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Eisendorfer, A. (1943). The Clinical Significance of the Single Parent Relationship in Women. Psychoanal Q., 12:223-239.

(1943). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12:223-239

The Clinical Significance of the Single Parent Relationship in Women

Arnold Eisendorfer


The death of her father when the patient was a year old was a significant event of traumatic character for the patient. The mother invested her libidinal cathexis in her remaining object, the patient, after the loss of her husband to whom she had been closely attached. This intense emotional investment was inimical to the natural development of the patient, who in turn became attached to the mother with abnormal intensity.

The mother's depression following her husband's death must have been sensed by the patient and was remembered by her in retrospect through the old, bleak, haunted houses which constantly recurred in the many dreams about her mother. Following the period of mourning the mother concentrated her interest upon the patient. She permitted the patient, for example, to remain on the breast for almost three years. During these three years of overindulgence there were planted the seeds of that oral dependence which was to become one of the basic factors in the patient's subsequent neurosis. Between the ages of three and six the patient led a happy, carefree life in which she already showed evidences of identification with aggressive, dominating personalities, such as the maternal grandmother. During the period while she was ill with tuberculosis, between the ages of six and twelve, there occurred a reactivation of the oral dependence characteristics of early infancy. Tuberculosis having been the disease of which her father died, this illness became an added factor in her identification with her dead father and contributed to her further dependence upon and fear of mother. A paralyzing ambivalence towards the mother developed, which was subsequently displaced upon other individuals and into the analytic situation.

Complete identifications were impossible. The patient could not identify herself with the very object which would devour or annihilate her. Her statement, 'I am a dichotomy of two conflicting personalities', succinctly described her inner conflict. Beneath

the passive, inhibited, conscious feminine aspects of her personality there seethed violent defying aggressive masculine elements. She had been unable to develop these two conflicting extremes into a well-rounded personality.

The patient had avoided the Oedipus conflict with her mother by flight into homosexuality, and this already at the age of three years was manifested in her play activities. Recovering from tuberculosis the patient was inhibited, inferior and passive and unable to feel at one with the world about her.

The second case was that of an intelligent woman of thirty-two who came for analysis in a state of depression with intense anxiety, three months after her mother had committed suicide.

The mother's death had occurred during the patient's attempt to be cured of a progressively intense anxiety state of many years' duration. Upon the advice of the psychiatrist who had been treating her at that time the patient had left her mother, to whom she had always been closely attached since infancy, to establish her own home with her husband. The mother was bitterly opposed to this, and after the patient had left the city for a vacation had committed suicide by gas inhalation.

The mother's death had greatly intensified the patient's already existing anxiety and guilt feelings which had been present since earliest childhood. The close relationship between mother and daughter had had its inception when the patient was about six months old, when the mother had been divorced by her husband (patient's father), with whom she had been very much in love, and whom she had felt to be intellectually and socially superior to her.

Following the divorce the mother's emotional interests had shifted almost entirely to the patient. During early infancy the patient had lived with her mother and maternal grandmother. It was necessary for the mother to work, so that a large part of the patient's earliest childhood was spent with the grandmother. The grandmother died when the patient was six. She remembers her as the more indulgent counterpart of her mother. By both the patient had been overindulged to an

extreme degree. She was permitted to remain on the bottle until she entered kindergarten at the age of four and one half years. The mother's anxious concern was directed to and expressed about the problem of eating. Most of the quarrels which occurred concerned the patient's eating habits and took place at meal time. The patient would cause her mother great distress by refusing to eat, or she would resort to vomiting when more stringent measures were adopted. The patient remembers herself at six as being a fat, clumsy child. Matters of cleanliness and dress were treated with great emphasis. She had to be the cleanest and best-dressed girl in the neighborhood, and on any occasion when she was not, she felt entirely out of place, unclean, unwanted and unloved.

Very early in childhood the patient had become aware of her mother's idealization of intellectual prowess, and of the fact that that was what her mother most admired in her husband. Consequently, intellectual prowess became a fetish of the patient. She became the best student in the class. This was one of the determinants through which she identified herself with her father and in so doing hoped to be loved by mother as her father had been.

The patient's attitude towards her mother alternated between aggressive, wilful, stubborn defiance on the one hand, and passive guilt-laden inferiority on the other. An arrogant, aggressive, contemptuous attitude towards her playmates concealed the intense inferiority feelings which were always present. One playmate was an exception, in that towards her the patient was meek and submissive; this was Jane, who was the patient's concept of the ideal woman. She had attempted to be like Jane and to be loved by her. It was a severe shock, however, when the patient learned of Jane's marriage at the age of seventeen.

