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Benedek, T. (1977). Ambivalence, Passion, and Love. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 25:53-79.

(1977). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 25:53-79

Ambivalence, Passion, and Love

Therese Benedek, M.D.


This essay spans the range from the fundamental concepts of psychoanalytic theory to the epigenetic phenomena of sociocultural processes that involve the relationship between the sexes.

Ambivalence is defined as the psychic representation of the two poles of instinctual energy: active = positive, passive = negative. Sexual drive, the psychic representation of the sexual instinct, is potentially ambivalent. It is assumed that an ambivalent emotional state, experienced by primitive men, means danger from within, activates defense against the sexual drive; thus the primary repression of the sexual drive precedes the evolution of conflict. The psychological consequence of primary ambivalence is emotional ambivalence that involves ambivalent attitudes toward the object of the drive. The primary instinctual conflicts are examined in the

frame of prehistoric civilizations: the cult of the Magna Mater and totemism.

The concept of the primary ambivalence of the sexual drive is derived from the active, extraverted, male sexual drive. The primary instinctual ambivalence of women cannot be attributed to the passive sexual drive; it is rooted in the female procreative psychobiology. The positive tendency and wish for childbearing and motherhood are opposed by the fear of pregnancy and death.

Passion is the intensification of affects that results from a spiral of interaction of the positive and negative poles of the instinct. Sexual passion involves reciprocal object cathexes that become the measure of the self-esteem of the lovers.

The primary instinctual ambivalence is a genic characteristic of each sex. The "polarity of the sexes" is remote from the source of the primary ambivalence. Rooted in the genic constitution of the sex, the polarity of the sexes is an epigenetic phenomenon, molded by the mutual influence of sexuality and culture. Castration fear and penis envy are the focal conflicts that express the ambivalence. Evolved in the process of ameliorating the primary ambivalence, the polarity functions to actuate sexual attraction and raise sexual tension. The process of love is described in the adaptation between marital partners. The idealizing, sexual love becomes a lasting bond through mutual identifications between husband and wife.

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