Psychology and Preparation for Marriage
Reprinted from The International Journal of Sexology, N°1, 1954.
Important theoretical and practical contributions can be made by psychology and psycho-analysis to the problems relating to preparation for marriage.
Generally and theoretically speaking, the “psychological disposition” of the partners may be said to be as important as physical, social or financial factors. In fact, favourable or excellent psychological factors can to a great extent make up for practical and economic difficulties and shortcomings that would otherwise prove unbearable.
The nature of the continuity and permanence of wedlock causes a clear-cut distinction to be made between the “psychological choice” of a husband or wife and the merely amorous choice of a person of the opposite sex. This leads, among other things, to the possibility of marriages which are not based – as it would be normal and logical to expect them to be – on love, but on what has come to be known as “convenience”, or even on an exclusively “physical attraction”.
However there can be no doubt that, in most cases, the amorous choice precedes the decision to take a certain person as husband or wife. It will therefore be advisable to mention some important psychological motives that may influence this choice.
These motives are only partly conscious. Even in normal persons, orientation with regard to the other sex in general and to a certain psycho-physical “type” of man or woman is largely influenced by unconscious situations, the origin of which is often very remote. This influence is of course specially pronounced in cases in which these situations are the source of serious inhibitions or of abnormal or aberrant attitudes.
Unfortunately, despite the courageous efforts of psycho-analysts, sexologists and modern educators, the preparation of many young people still leaves much to be desired as far as psycho-sexual problems are concerned. I am not one of those who would like to see sexual education introduced in primary schools!
The first steps in this education should be made, in my opinion, under the guidance of the parents. Yet there is no denying that a proper knowledge of the problems and a healthy psychological attitude towards them are of outstanding importance, not only as regards young peoples’ preparation for love and marriage, but also as regards the general psychic health of the individual.
Psychologically – strange though this may seem – the first steps leading up to marriage are taken in childhood. It is in fact in this period that the orientations of a person’s affective life take shape-those same orientations which, mutatis mutandis, will subsequently influence the choice of a sweetheart and later of a mate in adult life.
Decisive factors of this future influence may be – and often are – the parents’ attitude towards the first external manifestations of a child’s instincts, the favourable or unfavourable, normal or excessive, reaction of the child itself towards one or both of the persons who are of greatest importance in its life, the permanency or liquidation of childhood attachments or hostilities to father and mother, brothers and sisters, or other persons occupying an outstanding place in the child’s life.
Under this aspect, an indispensable prerequisite in preparation for marriage may be said to be the real – and not only apparent – abandonment of childish emotional positions and the full capacity to replace them with other permanent ties of a decidedly adult character. We may, for instance, consider “unprepared” for marriage a man who, more or less unconsciously, seeks to find in his wife an exclusively protective, motherly type of woman (modelled on the maternal figure of his childhood or, sometimes, in contrast with it). Equally “unprepared” is the man who sees in his future wife above all an agreeable playmate to share his interests with (such as a sister may, or might, have been in his boyhood). Nor can we consider well prepared for marriage the girl who looks exclusively for a husband who will “support” her, or the one who wants a husband she can protect and “baby”.
These and other more or less unconscious “adherences” to childhood situations always imply the refusal -or, as psycho-analysts term it, the “repression” -of some feature of instinctual erotic life, which ought instead to be accepted and fully recognized as a necessary condition of a happy and well balanced married life. According to whether this acceptance is full and conscious, or imperfect and accompanied by partial sublimations and adjustments of instincts, or actually lacking, three possibilities may be distinguished, which are listed below:
1. Best solution: acceptance and natural outcome in marriage and fatherhood or motherhood;
2. Lesser evil: imperfect acceptance with sublimations and displacements of the unaccepted tendencies
3. Worst solution non-acceptance, repression and incomplete and often neurotic outcomes as compared with the norm.
Let us now examine in what way psychology and psycho-analysis can make a practical contribution to the preparation of future husbands and wives. Here, in my opinion, a distinction should be made between preventive (treatment), and actual re-educative and psycho-therapeutic treatment.
