[Two Pronged] I'm a grad student with feelings for a priest

Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

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Dear Two Pronged:

I’m a grad student with feelings for a priest.

I’ve known him over 10 years, before he joined a religious order and began his novitiate. I consider him a friend. He’s been consistently kind to me, and debates with me without invalidating me 

I confided in him when I decided I was an atheist, came out as bisexual, and recognized my depression. I felt most supported by him when I was violently raped in my freshman year. He reassured me it wasn’t my fault.

When he says “I’m praying for you,” he backs that up with action. 

I realized I was having sexual, and even romantic, feelings about this priest. I first thought quarantine was just making me feel weird things; then I tried to rationalize this by telling myself that these were just an extension of our friendship.

However, these fantasies persist, and I’m beginning to feel guilty.  

I know I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s normal to be attracted to someone progressive, good-looking, and genuinely nice. 

I would never overstep boundaries to complicate things for either of us. However, no matter how much I rationalize, I feel I’m a bad person for having fantasies about a guy with a vow of celibacy. 

At very low points during quarantine, I’ve felt that if I’m the kind of girl dirty enough to fantasize about a priest, then maybe I’m a whore, maybe I deserved my rape.

I’m ordinarily very sex-positive and thought I had already processed the worst of my trauma. 

It’s so disturbing for shame like this to surface unexpectedly. 

I haven’t told anyone, and am too ashamed to bring it up with my therapist. I sure as hell am not going to tell my priest friend.

Maria

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Dear Maria,

A few months ago we posted a column about fantasies, parts of which may be relevant to your situation. However, it is well worth reviewing the subject since there are of course elements to your account which are entirely different.

Fantasies form part of nearly everybody’s life, and sexual fantasies abound. They come to us unbidden, sometimes with disturbing frequency and at inconvenient moments. Fantasies may be involuntary but we are of course responsible for what we do with them. We may spend the day imagining what we hope to do with our spouse that night in bed and then act that out when we get home (assuming our spouse consents). However, if we have a fantasy about someone else, for example involving killing them, then acting it out would be an entirely different matter and in this example a criminal offense.

While fantasies may be involuntary, it is often tempting to spend time actively prolonging them. This can be a simple recollection of the fantasy or a conscious development of the fantasy’s theme. Depending on the subject matter, this can be harmless (e.g. imagining a conversation with your boss in which you get to tell him what you really think about his unprofessional management of the department) or unhealthy (e.g. obsessing over an unwitting object of your affections).

In your case, Maria, what began as perfectly natural feelings towards a nice, good-looking, and understanding man have become enmeshed with guilt and self-doubt because he is a priest. You clearly understand that your fantasy involves "forbidden fruit" and have decided that it must remain under wraps. However, would your feelings be the same if he were, say, a primary school teacher or an advertising executive? If so, the object of your desire is not so much a priest but a man, and while he remains beyond your reach (unless your feelings are reciprocated; there are after all countless women married to ex-priests), there is no opprobrium to be attached merely to the feelings themselves. 

Dr. Holmes will consider the connection you are making to your rape and feelings of shame.

All the best,
JAF Baer 

Dear Maria:

Thank you very much for your letter. Forgive my sounding more like a textbook than a therapist (which I am not here, anyway). It is just that there is so much I want to say but with limited space, the best way for me to get a lot across is to do it via “enumeration.”

There are three categories of trauma. Yours is, most possibly, Acute trauma (Type I), rather than Complex (Type II) or Crossover trauma (Type III). Acute trauma results from exposure to a single overwhelming event. Examples: Rape, death of a loved one, or a natural disaster, and is characterized by, among other things, hyper-vigilance and misperceptions which describe what you’re feeling at the moment.  

If all that were needed to get over being raped was talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can be very effective for many problems, then you would have convinced yourself (and rightly so) that it has nothing to do with your morals (of supposed lack of), tendencies, hidden messages sent to various men, etc. If all it took to get over your rape was to talk about it to various experts, you would have no problem dealing with your fantasies.

On a purely intellectual level, you have assiduously and completely dealt with your rape. But trauma is not that easily dealt with; it takes residence, like a malignant tenant, not only in our minds, but also in our hearts and, extremely and painfully so, also in our bodies. Please get a copy of  Babette Rothschild’s The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (2000). It resonates with a lot that you are going through; I am sure it will be immensely helpful.

4. Says the actress Alyssa Millano: “At one point [during childbirth] I (was) really not enjoying the fact that lots of people had access to my vagina…. (I thought to myself) 'I don't like this. Why does it feel so familiar? I've never had a baby before. Why does this invasive feeling feel so familiar?'"

She continues: “I think anyone who has dealt with trauma has the moments where you're like, 'Yeah, I'm fine. I've dealt with that,' versus the moments where you go, 'Oh, no I didn't. I just tried to tuck it away so no one could see them or I couldn't see them or feel them anymore.'"

If an event as happy as having a child with the man you love makes someone feel sexually assaulted, it is not a stretch for you to feel you are bad for something you merely fantasize about.

It would be so easy to tell you: “Maria, your rape has to do with what happened to you, not what you caused to happen. It is in the past; the present is different and the future can be even more so.” 

BUT when you have been violently raped, you get hyper-vigilant, sensing signs of possible danger based on historical traumatic experiences. This leads to a set of emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses that arise in the service of survival and safety. Feeling you deserve to be raped is not in the service of survival; self-respect is vital to well-being. 

As someone once said: “Trauma can serve as…a lens through which a person views the world.” Think of sunglasses: You put them on and everything is shaded differently. Trauma can have that type of effect on how a person perceives their world.

I am glad you wrote to us. It shows you are aware you aren’t coping as well as you should, a signal, notwithstanding how bright and sex positive you are, that sometimes there is still work to be done. This is the first step, writing us. The second, perhaps, is finding another therapist who has more experience with trauma so you can further explore the connection between your fantasies and feeling so terrible about yourself.

Please, pleeeease write us again if there is anything else we might be able to do for you? My heart goes out to you.

MG Holmes   

– Rappler.com