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The Love-Choice according to Freud

( Originally Published 1957 )



The most famous modern doctrine of amorous choice is that of Freud. Being widely familiar, it may be briefly reviewed. Generally speaking, it is our past experience that prescribes what kind of attraction we will be most susceptible to. Specifically, the love-preference is formed in very early life in the relationship between the child and its parents. It is the family, so notoriously powerful in shaping personality, that designs the pattern of the erotic career, just as it blueprints so many other features of growth.

Freud differed with older teachings about early childhood in regarding the infant as an erotically sensitive organism. This sensitivity is not confined to the sex organs, however. It is present elsewhere too, in such places as the mouth and the anal zones. It is thus linked with the basic life functions the taking of food and the voiding of waste. The mother's caresses and services in caring for the child awaken its sex responses. The mother becomes, therefore, the first erotic "choice." In the boy, this is the familiar "Oedipus complex." For the girl, also, the mother is the first love object, but by a somewhat complicated process ("castration complex," "penis-envy," etc.) this erotic impulse is shifted to the father. The formation of this earliest attachment is aided by the sex preferences of the parents themselves: the father showing greater tenderness toward the daughter, the mother toward the son.

This original "love-choice" exercises, according to Freud, a highly important influence upon the child's later experience.

Part of the task of emotional growth is the turning away of these desires from their first objects. Severe conflicts may be aroused, we are told, by sexual longings and fantasies centering on the parents. Such forbidden impulses must be weaned away from the parents and directed toward unrelated persons. As an effect of these earliest attachments, however, the first serious amorous interest of the boy, as he grows up, may be an older woman, and the girl will tend to be especially susceptible to an older man.

If the child's sexual feeling is to be shifted from its parents to others, there must be some kind of connection between the new "love" and the old one. It is ". . . very frequently possible to trace some kind of resemblance between the loved parent and the new object of affection." This resemblance may be of many degrees and kinds. It may be in appearance, either as a whole or in a particular feature. It may lie in mental traits, or in name, or occupation. That the first love may also be transferred to brothers and sisters is shown, according to Flugel, by the strength of the social taboos against sex relationships of this kind. Because of these pressures, there is a shift of erotic interest not only away from parents, brothers, and sisters, but even from persons resembling them. With each new love object, the emotional bond with family members becomes weaker, and final freedom from such linkages may be regarded as the goal of growing up, sexually, so far as choice is concerned. Once in a while, however, attractions to quite unsuitable people may occur as an effect of the original attachments to the parents. The process of "falling in love," Flugel thinks, is importantly influenced by various resemblances between family members and unrelated persons. The resemblance may not be fully realized, however, and the lover will not understand why he is attracted.

It is not easy to test this theory of sexual choice. The question is whether a person sees something in his mate that he saw when a child, in the parent of corresponding sex. We would have to compare what the adult sees in the person who attracts him as a mate with the way his preferred parent appeared to him when he was a child. To the errors of recall must be added the fact that, owing to repression, we are told, the adult may not be fully aware of the likeness between his parent and his mate.

With these difficulties in mind, some of the findings may be considered. Hamilton asked this question of his 100 male subjects: "Is your wife like or unlike your mother in physical appearance not as your mother is now, but as she was when you were a child?" (18) Sixty of the men reported their mates to be "unlike" or "very unlike" the young mother. Of the 100 women of the sample, for the question of similarity of husband and father, 58 per cent answered "unlike" or "very unlike." Seventeen per cent of the men and 5 per cent of the women reported the mate and the opposite sex parent to be "like" or "very like." To the question of resemblance between the mate and the opposite-sex parent in "disposition," 53 per cent of the men and 57 per cent of the women answered "unlike" or "very unlike," while 15 and 13 per cent of the answers were "like" and "very like."

Hamilton's 100 men reported a total of 681 "love affairs." In 156 cases the person loved resembled the mother, or a sister, or both, in "disposition." In 193 cases there was likeness in physical appearance. No such likeness was noted in 476 cases regarding disposition, and in 478 cases, for appearance. The answers of the women to the same question concerning likeness between the loved person and the father or brother did not differ greatly. Out of a total of 677 love affairs, the loved person did not resemble the father or brothers in disposition in 416 instances, while in 168 cases there was such a resemblance.

Lewis M. Terman studied the likeness between a person's mate and his parent of opposite sex. Out of 757 cases, among men this resemblance was "very close" in 33; there was "some resemblance" in 159. (43) In the rest of the cases there was either no resemblance, or wife and mother were of opposite type. Among the women, in 759 cases, there was very close resemblance in 30 instances, and some resemblance in 119. Terman found that both men and women reported they were more attached to the mother than to the father, the mother-preference being merely greater in the case of men. Happiness in marriage was found to be only slightly related to likeness between a person's mate and his parent of opposite sex.

