2003 IPSO Journal
Scientific Contributions

International Psychoanalytic Studies Organization (IPSO) Research:

THE FEMININIZATION OF THE FEMALE OEDIPAL COMPLEX, PART I: A Reconsideration of the Significance of Separation Issues Abstract

The Oedipus complex has been considered a cornerstone of psychic development in psychoanalytic thinking. Based on the story of a male and emerging from Freud's understanding of his own unconscious conflicts, the paradigm posits a triangle in which the boy loves his mother and competes with and wants to get rid of his father. These insights became universalized to include the psychology of the girl. An analogous triangular situation was postulated in which she loves her father and competes with and wants to get rid of her mother.

However, triangulation for girls is not simply a mirror image of that of the boys. It has its unique feminine characteristics that have not been fully recognized or cohesively incorporated into our psychoanalytic thinking and lexicon. In this paper we will address these uniquely feminine characteristics which are based on gendered differences in object relationships, defenses, and social considerations. Further, we argue that the term "female oedipal" is an oxymoron. We will focus on the issue of separation and its complicated and necessary role in the female triangular phase proper. With the use of clinical material, we will demonstrate that the virtually ubiquitous appearance of separation material linked to triangular, heterosexual competitive fantasies can and should be differentiated from material in which ideas about separation do not include any so-called "oedipal elements" and express earlier, dyadic issues. Thus, concerns about separation so often attributed to females demonstrate triadic as well as dyadic object relations, and oedipal as well as pre-oedipal conflicts.

One idea about the difference between the triangular situation of the little girl and that of the little boy runs through all psychoanalytic writings from Freud, to his apologists, to his critics and revisionists: the importance to the girl of her relationship to her mother and its role in the entry, shape, and resolution of her "oedipal" situation. We will focus on this relationship to the mother, specifically on the importance of issues of separation in the girl's triangular conflicts.

In a previous paper (1998) we have argued that the Persephone myth is a better fit for the description of little girl's situation than is the Oedipal myth and have suggested that the term oedipal complex be replaced with "Persephone Complex." For over a thousand years, the Eleusinion mysteries which celebrated the Demeter/ Persephone myth and fertility were the most important of the widespread Greek mystery cults and rituals of antiquity (Foley, 1994). The myth tells the story of Kore's/Persephone's sexual abduction by the lord of the underground when she strays from her mother to pick flowers, her mother Demeter's mournful search for her, and their separation and reunion for part of the year which established the seasons.

The story is as follows: Kore/Persephone, the young daughter of Demeter and Zeus, is gathering flowers in a meadow with other young girls. Kore plucks a particularly beautiful narcissus that has attracted her. The earth opens suddenly and she is abducted by Hades, God of the Underworld and Death. Nobody hears her screams and cries. (Some versions of the story make a rape more explicit.) When Kore next appears in the Homeric Hymn, she is with Hades in the underground. The scene pictures Hades " reclining on a bed with his shy spouse, strongly reluctant..." It is important to note that prior to her stay with Hades and presumably to the loss of her virginity, the girl is known only as "Kore" which in Greek literally means the "maiden". Thereafter, she takes on the new name of Persephone.

In the meantime, Demeter descends from Olympus to search the earth frantically for her daughter. In her fury and pain, Demeter causes famine and drought to spread over the earth. Zeus is induced by this catastrophe to persuade Hades to release Persephone. However, Persephone is tricked by Hades to eat a seed of the pomegranate. (In some versions she is tricked; in some, forced, and in others, takes the seeds willingly.) Thus, she has broken an injunction not to eat in the underworld and is now bound to Hades. A compromise between the gods is worked out by which Persephone spends one third of the year with Hades, and two thirds with her mother. This compromise is the ancient explanation of the origin of the seasons. Winter rules while Persephone is away from her mother and she lives with Hades and the earth flowers in spring and summer while she is with her mother. The poem ends with Demeter founding the Eleusinian rites.

We selected Persephone because it is the story of a close mother-daughter relationship, their separation and reunion, and a type of resolution of conflicts about entering into a sexual world. The feminine positive oedipal situation requires the girl to maintain a relationship with her mother/ caretaker while at the same competing with her. We emphasize that Persephone is a sexual triangular story in which the girl creates a compromise solution by separating in time and space her relationship with a woman/mother and a man/father. She oscillates between two worlds, as Persephone in the murky, sexual world of Hades where she rules as queen, and as Kore in the sunny, safe world of Demeter where she as an innocent virgin picking flowers. We see this as a clear paradigm of a heterosexual conflict of loyalty, the desire both to stay with mother and to run away with father. This is the little girl's dilemma.

Other writers have selected different stories, Cinderella or Electra , as paradigmatic of the girl's oedipal situation. Bernstein (1993), for example, selected Cinderella, in which aspects of the maternal object are split into bad stepmother and good fairy godmother. Splitting is generally an earlier pre-oedipal phenomenon. In contrast to Cinderella, in the tale of Persephone the male and female (whole) objects are separated in time and place, a means of dealing with the conflicts of that later stage. Thus, we feel that the story of Persephone better captures a girl's typical solution for her "Oedipal" dilemma. She is caught between her attachment to her mother and her attraction to her father. We selected this myth, not because it necessarily represents the ideal of mature female development, or the best resolution of this situation, but because it represents a common defensive compromise to deal with the concerns of that stage of development.

