Dear First Love Object: You made me who I am. When I first put my mouth to your breast, our relationship was consummated. Years have passed, and now I just hope that I can find a suitable substitute to you. Happy Mother's Day! Love, Your Son.
I think we're all familiar with Sigmund Freud's Oedipal take on the mother-son bond, one which the founder of psychoanalysis said was sexual in nature, going so far as to refer to a young boy in one essay as his mother's "small lover." (Maybe that doesn't sound as ridiculous in early 20th-century German?)
According to Siggy, as with any past love affair, the imprints of the joys and pains experienced with our mothers influence later relationships. In order to not become neurotic psychopaths, we must detach from our mothers and find a love interest that is not her. Well, duh, you might say. But nearly a century after Dr. Freud first proposed this theory, many modern men have taken this worry that we might fail to detach to heart and, even if we're not screwed up in the head, are left with a residual concern.
Do we inevitably end up settling down with someone like our first love object? Are we destined to marry our mothers?
Being such a sexily taboo subject, there has of course been endless research into it
by the probably undersexed scientific community, some
of which confirms our fears. One decade-old study found that goats adopted and raised by sheep preferred to mate with sheep over other goats (see, we want to mate with our mothers!) while a more recent study on humans last year concluded that men are most attracted to women that share similar facial structures with their moms (see, our libidos are permanently stunted in childhood!).
Certainly these conclusions are telling, but they're superficial. The last time I checked - and correct me if I'm wrong - facial structure does not a woman make.
One researcher I spoke to, Claudia Brumbaugh at Queen's College ran a study that seems to show that while the original "incestuous" tie does affect the way we look at women, this is not limited to possible mates, but rather, as if we constantly wear breast-milk goggles since that original consummation, we see our mothers in everyone.
Dr. Brumbaugh asked more than 100 male and female subjects to describe the parent they felt closer to - not surprisingly, 75 per cent chose their mothers - and then to also describe their partner. A week later, she showed them three fictional profiles - one similar to their close parent, one that resembled their partner, and one made up to be a complete stranger. When asked to imagine what kind of relationship they would have with these characters, Dr. Brumbaugh found her subjects consistently superimposed the dynamics of their relationship with their mother (or father, for those exceptional 25 per cent) onto all of the profiles.
"If you have absolute faith that your mother would never wrong you, you're more likely to think that people in general will not wrong you," Dr. Brumbaugh said, as an example. "That's whether it's a person who is a lot like your mother or nothing like your mother."
When Dr. Brumbaugh pressed her subjects to pick which of the three profiles they would be most romantically interested in - deep breath - men did not pick their moms. Phew. "They had a strong tendency to pick the person who most resembled their partner," she said. "And, in fact, they did not like the person that resembled their parent any more than they did the person who resembled a stranger."
Ouch. (Mom, if you're reading this, just because I find strange women strangely appealing, it doesn't mean I don't love you.)
Christine B. Whelan, author of Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, says that from a gender-equality perspective, it has been beneficial for the current stock of spouse-seeking men to be attracted to women like their mothers.
"Even as recently as the 1980 census, a woman who had a graduate degree was less likely to get married and less likely to have children," says Dr. Whelan, explaining that this was a result of men not growing up with mothers who were educated or who had jobs outside the home. "But now, in fact, a woman's education and career success make her more desirable as a spouse." A study Dr. Whelan ran for her book showed that men who were raised by these working mothers marked career success as an attractive feature in a mate almost 20 per cent more than men chosen randomly.
"This is a strong argument for socialization and the idea that when you see your mother in dual roles and not just traditionally female gender roles, this opens your horizons to be more open in your own choices in your own life," says Dr. Whelan, though she makes a point of adding that her research shouldn't be interpreted as showing that it's detrimental to have a stay-at-home mom, just that it's simply better to have a broader set of role models.
I say don't sweat it if your woman shares characteristics with your mother, and not just because it might be in support of a healthy demographic shift. If you are fond of your mother, as I am (hi mom, does this mean I don't have to buy you a card this year?), overlaps can be just charming coincidences.
I don't think Dr. Freud would be too concerned. Siggy's contributions to human self-awareness, like those of countless other geniuses (Billy Joel, for instance), become misunderstood over time. I think if Dr. Freud were here now he would say the two main things to be worried about in relation to your current love object is if, a) along with resembling your mother, she actually is your mother, or b) she acts like a mother to you.
Pass those two tests and you're in the clear. If you don't, there's always repression.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in April, 2010.