Dr. Matthew Paldy

On Separation, Anger, and Motherhood

By Dr. Matthew Paldy

According to Lampl-De Groot, a person’s “cleanliness, orderliness, and economy are reaction-formations against the pleasurable impulses to smear, to mess, and to waste.” Perverse and sadomasochistic symptoms have been described by various theorists (Freud, Greenacre, Winnicott) as having early developmental roots. Mother-baby interactions can play a role in the formation of perversions. “A mother, who, clinging to the child, is unable to let him develop his own personality, will promote the arrest of the child’s ego –development at this point (Sandler, Psychology and Psychoanalysis, 1962). According to Freud, perversions are sexual behavior with infantile rather than adult goals. A mother who is very disturbed, confused, egocentric, distracted, or often alternates between affection and aloofness, does not provide the child with a stable object representation on which to form his own psyche, and “as a consequence, the development of delineated object-representations will be defective.” The child does not develop a clear distinction between self and object, and the process of separation and individual is impaired. Winnicott describes a process in which the infant begins to develop a sense of separation from the mother only by repeatedly observing that the mother withstands his repeated attacks, whether in fantasy, as in Kleinian theory, or in physical reality through oral attacks on the breast or anal expulsions. Adam Phillips (On Balance) revisits Winnicott’s theory of infant development and states that the mother becomes a real object to the infant only after showing she can resist the infant’s omnipotent control, and that “If the object can survive the full blast of the subject's hatred, then the person can conceive of the object as beyond his power and therefore as fully real.” In a view I find particularly fascinating, Phillips describes perverse sadomasochistic activity as representing a failure of separation during development, where one person does not resist the other’s hatred but rather agrees to be dominated, destroyed, damaged. In a sadomasochistic dyad one party submits to the other’s omnipotent control. Paradoxically, the sadistic master might be seen as the omnipotent infant, while the masochistic slave ironically might be seen as a weak or ego-deficient mother who agrees to be destroyed instead of resisting the master’s attacks. In this sense, there is a blurred distinction between who is the master and who is the slave. Sadomasochistic enactments seem to reflect developmental disturbances in separation and incomplete resolution of infantile fantasies of omnipotence and ruthlessness. Of course, this is just musing on my part.

Estella Weldon, in her 1992 book Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealization of Motherhood, posits that perversion can result from a failure in maternal care, where the mother either deprives or overwhelms the infant. This disruption in the developmental separation between “I” and the “Other” can be fodder for adult perverse tendencies. Weldon argues that for mothers who display perverse tendencies the baby can become a transitional object, for example, as her missing phallus, or a “toy” or “thing” similar to the “part-object” relationships common to many fetishistic perverts. In a view I find very interesting, Weldon asserts that “The main difference between male and female perversion lies in the aim. Whereas in men the act is aimed at an external part-object, in women it is against themselves: either against their bodies or objects of their own creation – their babies. In both respects bodies and babies are treated as part-objects.” A woman may choose to become a mother for unconscious perverse reasons, and, according to Weldon, she would know that “in achieving motherhood she is automatically achieving the role of master, in complete control of another human being who has to submit himself or herself not only emotionally, but also biologically to the mother’s demands, however inappropriate they may be.” Weldon argues that some of the emotional characteristics and object-relationships of motherhood are similar to the distorted object relations found in perverse relationships, and that these include “the desires to engulf the other person, to dehumanize the object, and to invade, take complete control of, and merge with the Other.” She argues that female perversions in mothering are less visible to the public than the more externalized perversions of males. Although I’m not sure how widely held Weldon’s views are, I find her assertions fascinating and disturbing - that perverse behaviors and pathologies can result from disturbances in mother-infant relationships.