Why have many in the past believed and taught that it is impossible to be a sexual being and a loving and gentle wife and mother? Freud believed you needed to pick sides. . .Madonna or whore. Today I will talk about how you can allow both to be part of you. That is a lot of what I do in coaching, I help create a secure attachment in our sexual and non-sexual relationship and let the two co-exist together. Listen to how this is possible and why it is critical.
The Madonna/Whore Complex was originally perceived by Sigmund Freud. Freud got a lot of stuff wrong, but this one, he actually got right – kind of. What he spoke about is how many men in his day had a mistress and a wife. Freud said that men could love their wife, but not desire her sexually and he could desire his mistress, but not love her. That it was impossible to love and desire the same person. Basically freud said, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
“This complex can be described as a dominant pattern of thought that divides women’s humanity into two neat and tidy categories that don’t overlap: Madonnas and whores. The pure and the tainted. The nurturing and the depraved. The asexual and the sexual. The loved and respected versus the desired.
The Madonna/Whore Complex is the assumption that the traits we value as stereotypically “feminine” are at odds with embracing one’s sexuality, and that you can’t be “kind, understanding, composed and also sexually empowered.” (Huffington Post)
And I would add to that, that you can’t be virtuous, pure, chaste, AND sexual.
So, holding a view of women as either Madonnas or whores not only limits women’s sexual expression, but it creates a false dichotomy and impossible standards. It also strips women of their right to pleasure in the same way that men simply expect it, without question.
This complex plays out in lots of different aspects. Most commonly, like Freud explained, it is how the man perceives his wife. Let me give you a few cultural references where we’ve seen this.
- The singer Madonna played with both identities, especially in her earlier career. Madonna herself declared: “I have always loved to play cat and mouse with the conventional stereotypes. My Like a Virgin album cover is a classic example. People were thinking who was I pretending to be—the Virgin Mary or the whore? These were the two extreme images of women I had known vividly, and remembered from childhood, and I wanted to play with them. I wanted to see if I can merge them together, Virgin Mary and the whore as one and all. The photo was a statement of independence, if you wanna be a virgin, you are welcome. But if you wanna be a whore, it’s your right to be so.”
- Sex and the City mentioned Madonna–whore when describing Trey and Charlotte’s sex-life after they got married. Trey was unable to maintain an erection whenever trying to have sex with Charlotte due to the Madonna–whore complex.
- In the Seinfeld episode “The Sponge”, Jerry is unsure how he will have sex with his new girlfriend Lena, on account of her being a charitable and wholesome person.
- In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are strictly categorized and forced to wear a uniform of a specified color, representative of their status as “Madonna” or “whore”. The Handmaids, who are disrespected and violated continually, are made to wear red, which is associated with sex and fertility; the Handmaid, is objectified and abused by the Commanders. In contrast, the wives wear blue which is reminiscent of the virgin Mary; and often doesn’t get the attention she wants from her husband.
So, according to Freud, it was impossible to have both of these two seemingly dichotic personas in a monogamous relationship. But how do we balance that with our value of monogamy?
We see our partner in very ordinary states – when they first wake up in the morning, when they are grumpy, stressed, impatient, on the toilet, cooking dinner. Mundane, right? But that mundane also offers us security.
But we also want the excitement, mystery, novelty, and desire. So, how do we keep the sexy part alive within the mundane of every day life? How do we “have our cake and eat it too?”
Women putting themselves into the Madonna/Whore complex
This is at the heart of what I see with many women in my coaching practice. And it’s not so much as it is being projected on them from their spouses (although that can happen) but it is much about how they perceive themselves.
Most of my clients, when they marry, they are the virginal Madonna. They are clean, pure, virtuous, and chaste. But when they say “I do” then they are all of the sudden expected to switch to the whore. And I know, as women, we don’t love that term, but for the sake of consistency, I’m just going to go with it. But really, what I’m saying is that all of the sudden they are expected to unleash all of the suppressed sexuality that they supposedly have. But after suppressing that sexuality for so long, that’s a big leap for many. I know it was for me. And, if they are able to let go and embrace their sexuality, once they become mothers, they often once again become the Madonna – the all giving, all nurturing woman who can’t possibly put herself first. She can’t make herself available to her husband, because “the children might need me.” And they are back to suppressing their sexuality for the sake of their children and that is what “good women” do. Right?
