Love and sexuality (the latter being a precious dimension of the first) are tricky subjects to tackle here. So let me make clear beforehand that I do not mean to provoke any kind of moral or religious debate. I hope no one will find me disrespectful or prejudiced. On the other hand, you cannot expect me to hide my own points of view.
Being depressed can hamper you in beginning or maintaining a sexual love relationship. Conversely, a lack of love and sex can also cause (or worsen) a depression. Therefore, this first “love post” is meant especially for those among us who feel the pain of not having that kind of intense relationship. I should tell you that since my last soul mate suddenly died two years ago, this applies to myself too. Maybe this post is to some extent the result of my recent brooding about how much I am beginning to miss the sparks of love.
Thinking about love and sex has also made me aware of how shards of my long-lost religious background have still remained an unerasable part of my personality. When I defined “sexuality” here as “a precious dimension of love” I was in fact reflecting something similar to what my parents and teachers silently tried to suggest long ago.
Of course things were different in the religious (orthodox-protestant) world of my childhood, fifty years ago. Back then, no one ever spoke about sex, except to indicate in vague, general terms that it was something sacred and mysterious. It was something that was evidently and exclusively limited to the adult sphere of marital love. And in there, it remained completely hidden away. As far as I can remember, as a young boy I never saw my mother or father embracing or kissing each other.
It was all a bit like in this 1847 picture – one of the first photos ever made of a married couple. This picture was clearly meant to register, represent, and thus confirm a relationship. Today it still allows us to see those two people who one day 165 years ago, maybe a bit uneasy and nervous, together entered that newfangled photographer’s studio.
They went there because they wanted (in what for those times was a very high-tech, original, Facebook-ish way) some tangible thing to show their relationship. But at the same time anything that might hint at the implications of loving togetherness remained rigorously hidden away: the photo does not reveal any actual sign of intimacy at all. Carefully separated by a table, a book and a hat, the two don’t touch or even look at each other.
When I as a young student broke my religious fetters – that was how it felt at the time – this allowed me to also break with the idea that one had to marry first before having sex. And basically I myself still think that having sex is personal enough to be a matter of free choice. Neither do I have that traditional need anymore to hide all outward signs of sexuality. But for all my changing, I never got rid of the old idea that sex is in the first place an expression of love. My view is that sex is a wonderful kind of bodily love language, and that having sex is therefore hard to imagine if you are not loving each other. Perhaps in today’s terms, that makes me a romantic.
We all have sexual urges and needs, and I will admit that a few times in my life I may have been too impulsive right after falling in love with someone. But I have never been with a prostitute, for reasons that have nothing to do with high-minded righteousness or still-applying religious laws. I just cannot imagine how I would be able to have enjoyable sex with a prostitute, playacting, insincerely faking love, simulating nonexistent mutual feelings. In body language, to me that would feel like a lie: I might very well turn out to be impotent in a brothel. In short, when it comes to identifying sex with a personal relationship, it looks like I lost most but not quite all of my parents’ traditional values.
I gave you this bit of personal background so you won’t be surprised by what may seem like an unexpected dose of conservatism in what follows.
Well, to get to the point now, I am sure I don’t have to tell you how very much we all need to be loved – and to love someone. It is by the magic powers of mutual (both emotional and physical) love that we can transform each other into someone very special. Every day again.
When I was a schoolboy getting close to puberty, I had not yet the slightest clue about what sexual love actually implied. But I did know fairly much of the Scriptures. If like me you grew up in an environment where all true wisdom came from daily-read religious writings, then perhaps you know those poetic lines from the apocryphal* Book of Solomon where a bride calls her beloved a tappuach: that one sweetly fragrant, shading Apple Tree that stands out to her among all the barren thorny trees of the forest.
And yes, I still think we all need the joy and support of embracing one such special Apple Tree, just like we all need to be such a Tree for someone else.
So what if we don’t have one?
A century ago the pioneering psychiatrist Sigmund Freud already reflected on how occurrences of deep depression might be related to our need for love. He did not know yet about all the neurological causes and dimensions of depression. But he did acknowledge (and by today’s standards even did stress too much) that depression may be triggered or worsened by unfulfilled longing for love and sex.
According to him, this could happen in two principal ways: either through the factual loss of existing love, or by what he called “symbolic loss”: never getting the love you are expecting, that you keep waiting for. According to him, both kinds of loss could fuel a kind of subconscious anger, leading to self-hate, self-destructive behavior and depression. By the way, some people do think that Freud was prone to depressions himself.