In this field, preventive treatment and sexual and pre-matrimonial education in the broadest sense are one and the same thing. It would in fact be a mistake to believe that the task of education can or must be limited in this sphere to a timely and suitable illustration of the phenomena of sexuality from a strictly biological point of view. Proper pre-matrimonial education must cover, at a didactic level, a vast range of subjects -far vaster than mere anatomy and physiology. In particular, this education should aim at creating a psychologically healthy attitude in children and adolescents, towards love and marriage. It should, for instance, explain what may be the unconscious determinating factors in the search for a mate, carefully divest questions concerning the relations between the sexes of the morbid, curious or dangerous aspects that they may present to an inexperienced mind and point out how binding are the requirements of a deep and lasting affective tie such as marriage must necessarily be, while at the same time making it clear that, except in very rare cases, these requirements are not in themselves such as to make marriage an almost unattainable state or a heavy and unbearable reduction of an imaginary and nearly always ill-interpreted personal “liberty”.
Furthermore, education in the sense considered here should seek to create conditions apt to promote a satisfactory psycho-sexual and affective formation within the very environment in which the individual first develops. No seed sown from outside the home will be able to take root if it finds intrinsically unfavourable soil. What “teaching” can possibly hope to be successful if, for instance, the recipient has been inhibited, or pampered, or wrongly orientated in any way since childhood? As far as a systematic and timely preparation for adult life and marriage is concerned, the heaviest burden and greatest responsibility lies therefore with the parents-first educators of a child. In fact the remark made many years ago by a great psychoanalyst specializing in the problems of childhood, Anna Freud, may effectively be quoted in this connection: it is often the parents rather than the children that need guiding, educating and analyzing!
In the field of re-education and psychotherapy proper, psychologists and psychoanalysts are often consulted, either individually or jointly, when working in special institutions and consulting centres, in connection with cases in which real psychological impediments to marriage exist. These impediments range from not very serious forms of shyness, inhibition and unsociableness to pronounced neurotic disturbances such as psychic impotence, frigidity, phobias and character distortions of neurotic origin. The length and intensity of the treatment is apt to vary considerably. In certain cases, a few simple explanations concerning, let us say, a personal or family situation not properly focussed or understood, may be sufficient to remove the obstacles and lay the necessary premises for marriage. In other cases, psycho-analytic treatment in the fullest sense may be needed. This will be the case when the causes of the disturbance go very deep, their roots being completely ignored, and when any possibility of a spontaneous and gradual “adjustment” in marriage is to be excluded a priori.
To illustrate the above remarks, I will now describe briefly a practical case taken from my own psycho-analytical experience.
The subject is a man of thirty-two, whom we shall call Charles. The symptoms of the disturbances that have made him decide, on his doctor’s advice, to undergo psycho-analytic treatment, are partly hysterical, but most of them involve his personality and character. Charles is unable to write more than two or three lines running-either with a pen or with a pencil – and his writing is shaky and angular; his arm immediately undergoes a contraction, stiffens and is blocked so that his writing is completely inhibited. Charles also suffers from frequent gastric trouble which no diet succeeds in eliminating.
But, as already said, this is only the most obvious part of the picture. Charles lost his father when he was eleven and was brought up by a very youthful and energetic mother to whom he is still most devoted. His mother induced him – that is to say she morally compelled him – to take on a paltry, uninteresting and yet exacting job as a clerk when he was little more than a boy. Charles nevertheless succeeded in getting a university degree by studying when he should have been sleeping. What he did not succeed in doing, however, was to find the courage to “break away” from his job as a clerk, which had become absolute torture to him. At thirty he met and married a woman of the same age, part-owner of a successful concern, strong-willed, fond of money, not in the least sentimental and very much taken up with her business. In their marriage, agreement was limited to the plane of sexual intercourse for all the rest disagreements and quarrels soon became the order of the day. Desperate and heartbroken, Charles had already started divorce proceedings and his future struck him as being so black and hopeless that he often entertained suicidal thoughts.