Her utter inability to establish a genuine rapport with men further increased her anxiety. Her attitude towards men was very superficial. She knew many men but was unable to feel intensely about any one of them. The men who did not care for her were always the ones she seemed to fall in

love with, and if it happened that any one of these became attentive to her, she immediately noticed some undesirable characteristic in him, and in this way rationalized her flight from him. Intense feelings of inferiority and unworthiness overwhelmed her whenever her heterosexual feelings were stimulated beyond a certain threshold.

Whereas the patient's father had been idealized by her mother, the patient was not at all impressed by him when at the age of thirteen she saw him for the first time, upon the occasion of a visit to the city. He was kind to her, bought her some dresses and took her to the theatre. There was a certain strangeness between them. She never saw nor heard from him again.

The patient was very fond of a maternal uncle who occasionally visited the home. His visits were very infrequent because he could not get along with the patient's mother.

When the patient was twelve years old her mother had remarried, against the patient's strenuous protest. This marriage proved unsuccessful after two months, and the patient again returned to her mother's bed.

The patient had masturbated actively since puberty. The accompanying fantasies were about the men whom she desired but felt unworthy of. Mutual masturbation had taken place between the patient and her mother, with whom she had slept in the same bed from earliest childhood. The patient had many conscious memories of her mother's petting and caressing and of the keen pleasure she had derived from the closeness of her mother in bed. In copious dream material the intensity of this relationship was further clearly illustrated. In the many dreams of intercourse with mother the patient was usually the aggressive partner. The patient remembered sucking the mother's breast and ear lobe until she was five years old.

Although ostensibly seeking an intellectually superior man, she married at the age of twenty-four a man to whom she had been sexually attracted but to whom she also felt superior in every respect and whom at times she held in the same contempt as she held her mother. This marriage represented an

unsuccessful compromise between her repressed sexuality and her neurotic defiant homosexuality. She attempted to satisfy herself and defy and irritate her mother at one and the same time. She had slept with her mother until she married—and in her own words, 'my husband took my mother's place in bed'.

The mother continued to live with the patient and her husband until very shortly before her death. During this period the patient constantly played husband against mother and vice versa, as her neurotic tendencies moved her.

Not feeling satisfied with her husband, and feeling also that her marriage was not permanent, the patient carried on several illicit affairs, about which she had such intense guilt that she invariably told her mother about them.

In the frustrating milieu of the analytic situation, the patient almost immediately regressed to the infantile phase of her life and begged for satisfaction on the oral level. There occurred many dreams in which she was eating, sleeping with, and loving the analyst. The patient obtained a male cat with which she identified herself. In her aggressive overindulgence of this cat, she acted out what she desired of the analyst in a very interesting fashion. She overfed this animal, as she had been overfed in childhood, and she overindulged it in many other ways through petting and pampering, to the exclusion of everybody else about her, and to the extent of arousing the jealousy of her husband. This cat appeared in many dreams, but the most significant was a dream in which the patient was eating raw liver which she usually fed the cat.

As in the case previously described, one of the important conditions for being loved in these single-parent situations is the identification with the absent parent: a homosexual bond is thus established between the patient and the remaining parent. The patient had many dreams in which she played the masculine rôle, possessed a penis, and engaged in lovemaking and intercourse with a mother figure. This illustrated her dilemma in a very pertinent manner, as between identifying with the mother figure and being a woman, or possessing a penis and being loved by mother. In one interesting dream

the patient is having intercourse with herself: she inserts her own penis into her vagina.

As the analysis progressed the patient became more and more able to accept her femininity. With the alleviation of the underlying anxiety it was no longer necessary for the patient to substitute child-mother relationships with other women. This resulted in bringing the patient's homosexuality more directly into the transference situation. Here the patient repeated in dramatic fashion the previous mother relationship in all its aggressivity and utter dependence. It was characterized by intense ambivalence. Utter helplessness alternated with an aggressive defiance. The patient vacillated between being the helplessly dependent child and the domineering aggressive phallic woman. She relived this dependence in the transference by getting into all sorts of awkward situations and then demanding the analyst (mother) to get her out of them. She demanded that he make every decision for her, but if at any time she felt that the decision had been made by the analyst she would in her perverse ambivalent manner do the exact opposite.

It required months of slow and tedious work to get the patient to the point of giving up her intense masculine defiance and of accepting her femininity without being precipitated into a state of panic. The analyst was either a mother surrogate in response to the patient's homosexual striving, subject to the full intensity of her infantile defiance; or the analyst was the object of the patient's heterosexual strivings, which induced panic and flight into homosexuality.

