"Everybody has one soul mate." "True lovers can read each other's minds." "All you need is love." A psychotherapist who's seen it all pokes holes in some of romance's little fairy tales and explains why life is saner—and happier—without them.
If we could each pick a few songs to banish from our heads, Diana de Vegh would nominate all those soggy old refrains that say there's one—and only one—true love for each of us: our better half, our shining knight, the person we'll be lost without. That line of thought, says de Vegh, a therapist in private practice in New York, isn't benignly corny—it's harmful, feeding what she calls the myth of love scarcity.
"In the scarcity model, where there's only one person out there, we're all competing for the guy who's rich and handsome," she says. Our relationships become fear based: We obsess and clutch instead of creating an environment in which two people try to unfold.
De Vegh, a casually elegant woman with penetrating blue eyes, meets with clients in her Greenwich Village office, where richly textured wall hangings, a deep purple sofa, and a fireplace give evidence of a delight in color and comfort as well as an assured originality. Her strong sense of self was hard-won: The reason she has thought so much about how we can separate romantic passion from the misconceptions that often surround it is that she's seen for herself how damaging they are. As a very young woman, de Vegh was swept into an affair with then president John F. Kennedy—perhaps the ultimate fairy-tale prince. Her own experiences, and those of so many of the women she has counseled over the past 15 years, have sharpened her insights into the ways fantasy romance, rather than completing us, undoes us.
Love is the ideological bone women have been thrown," she says, meaning that in our society, men often get the real power while women are fed the false promises of "magic candy" romance—that someone special will shower us with attention, give us our identity, read our mind, and intuit our needs.
"Mind reading," she says, "is useful between a mother and an infant but not in a sexual relationship between adults." When you want someone who can anticipate your thoughts and desires, you're really looking for an idealized parent—usually a combination of Mommy and Daddy wrapped into one. "For years, I was looking for men who would think I was charming and make me feel safe—like Daddy's best girl," she says. The craving for that kind of attention is rampant. "I see women all the time who say they're looking for romantic relationships, but I believe they're really looking to be parented. We all want to feel special and dear, with our foibles bathed in the loving glow of a doting father," she says. "At the same time that we want Daddy's strong arms, we also want a mother's sweetness and tenderness." And when the romance goes south, she says, you end up feeling like a child who's been abandoned and is lost.
"We all naturally fall in love with a handsome, married man—our fathers," she says. "They bring us out into the world. And if we're secure, we grow up to want something more interesting than parent-child love; we want an adult partnership." But the precondition for that, she says, is a good relationship with ourselves.
It's when you view yourself as powerless, with your worth dependent on how someone else treats you, that love gets corrupted, de Vegh says. "Letting men determine who we are is the negative hinge that turns desire into vulnerability, changes our bodies from sites of pleasure to sites of betrayal, and transforms solitude into loneliness. I think that when people say they're lonely, what they're really saying is that they don't like their own company. And something should be done about that, because if you don't like your own company, then you're the victim of whoever passes by."