In previous work (1997) we demonstrated that themes of separation from the mother typically accompany women's memories and experiences of loss of virginity and entry into adult heterosexuality. In addition, unconscious incestuous fantasies about the father were usually intertwined with this material. We demonstrated that concerns about separation from mother that accompany stepping into her world as a heterosexual rival are not regressive, dyadic, or pre-oedipal, but are part of the triangular experience and development itself.

From the beginning Freud (1925) noted differences in the oedipal situation of the little girl from that of the little boy. He stated that "the fateful combination of love for the one parent and simultaneous hatred for the other as rival is found only in boys" (Freud 1931, p. 229). According to Freud's early theories differential reactions by the girl and the boy to anatomical differences between the sexes, that is, the impact of penis envy versus castration anxiety, had major consequences for the oedipal situation. These different reactions implied that the entry into the oedipal situation, the choice of sexual objects, sexual aims, the length of the oedipal phase, its resolution, and consequences for the development of the superego are different for boys and girls.

Dissatisfied with his early formulations about female psychosexual development, Freud welcomed contributions from his female colleagues, who explained and elaborated aspects of female development through the exploration of the preoedipal phase. Lampl-de Groot (1927), Deutsch (1945) and Bonaparte (1953) emphasized pre-oedipal dyadic relationships between girls and their mothers to explain some of the observed differences between the female and male oedipal complexes. At the same time, they still adhered closely to Freud's model for the Oedipal situation itself.

Early ideas about the female oedipal complex and its similarities and differences from that of the male have been addressed by subsequent analytic thinkers. They addressed Freud's ideas about the protracted length of the pre-oedipal and oedipal period for the girl and the strength of her attachment to her mother. Freud (1931) cautioned that the duration of the girl's attachment to her mother should not be under-emphasized. Lampl-de Groot (1927) supported Freud's formulations and documented a negative oedipal complex that preceded the positive oedipal in the girl. Fenichel (1954) did not find this constellation regularly as a forerunner to the positive female oedipal in his case material. He also stressed object relations and presented clinical material to demonstrate that the woman's oedipal complex owed its special form almost entirely to a transfer of traits from the pre-genital relationship with the mother onto the genital relationship with the father.

The early Kleinians (Klein, 1928; Jones, 1935) proposed an innate drive, rather than penis envy, which impelled the girl into the heterosexual oedipal situation. Others have also vigorously questioned the centrality of penis envy in female psychosexual development, in terms of its inevitability and meaning (Horney, 1924; Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1970; Schafer, 1974; Grossman and Stewart, 1976). Researchers in early infant and child development (Moore, 1976) pointed out that the observation of sexual differences did not come as late as Freud proposed so that reaction to it could not explain the entry into the Oedipal period. Others beside Fenichel questioned the inevitability of a negative oedipal proceeding the positive (Edgecomb and Burgner, 1975). There has been serious disagreement about the girl's weaker motivation for resolving the oedipal and formation of the superego (Schafer, 1974; Blum, 1976; Gilligan, 1982; Bernstein, 1990).

In this paper we will address the so-called "positive oedipal" triangular situation and the development of heterosexual interests in girls. Our focus will highlight the girl's conflicted entry into the heterosexual triangular development. In the traditional, "old fashioned" familial situation, a little girl, approximately three to six years old, begins to feel that her mother, her primary object, is her rival for father's affection and interest. This rivalry threatens her basic security, because of frightening fantasies of loss of maternal nurture, and evokes conflicts about loyalty to each parent. At this age, the little boy's primary caretaker and object of blossoming ( positive) oedipal desires are one and the same, the mother. His rivalrous and angry feelings are directed primarily toward his father, on whom he does not depend in the same way as he does his mother. Thus, separation issues do not come so much to the fore with the boy at this time.

We are not saying that boys do not have separation issues, but that the typical situation for little girls at this stage of development, the entry into triangulation, brings up separation issues with particularly intensity. Nor are we saying that girls' oedipal struggles are more difficult than those of boys, but that they are different. Ultimately, of course, both girls and boys will have to deal with the developmental tasks of loosening infantile ties to internal parental objects and integrating disparate parental imagoes.

In emphasizing one aspect of the triangular picture, separation issues, we acknowledge than we are extracting one component of a very complex process and run the risk of misconception and oversimplification. Indeed, there are different and intricate patterns of anxieties, urges, and fantasies, object relationships and defenses that comprise the oedipal phase for each sex.

We deliberately speak of separation issues, not separation problems. Separations are interwoven throughout psychic development: beginning in infancy with separation of self from object, then the establishment of object constancy and a rudimentary sense of self, the achievement of a solid core gender identity and a sense of autonomy over body. Disruptions and conflicts in these areas can lead to ego deficits and serious separation anxieties. On the other hand, there are characteristic separation tasks that must be handled throughout all stages of development. Colarusso (1997) has outlined complex issues of separation- individuation that occur throughout the life cycle.