And this is where they get it wrong. While not easy, it is possible to keep that sexy-wife aspect alive and well, while still having the safety and security of a good relationship AND be a good mother. They just have to figure out how both parts can co-exist and figure out what that looks like for them. And that is a lot of what we do in coaching, helping them find the balance between the two.
Women putting men into the copartner/caveman complex
We’ve talked about how men do this with women. We’ve talked about how women do this to themselves. Now let’s talk about how women do this to men, because that happens too. And this is what it looks like…
Women want the security of a partner. Someone who is sensitive and they can do life with. Someone who is reliable. Who goes to work. Who helps parent the children and takes on responsibility. But then that gets mundane too. Women criticize their husband for what they are not contributing, but then want them to be confident in the bedroom and take charge. They want a copartner who helps them, but doesn’t dominate them. But in the bedroom they want a man to take charge and dominate. We call this copartner/caveman complex.
Reconciling the two with secure attachment
So, if we are doing this to each other, and ourselves, how do we fix this? We have to create a relationship with both parts. Allow both to be there. And create a secure attachment in our sexual and non-sexual relationship.
I talked a lot about attachment and emotional safety in Episode 66, but I will do a quick recap here.
Attachment is how we create close bonds with each other. A lot of attachment issues come from childhood and past relationships; trauma or neglect. And when those things happen, we don’t create secure attachments, we create avoidant or anxious attachments. With a secure attachment we are confident and self-possessed and we meet our own needs.
So if we can attach to our spouse from a place of confidence in ourselves and in our relationship, this is how we are able to create a relationship with both the Madonna/Copartner AND Whore/Caveman. And we can do this by changing our mindset about ourselves and our spouse. Especially for women, to get into that sexy wife mode, they need to change their mindset and get out of their head, away from the chores, the bills, the kids and get in the right frame of mind.
I want you to think about your mindset when you watch a movie. You’re in it for the story, the excitement, the pleasure. You aren’t thinking about the chores, the bills, the kids. You just immerse yourself in it. You enjoy the fantasy of the whole thing. You need to do the same thing in the bedroom. You need to let yourself go and engage with what is right in front of you. You need to engage in a story, and maybe you need to create a story, intentionally enter a scenario that turns you on. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality, so by creating a fantasy, a story, that keeps you engaged in helps you shift that mindset. You become a different part of yourself. Not the everyday wife, mom, who does chores and runs kids to soccer practice, but you shift into this other part of yourself that DOES exist if you let it.
When women are in the Madonna mindset, they don’t allow themselves to be selfish in bed. They are the all-giving wife who makes sure their husbands needs are met, while sacrificing their own. This creates resentment in marriage and that is never a good thing. But a woman in the Whore mindset, makes sure she gets what she wants in bed. She knows that sex is for her.
Many people think lusting after their partner is a bad thing. But it’s actually a very good thing. The definition of lust is “A very strong sexual desire.” That is a good thing within a marriage. But in order to lust after your partner, you have to be able to see them as not just the copartner or the Madonna, but something other than that. How did you see them when you were first together? That person is still there. It’s the mystery and the intrigue of who that person is that keeps it hot and exciting in the beginning. But we often think, especially after we have been married a while, that we know our partner. We know them inside and out. Nothing surprises us. And when we think we know them so well then there is no mystery and the erotic disappears. But, we never truly know everything about anyone. We have to remember that there is always more to be learned and explored. That is what will keep things exciting…long term. That’s the whore or caveman.
Now going back to lust, it’s ok to be selfish in bed and use your partners body for your own satisfaction. In a loving, committed relationship, that can be a really good thing. But, in that same relationship, it’s also about wanting your body to be used for their sexual satisfaction. It’s about selflessness and selfishness together. If you don’t TAKE in sex, then you are just being taken from, which can lead to feeling used. You also don’t want to just take and not care about your partners needs or their orgasm. But if you TAKE as well as be taken from, that is when it gets hot. But it’s about finding a balance.
We don’t talk about this, so it’s hard to see and hard to implement…unless you are willing to talk about it. Seeing the two sides of yourself and your partner and then talking about how those can work together in each of you.
Couples with secure attachment have both sides and have the confidence in themselves and in the relationship to incorporate all of themselves into that relationship. We care about pleasure and connection. We can let out the parts of ourselves that are a little bit riskier, darker, or that we’ve been afraid to let others see knowing that we will still be loved.
Insecurity comes when we don’t feel like we can bring both.
If you are having trouble feeling secure in your marriage or merging these two sides of yourself, come get some help in my Embrace You! Group Coaching program.