If you haven't already seen Louis C.K.'s bit on Conan about why he won't let his daughters have cell phones, stop reading and watch it. It will remind you why comedy matters — because when it's done well, it tells a perfect truth.
Louis starts by commenting on how we are in a constant state of distraction — texting, tweeting, heads bent toward the phone and away from people, and that “underneath everything in your life, there's that thing, that empty, forever-empty.” Between jokes he shares his own experience of being overcome by a Bruce Springsteen song and pulling over to cry. Noting his impulse to distract himself he embraces the feeling, and adds, brilliantly, “when you let yourself feel sad…happiness comes rushing in to meet the sadness.”
Louis is describing the pain and joy of being present and connected to oneself. This is the first step to intimacy and is the foundation of being intimate with a partner. It has taken me a decade of therapy and therapizing to get it. Louis C.K. gets it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets it, too.
Gordon-Levitt's new film Don Jon is the story of a porn-obsessed, not-so-good Catholic boy from Jersey and his perfect-10 love interest, whose own obsession with romance blinds her to the reality of her relationship. Beneath the MTV gloss and intermittent porn montages is a sweet, thoughtful film about our terror of our own feelings and the poetry of being truly present with another person.
When we meet our hero, Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt), he's in the shallow end of his life. His top priorities are his car, his pad, his bod and his porn. Even his relationship to God is cursory — the priest is just an enabler who wipes Jon's conscience clean with a prescription of Hail Marys and Our Fathers so he can keep sinning each week. When Jon goes to his parents' house it's clear that's where Jon learned to disconnect. Sure, they meet weekly for worship and Sunday supper, but this is one lonely family. Dad (Tony Danza!) wraps himself in football, oblivious to his needy wife, and keeps people away with a simmering rage. Mom (Glenne Headly) is fixated on getting Jon married and having grandkids, hysterical when he indicates otherwise. Sister, Monica (Brie Larson), mutely texting throughout highlights the cellphone curse aptly noted by C.K.
Enter Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a bodacious Jersey queen with a fixed agenda: find a man, fix him up, get the ring, breed. She is Jon's corollary, and every bit the predator only more calculating. She grooms him according to the airbrushed fantasy painted for her by countless schmaltzy romcoms with happy endings. She uses her blazing sexuality to trap and coerce Jon into playing her Prince Charming.
And it works! Of course it does. This is an old story, and it doesn't have a happy ending. Most people start with a fantasy of who they want their partner to be, and they actually believe it. And the pain in a relationship often comes from the disillusionment that follows when they both discover they are with an imperfect, wounded soul. The work — and, as a marriage therapist, this is what I help my clients with — is in releasing the objectifying fantasy, and learning to love the real person in front of you, which starts with self-acceptance.
Meanwhile, Jon's porn habit is escalating. He whacks it a couple dozen times a week –out of boredom, out of habit, even after sex. Why? He explains, for starters, the women in porn do it all, don't complain, always give blowies, and never want anything in return. But fundamentally it's because when he's watching porn, as he says, “I lose myself.”
Whether with porn or NFL, Twitter or nickel slots, “losing yourself” — i.e., dissociating — is the opposite of presence. It's poisonous to intimacy, and we all do it. An ex heroin addict once said that shooting up was the closest he could get to feeling cradled by his mother. Addiction is a backward way of responding to a normal need for intimacy. The addict, terribly alone, can't tolerate the fear of being rejected by someone else and so choses to get lost, jetting back like a squid, inking everyone in his path.
Julianne Moore rounds out this rocking cast through her depiction of Esther, Jon's oracle, his Yoda. Esther is authentic to the marrow. She's honest, feels her emotions and is curious about Jon's. She isn't hiding from anyone and there's this soothing solidity about her. She makes bid after bid to connect with Jon, which seems to befuddle and embarrass him. She's the only one in the movie not playing by the rules and she's the only one who's real.
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Being present is hard. It means letting go, surrendering to what is — not what we think it should be. It asks us to give way to feeling and to steady ourselves so that we can still connect to others. That is intimacy. And you know that annoying thing therapists do where they sit with you and listen quietly? That's presence. A good therapist doesn't need to talk or be an expert or rescue you from your feelings. If she's quiet, she's not in her head judging — she's with you.
Ultimately, Jon discovers true intimacy and great sex. He tries to describe what feels so good about intimate sex. “We get lost in each other,” he says. I think he means that when you are fully present, all the clatter, the pointless thinking and neurotic horseshit, fall away, and for a moment you are connected. What Jon calls getting lost is really about being found.
Caroline Frost is a licensed marriage and family therapist and specializes in intimacy disorders like sex and love addiction and relationship dysfunction. She sees individuals and couples in private practice in the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood area. She also specializes in treating creative populations. To contact her call 323-839-3707, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit www.carolinefrost.com or follow @LoveWellTherapy on Twitter.