We will build on those observations of many psychoanalysts who have written about the role of separation issues in the girl's oedipal complex.

Contemporary object relation theorists, such as Chodorow (1978), have suggested that separation is especially difficult and salient for the little girl as compared to the little boy. Lerner also (1980) made a very similar argument. Chodorow posited that in the course of development the girl must separate from the primary object, the mother, while she identifies with her as the same sexed object. In contrast, identifying with the opposite sexed object, the father, helps the boy with separation from the mother but leaves him more vulnerable to an exaggerated need for autonomy. Chodorow suggested that the daughters' close ties to their mothers imply more permeable, less defined boundaries between them. She argued that the girl's oedipal complex is effected by these configurations: "The turn to the father, however, is embedded in a girls' external relationship to her mother and in her relation to her mother as internal object... Every step of the way, as the analysts describe it, a girl develops her relationship to her father, while looking back at her mother---to see if her mother is envious, to make sure she is in fact separate, to see if in this way she can win her mother, to see if she is really independent. Her turn to her father is both an attack on her mother and an expression of love for her (p.126)...The male and female oedipal complex are asymmetrical. A girl's love for her father and rivalry with her mother is always tempered by love for her mother, even against her will" (p. 127). Echoing these ideas, Burch (1997) has linked them to the myth of Persephone. She cogently described the girl's "attempt to hold on the mother while embracing the father" and concluded that, "The myth of Demeter and Persephone more aptly describes the daughter's developmental crisis" (p. 19).

Chodorow's arguments have been influential in laying forth the differences between girls' and boys' situations in family oedipal relationships. While we agree with many of her descriptions, we question the conclusions about the permeability of the girl's ego boundaries, which seem to us to be overly generalized and not necessarily true. Again this kind of thinking has had the perhaps unintended implication that girls are more prone to preoedipal pathology and fixation than are little boys. Hoffman (2000) suggested that relational analysts tend to subordinate conflicts over oedipal passions to earlier relational issues and that a lack of appreciation of girl's passion in psychoanalytic theory in general has resulted in a pre-oedipalization of their dynamics. "It thus makes sense to consider that it is much safer to talk about object relations than about powerful sexual and aggressive feelings" (p.16).

Lax (1995) identified aspects of separation in the oedipal period although in the context of penis envy. Person (1982) stressed that the little girl is more intimidated in the Oedipal situation than the little boy (that is to say, less able to show overt hostility and competition) because her rival, the mother, is also her source of nurturing. Tyson (1989) and Chasseguet-Smirgel (1970) have made related points about the importance of the girl's tie to the mother in the shape, progression into or resolution of the girl's Oedipus situation. Benjamin (1990) and Torok (1992) suggested that conflicted pre-oedipal relationships with their mothers predispose girls to difficulties in owning and enjoying their sexuality.


We have selected the following examples from many possible cases to elucidate separation issues in female patients in relationship to their mothers, within the context of heterosexual triangular situations. These selected cases can be characterized as relatively high functioning, neurotic individuals with no serious impairments of ego functions and object relations. In each of these examples there is a theme of conflict between two separate worlds. One world, the mother-daughter dyad, is contrasted with the other world, that of secret dangerously exciting sexuality with a man. While the material appears initially or frequently to be organized around dyadic separation issues, triangular, positive oedipal, competitive themes emerge as the central conflict.

Case 1: The following session is from the second year of the analysis of Miss R, a young woman about to be married. In the session we will highlight, there are images of cutting off a finger as a response to a pleasurable, but conflicted, experience, themes of missing mother, attraction to a father figure, rivalry with mother, and conscious and unconscious fears of bodily injury and separation as punishment for winning the competition. Her husband-to-be is someone she feels is a good, comfortable choice, but not a man toward whom she feels strong passion. At this point the patient was talking about her plans for her wedding and the analyst's upcoming vacation. The approaching wedding has re-evoked her anxiety-ridden feelings and fantasies that her father was always more interested in her than he was in her mother. In the sessions preceding the one to be reported, Miss R spoke about her dog. She imagined what it would be like to be the dog, how it would be miserable to be pushed outside into the wintry cold-- away from desired warmth and closeness with her. She reported a vignette about her hairdresser who was "a bitch, beneath a nice exterior... so busy talking about a party she was giving while I had to sit there. There she was behind me showing off and I had to wait." The analyst interpreted the anger the patient felt, pushed away into the cold while the analyst was off enjoying her private life. In response, the patient became tearful and vented some of her hurt and anger at the analyst. This material appeared to be the typical dyadic reaction to a separation from the analyst.

