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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - Widower Getting Back in the Game

This week's assessment comes from Alice. She's writing a romance and wants some psychological insight into her backstories for her hero and heroine. Hero married young, then lost his wife and baby daughter. He's determined to never love again because he doesn't want to risk the pain. So he shuns emotional attachment.

But a year or so later, he meets Heroine and is drawn to her because he mistakenly assumes she's like him, happy to enjoy an emotionally detached relationship for as long as it lasts. She's a lively, fun-loving 19 or 20-year-old who's in media, traveling all over the world, single, and appearing to be loving it, but in her heart of hearts, she longs for love, marriage, children--long-term commitment.

Alice wants to know: Is it credible that a man who has lost his family would really date someone very young and fun to distract himself from his grief?  Is it likely that a young woman who longed for a traditional home and family would choose a fast-paced adventurous lifestyle instead of a more conventional one that would give her a better chance of finding a man who was ready to settle down and have a family?

Alice, both your characters are experiencing reaction formation (which should sound familiar to you). I did a post here on this defense mechanism. Your heroine is displaying a very classic sense of this, while the hero's might be a bit harder to nail down, but I have a feeling his scenario will fit as well.

For those who don't want to read my other post, here's reaction formation in a nutshell:

Reaction Formation is when a person converts unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or anxiety-producing into their opposites. A person could behave in a completely opposite way of how they really want or feel (i.e. a woman fakes indifference to men and gives off an independent vibe when all she really wants is to be loved and cherished). A person could also believe the opposite of something simply because the true belief causes anxiety (i.e. a man believes that all women are gold diggers because to believe only his ex-fiance was is too painful).

Let's take your heroine, because her situation fits so well. She's like Rizzo from Grease. Rizzo was tough on the outside, acted like she didn't care what people thought of her. She played loose and easy because it was better than admitting she really just wanted love like anybody else. Your gal is not wanting to admit that her deepest desire is to have a husband and the requisite 2.5 children. For some reason (which is what you have to figure out), to do this would bring her tremendous anxiety.

So she goes into this adventuresome career and on the outside, ostensibly loves it, thrives on it. But she's empty on the inside, because she does want love so badly, and traveling the world over is hardly conducive to this. Getting a nice, steady job as a librarian or journalism teacher at the high school would be better suited, but that would come at a price to her.

So why wouldn't your heroine want people to know her deepest desire? You mentioned that maybe she was living someone else's dream in order to go into that field. That might answer why she chose that particular field, but it doesn't answer why she doesn't want her inner motivation known. It probably has something to do with fear. Fear of looking weak, fear of not measuring up, fear of making the same mistakes her mother did. I'm afraid I can't help anymore with this, as it's your story, but hopefully that'll get you on the right road with her.

On to Hero. I had to laugh a bit at your question, but I meant you no disrespect. Almost every divorced guy I know has always moved on with someone younger, whether that was the reason for the divorce or if it happened later. Your guy isn't divorced, but widowed, which makes a difference, sure. However, you asked if it was credible for a man to date someone young to distract him from his grief. And I answer that with a RESOUNDING YES.

Why? Because it's credible that a person would do almost anything to distract themselves from grief. I did a ton of posts on grieving and the types of grief here. I'd read through them and figure out which kind he has.

The reason I think he might also be experiencing reaction formation is that he obviously loved deeply and was very happy with his wife, who died. This happiness was at one time so important to him that he doesn't think he can possibly recreate it...even though it might be his deepest desire to have that one again. So he acts in the opposite of what he truly wants, because it gives him anxiety to think he'll never attain happiness again. He goes for no emotional attachment at all, and makes do with a shell of his former life in the form of dates and maybe kisses, but nothing lasting--no connection.

I wouldn't worry about establishing a pattern of this type of behavior for him. She could be his first or his fifth. The first does bring with it some additional maybe make her number 2. I don't think a reader would want him to appear like a womanizer or opportunist, so I'd be careful how you introduce this particular backstory. How old is the guy? It might be that he just connected with the Heroine somehow (through your external story skeleton), and since she was quite a bit younger than him, he didn't think his heart was in danger of any attachment. I'd be curious about this tidbit.

You did ask what would be a credible time to reintroduce him to the dating game. I wrote a post here on my general rule of thumb about waiting to move on: two years. I think anything less than that could come across as tacky to your readers, and you wouldn't want to ostracize anyone. I've also read in research that 2 years for the death of a spouse is about the average time it takes for the survivor to feel normal and ready to move on.

There you go, Alice. Hope this assessment has been as helpful as the last one I did for you! Thanks for writing in again!

And to you other writers out there...the queue is LOW, so now's a good time to write in!

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Cindy R. Wilson said...

Jeannie, this is very interesting to me. In my current WIP, my hero is a widower as well and it's a romance. It's been about two years since his wife and daughter died (which was good to read about the two years rule above) but the woman he meets and starts to fall for already has a child of her own and she's established and responsible. I often wonder if his feelings about moving on and his hesitancy make sense and seem realistic but this helped some. Thanks for the insightful post :)

Alice said...

Thank you, thank you!!! That was such a help. Your comments are brilliant. They've really helped me go deeper with those characters. It's so good of you to give so much help through your blog.

Clar said...

just a question do you go back and forth with an author or just go off on the email the auother provides?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

clar - i go back and forth as needed through emails or in the comment section. sometimes i have initial questions after reading a character sketch and will email back for more detail in a given area, etc. sometimes i don't need it just depends. :)

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.