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The Pleasure Principle: Freudian Sex Advice with Bambi: Heartbreak and Grief

Dear Bambi,

I moved to Spain and had a nice Jewish boy back in New York I left behind on good terms. While I still care about him, I know logically that I need to look to greener pastures, or at least ones that are on the same continent. Don’t get me wrong, I am so into the selection here. Like woah. But I can’t help but feel like I’m reserving part of myself for this faraway guy who’s in a different universe now, to the point where my mind isn’t even in Spain. Why can’t my heart look at this logically?

Carla, Madrid

Dear dear Carla,

I’m sorry your heart is going through it with this loss of boy. It really is as if he was there one minute and now he is not. In my recent research on loss and grieving, I stumbled upon what I think is some pertinent Freudian thought in an unexpected place: a psychology book published as recently as 2009. In The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, reknowned grief researcher George A. Bonanno redefines grief through studies he began at the University of California at San Francisco on the actual experiences of subjects, through critical questioning from the bottom up. They proved to not fit so nicely into the delineated five-step process traditionally considered to be true, that the majority of data shows tendencies toward continued resilience instead of long-term chronic suffering or eventual full recovery. Since the brain that feels grief after loss is the same brain that suffers heartbreak, perhaps something can be gleaned in your case from Freud’s two cents as Bonanno introduces:

In Freud’s view, grief work involved reclaiming the psychological energy that we’d invested in the deceased loved one, or, as he somewhat unpoetically put it, the “non-existent object.” He thought that when we form a psychological bond with another person, we do so with a kind of primitive emotional glue, what he referred to as the “libido.” This is the same motivational force that drives our reactions to everything else we care about, including, of course, sex. But the libido is more than sex, and it comes in a limited supply. Each of us has only so much psychological energy to invest and we have to use it economically; what we invest in one person isn’t available for anything else. In Freud’s mechanics, the death of a loved one causes suffering because not only does the mind function poorly when it’s running on less psychic fuel, but we also find ourselves in a state of constant longing for someone who is no longer there. This state continues, Freud believed, until we do the necessary grief work and reclaim the energy that was bound up with that person.

Bonanno in conversation with Freud’s grief work theory examines:

Freud could have called it “the routine of mourning” or “the task of mourning,” or even “the resignation of mourning,” but he chose the metaphor of work because he believed that once we bond with something–a person or an idea–by investing our psychological energy, it really does act like glue. We find it difficult to let go. When a loved one dies, Freud observed, bereaved people cling to the memory of that person so intensely that “a turning away from reality ensues.” This reaction has an almost hallucinatory quality, as if the bereaved cannot and will not accept that the person is gone, as if the person can be willed back into existence. Joan Didion described this desire in her best-selling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking: “I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.

Logic and emotion, no matter how disciplined you are, run on two separate wavelengths. Working to reconcile them is a noble cause that is definitely in line with the pursuit of happiness. But being forgiving to one or the other for not catching up in time is part of the process. As your libido reads and rereads the Post-It that Mr. Somebody is no longer he who will float your boat, it will adjust and redirect its sights on the formidable yachts anchored beside you. The idea of the libido being a limited resource is an important one that is easy to forget: even the most international of heart breakers will stop in her tracks at moments of satisfaction. As you feel unsatisfied with the natural lack of reciprocation with your NYC beau, your id’s survival instincts will start to crave a loving spoonful again.

But the difference between grief and heartbreak is the ingredient of life. Lucky you that this American option is still an option. In your alternate Spanish universe, it’s okay to play with it: what a romantic notion to fall to that longing, and revel in that very human wanting of somebody who has earned your affection. Adjusting is a two-way street between the heart and the mind. The point is, know what you want, feel it, and channel it. You only get one libido in this life, so live it up.

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