Session: In the next session, the patient began, "This is very close to my wedding, but I'm having these images that are just terrible - images about cutting tomatoes and cutting off the end of a finger. I think it was an image, but not a dream. I don't know. A terrible thing that gives me anxiety to think of, so I tried to think of a field of flowers." (Note the similarity of this imagery of a field of flowers with the setting of the Persephone myth.) "But every time I thought of that particular image I felt the pain of it. In my chest. It's like my whole self. A whole bodily feeling. How easy it is to lose the extremities. It seems like all is going so well now that it scares me. Work is going good. Bob (fiancé) and I have a lot of new friends. Last night we went to dinner, with this guy and his date. I felt out of my league. I enjoyed the whole ambiance of the expensive dinner, but it all scares me. And then I come home and have images of cutting off my finger! It's like I can see the fruits of my efforts. I'd be the one chopping. It would be my finger. No one else would be responsible for it. It would bring me back to reality, the real world, and I would know this is the world I live in. This is a situation I could manage. As awful as it would be, it would be my hand and my problem." The analyst asked her to tell her more about that. "I don't know. It's like everything keeps getting better and better, and it seems very scary. At the dinner we were at it's almost as if people are taking me away from things that are familiar to me. It's like I really missed my mom. My parents were out of town this weekend. I wanted to talk to her. I feel pulled away then. The analyst asked, "Pulled away?"

"Pulled away from my mom. I now spend evenings with people she doesn't know. There's kind of loneliness in me. Maybe like the same thing when I went to college. When I went away I was there with all people my mom didn't know, and when we went to this dinner it's similar. I feel like I don't really belong, and I feel pulled away from what I feel is so comfortable. I'm becoming someone I'm not-- in relationship to me. I don't know why I'm comparing all the time, but the whole thing makes me feel more alienated from my mother."

Ms. R continued to describe how the other guy is in a different business-computers. It turns out that this man has the same first name as her father's, Jim. She commented, " It is really strange that it's the same name. I'm afraid with this guy because he is so sophisticated...He's a real good catch but that bothers me because I don't want to feel that way --I'm engaged to Bob." Then she described how Jim R, the guy with her father's name, says forcefully to his date at the dinner, "Taste this."

"I was attracted to him but I don't like domineering men. Whoa--that reminds me of my dad a little because he can be that way. 'Take a bite,' he'd say I'd say no. He wouldn't force it of course, but the date, she'd do whatever the guy said. And it was like Chuck, my former boyfriend, who was also in computers. And this guy ... Wait a minute, I gave you the wrong name, the name I gave you, Jim R, is really a cousin of my Dad. The guy's name is really Tim R. I don't know why I called him Jim R---I used to have a crush on Jim."

Her thoughts turned again to competition, this time of comparing herself with Jim's date (that is, the rival, the woman belonging to father substitute.) The patient said, "We both can't be good, we both can't be successful. It's like a seesaw. We both can't be up at the same time."

The analyst said, "This worry about alienation from your mother stems from your concern that you both can't be successful at the same time." The patient responded, "Well, I think that's true because we can never be together at the same level. Cutting off the finger is the same thing. It's like separating from a part of yourself. Like I could destruct and kill off a part of myself. Like if a little part of my finger was like my relationship with my mother and I cut it off. Maybe going to dinner with that guy last night, the four of us, is like a separation. Maybe it's also a separation from my fiancé, because I was really interested in the other guy. To be safely married to someone not so sophisticated as the other guy (and we think not as sexually exciting) is like my mother's world. If I step out of the world of my mom, I become disconnected. It's interesting and yet funny. With the same name as my Dad, this guy seems more dangerous, like dangerous new territory. I don't trust this guy. Or my cousin. They'd be condescending with me just like my Dad. It was exciting to enter into his territory but always humiliating."

The session was preceded by separation material that appeared to be preoedipal, related to the mother-daughter dyad. It concerned two people, the analyst/ other and the patient/ daughter; the parent/dog; hairdresser/client about themes of early loss - pushed out, ignored, and rejected. It became apparent that this material then evolved into triadic, sexual concerns. The patient referred to the attempt to balance two different worlds. She contrasted the world of the close-knit comfort of the mother and family with the world of excitement and forbidden sexuality. She clearly linked her father with the male relative with the same name as the father. The slip in the name demarcated the emergence of a conflict about an incestuous attraction with accompanying anxieties and guilt. Her anxieties about competitive rivalry with her mother led to fears of losing and being alienated from her mother, and with being punished by having a part of herself cut off. The cut off finger can be understood and interpreted in terms of castration. This patient, with her associations, alerted us to an additional and important meaning: that is, the loss of a relationship with the mother, as well.

The two worlds described concretely parallel Persephone's story wherein she is queen of the underworld-"world below", mate to her uncle, Hades, part of the year but returns to be with her mother, Demeter, in the fertile "world above" during the other part of the year. A balancing act is required to keep her mother's love and nurture and at the same time to become sexual with a man. Competitive rivalry, incestuous heterosexual attraction and anxiety, and conflicts around loyalty to one parent versus the other are all present.

In the transference a similar situation was of course developing. The patient talked about her competitiveness with the analyst, her desire to be just like the analyst and to possess everything the analyst had. Anxiously, she described a movie in which a young woman moves in with and wants to be like her new roommate. The patient recognized herself in this character. Eventually the character takes over the roommate's possessions, her lover - her entire life. Thus, this patient's competitive and aggressive feelings were emerging in fuller form.

