The Autonomous Women

In this category I placed the female patients who, despite having sympromatologies and psychological conflicts similar to those of the preceding group, exhibited ego strengths in many other areas anti coped with their difficulties in a different way. Thus, the patient was likely to be holding a job or managing a business. She made decisions at home or at work without difficulty. Her emotional struggle, however, followed a similar trend up to a point, as was found in the more dependent type of woman. She was not prone to fold up in a depressive reaction. Harassed by private anxieties, beset by frustrating interpersonal conflicts like her more dependent sister, she, however, fought to establish a separate self-image even at the price of an emotional breakdown.

Analysis of their background revealed a number of factors which may be contributory to this difference in psychological makeup. Firstly, there was the absence of a “little-girl” image in relationship with mother. Secondly, father tended to be a more positive figure that had a direct hand in helping her and her siblings make decisions as they were growing up. There was a definite pattern of the women in this group to be either the oldest in the family or among the daughters, or to be the only girl, or the father’s favorite.

The “little-girl” image in the eyes of mother, leading to the very strong emotional ties with her, never obtained, even in early childhood. As a matter of fact, this seemed to be one of the big things which bothered these women. They had never felt really loved by mother, who was described in various ways, all pointing to her limited motherliness. “Mother is like a little child herself; she has no opinions of her own.” “Mother is too preoccupied with herself, her religion, or her money.” ‘Mother is too self-sufficient.” “Mother’s favorite is my sister.”

Many in this group felt they had no close women friends. They had little trust in or respect for women, and often ridiculed women’s small talk which they considered stupid. Many were openly and fiercely competitive. Relationship with the therapist, a woman, always proceeded with great caution and hostile feelings were likely to accumulate as the attachment increased. They claimed to be more comfortable with men and respected them more. However, most of their problems had to do with men. While these women made charming dinner partners or intelligent colleagues of men, they found the intimacy of personal relationships with them difficult to enjoy and sustain.

They had mote conscious confusion and ambivalence than the women in the previous group, who seemed to have a clearer idea of where their emotional security lay; their only problem was how to procure it. The women in this group were not sure what would make them happy. There had been no lasting gratification from either mother or father. They were not very sure what permanent security could be expected from the husband. Their children were likely to be perceived as challenges, treated with more obvious ambivalence, but efforts to improve relationships with them, albeit erratic, were consciously attempted.

The dynamics of her personality make-up and the kinds of psychological difficulties she got into reflected this confusion. Often yearning to be a little girl to mother, she actually was as strong, if not stronger than mother. She also resented comparisons with her, insisting that she was as different from mother as night is from day. She sees mother’s neurosis rather clearly (“Mother is a hypochondriac.” “To mother, money is god,” etc.) However, she continues to expect mother to change. Many of these women could not live with mother, unlike those in the preceding group, who would give their right arm any time to have mother around. In this group, statements like “I can’t be with my mother for more than thirty minutes” were often heard. But the woman was likely to push her husband and children to visit her mother, likely to send her to the best doctors should she fall ill and, in general, do more concrete things for her, to make up for her own inability to get close to her.

Hostile feelings for her were thus ill-concealed. She was not unaware of the reason: she felt that mother, in some way, had failed her. In a culture which proclaims mother as an idealized figure, her defects, as perceived and experienced by these patients, were glaring and unforgivable. But in the same culture which dictates that children should always be grateful to their mother and take care of her in her older years (and especially if one is blessed with money), these patients found little alternative but to react with some semblance of conformity to tradition.

Relationship with father was far from being a resounding success, either. The one saving grace about it was that there was more communication between them. It was father who tended to be idealized in the patient’s mind. He was warm, engaging, affectionate. He was always the “bida” (the hero) at the family dinner table, at discussions, in family gatherings, and in social affairs. He usually was also a self-made man. Except when the patient was his favorite, all his faults were likely to be glossed over. The favorite daughter, however, was likely to be very upset should he lose his temper, philander, drink, or gamble.

Cutting a rather dashing figure, he was also often seductive. But the abundance of physical endearments with the patient surprisingly caused little conscious guilt in either one of them. (Thus, sleeping with father until menarche, cuddling and sitting on his lap, and in a few patients’ recollections as young children, of being bathed and “washed” occasionally in genital areas by him, were riot associated with a feeling of uneasiness, anxiety, or guilt.) Indeed, he seemed to be what a nurturing parent should be. He told entertaining stories; he saw to it that a child’s favorite food was available to him. This nurturing aspect of the relationship was emphasized and the sexual components, deeply repressed.

He was adored and feared. When angered, he could be ruthless. Favorite daughters who got married against his will (worse, if they eloped) or failed to live up to his expectations in their studies did not expect to be forgiven until the patient had paid the full psychological price, in terms of suffering, for causing his displeasure.

The quality of early relationships with parents which permitted an early detachment from mother and, at the same time, opportunity for a more meaningful relationship with father, fostered a desire to establish an independent self-image. This desire, starting from early childhood, had never been lost and the grown woman was likely to recall, “1 always wanted to be different.” Her difficulties came about when the parents and the culture as well, would not allow, much less help, her to be really different. Strong social pressure and inflexible demands of cultural traditions forced her to be like everyone else. The first test of this battle between her desire to he different and external pressure came in relationships to siblings. If she was special, there were always attempts to bring her down to the others’ level. Later tests are in relationship to men and women friends outside the family.

She had to learn early, therefore, to develop a facility for reconciling incompatibilities, to deny and repress whatever and whenever it is convenient to do so. She would indeed be the well adjusted person in the culture if she could only deny and repress successfully, manipulate the environment expertly, and sublimate her energies into her work. Unfortunately, she was still plagued by the deprivation of a special relationship with mother, which others in the culture enjoy; her sexual feelings, though abundant, were only half-repressed and in a sense she yearned to be father’s little girl, instead. Furthermore, manipulation of the environment and a thorough enjoyment of her work were hampered by a nagging doubt about whether it was right or wrong (especially if husband or family objected) and encumbered by ensuing obligations towards others prescribed by the culture for one who dares to be both successful and different.