Love on the couch


Love on the couch

Having a conversation with psychoanalyst Madhu Sarin is like getting into lacy layers of intricate insights. Mental flashbulbs go on and off. Think Alice in Freudian land. She is passionate even when most poised, and certainly while expressing herself on behavioural provocations, the ironies of relationships, the karmic human wrangle with decline and death. Brilliantly non-conformist. Stylish. Distinctive. Insanely fond of rich textiles and almost always dressed in péro by Aneeth Arora or Issey Miyake jackets and high-street jewellery with Tibetan design influences, she is an ardent devotee of the “unusual” in fashion. Her home and office—a deep-blue front door and blue walls—is like a collector’s studio where vintage textiles, Persian and Kashmiri carpets and artisanal pieces coexist in colourful chaos. “Psychoanalysts are fond of textiles, look at that picture of Freud there,” she says, pointing to a photograph on a shelf in her office.

Accurately described, she is a psychoanalytical psychotherapist, she insists. A level of professional expertise achieved after long clinical work with patients as well as intense self-work that takes 10-20 years. “It is tougher than doing a PhD and certainly tougher than getting into a gang in South Bronx,” she laughs.

As someone who taught philosophy at Delhi University till she was almost 40, then changed academic and professional track to go to New York to study psychoanalysis, she is intimate—both as a mental health practitioner and as a person—with the burdens of maturity and middle age. Here, Sarin, who practises in Delhi, talks about why being in love is about consideration for the other, not oneself. Edited excerpts:

How is love at 50 different from that at 20?

Love is the yearning for connection, the need for completion. As a practitioner, I have seen again and again that what people bring into partnership at a young age is a reworking of their primary relationships with their parents—deprivations, disappointment and internalization. They seek compensation for what they have missed out on, expect others to conform to their past expectations and look for familiar gratifications. We are experimenting, enacting and playing out childhood scenarios—the complex feelings of bliss, frustrated rage and resentment, competitiveness, jealousy, possessiveness we have experienced in our earliest bond with mother and triangular relations with others in her and our own lives.

When we are young, we are also brimming with hormones and vitality, so our passions are more urgent and disappointment more intense.

But by the time you are 50, you have had at least one, if not a few, long-term relationships. There is more self-reflection, there is so much more experience with frustration and compromise. Mature love happens when you don’t use the other person to just blindly fulfil your own psychological functions, when you realize that the other person does not exist solely for you but is a person in their own right, with yearnings, fantasies and expectations. Not everyone learns from experience though—maturity is not a function of age alone, but a consequence of deliberate and conscious psychological and emotional working through. I also notice people tend to give each other more space in mature romance. A lot of liberal people who have good relationships don’t see the need to get married. They maintain different houses, social lives, and understand that space is to be negotiated.

Most people are married by the time they are 50. So are we assuming love outside marriage when we talk of love at 50?

People fall in love all through their lives—all the time. At 9, 16, 20, 30, even 60 and later! Even in old age, even in the Indian scenario. In the West now, it is increasingly common for people to have had three marriages or long relationships by the time they are 60. In India, most emotional and sexual gratifications are found trying to keep the marriage and family unity intact. There is no perfect marriage and no one has been perfectly parented in the world. Developmental issues that haven’t been given attention keep getting played out. We constantly repeat certain situations to either remaster an old trauma, because we stubbornly refuse to learn from experience or because we are wedded to familiar gratifications.

There are so many divorces all around us—do they convey an increase in adultery, or is it because of increasing differences between spouses?

Marriage is not easy. Sexual chemistry and emotional needs in a marriage do not necessarily go hand in hand. People have very powerful sexual impulses and a need for emotional connection all through their lives. As women have fought for equal rights, they are less willing to put up with being subordinated or subservient in marriage; and for men, sexual prowess and trophy wives have traditionally been a signifier of power and status. Powerful men view sex with many women as their entitlement. Inequality in a relationship is not a happy situation for any partner though. So in India too, there is an increasing tendency for both men and women to seek personal happiness, and a wish to end an unsatisfactory, unhappy marriage.

People fall in love again after divorce, they even get remarried. Many have older children by then. Does Indian society look at this with censure or openness?

India is growing up! There are so many coexisting cultures in our society. There are many non-conformist people in the educated middle and upper middle class. But yes, the larger tendency in India is to frown upon romantic love at all ages. Romantic conjugal love has always been downplayed in order to promote joint family unity. It is downplayed even when couples are young. Obedience, service and duty are emphasized above it. So there are all kinds of expectations from people who fall in love late in life. At 50, given the traditional Indian grid, you are approaching the height of the grahast (householder) period. It is the age to look forward to grandchildren, not love. So if you are getting married at 50, it is for other reasons, not the traditional. This is new. There is a mix-up of the traditional and the liberal. It can be very tough and get complicated at all levels.

Is there a gender difference in love at 50?

A lot of how you deal with love and sexuality through life depends on the mother’s early handling of the baby, how she interacted with the child and then allowed him to separate and grow up. Indian mothers spend much longer with their babies compared to other cultures, which is also why, despite being a repressed society, Indians are so loving, so warm and tactile. All the same, there is a gender difference. Mothers express their frustration in their conjugal relationships, in their especially close emotional sensual relationship with their sons. This has consequences for both male and female sexuality, making men feel suffocated with intimacy and women deprived. Male sexuality peaks at 45 years. But women are just beginning to get used to their own bodies. The freedom to express their fantasies comes much later to women.

As things become more liberal in India, I feel there will be many more instances of relationships between older women and younger men. It fulfils the needs women develop at a mature age. And there will always be some young men who want to have sex with older women.

Does sex usually fade away in a long-term relationship?

It happens all the time. In marriage you get used to each other and take each other for granted. There is no sense of mystery, there is too much familiarity. Sexuality is a function of both partners’ fantasy lives and their capacity to express, enact and experiment with this. Some people are able to continue to have a rich fantasy life together. It requires work, of course. By and large, good sex has elements of hatred and mystery.

Why do you use the word “hate” ?

Because people we love the most are also the people we hate the most. There is so much disappointment in all relationships but people just talk about love or the absence of it. I feel conflict, play, tension feeds into people’s fantasies. It makes sex and love richer. We have to allow ourselves to be polymorphous and playful; that is what being free is about.

But some monogamous relationships do sustain?

Yes, of course. They may be rare but they are there. I know of couples who have stayed loyal to each other for decades and even kept the sexual urge alive. People’s attachments, needs are different. Some people like stability, others are constantly seeking. Some are passionate through life, others are detached and blunted right from the start, while some are deeply traumatized. But people who fall in love at 50 or remain in love learn to sustain it through a friendship with the spouse, shared values, affection, deep caring and respect. There may be very few such cases but there is peace in some relationships.

Is love easier than marriage?

Nothing is easy. People often say that I love someone and so the rest will work itself out. Bull****. Love means different things to different people and everything is a learning experience and negotiation. Love sustains over a period of time when you realize that you are not using the other person to further your own emotional needs but you genuinely like, love and respect the other person. It is a string of priorities, about being considerate and respectful, and not gendered expectations.