Case #2: Mrs. L, a married woman in her forties, was in the fifth year of her analysis. In the clinical material to be presented the main theme is that winning the competition with her mother is dangerous and means loss. In this case and the one to follow there are associations by the patient of losing a part of herself. These can be understood as fears of losing the mother as well as of bodily injury as punishment for unacceptable wishes.

She had been talking about her mother, who, according to the patient, did not approve of her growing up. "Maybe she wanted me to stay a little girl." Mrs. L reported anxiety when she realized she had things in common with the analyst, an interest in books and art which she guessed from observing the analyst's office. She went on to describe how she and her mother would do lots of things together, like cook, and how homesick she would become when she was not with her mother. She described her mother as sometimes depressed, thus erratically available. "She would turn on and off in terms of her interest in me." These feelings of an unavailable mother sounded at this point like dyadic pre-oedipal material. The analyst interpreted the patient's parallel experience in the transference. That is, the analyst, being not always available, seemed like her erratic mother. The patient responded, "I got so screwed up in my relationship with my mother. The more successful I got, the less she was there for me." Here, we see competition as a precipitant for the emergence of conflicts about separation.

Session: The next session began by Mrs. L talking about when she went away to college "I remember when I went off to college in the big city. There would be drinking parties, smoking--smoking dope--drugs, marijuana. My mother would have had a hard time with that. I think that she had a vested interest in me staying a child. She was not aware of it, but it was there. The attachment that we had was so great. My mother often says, 'I love how you used to be.' My mother never saw that part of me. The cut-up part of me. " The analyst asked, "Cut-up part?" The patient responded, "the silly part, the sexual part of me. That world was not known to her--- the party me. It gave me a sense of myself. I was separated from my mother, which was good for me. I became a person unto myself; I wasn't that when I was with her. I figured out who I was. The first year was a very big adjustment. At first I was very lonely and very unhappy and then I found I preferred it, I liked it and I wanted to stay at school. When I was there I felt separate. College was a very different world than the world at home. The world at home was so different I was shocked when I returned. The tempo of life differed-- my mother around. I missed that world at college. I knew all about the seasons."

The patient replied to the analyst's question about what she meant: "When I got away from school and I felt I lost that part of myself. I would look at the sky and get a sense of time--spring, the smell of plants. I was never at college for the summer. Fall was gorgeous. At first the days lasted long like they do when you're younger. They go too fast when you are older. The rhythm of life was different. I felt when I was there, finally after a period of adjustment, I had grown up. I remember missing my mother a lot but then I got used to it and then I didn't want to come home after a while. The summers, they were hot, no air conditioning, sticky, unbearable, hot, and bugs. But at school you had no sense of the world outside... In the dorm we lived next door to poverty, the ghetto. Incest was the thing; it was all over. Lots of mentally retarded, with a lot of incest between fathers and daughters. These were poor, poor people... There were a lot of flat-head faces. Everybody talked about it, everybody knew about it. For my community service, I went into a house once with a dirt floor. There were pockets of communities like that, poverty like you would never believe. Some experience! There was one preacher who owned the whole neighborhood and I met his daughter. She couldn't wait to get out of that place."

"I remember so much missing my mother. She was upset that I was gone and yet I think she still had a life of her own. She missed me but she didn't fall apart, but she did miss me. However, she was never distraught. I was more missing her, more attached at the beginning. I would come back and spend two months at home and everything was okay, and then I would be trying to get back to myself. I missed that part of myself. I would wake up there unburdened. ...It's like there are two different worlds--my mother's world and my school world. I think that they don't have to be antagonistic.

When I got married, again I felt like I lost half of myself. I had been very dependent on my mother who I think felt that she was losing me. I was so attached to her. I felt unseparated from her. Just being with her made me feel better. I had a good marriage and I produced a life of my own. I was in my own world. Before that everything was close and good and after that, when I would go back to the city where she was living, I would feel suffocated by her. Something about the intensity. I would feel that I was a child, and I couldn't stand it. Something changed. I grew up. I started to feel separate. I felt that before that she could take my suffering away just by me being with her, and I felt that I could do the same for her. When I got married, something switched. My husband and I had a life of our own, a house of our own, we were happy. My mother really didn't know me. She didn't know what I was like. Before, I would tell her all my worries. It was something about me being young. I would get annoyed later on, the way she would talk, but I felt like I was stuck in the category of 'little girl', which drove me crazy. She would lecture to me. She would have a critical edge toward me or others."

When the analyst asked why the criticism, she was surprised by the patient's reply: "Well, there may have been something about competition, but I don't know what about. That I wasn't good enough. That was the feeling that I always had." The analyst interpreted the defense: "If you feel you are not good enough then you don't have to fear competition." The patient responded, "It feels like I have this hidden part of me, this competitive part. Dangerous. I do go after what I want. I don't know if my mother approved or not. After I was married (She married a man in the same profession as her father), I wasn't there for my mother. I couldn't go shopping with her. Couldn't spend enough time. I felt guilty. (Silence) I am thinking of competitive. Competition means loss. The better I did, the less I had in common with my mother ... I felt I lost my mother when I went to work. One more separation. I felt like it was to go off and do something by myself, on my own, in a different space. It has something to do with competition." The analyst asked, "How?"

