Q: I’m a 33-year-old woman from Melbourne, Australia, dating a 24-year-old man. We’ve been dating for about eight months; it is exclusive and official. He’s kind and sweet, caring and giving, and his penis is divine. The thing is, he confessed to me recently that he doesn’t really “feel.” The way he explained it is, the only emotions he feels are fear and anxiousness that he’ll disappoint the people he cares about. He says he’s never been in love. He said his dad is the same way. The only time I see him really “feel” are when he’s high, which he is semi-frequently. He uses MDMA and he comes alive. He seems the way a “normal” person does when they’re in love, but when he’s sober, it’s like he’s trying to mimic the things a person in love would say or do. I confessed I am falling in love with him recently and told him I wasn’t saying this with any expectation of him feeling the same; I just wanted him to know. He responded that he cares for me a lot — but that’s it. I’m now worried that he’ll never love me. I don’t want kids, so time isn’t critical for me, but I don’t want to be with someone who won’t ever love me.
– Lacking One Vaunted Emotion
You didn’t use the P-word (psychopath) or the S-word (sociopath), LOVE, but both came to mind as I was reading your letter. Someone who isn’t capable of feeling? Isn’t that textbook P-word/S-word stuff?
“The fear with someone who doesn’t ‘feel’ is that they may be a psychopath or a sociopath, terms that are used interchangeably,” said Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
. “And lots of the items on the psychopath checklist relate to an inability to experience deep emotions — like Shallow Affect, Lack of Empathy and Lack of Remorse. However, I have good news for LOVE! This line: ‘The only emotions he really feels are fear and anxiousness that he’ll disappoint the people he cares about’ is the critical one. Psychopaths do not feel anxiety. In fact, my favorite thing a psychologist said to me about this was: ‘If you’re worried you may be psychopath, that means you aren’t one.’ Also, psychopaths don’t care about disappointing loved-ones! All those emotions that relate to an overactive amygdala — fear, remorse, guilt, regret, empathy — psychopaths don’t feel them.”
So your boyfriend’s not a psychopath. Not that you asked. But, you know, just in case you were worried. Anyway …
My hunch is that your boyfriend’s problem isn’t an inability to feel love, LOVE, but an inability to recognize the feelings he’s having as love. (Or potentially love, as it’s only been eight months.) What is romantic love but a strong desire to be with someone? The urge to be sweet to them, to take care of them, to do for them? Maybe he’s just going through the motions with you — a conscious mimic-it-till-you-make it strategy —or maybe the double whammy of a damaged dad and that toxic masculinity stuff sloshing around out there left him blocked, LOVE, or emotionally constipated. And while MDMA can definitely be abused — moderation in all things, kids, including moderation — the effect it has on him is a hopeful sign. MDMA is not an emotional hallucinogen; the drug has been used in couples counseling and to treat PTSD, not because it makes us feel things that aren’t there (in the way a hallucinogen makes us see things that aren’t there), but because it allows genuine feelings to surface and, for a few hours, to be felt intensely. So he can feel love — he just has to learn how to tap into those feelings and/or recognize them without an assist from MDMA.
Jon Ronson had one last bit of advice for you, LOVE: “Marry him and his divine penis!”
I agree with Jon, of course, but a long, leisurely engagement is definitely in order. You’ve only been seeing this guy and his divinity dick for eight months — don’t propose to him for at least another year, LOVE, and make marriage conditional upon him seeing a shrink four times as often as he sees his MDMA dealer.
Follow Jon Ronson on Twitter @jonronson
, read all of his books (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?
is urgently required reading for anyone who spends time online), and check out his amazing podcast, The Butterfly Effect
. To access all things Jon Ronson, go to JonRonson.com