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Q: Psychology - what's going on and why? ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Psychology - what's going on and why?
Category: Health > Conditions and Diseases
Asked by: fenestra-ga
List Price: $200.00
Posted: 16 Aug 2005 12:58 PDT
Expires: 15 Sep 2005 12:58 PDT
Question ID: 556479
I am drafting the storyline for a short novel.
Part one:
The main character, at 65yrs age, comes to realise over a period of
time how little he has achieved in life despite a wife, children,
comfortable home and pension etc. He feels he lacks any sparkle or
passion for anything.
Suddenly one day, for no reason, memories of 45 years previously come
flooding back. He goes over in his mind a 2yr intense love affair with
seemingly all the future ahead of them. But then she broke off the
affair with little warning and no reason given. He deals with the
trauma by blocking it out and carries on ?normally?.
Part two:
He rationalises his thoughts and realises he has unresolved issues. He
feels great frustration. Although the affair was not ?ideal? due to
different religions, races and cultures he cannot overcome regret for
what might have been. Dreams at night and during the day produce an
imaginary parallel existence to his real life such that he feels he
could literally turn round and actually be in his fantasy. He could
leave behind completely his present real life ignoring potential
pitfalls and regain a glamorous lifestyle even working out what they
would be saying and doing.
Part three:
In desperation he searches for (via the internet ? how else), finds
and meets up with her. He hears her ?life story? and discovers she was
involved with another whom she married. This should have been obvious
but still hard to accept. Together again but the difficulties are
still real, if not more so, and his illusions are shattered. Neither
lives happily thereafter.

What is the psychological explanation for these situations happening
after such a long time?
So that the book can not only recount the story but also contain
plausible diagnostic and therapeutic themes, I need to know how a
psychologist would approach this problem particularly the diagnosis
and treatment.
I also want to read some background texts, possibly with relevant case
histories,that are reasonably easy to access.

Request for Question Clarification by guillermo-ga on 18 Aug 2005 05:41 PDT
Hello Fenestra-ga,

Yours is a very appealing question, really.

First, I'd like to address the interesting post by commenter
Baz2121-ga. When people resort to the defense mechanism called
"repression" it is indeed because they've suffered a very intense pain
or trauma. However, the intensity of a trauma is entirely subjective,
and it depends on how the person is psychically constituted at the
moment the trauma occurs. For instance, some (few) people have
overcome incredibly traumatic situations such as the survival in a
concentration camp without severe psychological consequences, while
others may collapse for failing an exam in college. In which case,
repression could be a way-out to avoid the pain. The key is what past
traumatic experiences are evoked ?not necessarily recalled- by the
last one. One present "objectively" intense traumatic situation may,
by itself, devastate a person with no traumatic background.
Conversely, a present situation, insignificant for most people, can
destroy someone with a history of psychical suffering, particularly in
their early childhood. Consequently, I do find believable what happens
to your character. Also, the way in which memory works is quite
unpredictable, so an apparently disconnected motive can bring back an
old and forgotten episode.

However, I'm not sure that you meant that he has actually forgotten
that relationship -in the literal amnesiac sense- but that he just
stopped thinking of it. In other words, he might have repressed,
rather than the occurrence of that old relationship itself, the
importance it had for him.

That would be one approach, but the outline of your story suggested me
another psychological scenario. The one of a person who cannot get
satisfaction from his current situation and is always longing for an
idealized past or future or life somewhere else, or with someone else,
or with some other profession, etc. A person with such a condition is
likely not to have noticed that the relationship of his youth was
decaying. Moreover, he might not be aware of it now, but his apparent
lack of interest then could have led his girlfriend toward someone
else more caring. Then, he would have married someone whom he actually
is unable to tell whether he loves or not. He might have a successful
profession from which he is unable to take any pleasure. He's always
absent, frequently daydreaming, lonely and quiet or else apparently
jovial and communicative, but in any case unable to express his real
self. One day, by recalling that old relationship the he *now*
remembers as the "love of his life" ?what doesn't mean it really was-
he comes to believe that recovering that lost love would be the
solution for his apathy. That becomes his obsession but, short after
he finally reaches it, the feeling of emptiness returns.