"There were parts of my mother that were very feminine and vivacious and would go to parties, dress very feminine, very flirtatious- -but not seductive. Appropriate. And she, I think, was really disappointed with my father. I remember her being angry with me. I had dated a boy for two years and we went somewhere to make out. My hair was disheveled, and she told me I was grounded, and she was mad. . Dating was OK but she did not want anything sexual. She was very threatened by real sexual passionate attachment.

All I want to do is now relax and dig in my garden. I want to play and dig in the dirt. In spring I would go into the garden and weed it. I just loved putting my fingers in the dirt and the smell of the dirt and the flowers. There is something about it that is calming. I love to watch things grow...It piques my curiosity." The session ended with the patient returning to the theme of separations at camp.

The theme of separations - camp, college, marriage, work - all represent "straying from mother." When Persephone strayed from her mother, abduction, rape, and eventual marriage and separation from her mother resulted. This patient, just as the first patient, stresses the experience of different worlds. The world of an intimate maternal closeness with mother again starkly contrasts with the world of exciting forbidden sexuality, parties, and a direct reference to incest. Like the first patient, loss occurs as she enters the world of sexuality. The loss is of a part of herself, and yet she finds a part of herself - the sexual part - the part the mother does not know. As the two worlds oscillate, there is throughout this session a merging of separation themes -earlier with later, and dyadic with triangular issues, such as the loss of mother's care or divisive competition. The patient's guilt is associated with incestuous erotic fantasies of competing with mother. (Persephone strayed from her mother to go after what she wanted, a special flower, and was abducted.) "It's dangerous to go after what I want" is followed by expressions of guilt. The appearance of associations about seasons and about gardening seem at first glance peculiarly out of place, but the underlying meanings of birth, fertility, and periodicity which do seem to fit. Again the story of Persephone playing in the garden and the fluctuation of the seasons is evoked.

Case #3: A young woman, Miss A, in analysis for a short time was just about to become engaged. Here again taking on the role and place of the mother as married woman brings fears of maternal loss and conflicts about loyalty between father and mother. An enactment between analyst, fiancé and patient demonstrates these conflicts.

In the previous sessions Miss A talked about a dream she had in which she had left some red luggage behind at a train station. She was with a group of people and everyone had left their luggage. After some hours she returned to the station and was told it was too late and she could not get her luggage. Her associations were to the weekend's trip to a rock festival with her boyfriend and a group of his friends. This was his idea. It was the first time she had gone on a trip like that. Although she was apprehensive, it turned out to be fun. The train reminded her of recent travels. Leaving luggage had something to do with getting married and fears about "losing a part of herself." The red was a red flag about something---danger. She was worried that she would not be able to hold her own with her boyfriend. He was considerate, but forceful and sure of himself. She often was afraid that her ideas and needs would be submerged by the strength of his personality. She felt she was "less together" than he was. We suppose that this phrase contains at least three meanings. In the first sense, she was talking about her emotional state - "less together". She felt he was "more together", less open emotionally, altogether less vulnerable than she was. In the second sense, it referred to her previously articulated notion of the female genitals as 'being open" and the male "closed over" (Mayer, 1985). Thirdly and most salient to our discussion, she and her mother would be "less together." Here "less together" referred to separation from her mother whose support and care she needed and feared her boyfriend might not provide. In association to "everybody's luggage," the patient guessed that this referred to something she shared with others, "in the same boat-like other women." (Retrospectively, we speculate that the "red Luggage and being late" may have reflected fears and anticipation of being pregnant, that is, her period being late.) She had previously expressed conflict about having children. Thus, anticipation of being married was evoking feelings of vulnerability, which was her view of being a woman.

The analyst suggested to Miss A that this idea of "being in the same boat" was connected with her often stated worries that she would become like her mother in ways she did not like. Earlier in this session the patient had talked about how her mother always let the father have his own way when they traveled. In general she pictured the parental relationship as the mother being dominated by the father. The analyst reflected the patient's worries that she would duplicate her parent's relationship in her own future marriage. The patient agreed. Miss A had in fact uncharacteristically allowed her fiancée to dominate and direct their recent travel plans. The analyst felt that in general Miss A was a very strong and not at all a submissive young woman. In this instance, to be submissive was a stance, which actualized the dangerous unconscious desire to take the mother's place. The analyst did not explore this desire at this time.

In the following session Miss A reported that she told the dream to her boyfriend who said it had to do with losing one's freedom (Clearly his concern.) She had unconsciously acted out her stated fear and allowed her boyfriend to be dominant in determining the meaning of the dream. But her thought, which she stated somewhat hesitatingly, was that the dream was not about losing freedom, but concerned friends. It hit her that the loss of something felt to her as if it would be friends she would lose, girlfriends (that is, feminine support). The analyst supported the patient's tentative explorations by saying that it was the patient's dream and the patient's associations were important. Thus, the analyst was pulled into a mini-enactment by entering into a competition with the boyfriend about whose associations to the dream were important. Miss A had set up a possible rivalry between his interpretation and that of the analyst.

