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,
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
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!