There is no one universally used definition of the Madonna/Whore Complex. Usually discussions of this complex revolves around the dichotomy of how some men can view women as two distinct and separate personas, that of saint and sinner, or of mother and whore. The complex can also center around the distinction between sacred love and profane love.
What are the psychodynamics involved when one is unable to become sexually involved with those whom they love and yet are able to became easily aroused with women who are not primary idealized love objects?
Most writers view the the Madonna/Whore Complex as the operation of unconscious dynamics when men view their idealized woman as a non-sexual, sacred love object.
The unconscious fear of incest with the mother is also stressed as a factor of the complex by many psychoanalytic writers. According to Freud, the Oedipus Complex arises in late infancy. He felt it was an inherent stage in the psychological growth of the child. During this time, the boy becomes attached to the mother, the daughter, to the father. Freud believed that the resolution or outgrowth of this attachment is necessary for a normal sexual life. Practically all analytic authors following him stressed the importance of the Oedipus Complex and/or of an over-tenacious psychological hold which the mother has on her son as an important factor in creating the Madonna/Whore complex. Some authors emphasize that this continued fixation by the son on his mother occurs since she was his first love object.
Such fixated sons, some claim, become ardent suitors in adulthood, but when the love object becomes wife and especially mother, unconscious memories of his own abnormally intense relationship with his mother intrude into the relationship. That is when the husband may unconsciously see his wife as his mother and then becomes a reluctant or even impotent lover.
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Fear of intimacy may develop as a defense against allowing those early hurts to become conscious. In such cases the search for his beloved mother continues through their spousal relationship and is the cause of unrealistic expectations on the part of the husband as he continually but unconsciously searches for his mother in his relationship with his wife.
The act out may continue for a lifetime with resultant mutual recriminations, adultery, divorce and unhappiness to both partners of the marriage. The marriage becomes a battleground as both the husband and the wife unawaredly transfer much of their earlier repressed feelings of hurt, anger and hostility originally directed to their parents, to their spouse.
Thus, both non-sexual and sexual intimacy of the marriage can trigger unconsciousnes memories of that first intimacy, the mother/infant relationship. In order to avoid triggers of such memories, the husband may begin to avoid sex with his spouse. The early infantile trauma may be particularly reactivated when his wife becomes a mother, since it brings into the forefront the repressed memories of his own mother/infant relationship.
It is not that the sexual drive became fixated on the first intimate relationship of his life and that he cannot relinquish the erotic attachment from his mother to his wife, but rather that originally the husband's earlier need for love and security as an infant were not met and the dynamics of that early frustrated relationship seeps into all subsequent relationships, but sometimes especially with his intimate spousal relationship.
Intimacy in the present triggers the repressed memory of the hurt and deprivation of the past. Sexual addiction can be used as an act out -- a way for avoiding anxieties of the repressed feelings, especially since such addictions are characterized by a fear of intimacy -- a hallmark of the sexual addict.
A fear of intimacy can even be traced back to one's birth. If our birth was traumatic and involved feelings of dying in the birth canal, in some cases, we may have an unconscious association of the holding of our lover with the early memories of the painful "touch" of birth. The deeper the feeling of intimacy and attraction the more likely these feelings of wanting to leave may be triggered in those whose early uterine development was painful. Our first nine months of life was a close and intimate contact with our mother.
If that first maternal "touch" during our intrauterine development was painful it can become compounded by memories of fetal death-like memories of suffocation, pressure and nearly dying during actual birth. The holding and touch between lovers can trigger these unconscious needs to get away from the pain being triggered by intimate emotional and physical relationships.
The problem is not the result of the incest barrier, but rather the seeping into consciousness of early frustrated needs, or birth traumas, which renders the husband uninterested and perhaps even impotent. Such men cannot view their wives as sex objects because if they do it would bring up buried feelings of their birth and infantile relationships with their mother. So, in a sense, there is a fixation on the mother by those who are stuck in the dynamics of the madonna/whore complex, but not in the way interpreted in psychoanalytic psychology.
Birth trauma compounds the neediness of the new-born and thus become an important factor in these dynamics. Pre- and peri-natal trauma reinforces, directs, and intensifies this drama -- the lifeblood of soap operas, and of life -- inherent in the Madonna/Whore Complex.
When one considers the Madonna/Whore Complex from a viewpoint of primal theory, it becomes more reasonable to view the wife, now a mother, triggering in her husband unconscious memories of unmet needs for love from his mother. Rather than having a too close relationship with his mother as an infant he, in fact, was alienated from her. His search for a wife was based on attributes of his mother and having found her, he plays out his early infantile dynamics hoping for the love he had not received as an infant.
For more about how the dynamics of the Madonna/Whore Complex can have roots in pre and peri-natal trauma see the book review of Dr. Alice Rose's
The Bonds of Fire: Rekindling Sexual Rapture