The psycho-analytical treatment brought first to light the childish and aggressive components of the subject’s sexuality never overcome and finding clear expression in his “writer’s cramp” and his gastric trouble. His early attachment to the maternal figure and the “failure complex” caused by his childhood disappointments and feelings of guilt (regarding his father’s death), as well as the dull and unrewarding office work had, in his case, “sexualized” the act of writing, which was consequently impeded and blocked, thus confirming the subject’s sense of inferiority. Symbolically, writing may be compared – at the level of the phallic oedipus complex – with the sexual act (the pen representing the penis, the ink flowing from it ejaculation, and the paper the primitive maternal image), while, at oral pre-Oedipal levels, it may be compared with a “spilling of liquid” (milk) – something which the subject unconsciously does not want to do – a form of irrational revenge for imaginary precocious alimentary frustrations. In the language of the unconscious, the gastric and intestinal troubles are also compromises between the regressive search for infantile alimentary satisfactions and inhibitions pertaining thereto. After three months’ analytic treatment, Charles is completely freed from cramp and can write as many pages as he likes, although his writing continues to be somewhat irregular. The gastro-intestinal trouble is much less severe and will gradually disappear.
It is at this point that the analysis attacks the most serious problems relating to the subject’s whole personality those concerning his social life, his work and his marriage. Charles dreams repeatedly that he is in a half-built house that somehow never gets finished – this is clearly symbolic of his inner impossibility of completing himself, of “building himself up” as a person able to stand on his own feet. The analytical material shows that the subject’s permanency in the job he hates is due to the fact that he finds therein both an expression substituting his childhood attachment to his mother and a form of self-punishment for having wanted to replace his deceased father in his mother’s affection. Like his father (a clever civil engineer), Charles has a knack for mechanics and electrical engineering, but he never succeeds either in developing or in making use of it; in short he is inhibited from really equalling his father.
Under the impulse of irrational motives, the subject had sought to find in his wife a woman who would support him and be able to feed him. What he had found instead was something that he also desired, though unconsciously, as a form of masochistic satisfaction and/or self-punishment: a strong woman who had no intention of devoting her life to another person and not the least inclination to be tender and maternal with him. Hence the basic cause of disagreement in his marriage and the decision to put an end to it.
Progressively analysis solves all the aspects of this situation. Once everything has become clear, it becomes necessary for the psycho-analyst to have some conversations first with Charles’s wife and then with his mother. Both women recognize the importance of getting him to make a practical attempt to break loose from the vicious circle in which he has enclosed himself. Charles gives up his uncongenial job, settles in the town to which he had gone in order to be analyzed, and the couple decide to suspend divorce proceedings. Charles starts work on his own sector of industrial mechanics.
After fourteen months’ treatment, the analysis is practically completed. Two years after having made a new start, Charles is already making more money in his new profession than he made as a clerk. There has been a great improvement in the couple’s mutual tolerance and understanding. Charles, in particular, no longer expects his wife to be a substitute for a protective mother. He now considers her realistically as an active partner in his interests as well as a pleasant companion for sexual experiences. Exactly two years and four months after the beginning of the psycho-analytical treatment, the couple’s newly found harmony is crowned by the birth of a child.
In conclusion, from the point of view of psychology and psycho-analysis, the main points referring to preparation for marriage are the following, listed briefly in the form of ten commandments:
I. The best road to marriage is the “high road” of love.
2. The choice of an object to be loved does not necessarily coincide with the choice of a mate.
3. These choices are largely influenced by unconscious orientations, which should be given due consideration and, in a number of cases, examined in time.
4. In addition to all the rest, preparation for marriage calls for a clear and sufficient knowledge of the problems of sexual life.
5. The psychological experiences of childhood are at least as important in this preparation as those of adolescence and youth,
6, Marriage implies not only the formal but also the substantial acceptance of the adult “psychological position”.
7. The “internal images” of infancy and childhood may be “projected” on to the chosen mate in frequently unsatisfactory and pathological ways.
8. Some “repressions” connected with childhood situations must be overcome and solved if a marriage is to be really successful and offer the greatest psychological advantages.
9. The first “preparation for marriage” occurs under the decisive influence of parents and early educators.
10. It is therefore essential to pay the greatest attention to the proper organization of family life and educational environment, if we wish to obtain healthier and happier new generations through more successful marriages.