— People who will mess up your house and call you ‘anal’; people who will prioritise time with their friends over time with you and then call you ‘controlling.’

— People who tell you you are ‘imagining things’ a lot.

— People who harbour a background grudge against your gender.

— People who are furious with a parent and don’t realise they are.

— People who can’t forgive anyone who thinks better of them than they think of themselves.

— People who claim desperately to want a relationship – but are inwardly so committed to distrust, isolation and self-hatred that they are in no position to really have one – yet don’t know this of themselves. 

— People who principally associate love with the pleasant feelings they register when you are nice to them.

— People who don’t take your love as a substantial gift you chose to bestow every day and could take elsewhere. 

— People who don’t realise your time is very, very precious.

— People who are far too in pain to know how to want the best for you.

— People who refuse to do the necessary work.

Let’s remember; the people in the list above comprise some of the most charming, beautiful, vivacious, seductive characters on the planet. But their traits also mean that you will be headed for substantial challenges in any extended involvement with them. It may take years to work out that they use words like ‘love’ without knowing what they should entail or that they have systematically shredded your confidence in your judgement in order to avoid acknowledging a raft of their own difficulties.

Lovers who know to avoid them are not cleverer than the rest of us. They have just had the good fortune to be looked after early on by people who were tender and sweet and therefore now  know how to associate relationships with fulfilment rather than frustration and longing. Through immense good luck, they simply have no interest in suffering. They have via experience learnt one of life’s most important lessons: that the point of a relationship is to be mutually delighted by another person. As we may eventually realise, we aren’t alive long enough for anything else.

One of the first priorities for any suitor on an early dinner date is – typically – to strive to appear normal.

That’s why when they are asked ‘what do you like to do on the weekend?’ suitors will tend to say, ‘Oh, not much, maybe garden, see friends and do some exercise’ rather than heading towards those occasions when they’re to be found lying on the bedroom floor sobbing at how sad and lost they feel and need to take a couple of benzodiazepines to have any chance of getting to sleep.

Photo by Igor Starkov on Unsplash

Or they’ll say: ‘I’m looking for a reliable steady relationship I can really commit myself to,’ rather than letting on that a part of them (that they can’t quite make sense of) has a track record of blowing up commitment in the name of intoxicating sex with random strangers.

Or they’ll say: ‘My relationship with my ex broke up a long time ago now, I’m entirely over it,’ rather than letting on that – puzzlingly – they spoke to them only that afternoon and in some moods find they’d really like to get back together with them again.

Our careful editing of the truth certainly achieves results. A great many relationships get off the ground on the basis of our skills at self-presentation; couples head home from the restaurant hand in hand, and a union has a chance to grow. But this artful emphasis on appearing normal while actually being – below the surface – something infinitely more complicated is a catastrophe waiting to unfurl. For it is never long before our actual complexity starts to rear its head, and has all the more impact on our partner because they were given no preparation for it.

Time is bound to show that we’re wrestling with severe bouts of depression which we rely on pills to appease; that we are hugely ambivalent about love and feel nauseous in the face of kindness and tenderness; or still rely on the presence of an ex to ward off our fears of intimacy with our new partner. None of it can be wished away.

It’s all maddeningly complicated but arguably the place for these sorts of complexities is towards the start, not when two people have spent five months pretending to be upbeat caricatures of themselves, only for the weirdness to begin to seep out in unheralded ways.

We should tolerate that far fewer dates would work out on the basis that we had been honest about ourselves – but at least those that did proceed would be built on solid foundations.

In a less simplistically minded dating scene, two people would, at a certain point in an early meal, simply say: ‘Now tell me the true, really bad bits,’ and make time for genuine disclosure and the tolerance and broad-mindedness of the psychotherapy room.

To know is to be given agency. We won’t then need to sit in the car home with two passengers, a ‘normal’ person we’d love to be with, and their complicated ‘shadow’ who is biding their time before initiating havoc.

It’s not possible for a person to have reached maturity without harbouring some difficult elements – and the place where these belong is squarely by the last course of an early date, not several months or years down the line. It’s only too easy to begin a relationship with some well-meaning lies. The only ethical, mature love is the one in which we have had the courage to be properly known – and have been kind enough to offer a comprehensive guide to ourselves to any serious prospective partner.

Seldom do we need the insights of psychotherapy as urgently as when it comes to cases of male heterosexual impotence. A man can be physiologically entirely capable of having sex but then finds himself in bed with a woman he longs for and cannot enter, to his boundless embarrassment and shame. What might be going on?

Detail from Still Life by Dirck de Horn, 18th Century

We have to imagine what has to go right towards the start of a life in order to minimise the chances of this kind of psychological impotence later down the line. One of the great guarantors of adult male potency is the love of a certain kind of woman in childhood. So that a man can later on feel at home with his physical desire, it helps immensely if his central female caregiver is able to do two things: firstly, if she signals that the little man in her life is adored by her but in a way that encompasses and rewards his more robust and rumbustious sides. The little man might be very much allowed to play with a plastic sword, he can occasionally make a big noise, it’s not a terrible problem if he sometimes brings in some mud from the garden. He doesn’t just have to be a sweet, neat, tender innocent angel; he can be a more dynamic, powerful creature too. At the same time, it may be of great help if this maternal figure is resolved in her relationships with men: if she isn’t unduly scared of them, if she isn’t furious with them, if she hasn’t undergone a trauma at the hands of one of them, if she can – once the kids are asleep – have a very satisfying time in bed with one of their kind.

