Sally Brampton (Oct 07)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:28

October 28, 2007

The Sunday Times

Aunt Sally

I’m in love with and engaged to a beautiful woman. We met 18 months ago and have made
a huge joint financial commitment in a house. She is a very driven high achiever who has
been battling an anorexia/bulimia problem for the past 10 years, and she is very
controlling. Since we moved in together, we have had the most dramatic and unsettling
arguments, which develop over trivial things, and she becomes violent. I have offered to
go for joint counselling, but she refuses help, makes excuses (which makes me wonder if
she is in denial), and accuses me of trying to control her. She has no close friends and
feels that her family detach themselves. I’m not perfect, but I try endlessly to please her.

Anything she asks for, she gets. She keeps the house in pristine condition. I put forward
most of the money, but I’m not allowed (and don’t dare) to wear shoes indoors or to make
a mess. With her food and cleaning issues, I never eat at home. We are getting married
next year and want to start a family, but I cannot bring children into such a stressful
environment. I would be grateful for any suggestions.

It is quite difficult to understand why you stay with this woman. Perhaps you sweetly tried to keep
your letter short, but you didn’t mention a single quality that might explain why you love her. So, I
am just going to have to imagine that she has great virtues. The problem is that they are
obliterated by her overwhelming need for control. The anorexic believes that if she (it is usually
women, although male anorexia is on the rise) can only control the messy functions and excess
flesh of the body, then the rest of the universe will also stay in shape. Compulsive cleaning and
obsessive tidiness are also issues of control and part of the same pattern of distorted thinking.

At the heart of all this is fear: an overwhelming terror that if she cannot control the chaos all
around, then she will be sucked into its vortex. It is what the psychologist Dorothy Rowe, in her
book The Successful Self, calls “fear of the annihilation of the self”. We all have that fear, but in
your fiancée, it has spiralled out of control – hence her white-knuckle grip. It is hell to live with,
both for the sufferer and for those around them. Her violence comes from frustration. When she
can’t control something (you, the weather, dust) she flies into a rage, or loses control. She needs
help but, as with all addictions (and anorexia is an addiction), she needs to be in sufficient pain
before she asks for it.

Addictions narrow the world to a tiny, airless room. That is why your fiancée has no close friends.
People are messy and uncontrollable. No matter how much we might want to impose our will on
them, they insist on doing their own sweet thing. We are powerless in the face of their
individuality. The only thing we can control is ourselves – and our immediate environment – but
control doesn’t make for a comfortable or happy life.

So, I wonder why you have chosen it. Or let me put that another way: I wonder why she has
chosen you? It is all very well to want to please our loved ones, but giving up our shoes, home
cooking and the delightful mess of domestic comforts doesn’t just seem obliging, it seems
borderline perverse. “Anything she asks for, she gets.” I’m sure you do it for a quiet life, but a
relationship should be about cooperation. You need to look at the part of you that is so eager to
subsume your needs to those of another human being (it’s called people pleasing).

Your suggestion that you should do joint counselling is a good one, although not for the reason
you imagine. It seems that you’re trapped in fear too – fear of asking for what you want (in
therapeutic language, “getting your needs met”). Brutally put, the dynamic of your relationship is
control freak-meets-people pleaser. It might be helpful to work out what your needs are and ask
her to meet you halfway – the whole way would be too frightening. You may find that if you
challenge her (but do it with love), instead of trying to placate her, and if she wants the
relationship to work, she may feel enough pain to admit that she needs to try behaving differently.

If your fiancée refuses therapeutic help, you might suggest that she tries yoga and meditation.
Yoga has met with some success in the treatment of eating disorders, while meditation is brilliant
for anxiety, which is really at the heart of her problem.

Don’t be surprised if she approaches them with her usual fierce perfectionism. While they are
noncompetitive, she will want to find a way to compete. But the astonishing thing about yoga and
meditation is that they work in spite of our best efforts to bend them to our will. If practised daily,
then slowly and imperceptibly, they introduce a spirit of gentleness and cooperation into our lives.

The Successful Self by Dorothy Rowe (HarperCollins £8.99)

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