I have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out. Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions. You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer. His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No! I don’t want to do that!” My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.
We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend. In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.” If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys. Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul. There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time. Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.
- We all exist in relationship to others. At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.” He prefers to be alone. However, as humans, we exist in relationships. The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
- When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people. In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss. I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone. Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
- People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range. There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage. It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore. This happens in marriage all the time. Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
- People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again. For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded. The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present. It’s not even always conscious. Our brains remember pain.
- When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable. Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again. Very common and again, not always intentional.
- It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again. Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again. Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
- It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction. This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis. The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment. This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction. This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
- Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life. Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie. People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support. People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships. They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything. Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone. We literally feel less pain.
- We can want someone and push them away at the same time. Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself. Batman knows he has a dark side. There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her. This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
- You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close. There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift. People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close. Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work. Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly. It will paradoxically push people away more. All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal.
- Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost. Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul. His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust. People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.
I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie. Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless. Bottom line: We are social beings. We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships. The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships. To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people. It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.
My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.
Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!
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