Fathers also have a key role to play in their son’s later potency. If they can give a boy a feeling that they can tolerate rivalry, that there is room enough in town for both of them, if they can suggest that the boy’s growing strength and vigour are sources of pride rather than threat.

Needless to say, none of this is guaranteed. There are otherwise extremely devoted maternal figures who somehow manage to suggest to their sons that it might be better if they didn’t remind them of the sort of men who have scared or damaged them; or who bring to bear on their ‘little man’ some of the anger that belongs to, and that they deep down wish to direct towards, ‘big men’ elsewhere. Or who turn their boys into substitute ‘boyfriends’ as a defence against their fear of a more three dimensional adult relationship. Just as there are dads who are too internally fragile to tolerate that anyone but they should have potency in the household.

The result, twenty years later, can be a man who panics at the sublime moment when a woman turns to him and says: ‘Come on, let’s go upstairs; I’ve been wanting you since the evening started’. It might sound delightful; to a certain sort of man, it can mean the onset of devastating panic. They are being invited to do the very thing that – according to the logic of their formative years – would have variously hurt, offended, angered or threatened the people they had to rely on. Their impotence, though entirely inconvenient today, is in their deep minds a necessary mechanism to steer them away from danger and upset.

What could be done to alleviate the situation? Most importantly, a conversation, so that the partner doesn’t feel that they are to blame and that their own insecurities don’t start to fill the vacuum of explanation. 

It might also help if the man were made into less of a focus of attention in bed. It might do wonders if the woman shared a fantasy about another person, male or female, (perhaps a colleague at work or someone she spotted on the train home), so that – witnessing the woman’s authentic excitement – the man might slowly find his way back to his own.

It’s possible to argue at length about whether psychotherapeutic theory is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ We should probably reserve judgement until, physically in perfect health, we find ourselves unable to be get an erection with someone we intensely desire. It seems that – very sadly – we may just be a lot more complicated than we should be.

We spend a lot of time in relationships feeling annoyed and upset by the other’s evidently maddening behaviour. Why can’t they be more emotionally present? Or less needy? Or more reliable? Or not so interested in what their friends think?

The questions can go on for a very long time – and are not without their private satisfactions. We may be forlorn, yet at least we know where the problems lie.

Christian Krohg, Sleeping Fisherman, 1882

However, if ever we get bored of the pleasures of this kind of frustration, we might take on a challenge that can initially feel extremely strange and even offensive: we might imagine that, to a critical extent, we share in the problems which we have until now concentrated on forensically locating in the partner.

We might set ourselves the following exercise: to write down the many things or thing that we feel the partner is doing wrong and that we know very well indeed by this point. For example, that they are:

— A social climber

— Always dissatisfied with their career

— Too nervous around authority

— Unable to open their hearts properly

— Unwilling to discuss emotions.

Then, when our list is complete, with our courage in our hands, we should write down a title at the top of the list: ‘My faults’. In other words, we should imagine that all those appalling things the partner does are actually also behaviours in which we are in key ways implicated.

We can lean on a general law of psychology: it’s a customary human habit to relocate in others what one can’t bear to see in oneself. The things that most upset us in our friends, acquaintances and lovers are typically the things that are simultaneously most unresolved in our minds. They would not touch us so much if we didn’t at a deep level recognise them as intolerable elements of our makeup. We may not so much be stumbling on flaws in someone else as needing to find them in another so that we aren’t so much at risk of encountering them in us.

We know this phenomenon well enough in the case of the school bully. We know that this unfortunate person tauntingly calls the other child ‘weak,’ ‘a mummy’s boy’ or ‘a scaredy-cat’ because they have an intense fear of such fragilities in themselves. 

We may not directly be bullying our partners – but the psychological mechanism at play might be soberingly similar. We too may be calling our beloveds ‘cold’ or ‘snobs’, ‘chaotic’ or ‘rigid’ because these terms point to some very sore spots in our own histories from which we are in manic flight.

To bring a new atmosphere of creativity and generosity into the relationship, we should be prepared to assume a bold new dictum when we next encounter a conflict: that the problem is probably also in us. In other words, I am probably also a little afraid of intimacy or somewhat nervous around the judgements of others or overly impressed by some of my friends. It’s been an interesting move to burden the partner exclusively with this until now; it may be a lot more interesting and fruitful henceforth to say: ‘it could be both of us.’ 

This has the added advantage of endowing us with agency. Rather than presuming that there is nothing we can do to help our relationships until the partner decides to change, we can lead the way by smoothing out some of our share of the neurotic structure – which may encourage in the other the very evolutions we have been seeking in them in vain for so long.

We may not just have picked on a partner with a set of faults that we happen to find annoying. We may have carefully opted to accuse a partner of burdensome pieces of our own stories to lighten our minds. It may be time for a new mantra: it’s probably in us both.