Miss A then began to talk about how she has lost or left behind friends in her moving around the country to go to college and most recently to follow her boyfriend to his new place of employment. She speculated about her future bridesmaids, a girlfriend from grade school, one from college. She would like to get in touch with another old girlfriend with whom she had lost contact. She told a story about how she had gotten a brush-off when she had tried to contact another friend. She lamented that she had not been able to make very many new close friends since she moved to the area. "The two friends I have made here are both women who have recently lost their mothers. I don't know what that means - a sick fascination with that somehow."

Her thoughts went to her mother, about times in the past in which she experienced closeness with her. These associations substantiated the notion that the patient's feeling of loss here referred to loss of mother.

She mused, "At sometime in the summer I might want to travel with a girlfriend, but how could I do that, travel with a friend, if I'm engaged? And how would it work being married and maintaining friendships with women?" The analyst asked, "So you are worried about losing your connection with your women friends?"

"Yes." She became tearful. "How can I balance that? How can I find ways to balance my old friends and this new world?" The world of women and the world of men. How can I balance these worlds? She began to cry harder. Her thoughts returned to the summer season. Maybe she could travel with her women friends then, during that season, separate from her boyfriend. But that doesn't make sense..."

She was worried about how she would balance her relationship with mother/ analyst and husband-to-be. This worry becomes more of a reality as she anticipated stepping into a world in which she will be wife and mother. Maternal loss is clearly the danger she is experiencing in this material. One important meaning of "losing part of herself" is loss of female companionship, support and familiarity. How to balance these perceived conflicts between the world of the mother and the father depicts Persephone's dilemma familiar to us. The delicate balance of preserving female attachment, originating with mother, and moving into the world as a sexual woman with a man is represented poignantly by Miss A's anxiety about how to have both without losing in either sphere. The problematic issue of loyalty faced by this patient, which we feel is typical feminine dilemma, is also an example of the convergent type of conflict described by Kris (1988), which involves the need to make a choice to give up one object or aim over another.


In the previous clinical material we see issues of separation occurring simultaneously with triangular conflicts. In all three cases there is an intertwining of dangers of bodily damage as well as fears of loss in reaction to the threats of oedipal gratification. These female patients had relatively close and untroubled relationships with their mothers. In our previous work on the Persephone myth (1997) utilizing clinical material as well as biographical material about a female literary figure, we also found these types of conflict around separation. These previous cases showed even greater difficulties in separating from their mothers than the current cases. Being unable to marry or to enjoy sex manifested their greater difficulties. Troubled preoedipal relationships with their mothers made this later separation phase more perilous and contributed to their sexual symptoms. Their conscious identification with the Persephone of Greek myth alerted us to an important central unconscious conflict of a divided allegiance to mother/ caretaker and to father/lover. Our current cases demonstrate and elaborate our thesis that separation issues during the "oedipal" triangular phase do not necessarily indicate earlier or major separation issues. Nor do they necessarily represent signs of major preoedipal pathology, fixations, or regressions.

All of these female patients as many others in our clinical experience, have the idea that passionate sexuality, especially with a "forbidden" or incestuous male, is what mother opposes. Sexuality is seen as belonging to the mother and not to the girl. This perception produces the striking need in the girl to compartmentalize the intrapsychic representations of self as sexual and self as non-sexual. We view this compartmentalization primarily as defensive in the interest of sustaining the tie to the mother while entering into an erotized relationship with the father. Thus, passions and sexuality are delegated to a secret part of the self, separate from mother. The feminine body, with its inner and unseen cavities and passages lends itself to this psychic sequestering. This kind of inner separation does not necessarily mean, as has been suggested by others, that girls have greater difficulty in separating the self from the object than do boys. We would suggest that this kind of psychic compartmentalization is a typical developmental occurrence with adaptive as well as neurotically conflicted meanings.

The typical dangers of childhood - loss of the object, loss of the love of the object, castration, and superego disapproval via guilt and/or punishment - have been thought to mark and signal a developmental chronology. However, as Brenner (1982) and more recently Nersessian (1998) have suggested, the calamities are inextricably interwoven with each other. Brenner writes that they appear in sequence during development but later have become so interwoven that they cannot be artificially separated (p. 94). We feel that there has often been a spurious assignment of level of development to the differing calamities - separation from and loss of the object and loss of the love of the object as preoedipal, and castration anxiety as more characteristic of the oedipal period. If these traumata around separation characterize the feminine triangular situation, but they are automatically schematized as early or pre-oedipal, then it would follow logically, but erroneously, that girls tend to be fixated at earlier development levels. We would argue that this view is erroneous both theoretically and clinically. Person (1988) pointed out that fears of loss of love, which are part of the oedipal constellation for women, are often expressed in oral, sometimes, cannibalistic terms. We concur that competitive fears can take these forms because "the object of competition is also the source of nurturant and dependent gratification" (p.170). We also argue that castration fears are not necessarily characteristic of "later" developmental phases. Galenson and Roiphe (1971), for example, observed that castration anxiety occurs very early, pre-oedipally. Others such as Sachs (1962) have argued that castration anxiety often carries very early preoedipal terrors of annihilation and separation. In our patients, we see the inextricable intertwining of castration and/or female genital anxieties with separation anxieties and oedipal guilts. For example, in our current cases, the appearance of fantasies of a "cut -up" or "cut off" or "lost" part of the self were linked to the idea of a severed maternal relationship. That is to say, they referred to separation and not only to lost or damaged genital body parts.