Please let me know your thoughts on whether should I go further along
these lines, or were you thinking on something different. Thank you.

Best regards,


Clarification of Question by fenestra-ga on 20 Aug 2005 09:30 PDT
Greetings Guillermo-ga

Thanks for your views and information which suggest to me a slight
change of emphasis to my story.

When the love affair ends he suppresses (consciously avoids thinking
of the unpleasant memory) his feeling so that he does not find this
breaking up traumatic or upsetting at the time - more annoying and

But subsequently, 45 years later, when the memories return he finds
the thought of the whole situation causes him severe anxiety.

He feels frustrated that he lost his chance for an ideal or better
life but knows deep in his heart that he is deluding himself.

He becomes obsessed with fantasising about the sort of life they would
have had together and could be having at the present time.
You have got it exactly right that he has not actually forgotten the
relationship but that he just stopped thinking about it. In other
words he has repressed (inhibited the thought or feeling in himself so
that it becomes or remains unconscious) the significance and
importance it had for him.

If he had been asked before he started to "relive his memories" he
would have said - I seldom think about those times or my feelings and
then they cause me no anxiety or distress.

What sort of circumstances could act as a trigger to bring back a long
forgotten episode and why should this turn into an obsession?



Request for Question Clarification by guillermo-ga on 20 Aug 2005 18:35 PDT
Hello Fenestra-ga,

I'm glad that you found my approach interesting and gave you new ideas
for your plot. It's most exciting to collaborate in the creative
process of a story --thanks for the chance :)

I'll compile the necessary information to give you the psychological
background to build a sound argument for your story. I'll keep in


Clarification of Question by fenestra-ga on 24 Aug 2005 06:56 PDT
Greetings Guillermo-ga

I will be very interested to see your information.



Request for Question Clarification by guillermo-ga on 24 Aug 2005 17:59 PDT
Hi Fenestra-ga,

I'm working on it. I'll be back to you soon. Thanks for your patience.

Subject: Re: Psychology - what's going on and why?
Answered By: guillermo-ga on 30 Aug 2005 15:27 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hello Fenestra-ga,

Here's my contribution to your character's psychological background.
While there are many psychology schools, my approach comes from
psychoanalysis, which is the one I'm more familiar with, because is
the one I find that explains better the human psychology.

Since you've stated in your question and clarification he's had a life
of normal achievements --marriage, parenthood, house, restful
retirement?and that his forgetting his youth's affair was not a
complete repression of his memories but just a decision to pass them
over, we may state that we're talking not about a psychotic
personality but a neurotic or borderline one.

A neurotic is what, in different degrees, most people are. They (we
?assuming not being any of the other two) can manage their anxieties
and have an everyday life without needing to cut off from reality.
While anybody's view of the world and oneself is subjective and
influenced by unconscious feelings, a neurotic's view normally matches
reality quite well, unless when under a particularly emotional
situation such as anger, sadness, infatuation, etc., when the vision
of reality gets intensely distorted by those feelings.

A borderline behaves mostly like that, but their anxieties have a
deeper impact in their everyday life ?career, amusement,
relationships- often preventing them from having successful or
gratifying experiences. While able to differentiate reality from
fantasy, their perception of reality is heavily influenced on their
inner world and deep fears, so a certain distortion is present in
their view of the world, or parts or aspects of it, and of themselves.
This preeminence of their inner world has its consequences in their
interactions with the outside.