In the case where we lose our loved one, be it by death or the breakup of a relationship, evidently this will in most cases not go unnoticed by other people near us. So this direct, acute kind of loss may induce others to help and comfort us. And anyway in ourselves it will immediately start a complicated mourning process that is very very very painful but that in the long run, however, may be healing. Such a terrible experience can surely come with intense feelings of loneliness or desertion or guilt or worse; I myself know all too well it can cause one’s depression to slide down to the edge of the suicidal abyss.
But if you ask me, it is Freud’s second “symbolic loss” scenario – never getting the love that somewhere deep down in your mind you are wanting and expecting and waiting for – that is far more dangerous and excruciating. This ongoing kind of deprivation can slowly and almost furtively keep eating your heart away, continually eroding your self-respect and with it your ability to love others, leading to a more permanent state of loneliness, resentment and often severe depression. Not to mention the fact that in a few men, continuous love-deprivation can also lead to sexually aggressive derailment: in essence, the violence of a rapist may stem not just from uncontrolled lust but rather from deeply resented never-ending loneliness.
How does all this happen in the first place? People not having a true love relation even while they keep craving for it?
As was to be expected, Freud himself came up with a typically Freudian story. He thought that people who in their early childhood happened to get an excess of love from their mother, might for the rest of their life be stuck with an unconscious feeling of never getting the love they really needed. After childhood, when their mother was no longer pampering them, they would forever keep missing that same excessive measure of motherly love: whatever other kind of love they got, it would always feel inadequate. They would never be able to find happiness, and consequently, no stable relationship. But I must say that this Freudian story does not really satisfy me. No.
Generally speaking, I figure there are at least eight different main reasons why people may fail to find a meaningful love relation, why against their own will and desire they may be left without an Apple Tree – and left without being transformed into an Apple Tree themselves. Here are the most common things (in my personal view) that can contribute to such involuntary loneliness, and in that way to depression as well:
1: isolation by your location or activities,
2: a lack of awareness of your own needs,
3: being restricted by your community’s rules,
4: being paralyzed by conflicting impulses,
5: misunderstanding the nature of love,
6: seeking perfection instead of a real person,
7: being not sincere enough about yourself, and
8, most typical among those who are already depressed: self-deprecation.
May I take a brief look at each of these?
Case 1: isolation. This is a fairly simple problem because it has relatively little to do with yourself: your situation does just not give you enough opportunity to get in touch with proper love candidates. This can happen when for example you are living in a very remote isolated place, or when you have a very demanding job that literally takes all your time.
To get back to the Apple Tree metaphor that I began with: you keep bumping into a fence that confines you to your own tiny corner of the big forest, preventing you from venturing out into the woods to stumble upon that one Apple Tree that is ready for you.
A simplified solution: either fundamentally change your situation (which often may not be easy) or else charter others (family, close friends, or a trustworthy commercial matchmaking service) to go out into to forest and search on your behalf.
In its most extreme and in my view disgustingly sensationalized form, this is what happens in the popular Dutch TV reality show Boer Zoekt Vrouw (Farmer Seeks Wife), where lone farmers are coupled with lone city women willing to try sharing that farmer’s life. Frankly even if I were the most unhappy and isolated farmer in the world, I could not imagine myself consenting to appear on screen in that way. But in general, what is wrong with getting some other people to help you?
Case 2: lack of awareness. You do know you feel unhappy and maybe depressed, but you are not fully aware of your own need for love. This may sound a little unlikely, but I really think there are people among us who know very well that they are in some kind of deep trouble emotionally, and who suffer from it, and who gradually sink ever further away into depression, without realizing (or daring to acknowledge) that the problem might partly be solved by finding someone to love.
In Apple Tree terms: you are standing in that thorny forest, a bit bewildered and disoriented, while it does not occur to you that you should start looking for that one special tree that may be waiting for you.
A simplified solution: try thinking more deeply and systematically about what things might be contributing to your depression, about what might be missing in your daily life. Then, devise a course of action. Love does not always just strike down like a lightning bolt from the sky: you may have to do something to find it.
Case 3: restriction. You live in a very conservative environment where strict and rigid rules (usually religious rules) severely limit any daily-life contact with potential love candidates. Your need to find, feel, express and get love might call for breaking or bending some of those rules. But in the eyes of the others, this might make you unacceptably frivolous or even a sinner. For example, this can easily be the case if you belong to some strictly Evangelical, Hasidic or Muslim community.