Brenner (1982) writes that "passionate sexual wishes characteristic of the oedipal phase are most intimately bound up in every child's mind with object loss, that is, with the disappearance of one or both parents" (p. 103). We feel, however, that maternal object loss or separation has important significance for a little girl during the oedipal period. In comparison, because the mother in a dual role remains nurturer while she is, at the same time, sexual object for the boy, his positive oedipal yearnings are not as fraught with fears of her loss. Out of fear, he may renounce his sexual longings for his mother, but he is not required to give her up as care-taking object. Earlier dyadic needs for nurturing are easily masked by his triadic oedipal desires. Castration anxieties, therefore, are more visible in this situation. For the little girl the fact that her rival is the primary caregiver gives a greater weight to object loss and separation issues in her triadic picture. Many others, such as Chodorow or Person, have stressed such gendered differences. We would emphasize that these differences between males and females do not necessarily reflect fixations or characteristics from different levels of development.

We feel that this idea has important clinical consequences. Women can be made to feel infantalized or demeaned if their separation fears are routinely perceived as primitive or infantile. In addition, a misdiagnosis or misinterpretation of the level of the separation issues can produce a stalemated or endlessly regressive treatment. Of course, preoedipal issues around separation always influence and are intermingled with latter separation material. The triangular separation issues we have focused upon, however, do not necessarily originate in or signal earlier separation problems. The separation themes and defenses which are characteristic of triadic conflicts for women, as shown above, can be differentiated clinically from earlier material. First, they frequently are precipitated by important developmental steps in the lives of women, such as a first sexual encounter, starting college, marriage, or a new career. Second, they are intertwined with rivalrous competition with other women, such as undertaking a new job or a successful love affair. Above all to be so designated, they necessarily appear in the context of triangular relationships, rivalries with mother for father's love (or vice-versa), or for working out loyalties between two compelling loved ones.

Females frequently and typically conceal desires for agency over erotic sexuality and passion. A sense of agency is hidden behind inhibition, clinging, and secrecy. Women often hide their eroticism with the defensive stance of helplessness or externalization; Persephone claimed that, "Hades made me do it." For Oedipus, in contrast, the defensive stance was, "I didn't know I did it," that is, disavowal or denial. The girl's defensive need is particularly exaggerated when realistic problems with a mother make such developmental forays into sexuality appear as dangerous in reality as in fantasy.

In exploring the preoedipal origins of women's problems in expression of anger and superego development, Tyson (1998) focused on the mother-daughter relationship. In several of her clinical vignettes, we note that separation conflicts are precipitated either by the fantasy about marriage or the actuality of an upcoming marriage. In one case, for example, a young woman about to be married struggled in the transference with fears that the analyst/ mother would disapprove of the engagement and marriage. The patient expressed fears that she would be ejected and not be able to see the analyst again. Is this woman's struggle not the dilemma we have been describing, a girl's fear of separation from her mother as she moves into the adult sexual world? Here again is the fantasy that heterosexual victory might mean the loss of her mother/ female analyst.

In a child case Tyson described a little girl whose favorite game was to pretend she was Cinderella and that her idealized fairy godmother gave her everything she wanted. Thus, she got the prince. With the fairy godmother as her procurer, she avoided the danger of assertively or aggressively taking what she wanted for herself. Tyson reported that the girl had a history of provoking her mother's anger and then fearfully clinging to her. Tyson's focus was on the pre-oedipal origins of these narcissistic entitlements and sadomasochistic interactions. We would add that this little girl's conflict around anger at this moment in the treatment had triangular meanings, that is, she wanted to marry the prince. As Tyson clearly illustrated, the rage and fear of abandonment had preoedipal determinants, but emerged in full bloom with the "oedipal" wish to get the prince. Thus, we think that the oedipal situation and its conflicts gave added intensity to both her anger and her conflicts about its expression, because of anxieties about maternal loss.

This paper is an attempt to examine the triangular developmental paradigm as it applies to women, that is, to "femininize" the so-called female oedipal complex and to clarify its clinical implications. We have found that issues of mother-daughter separation are a fundamental part of the female oedipal paradigm. It is for these very reasons that we feel that the triangular phase for girls is better characterized by this myth and propose renaming it the Persephone Complex and not the Oedipal Complex. Persephone's means of resolving the dilemma between sexuality and innocence, conflicts of loyalty between mother and father, and traversing the boundary between childhood and adulthood typify for us central aspects of female development.

In future work we hope to examine homosexual interests and the so-called negative oedipal conflicts, and the role of aggression and superego development in women. Many additional questions can be raised and we look forward to further discourse from our colleagues.


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Nancy Kulish, Ph.D and Deanna Holtzman, Ph.D

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