From a literary point of view, any of the two options offers the same
possibilities of complexity and richness to develop interesting
characters. Maybe a borderline would lead more easily to a tragedy or
a comedy, a spoof. Also maybe a neurotic character would be lend
itself more smoothly to work with nuances of personality, feelings and
situations, since it is less determined by its psychological

One good example, a believe, of the contrast between this two
psychological types is the film "Wonder Boys" (I wish I could refer to
the novel but, unfortunately, I haven't read it). There, James Leer,
the student, is a borderline: he makes up his whole life, you think he
could commit suicide at any time, he can't have an accurate view of
his own talent and is unable to relate to almost anyone, and with
those he does, he grants no much access to his intimacy, and he
idealizes and attaches to protective figures to dear do face the
vicissitudes of life. Instead, Grady Tripp, the professor, while in a
disordered manner, is able to deal with practical things, have
gratifying relations, hold a career, take reality pretty much for what
it is ?keeping a distance from the student who's infatuated with him,
realizing that he has some responsibility on his wife leaving him,
being concerned about his lover's pregnancy, etc. He's in a sad and
somehow lethargic moment, but he's perfectly aware of it, and you're
expecting for the moment when he'll put his things together.

Much of a personality's psychology is set in what is called "defense
constellation". First, a "defense mechanism" is "is an unconscious way
to protect one's personality from unpleasant thoughts which may
otherwise cause anxiety" (Wikipedia; defense mechanism:
). A "defense constellation" is the interacting set of defense
mechanisms that a particular person has been building through their
life ?a person is not limited to those defenses that make their
constellation, but they make a system that constitute a sort of matrix
for his psychological responses. It's important to point out that we
all have defenses and that they're not dysfunctional but when they
cause us pain or lead us to inadequate responses in real life.
Otherwise, even when they may imply a falsification of reality, the
help us go through difficult experiences, giving us time to accept
certain facts, or a smooth protection to cope with hard situations.
For a non dramatic example, maybe even funny example, consider
repression, which mainly consists in keeping very well hidden all the
memories that are emotionally intense for us, either in a good or bad
manner. Imagine how complicated it would be for us to consciously
remember the situation, with all its sensations, of being born.
Conversely, if one systematically repressed any situation difficult to
bear through life, then this would be dysfunctional.

The psychological background I propose for your character has a
serious difficult to *be* where he is, permanently longing for an
idealized situation somewhere else. I'd say that the defense
constellation of this character would include: displacement,
withdrawal, idealization, unconscious fantasy / daydreaming,
splitting, sublimation.

Living whatever present situation is, for some reason, painful or felt
as dangerous for this character. (I do not intend to steal from you
the pleasure of creating the character's history by yourself, instead,
providing you the leads to make that history consistent from a
psychological viewpoint.) That feeling may come from his having been
raised by without a present father figure, and by a mother too much
caring, which could have provoked an intensification of the feelings
associated with the Oedipus Complex, which is a normal process that
takes place in early childhood (about three years old). For a male
kid, it consists in perceiving his mother as his only object for love,
thus begetting feelings of hatred towards his father, the fantasy of
killing him and retaining his mother's love only for himself. When an
actual father figure is absent, this process can get (I don't mean
inevitably) distorted and deepened in several ways, from the guilty
unconscious fantasy that he actually had killed his father, to the
over-natural fear that his father could punish him from an imprecise
existence that can be primitively identified with death.

Eventually in his life, this person can react to this fear and/or
guilty feelings recurring to the defense we called "withdrawal",
simply stepping back ?illusorily- from the situation, as if he were
somewhere else. In adult life, such a mechanism, specially if
originated in a situation such as the one I describe, may lead to
difficult to relate intimately with a woman, even sexual dysfunctions
(though not necessarily).

The working life --study, job, career? holds an unconscious relation
with primitive sexuality. If your character has this fear for sexual
contact, he may apply his libido (the force that drives human action
towards a desired object, primarily built on sexual impulses) to
career achievements by sublimation (applying primitive drives to
cultural creations). This, altogether with displacement (redirecting a
drive to a safer one), and splitting (attributing a quality of good or
evil to separate objects, denying that they all can hold both bad and
good aspects) so that coming to believe that focusing in a career is
good while relationships, or women, or better (to your purpose) the
particular woman he is with in a given period.

