The Madonna - Whore Complex in Fiction

The Madonna – Whore Complex is a psychoanalytic concept first explained by Sigmund Freud. Freud describes the conflict, writing: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” You may have heard of this before, even if you didn’t know there was a psychological term for it.

I have always loved psychoanalytic literature. It’s what first caught my attention and then directed my interest toward psychology. The literature is descriptive and complex; it often gives eloquent portrayals of deeply moving processes of human behavior and human nature. The human mind is fascinating and psychoanalytic literature delves into the deepest and darkest recesses of the human psyche.

I remember being utterly mesmerized by the literature early in my graduate school years, reading for hours, dissecting the written theories and imagining how they fit within the various personalities of people I knew. This was before I was seeing patients. I was trying to understand the complex processes illustrated in psychoanalytic theory by applying them to people in my personal life. This is never a great idea, by the way. It is unwise to analyze your friends and family. It can be presumptive - there isn’t enough information to make the intuitive leaps that can be made when working with someone in therapy – and I believe it can feel intrusive. If people are defending and protecting particular psychological vulnerabilities, they may not appreciate having their attention drawn to these things. Once I began seeing patients I stopped doing this because I realized that it was both presumptive and at times, intrusive.

Psychoanalytic literature does not make for easy reading. The language, particularly of the early psychoanalysts, is dense, complex and filled with jargon unique to psychoanalysis. That is, much of the jargon is particular to psychoanalysis - not psychological jargon, but psychoanalytic jargon. But it is worth the effort, not only for people studying psychology, but for anyone interested in the deeper drives of human beings, especially fiction writers. Popular psychology descriptions, in order to be succinct and perhaps more accessible, diminish the complexity; often times throwing a diagnostic label on a complex and multidimensional behavior, instead of considering all of the nuances that make someone and their experience unique.

In my fiction writing, I have used psychoanalytic concepts to inform my character development. This brings complex psychological processes alive by creating fictional characters who embody the principles. One example is the Madonna – Whore Complex.

When I began writing Circle of Betrayal, I knew Noah Donovan’s character would personify the Madonna – Whore Complex. His narrative would tell a story about a man struggling with a conflict where he has difficultly being sexually aroused by the same woman he loves. The result of this: a split in sexual/romantic relationships where the man is unable to have satisfying sexual intimacy with the same woman he wants to have a long-term, sustaining relationship with. Broken down simplistically: it’s sex – vs. – love. Which happens all the time, right? But in the Madonna – Whore Complex it is at the cost of never being able to experience sex with someone who is also loved. In this instance, all sexual/romantic relationships are riddled with conflict, confusion and pain.     

Unable to resolve the internal conflict, an individual often engages in two different relationships, with two different women, sometimes more, where each woman fulfills a separate need. For men struggling with this conflict the needs are mutually exclusive. That is, for most people the need for sexual fulfillment and romantic commitment can be satisfied within one relationship. With the Madonna – Whore Complex, the two become split, separate and reconciling does not feel possible.

This is just the kind of concept that fascinated me in graduate school. I remember asking professors on more than one occasion: “This is all sounds good on paper, but does this really happen?” Professors’ responses were always the same, “Yes, Jacqueline.”

As it turns out they were all right. Now with years sitting in the therapist’s chair, I have experienced various psychoanalytic processes happening within the therapeutic relationship; I have heard many personal narratives. And I have seen a lot of people struggling to reconcile the split that manifests in the Madonna – Whore Complex. Although Freud’s definition is somewhat narrow, in my opinion, the general theme is consistent. The person is unable to experience sexual desire with the same person they want to be with and/or are committed to. As Freud said, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” Consequently, the individual is filled with confusion and distress. And the origin can be traced back to early relationships with primary caregivers, usually the mother. Sorry to sound so cliché tracing the origin back to early childhood relations, particularly with the mother. I wouldn’t say it if I hadn’t experienced it clinically, firsthand. I wouldn’t say it if I knew it only through a textbook.

A number of readers asked about Noah Donovan’s character. A few mentioned that they found the relationship between he and his mother, ‘disturbing’ and/or ‘fascinating.’ They wanted to know more. I thought it would be worth sharing the concept of the Madonna – Whore Complex with my readers. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil the surprises and twists for those of you who haven’t read it and plan to do so. What I can say is that Noah Donovan’s story arc was informed by what I know of the Madonna – Whore Complex, both from reading about it and from my clinical experience. I took what I knew and created a chilling illustration within the context of fiction.

Fiction writing is its own particular version of psychology. Creating narratives, exploring and exposing human nature through the imagination, provoking thoughts and feelings for readers, in a descriptive, rather than didactic fashion, is perhaps the greatest exposition of human psychology. Without using jargon, the reader becomes privy to the inner workings of the mind, motivation, rationality, emotions, intricacies that are often difficult to comprehend from theories that can be, at times, unnecessarily esoteric.

Although first illustrated by the father of psychoanalysis, Freud, the Madonna - Whore Complex, has since been extended and elaborated upon in clinical psychology. It has also been exhibited through characterization in fiction, both literature and film. Noah Donovan was not the first; I expect that he will not be the last. But it makes for a compelling narrative, particularly one exploring sexual and romantic relationships and entanglements. Whether fiction or non-fiction this is an area that promises to be full of surprises.

*The Madonna - Whore Complex has traditionally been considered a psychological difficulty for men. There was great gender bias during the time that psychoanalysis first emerged as a discipline. So it makes sense that Freud identified a psychological phenomenon that was isolated by gender. As a note... in my clinical experience women can also develop a split in their relationships that looks almost like the Madonna - Whore Complex. The main difference, in my experience, is the origin; what leads a man to suffer from this conflict, is different than what leads women to suffering similarly.