The intensity and nature of this homosexuality was also clearly demonstrated by the cat relationship, previously described, and by numerous fantasies and dreams in which the patient engaged in all kinds of love-making with mother figures. These dreams revived memories of the patient's childhood relationship with her mother, and from this material it was obvious how intense this had been.

Eventually and of her own conscious volition she became pregnant. Once pregnant, however, the previous state of

intense panic and flight into homosexuality recurred. This last step in the resolution of her Oedipus complex she felt was more than she could tolerate. The pregnancy was further complicated by the fact that she identified herself with Jane, the girlhood friend whom she had idealized, who upon giving birth to her first child had developed a postpartum schizophrenia and had been hospitalized ever since. Being pregnant, having a baby and being a woman meant, among other things, to become psychotic. Again she brought dreams and memories of her early childhood with her mother, and again she relived that intense relationship of dependence and defiance. She was back in the room with her mother eating, sucking, sleeping, etc. She feared being swallowed and devoured by mother. She identified herself and her mother with the foetus. In one dream it was stuck in mother's throat and could not go up or down, typical of what her ambivalent attitude towards sex and mother had previously been.

In another dream the foetus was identified with fæces and she was bearing down in the act of defæcating, giving birth. In still another dream she was being aborted through the mouth. She pleaded to be aborted upon medical grounds, and the intensity of the recurrent symptomatology was enough to cause such a procedure to be seriously considered. In this instance the following interesting and significant dream verified the analyst's judgment to permit the patient to go to term, and it was also an indication of the analytic progress that had been made.

The patient's mother had had prominent front teeth and a weak right arm. The patient's husband also had prominent front teeth and was partially bald.

Although some residual anxiety remained after the significance of this dream was worked through and understood by the patient, she had mastered the fear previously associated

with her feminine components, had dramatically incorporated and expelled, i.e. identified herself with, the mother, and had remained alive—had successfully taken mother's place.

She was delivered of a seven-pound boy a year ago and has been in relatively good health since.


With the loss of her husband the mother's libido was concentrated upon her remaing object, the patient. The subsequent overindulgence of the patient resulted in oral fixation and the development of an intense homosexual relationship between patient and mother. When the patient assumed the aggressive rôle she identified herself with the missing father, while in the passive rôle she was the castrated, guilty, unworthy child dependent upon the phallic mother.

The study of these patients who were reared in a single-parent situation demonstrates the following significant factors:

1. An intensification in the relationship on the part of both child and parent occurred.

2. The buffer aspect of the natural biparental relationship was absent and the child developed an excessive dependence upon its remaining parent. This was manifested in the transference situation by an intensity that was far in excess of that usually present in female neurotics.

3. This excessive dependence brought about a thwarting of the healthy development of the personality.

4. An immature, highly narcissistic, poorly coördinated ego structure developed, which was utterly incapable of adequately controlling the instinctive forces of the id or of dealing with the external environment.

5. In both patients there occurred an undue fixation in the oral stage of libidinal development. The unresolved conflicts were expressed in infantile terms of oral dependence and oral defiance.

6. An increased primary homosexual attachment to the mother occurred. The narcissistic object fixation upon the

mother was very intense and traumatic in nature. As each developed genital heterosexual impulses (Oedipus feelings), the mother became a castrating phallic figure of ominous proportions with which the child was unable to cope.

7. A withdrawal to a secondary homosexual pattern occurred in which in order to retain the love of this illusory castrating mother the child identified herself with the phantom figure of the absent father and in turn developed an intense penis envy with a relentless castrating attitude. (This was particularly significant in the oral animal dreams and fantasies of the first patient.)

8. The resulting unresolved conflicts of oral dependence, oral defiance, oral aggression, resulted in the development of an intensified oral annihilating superego structure. This in turn stimulated excessive guilt feelings, with the creating of a vicious circle in which greater anxiety and dependence in turn stimulated the oral defiance and aggression. The formula of the vicious circle can be stated as follows: dependence, inhibition of behavior, defiance, aggression, anxiety, (greater) dependence.

In such a setting, in which a severe superego developed as a compensatory factor in order to neutralize the unassimilated id forces, a split personality response was manifested by both patients. Their behavior either was motivated by the id, or after reaching a certain intensity it swung in the opposite direction and was dominated by the superego. Their behavior constantly vacillated between these two extreme poles of reaction. The fusion of the energy associated with these extremes, characteristic of a well integrated personality, was absent.

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