Elizabeth Webber blew into Port Charles in the Summer of 1997 as a rebellious, independent, cigarette smoking, wise cracking teenager, determined to capture the heart of Lucky Spencer, who was distracted by her older sister Sarah. Her traumatic rape on Valentine’s Day in 1998 became the foundation of their relationship, as Lucky spent the next year helping Elizabeth learn to heal, to trust, to love, and somewhere along the way, to quit smoking.
Over the next decade, the couple endured numerous make-ups, and breakups including Elizabeth’s disastrous marriage to Rick Lansing, her birth to two sons with different fathers (Zander and Jason), Lucky’s addiction to pain meds, affairs with Maxie and Sam, and a truckload of misunderstandings and assumptions. Through it all their bond survived and Elizabeth was well on her way to achieving her professed goal of having her “dream house in the country” with Lucky. That is, until she decided to start sleeping with Lucky’s brother (and former enemy) Nikolas Cassadine.
Lucky’s discovery of their illicit affair, and Elizabeth subsequently learning of her pregnancy without knowing the paternity of her child, was the catalyst for a painful psychiatric breakdown. Elizabeth developed acute paranoid symptoms, ie, believing others were out to judge her by constantly calling her a “slut,” a “whore,” “sinful,” and pretty much every name that has been used to persecute women over the past 200 years. In fact, in one of her vivid nightmares, she experienced herself as Hester Prynne, an appropriate allegory to “The Scarlet Letter” in that she perceived herself accused of being a diminished wanton woman who deserved punishment and public ridicule.
In reality, Port Charles is probably the best city to have an adulterous affair. What woman in town hasn’t been accused of being a “slut” and/or sent to a psychiatric institution for “rest?” In any event, her shame and guilt overwhelmed her to the point of making a suicidal gesture on the roof of the hospital, and she consequently checked herself into Shady Brook for inpatient care.
Elizabeth has spent the past month arguing with Lucky and Nikolas, ducking Helena, and presumably getting lots of therapy to discover “why” she self-sabotages and pursues illicit affairs with “dangerous” men. What’s seems to be missing in her treatment is how her choices and her actions have been out of congruence with her conditioned “shoulds.” For example, Elizabeth has been raised to believe she “should” want the stability of a stable husband, a monogamous relationship, a house in the country, security and comfort. Her behavior over the past four years suggests she wants something different. Sleeping with Jason while married to Lucky, and later sleeping with Nikolas while engaged to Lucky, suggests that Elizabeth is more invested in excitement and sexual liberation, than stability and monogamy.
In other words, the “problem” as I see is not that Elizabeth had a predilection for sleeping with a lot of different guys, it is that her guilt leads her to consistently lie to herself and others about what she truly wants. And who can blame her? When a person is told repeatedly that she “should” prioritize certain values (ie, marriage, stability), and those values are in conflict with one’s authentic self (ie, the firecracker Elizabeth we knew as a teenager), then there is bound to be a consistent pattern of internal strife and external conflicts. Perceiving herself as a “crazy slut”, “unworthy”, or a “sinful,” essentially serves to further suppress her true desires, an reinforce her internalized misogynistic notions of how a respectable woman “should” behave.
So what would are some real therapeutic interventions for Elizabeth at this point? I would do the following:
1. Help Elizabeth come to terms with her true wants and desires while diminishing guilt. Explore how she has learned to prioritize values such as “monogamy” and “stability.” Validate that 99% of the world will agree that she “should” want these things, but that still doesn’t mean these are necessarily the right values for her at this time in her life. The book “Opening Up” by Tristan Taormino articulates various styles of intimate open relationships, and could help Elizabeth to feel validated for her experiences.
2. Explore the sociopolitical history of how women have traditionally been perceived as “sinners” or “sluts” when they have expressed sexual desire. Elizabeth herself was able to accurately observe that Nikolas didn’t pay a price for their affair as she did. Sonny Corinthos has fathered half the children in town, but you don’t see him checking into an institutional for being a slut. Why is that? Explore how “The Scarlet Letter” was intended to illuminate the dangers of brutal morality the 1700s, not to validate misogynistic principles in 2010.
3. Support Elizabeth in effectively communicating her true wants and needs to Lucky. Her only big mistake in recent years was not being honest with herself and Lucky about what she truly wants and what she doesn’t. Lucky may not be willing to participate in a non-monogamous open relationship, but he sure as hell is sticking around for their current arrangement either. Discussing these issues will lead to increased respect and compassion for both individuals, as opposed to the way they have treated each other in recent months.
4. Discuss how guilt and shame have impacted her decisions have unsafe safe sex. Elizabeth has become pregnant by three different men in the past ten years (not counting the surrogate deal with Jax). All the while her best friend Robin is living with HIV after having unprotected sex with one person. Elizabeth is a nurse and well aware of how to protect herself from unwanted pregnancies and STD’s, yet she continues to expose herself regardless. When one has sex without “shoulds”, and without “guilt,” they are generally more likely to be safe and use protection.
As of this writing, Elizabeth is preparing to leave Shady Brook and return to her home, to her family, and her work. The men in her life are telling her it’s “too soon” and are trying to convince her that she is better locked up. In my perspective, Shady Brook has grossly neglected her care, and her true issues can more effectively and efficiently addressed on an outpatient basis.
What do you think? Is Elizabeth ready to reenter Port Charles society? Can she face her family and coworkers without morbid pre-occupations of sin and guilt? Or is she setting herself up to fail?
Damon L. Jacobs is a Marriage Family Therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve". He is re-imagining a world without "shoulds" at www.shouldless.com.