A study of attachments and conflicts between mother and son, and between father and daughter, discovered some evidence of differences in attachment of the kind suggested by psychoanalytic theory. These differences were "much smaller than the powerful influence attributed by psychoanalysis to the Oedipus complex would lead one to expect." " (4) Another study of the effects of the "parent-image" on choice of mate among 373 engaged couples showed that physical resemblances between mates and parents were "not very marked." When such likeness did exist, the mate tended to resemble the opposite-sex parent. (42) When traits of personality and temperament were considered, likeness between mates and parents was also found to be small.

In his study of the "love emotion" of 500 American college girls, Albert Ellis obtained information on the likeness of the "most loved male" to the fathers of the subjects. Eleven per cent of the girls reported a "fairly close" resemblance, 1 per cent a very close likeness, while 87 per cent of the girls reported "little or no resemblance" between father and lover.

According to psychoanalytic theory, men whose mothers were relatively young at childbirth should be influenced by a "young" mother-image in their choice of mates. They should tend to select women younger than themselves to a greater degree than men born of older mothers. A way to test this would be to ex-amine the ages of husbands and wives to discover whether the sons of the more youthful mothers tended to select wives who were also, relatively, more youthful. This was not found to be true for a sampling of 768 cases.

Again, according to the theory, a child's position in the family, such as being an only child or a first-born child, might be expected to be related to age of marriage, since such a child should perhaps be more closely bound, emotionally, to its mother, and therefore tend to marry at a later age. A study of this found no connection between family position and age at marriage.

Among his findings Albert Ellis noted that girls not strongly attached to their fathers tended to have mixed feelings toward the "most loved male." They expressed a desire to "mother" the latter, and also to inflict a hurt upon him, this possibly as punishment for his failure to give them sufficient love. Ellis suggests that adult sexual love is importantly influenced by love relationships within the family, and that a girl's attitudes toward it may be affected more by early experiences with her father than with her mother.

Burgess and Cottrell have proposed that "If the childhood affectional relation to the parent of the opposite sex has been a satisfying one, the person will tend to fall in love with some-one possessing temperamental and personality characteristics similar to those of the loved parent." (5) This statement appears to mean that adult amorous experience is directly related to the child's affection for the parent of opposite sex. It seems doubtful, however, that these writers intended to suggest that the adult experience of being "in love" is the same or even very similar to that of love for a parent. The love between man and woman is generally regarded as sexual, and, as Robert White says, "It is justly pointed out that love and sex are not the same: that the child's love for his mother, deeply grounded in the nonsexual satisfaction she has given him, might well wax strong . . . even without a trace of reinforcement from sexual needs."

Why, if adult amorous attraction is not the same as childish affection, should it be aroused by the same or similar "tempera-mental and personality characteristics"? We suggested earlier that adult sexual love is of more than one kind, and sometimes may be mainly of the tender-dependent quality of the child-parent attachment, and sometimes of the possessive, amorous quality of the "romantic" type. For the former kind of "love between the sexes" what Burgess and Cottrell say seems highly plausible, but applied to amorous emotion it does not make much sense. Until someone proves that a child's affection for his parents is the same as adult sexual love, to treat them as the same is simply to be misled by the fact that both are called "love."

Norman Cameron has made some well-pointed comments on "love" behavior in children and in adults. The surface likeness between childish affection and adult sexual love is conceded. Both are expressed in caresses, embraces, and words of endearment, but this is far from proof that the underlying feelings are the same. The likeness in affectional expression of the child toward the parents and that of adult lovers does not, as Cameron says, mean that the behavior of the child is sexual, any more than it means that the behavior of the adults is childish.

Earlier accounts of sex development took the form of a simple "reading back" of more mature behavior into childhood. The result was that incestuous desires were attributed to infants and young children "who, as a matter of fact, are neither mature enough biologically nor socially resourceful enough to contemplate incest as such." It is important, Cameron believes, to keep certain distinctions in mind:

One is that, in spite of many superficial resemblances, a mother's attitudes toward her infant are not identical with those she has toward her husband, any more than her marital and her maternal relations are identical. The other is that her infant's reactions to her, in spite of obvious similarities, are not identical with the sex conduct of adults. . . . These statements cannot possibly seem more self-evident and trite to the critical reader than they do to the writer. Yet even a casual inspection of the current literature will convince anyone that they still need reiteration.

The kind of study made by Sanford Bell on amorous attraction in children has bearing on the choice problem if it is true that strong sex-emotional interests beyond the family circle occur during the very early years. These begin, according to Bell, as early as the middle of the third year, and the behavior of the children shows a surprising resemblance to that of the adult "romance." The boys and girls were, moreover, of about the same age. As Robert Sears says, "This study, with its emphasis on the strength of early attachments outside the family, must necessarily cast doubt on the alleged universality of the Oedipus situation. . . . Bell's findings suggest that there may be other sources of equal significance."



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