Maybe your character hasn't got to the point of considering the whole
female gender evil ?or better dangerous, always, take in account, in
an unconscious level- except for the one he is with. In the bottom of
his mind lies an idealized (idealization: considering someone else,
typically the parental figures, as all good all powerful) female
figure, his mother, but not his mother at hand, present (he may have
in real life, because of this, a difficult relation with her), but her
mother as an abstract sensation, out there, unreachable. Thus, The
woman ?who definitely, he believes, exists somewhere, is never the
women he is in the present moment. Then, through his life he learns to
long for an ideal that only exists in his head, and is unable to
surrender that promising ideal to the real thing when it happens. He
attaches to that fantasy lying in his unconscious, and daydreams of
that ideal life with the ideal love. That is how he let go that
relationship of his youth. Actually, she probably loved him
passionately (that's why she will eventually go back with him) and had
expectations from that relationship, but also perceived that he didn't
seem to really love her and then, frustrated, she started to look
somewhere else.

When he finally marries someone, the pattern is the same for him, but
this other woman is different, and for her own psychological structure
may feel comfortable with this situation. Maybe she is unfaithful,
maybe not, but she fits in the scenario.

You don't need to worry too much about how and why your character will
recall that old affaire. Retirement is difficult for anybody, now
imagine a person who has considered his profession as all what is good
and gratifying all of his life. Suddenly, he confronts himself to what
he perceives as the void of his life, and now that that relationship
is a memory from the past, it may very well seem to him as the ideal
love he lost. Consistently enough with this approach, once they're
back together, the void returns.

I hope I have given you the help that you needed, but you can still
count on my if something got lost in the way, by asking for

My search strategy was:
psychoanalysis "defense mechanisms"
psychoanalysis "Oedipus complex"

Some sources that helped me for this answer:


Candle in the Dark:

And a lifetime readings reviewed for this purpose ;)

Please don't hesitate to ask for any clarification you may need. And
good luck with your novel!

Best regards,


Clarification of Answer by guillermo-ga on 02 Sep 2005 17:32 PDT
Hello Fenestra-ga,

Thank you very much for your rating and comment.

Best regards,

fenestra-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Very good answer for my purpose - lots of material and perspectives to consider.

Subject: Re: Psychology - what's going on and why?
From: baz2121-ga on 17 Aug 2005 17:35 PDT
Repression is a difficult concept even in psychology, with many
scholars arguing about the neurone functionalities behind it. Usually
a non-physiological (ie: psychological not disease-caused) repression
of a memory or past history gets triggered by small things tracing
back to a commonality with the memories. Physiological repression due
to brain disease is usually triggered through contact with certain
substances or people.

But the thing that faults your story from a psychological point of
view (although it does sound like it's going to be a good read!) is
that your character represses a memory based on a bad break up and for
no reason at all, it all comes flooding back. This is practically
unheard of as most memory perception is repressed after a seriously
traumatic event (eg: rape, incest, violence, etc), not just a break
up. And even if it were to happen, for a repressed memory (as in so
repressed the character didn't even KNOW about the existence of it) to
just "pop" back into his head after 45yrs for no rhyme or reason
doesn't make sense.

Maybe you can write a "trigger" into the story, and make the break-up
more traumatic (maybe she broke up with him because he suffered
horrific injuries in a car crash or something like that) :)

Here are some good journal entries by a few respected college
psychologists about memory repression that may help:

Hope this helps!

Subject: Re: Psychology - what's going on and why?
From: myoarin-ga on 21 Aug 2005 09:33 PDT
When this question was first locked, I drafted the following, which
nicely applies to your question about what could trigger the
At an age where I can understand Fenestra?s character, I would
disagree with Baz about needing a trauma for repression.  Maybe
repression is too strong and a professional expression  - just
suppression.   But for the memory of the past to suddenly flood back,
there needs to be some cue: the face of a girl on the street,  or one
from behind, whose hair or hair- styling reminds him (that ponytail),
a whiff of perfume, or the scent of lilacs or photo in a magazine of a
garden with lilacs that reminds him of her garden in spring, her first
name appearing in some text, a book (The Little Prince would work for
about 50% of the population  - and probably cue their recollections 
:) I wonder where my copy from ?her? is.).   All from personal
experience (different girls).


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