To Apple-Tree-ify this situation: you are in that thorny forest together with a group of very close and very respected friends, but your friends all emphatically forbid you to look and reach out for (let alone to touch and caress) that one tappuach you are so intensely wanting and longing for.
A simplified solution: the most drastic step, leaving your community, may in many cases just not be wise. It means you risk losing family and friends and many of the beliefs and rituals that actually support you: as a result, you might end up with a different but equally depressing kind of loneliness.
So maybe the best you can do is openly and urgently try to convince the others that in your case, there is good and legitimate reason to break some secondary rules. To give a Hasidic example, even the strictest rabbi will tell you that any formal duties, such as an obligatory prayer, ought to be abandoned immediately in order to save a drowning person. The latter is a primary rule, that has priority over all secondary rules. Aren’t you the drowning one, by sheer deprivation? So scream for help! Cry out for the warm, loving touch that may save you from drowning!
Case 4: paralyzing yourself. This one may sometimes (but not always) be related to the previous one. Your own firmest beliefs, feelings, norms or convictions make it impossible for you to openly seek or invite others to love you. You just know that for some uneasy reason, you would feel horribly guilty (or maybe ashamed, or disappointed in yourself) if you did so. Somehow, you are unable to come to terms with your own cravings.
This is for example what can happen after the death of someone you were in love with. After the most acute phase of mourning, you slowly and gradually start to long for a love relationship again; but actually going for a new relationship might at the same time feel like crude infidelity, like betraying the one you have lost. And this is something you cannot allow yourself to do.
In Apple-Tree-perspective: you are sitting there in that thorny forest immobilized, paralyzed because your own feet each want to go in an opposite direction. On the one side, you are desperately and intensely longing for the Apple Tree that you need. On the other, you are unwilling and incapable to move and go out to find it. In other words, you are in a serious conflict with yourself.
A simplified solution: find an advisor you can trust, someone like a sensible unbiased psychiatrist or psychologist. Together, try to carefully untangle your Gordian knot: to understand yourself better, in an attempt to recognize, establish and accept your needs and priorities.
Case 5: misunderstanding the nature of love. You keep striving not for a really complete loving relation, but for some not-anchored aspects of love that you might wrongly identify with love as a whole.
The most common and obvious example is of course when you keep trying mainly to satisfy your sexual urges without much bothering for the rest, perhaps even avoiding any emotional bonding. Or the opposite attitude: ignoring the important sexual component of love can be equally ungratifying and in the long run such “sexual neglect” can prevent a relationship from catching on, or to persist.
In the Apple Tree picture: here you are wandering through that forest, but instead of fully recognizing your Apple Tree you keep reaping incidental blown-off blossoms from the ground, loose flowers that keep wilting away in your hands.
A simplified solution: come to your senses. Believe me, I’m not intending much moral judgment here – it’s just that your attitude, by disregarding the fullness of love, is a bad deal for the others involved and is not at all in your own best interests either. After all, you didn’t want to feel alone, did you?
Case 6: seeking perfection. This one comes closest to Freud’s explanation of the love-pampered child that will never be satisfied later in life. You keep dreaming, you hope for (and you are sure you need) Perfection. You want the ideal earth-and-sky-shattering love, the definitive 100% marvelous, faultless, tensionless relationship, the totally seamless melding of two different yet wonderfully complementary souls (not to mention bodies). Your only problem is that you have still not yet managed to actually find that Ideal Love, but you are determined not to go for anything less.
In the Apple Tree realm: you may be standing right in front of a fine Apple Tree waiting there for you, but somehow you feel the trunk may be a little to crooked, the leaves not yet quite lush enough for optimal shadow, the fruits still a little too small for your needs. So you leave it alone and you walk on. And on. And on. You will probably keep searching forever.
A simplified solution: get your feet back on the ground. Perfect love does not exist, for the evident reason that perfect people do not exist. It is not the other one who needs more substance – rather, you ought to grow up yourself. If you keep behaving like a spoiled child, don’t expect to find an adult relationship.
Case 7: insincerity. You are simply not honest and open enough about yourself when you encounter possible love candidates. Or, to put it in a different way, you are just trying too hard. You lose all spontaneity because you are toiling all the time to make sure you won’t say something stupid or wrong, make a mistake or a clumsy gesture. You keep trying to be what you hope other people will find most charming, or funny, or sexy, or smart. That nonstop performance requires quite an effort. Especially if like most of us, you are by nature not always that charming, funny, sexy, or smart.
