Firestone - Self Under Siege (Book Notes)
Updated: Feb 24
Gurian (1996) acknowledged the difficulty that some mothers encounter in striving to allow their sons the freedom to develop independently of them and to seek their own way in life:
A mother’s “letting go” of her son does not mean the mother and son love each other less. It simply means she psychologically releases him from dependency on her and herself from dependency on him. This letting go is difficult, especially for single moms who do not have a community of emotionally healthy men around them or who have unreasonable emotional and social expectations of ex-husbands and other men, making it difficult for them to let their sons go into male culture. . . . Any mother who does not let go of a son risks that the son will grow up through adolescence punishing her or saving her feelings [idealizing her] and punishing women and society later in his adult male life.
Regarding provocation, attachment researchers have noted, New relationships probably call at first on fairly general working models of others, but particular partners, or particular “button-pushing” behaviors [provocations] on the part of particular partners, may evoke specific representations [internal working models], along with the fears and defenses associated with them. (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007, p. 168) Provocation is also related to the second of the three copying processes described by Lorna Smith Benjamin (2003), who investigated the mechanisms responsible for the repetition of defensive behavior patterns from childhood in a new adult relationship. Problem patterns are linked to learning with important early loved ones via one or more of three copy processes: (1) Be like him or her; (2) Act as if he or she is still there and in control; and (3) Treat yourself as he or she treated you. (p. vii)
Findings from attachment research suggest that girls whose mothers were able to provide them with a secure attachment are likely, as adult women, to develop secure attachment bonds which include a caregiving behavioral system that serves “two major functions: (1) to meet the dependent partner’s need for security by responding to signals of distress or potential threat (providing a safe haven); and (2) to support the attached person’s autonomy and exploration when not distressed (providing a secure base)” (Collins & Ford, 2010, p. 236).
In describing how other women support and reinforce a woman’s fear of differentiation and nonconformity, Rheingold (1964) observed Being an individual means emancipation from maternal domination, and that entails reprisal. The conformity factor operates to cause the woman to try to replicate the marriage of her mother. She must keep house as mother did, she must respond sexually (or not respond) as mother did, and treat her husband in the same way, and she must rear her children by the same practices. Still other wives conform to an abstract idea of what marriage should be, constructed of the opinions of mother and other women. (p. 465)
In addition, the attainment of sexual maturity; being in a loving, committed relationship; and becoming a mother can arouse a woman’s long-standing fear of her mother’s jealousy, envy, and vindictiveness. Based on interviews with more than 2,500 women, Rheingold (1967) concluded that many women fear punishment from the mother “for feminine self-fulfillment—indeed, for just being a female” (p. 96). In our experience, we have found that at significan't points in a woman’s personal development, separation anxiety and fear of the mothers retaliation are a common experience. Indeed, a daughter’s fear and guilt in relation to an envious mother can cause her to turn her back on fundamental personal and vocational goals. She may sabotage her relationships or career success if she surpasses the level of her mother’s achievements. In describing maternal envy, Kim Chernin (1985) wrote, We have arrived at the underside of the mother/daughter bond, the unsweetened bitterness of it. To envy one’s child, to want what she has, to feel that her having it has been at one’s own expense—what a cruel and terrible irony it is to envy her the very opportunities one longed so urgently to give her. (p. 87)
Similarly, in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1952) portrayed the feelings experienced by mothers who envy and resent their daughters independence and are fearful of separating from her. Real conflicts arise when the girl grows older; as we have seen, she wishes to establish her independence from her mother. This seems to the mother a mark of hateful ingratitude; she tries obstinately to checkmate the girl’s will to escape. . . . The pleasure of feeling absolutely superior . . . can be enjoyed by woman only in regard to her children, especially her daughters; she feels frustrated if she has to renounce her privilege, her authority. . . . She is doubly jealous: of the world, which takes her daughter from her, and of her daughter, who in conquering a part of the world robs her of it. (p. 519)
Some men manifest personality traits of passivity and meekness by deferring to their partner’s wishes and demands in an effort to symbolically placate their mothers. Women who select this type of man falsely equate strength with meanness and often mistake subservient behavior for sensitivity or kindness. Men who abrogate their real strength and personal power often utilize covert, negative means of control in their personal relationships, such as sulking, feeling victimized, or becoming moody and jealous. Their unhappiness, personal suffering, and self-hatred function to arouse guilt reactions and fear in their mates and associates (Firestone & Catlett, 1999). This can lead to partners competing with each other for which one will be the more unhappy, self-destructive, or confused. In this manner, men, who were initially the object of this type of manipulation, now come to play a similar game
Men [from these enmeshed families], who generally have so much of mother, tend to experience her presence as sometimes smothering, stifling and demanding. In their later relationships, the pull towards intimacy and sexual union is powerfully countered by the fear of being submerged or swallowed up. They cannot get close because they do not think they will survive the experience
Other theorists have written about the conflict of interest existing between men and women in forming a relationship. Hudson and Jacot (1995) emphasized that a “less familiar feature of female development . . . [which] is a potent source of mutual incomprehension between the sexes . . .and has its point of origin in the rivalry,
fantasied or real, between the small girl and her mother” (p. 8). They concluded, As she cannot express her anger towards her mother without threatening her own identity, the small girl’s anger will also tend to translate itself into depression. . . .
For women, in other words: Heterosexual intimacy taps automatically into deep reservoirs of unresolved hostility, blame and depression. (p. 9) Less obvious is the implication that women will be more likely than men to become depressed in marriages and intimacies that are going well. Again the statistical evidence is confirmatory: among the happily married, women are five times as likely to be depressed as men. . . . [This indicates that] a significant source of a woman’s discontent lies within herself. (p. 10)
Regarding psychological control in family constellations, Walling, Mills, and Freeman (2007) found that “sensitivity to hurt and disapproval of negative emotion were associated with more frequent reported use of psychological control” (p. 642) by both mothers and fathers. The authors proposed that parents’ hostility and perfectionistic attitudes are also linked to the use of psychological control in relation to their children.
Regarding intrusiveness, emotional incest, and parentification and other “denied processes,” Hooper (2007) contended that some family systems may engender an inappropriate overlap in subsystems, with members participating in roles that are traditionally reserved for other members (e.g., parents in childlike roles and children in parental roles), a phenomenon that facilitates parentification. Furthermore, in these families, boundaries can often be seen as distorted, rigid, or nonexistent (p. 220).