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Love Lost and Found

Jeanne Safer points out the pitfalls of passion in her new book, 'The Golden Condom'

Jeanne Safer

Susan Shapiro

Author Jeanne Safer explores the ups and downs of romance and sexual desire.

En español | Pop quiz, boomers. The Golden Condom is:

a) a pornographic picaresque

b) a guide to safe sex in later life

c) a fascinating book about thwarted love, emotional betrayal and learning to love your partner in a more mutual and fulfilling way

Give yourself top marks if you answered "c." The Golden Condom: And Other Essays on Love Lost and Found is a new collection of analyses and advice about the up- and downsides of love from psychotherapist Jeanne Safer. Among the touchy or taboo topics that Safer addresses in the book are the human desire for revenge when we get rebuffed or betrayed, our obsession with unattainable mates, and the self-destructive ways in which we often try to protect our bruised hearts.

Yet The Golden Condom is no mere roundup of clinical case studies. That becomes clear when Safer explains the book's intriguing title: As a 19-year-old college student in 1967, Safer spray-painted a condom gold and sent the gilded symbol to her boyfriend to let him know she was done with his philandering and narcissism. The author then recounts the backstory of other heartbroken lovers, citing reassuring examples of how self-knowledge can break the cycle of self-lacerating love. The goal: to love — and to be loved — better.

It's not always easy reading. I winced as I read about certain painful mistakes made by others because I had made the same ones myself. Why do we try so hard to love someone who doesn't love us in return? Why do we become so besotted that we're willing to tolerate insulting — even demeaning — behavior from a lover? Far more than mere academic interest, dear reader, made me hunger to hear these questions explained.

In a particularly surprising passage of the book, Safer details how and why a friend's betrayal often constitutes a romantic loss no less painful than being abandoned by a lover. When I recognized my own past in this story — a longtime friend rejected me in 1991, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind ever since — I reached for the phone.

"That's one of the reasons I wrote the book," Safer told me from her home in New York. "Love and friendship are intimately related — and dynamically similar. In fact we have more fantasies about friendship than we do about passionate love!

"Think about it," Safer continued. "Our most comforting fantasy is that this friend will never desert you, no matter what, yet it's also one of the most pernicious. It's like the fantasy of having, or being, perfect parents: unattainable!"

For those who reach adulthood bearing plenty of emotional scars — that is to say, most of us — Safer gives the lifelong quest to find true love the gravitas it deserves. And what makes her such an expert on the subject? After a number of disastrous love affairs — all documented in these pages — Safer found happiness with her life partner (and political antagonist) Richard Brookhiser. Having seen each other through some harrowing health challenges, Safer and Brookhiser recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary.

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