By Susan Rako*   My wisest mentor, the legendary teacher of psychiatry, Dr. Elvin Semrad observed: “You have to find someone of your own to live for.” And he asked: “Can a woman love more than once?” Here, Semrad was, albeit tongue-in-cheek, referring to a girl’s love for her father.

Sigmund Freud drew attention to but certainly did not invent “the Oedipus/Electra complex” — any more than Nicolaus Copernicus invented the sun and the stars. To know the truth and power of the original love triangle, all we have to do is to observe and to listen to a baby or a toddler. I remember watching an 11-month-old baby girl as she was picked up by her Daddy when he got home from work. With a beatific expression of love, she beamed in his arms and patted his shoulder repeatedly with pleasure, conveying the contented reassurance of ownership: “MY daddy.”

And I recall a two-going-on-three-year-old boy saying to his Mommy, “I’m going to marry you when I grow up.” When she replied, gently, “ But I”m already married to Daddy,” he thought a minute and then said, “Okay, I”ll marry Auntie Kate” (his Mom’s sister, who was already married to Uncle Eric).

During my Psychiatric residency, one of my supervisors, the child/family psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Chasin, introduced the idea that the longings of a baby/child were importantly a wish not to be left out (of the parental relationship). It seems to me that conflicting longings exist — longings both for exclusive ownership of the chosen parent and to be included in the parental relationship.

One thing most parents know first-hand: Kids don’t want to be shut out of the bedroom.

It’s not easy for a child of a good marriage to deal with these longings and frustrations. In a family where I know that there is troubling marital discord, when a parent complains, “My kid just won’t sleep in his/her own bed”, or “I (or my husband/wife) have to lie down with my kid until he/she falls asleep — and sometimes I end up falling asleep there too,” I pay attention to the degree to which the parent’s own inadequately dealt with and sometimes unacknowledged needs for closeness and comfort are in play. In this case, the parent is overtly urging the child to sleep in his/her own bed and, at the same time, continuing to give in to the “child’s” wishes.

It’s a common experience for a parent to project his/her own childhood feelings, wishes, longings onto a son or daughter, oftentimes with the intention of sparing the child remembered personal pain, or vicariously enjoying longed-for personal satisfaction. The archetypal elements of the Oedipal Triangle carry through from generation to generation, with infinite resulting patterns and degrees of resolution.

Can a woman, or a man, love more than once? In order to be free to find someone of one’s own to love means separating from one’s parents — leaving them to one another — and feeling the sadness that goes with any significant loss.

As in all of life, there is not one way that “things should be.” There is only how things ARE — and how we can manage adaptively; to have what is there to have; to let go of longings for what is not; and to bear the joy and the sadness of it all.

*Susan Rako is a psychiatrist whose work has been featured in countless publications, including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, BBC Radio, and she has appeared on The Today Show, Oprah and Dateline NBC.

Her subsequent books include her acclaimed memoir: That’s How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist. This article is reproduced from Psychology Today.


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