The Circus Has Left Town


Dear Dr. Bram:

I’m in a rut and need some help! I’ve been married for ten years now and things just don’t seem the same any more. We used to laugh and have fun. Our relationship was a carnival of excitement and mutual discovery.
Now it seems like the circus has left town. Although we don’t fight, we never thrill each other either. I sack out watching sports on TV while Imogen locks herself in the study with her genealogy software.  It’s like we’re strangers; we don’t know how to talk to each other. And sex? Forget it! We simultaneously shudder if our hands even accidentally brush against each other. I’m so distraught that I’m seeing things. I am a cleric of mild disposition. On my way home from my church, a red-eyed phantom monkey appeared beside me (no seat-belt!) urging me to perform unspeakable acts. Recently, he has begun to perch on the altar while I preach; he utters the most dreadful blasphemies. Is this relevant?

Can you help me bring the magic back into my life? Am I

Mad in Manitoba?

Dear Mad:
I’m listening to you. I hear you. Listening is the most important part of any relationship. When clients come to me with non-marital problems, I encourage them to play the listening game. In the listening game, one person adopts the role of speaker and the other the role of listener. The listener’s only job is to understand what the speaker says. The listener tries to rephrase the speaker in the listener’s own words. If the speaker thinks that the listener has misunderstood what he/she said he/she re-phrases until a mutual understanding is reached.

Were we speaking in person, we could go through this process together. I charge $300 an hour. The listening game is only the first step in the long process of conflict resolution and avoidance, but it is a very important one. However, your problem is a marital problem, so I do not advise you to play the listening game. My reason is simply this: no marital problems can be solved, ever. Marital problems are like cracks in your windshield. Although the flaws can seem trivially small to begin with, give them a while and your windshield is an opaque silicate spider web and your car a hurtling birthing couch of death and disability.

“Yes, but you can fix windshield cracks,” you may say. “Just go to the repair shop.” My God you are dim. Can’t you understand an analogy? Do you think that your marriage is literally made of safety glass? Why don’t you go to Boyd Autobody for marital advice? They will just squish your head with one of those mysterious suction cups. This is the real world, Mad, and just get used to the fact that the once-loving marital part of your life is inescapably spiralling into a black hole. When life gives you lemons you should think about how much you hate lemons and resent anyone who was part of the atrocious process that provided you with THE FRUIT YOU HATE THE MOST. And such small portions, too. When I am giving relationship seminars, at $10,000 a day, I take couples outside, and work them into such a hot lather of despair, pessimism and anger that they pump their fists into the air while screaming “Yes, we can’t! Yes we can’t!” I can tell that it’s working when their words deteriorate into ragged animal mewlings.

OK now that I have proven to you that marital problems can never be solved, let’s get down to brass tacks. What should you do? My general advice is that couples should magnify and amplify those problems as much and as quickly as possible in order to bring their marriages to rapid and catastrophic ends. If you’re going to remove a bandage, you should do so as briskly as possible, because a slow removal hurts more in the end. It’s like that with marriages, except with marriage the pain never ends. Remember: analogy.

Here’s a game that you may find helpful. First, find a time when both you and Imogen are over-tired and on edge. Find a comfortable room, or what used to be a comfortable room back when your marriage had meaning. Put on some calm new-age music, but only if you both despise calm new-age music. My clients have often chosen Zamfir or any other “masters” of the pan-flute. However if that doesn’t not-work for you, consider some strident atonal music. The Greek composer, Xenakis, is a good choice: think power-drill.

Once you have readied your surroundings, sit facing each other. Now, while maintaining eye contact, scream as loudly and as hurtfully as you can at each other. I can’t tell you exactly what to say. Who do you think I am? Kreskin? I have found, though, that it often works to point out the flaws that your no-longer-loved one has but is afraid of acknowledging even to him or herself. Don’t be shy, and remember that flecks of spittle just show that you once cared. They are the tiny iridescent jewels of resignation that festoon the gossamer of your broken dreams. No doubt this will only constitute a first step, but remember that a spectacularly failed marriage takes commitment and perseverance on both sides.

Now it’s time to move on to your phantom monkey. Have you given him a name? Remember, it is inconsiderate to depersonalize him. Maybe he would like to be called “Cheetah.” I’m glad he has appeared to you. It will be good to have a companion when you are desperately lonely. This is the relationship in your life that’s worth building on. Play the listening game with your phantom monkey. This will be hard to do if he is speaking in tongues, but if you repeat and rephrase, I’m sure that you’ll eventually come to a mutual understanding. Now, in addition to the listening game you can go through some conflict-resolution exercises, like the noting-feeling-believing process. For instance, you can say “When you whispered in my ear that I should throw myself from the church steeple onto the gravestones below, I felt hurt and scared -and yes, even a bit angry- because I thought that you did not desire my welfare.” This relationship is really worth working on. Remember, the voices in your head are often speaking to your heart. The phantom monkey is the magic in your life.

All the best, “Dr.” Bram

P.S. Do you drink a lot of tea?

Scholarly note: The situation in this piece is based on Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”

Ask The Love Doctor

Doctor Bram Hesselius

“Doctor” Bram Hesselius, known worldwide as the “Love Doctor,” is a counsellor, lecturer and the author of Imitation of Love: the Joy of Settling. He lives on Vancouver Island with his screaming harpy of a wife, “Dr.” Somerdawn Goldstein-Hesselius. This is not sexist. She really is a screaming harpy. You know, like the mythical creature. "Dr" Bram was created by Dr. Carl Matheson, head of the department of philosophy at the University of Manitoba.