by Mark Swartz with Frederick Woolverton, Ph.D.

Learning about love by listening to love songs is a laughable notion. I would argue, however, that certain songs, breakup duets, where a lover and a beloved each get to sing from their separate viewpoints, can be instructive cases for exploring certain questions about love. With this theory in mind, I contacted Frederick Woolverton, an experienced couples therapist, to help me interpret breakup duets from across the pop spectrum and to see what light they might shed on relationships. What follows are selected lyrics from the breakup duets that Woolverton and I discussed. His commentary is in italics.

[Written by Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer;
sung by Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl]

KM: You’re a bum
       You’re a punk

SM: You’re an old slut on junk
       Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed

KM: You scumbag, you maggot
       You cheap lousy faggot
       Happy Christmas your arse
       I pray God it’s our last

SM: I could have been someone

KM: Well so could anyone
       You took my dreams from me
       When I first found you

SM: I kept them with me, babe
       I put them with my own
       Can’t make it all alone
       I’ve built my dreams around you

This is a description of classic codependency in a relationship. It reminds me of a Beckett play where the bond between two people is forged by mutual hatred and scorn rather than respect and love. It’s the result of years of disappointed expectations. The psychoanalyst Harold Boris once wrote an essay called “On Hope,” where he says that hope is toxic. Hope totally ignores what happens in the present and focuses on one’s life in the future. Embedded is the hope that someday in the future, the other person will come through, which makes the pathological bond in the present justifiable, because neither party wants to give up what could happen in the future, so the bond is inextricable. They’re saying, “I am nobody without you; all I have is my hatred of you. The future could be better, so let’s keep hope alive.” It’s amazing how many relationships are based on that premise.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Mark Swartz is the author of the novels Instant Karma and H2O.

Dr. Frederick Woolverton is the founder and director of the Village Institute for Psychotherapy, with offices in New York City and Fayetteville, Ark.

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