In terms of our Apple Tree: You venture into the forest wearing a heavy, golden Apollo or Venus mask over your face. Quite a smothering burden, and it limits your vision too, but apparently you hope that as a shiny idol you will look attractive enough for some barren tree to suddenly spring into blossom for you (for the mask, that is).
A simplified solution: to find someone who will love you, of course you should present yourself as you are, not as the one you think others would like to see. After a while people will see through your mask anyway, you know, and what would they register? Insincerity. Why wouldn’t your own face, your own personality, your own strong and weak points, be good enough? What is wrong with just being yourself? If for some reason you feel not cheery but sad, why not be open about it? If you feel nervous, why not say so? Dare to show you are real. Let them see you are human.
Remember this quote from the old Roman philosopher Seneca, who said: “No one can wear a mask for very long.” To which I would like to add: “And no one will fall in love with a mask.”
Case 8: self-deprecation. Here we finally get to the one that is most often tormenting people who suffer from serious depression. You feel not just inadequate, but totally worthless. You are in fact sure that you do not deserve to be loved by anyone, that you have nothing of value left to offer to others, and that no one will ever come down to really love you.
If people happen to be nice to you, maybe even planting a few small seeds of first love, you will immediately assume that they are kind only out of pity. Often you don’t even dare (nor have the energy) to show yourself to others, to meet people or speak to them, for fear they will only be repulsed by your miserable, boring, joyless depression. Consequently, you tend to isolating yourself.
Translated to Apple Tree: you’ve already fallen down, exhausted, before even entering the forest: and down there at the outer edge of the woods, you know with painful certainty there’s nothing in there for you. You feel like a fallen thorn tree, withered, dying, without considering the possibility that someone’s love might be able to transform you into an Apple Tree.
A simplified solution: however difficult, you must try to convince yourself that you are still worth being loved. That you, like everyone, still have the potential to give someone your love. And if you feel just too sad or too ugly or too down or too old or whatever, be aware that this means just that you are taking yourself not seriously, that you should respect yourself a little more. Try to keep in mind that you are a unique person (as we are all) and that there will always be some people out there who can notice, recognize, and appreciate your uniqueness.
The one thing you should in your depressive state avoid most of all, is further isolating yourself. It is much better to still have a few minutes of small talk on the sidewalk with your neighbor about something trivial like the weather, than to talk to no one at all.
Even if you feel totally shy or passive or depressed or withdrawn or exhausted, keep trying to overcome this by taking tiny little steps, one-by-one. For example, if you don’t feel up to something formal like inviting someone for dinner, try asking them casually if they would like to come along when you leave for some shopping (and don’t immediately take it as a devastating rejection when they say they’ve just been to the mall). Once in a while such a small step may work, and every little success will feel great, and this in turn will help you take some next little step.
If you are really alone and depressed right now, you will perhaps dismiss all this as naive unrealistic dreaming. Please believe me, it’s not. One reason why you feel so depressed, may be that you have definitively given up all hope for a miracle. But you don’t need to wait for a miracle. You still can do something. And just for a moment try to imagine someone else who at this very same moment may be wandering anywhere out there in the woods, feeling just as lonely as you do, longing for that one Apple Tree: for you.
- This is it for today. By the way, this turned out by far the longest post I ever wrote here. I wonder what this might say about me: if Freud were around, I would certainly ask him…
Of course there may be other specific problems with depression, love and sex when you already have a good relationship. Later on, I will certainly add a few things about how both severe depression by itself, and the side effects of some popular antidepressants, may destroy one’s sexual desire or ability. I intend to give you a list of the most notorious types of medication to watch out for.
• tip: Never, never, never ever assume that you are not worthy of someone’s love. You may feel depressed, alone and hopelessly missing love, but there is no need to give up. Nor do you need to try desperately to transform yourself into someone lovable: as a human being, you already are. You are one of us.
What you should try instead, is to seek or create some new conditions that give you a better opportunity to actually love and be loved.
* footnote. Apocryphal: the “Book of the Wisdom of Solomo” was compiled by pasting together at least three unrelated text fragments from unknown origin. The oldest known version is a Greek one, copied about 50 years B.C. by an anonymous Jew in Alexandria. A few ancient references indicate a Hebrew original may have existed, but if it did, it was lost. The first formal Hebrew edition dates from 1780, so the “book” is in fact fairly recent. Many people consider it a part of the original Bible, but taken strictly, it is not.
But whatever we think of its roots, hopefully most of us can agree that Solomo’s Apple Tree will blossom forever.
Author: Henk van Setten