Mother complex. Definition: A group of feeling-toned ideas associated with the experience and image of mother.
The mother complex is a potentially active component of everyone’s psyche, informed first of all by experience of the personal mother, then by significant contact with other women and by collective assumptions. The constellation of a mother complex has differing effects according to whether it appears in a son or a daughter.
Typical effects on the son are homosexuality and Don Juanism, and sometimes also impotence [though here the father complex also plays a part]. In homosexuality, the son’s entire heterosexuality is tied to the mother in an unconscious form; in Don Juanism, he unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets. [“Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype,” CW 9i, par. 162.]
A man’s mother complex is influenced by the contrasexual complex, the anima. To the extent that a man establishes a good relationship with his inner woman (instead of being possessed by her), even a negative mother complex may have positive effects.
[He] may have a finely differentiated Eros instead of, or in addition to, homosexuality. … This gives him a great capacity for friendship, which often creates ties of astonishing tenderness between men and may even rescue friendship between the sexes from the limbo of the impossible. … In the same way, what in its negative aspect is Don Juanism can appear positively as bold and resolute manliness; ambitious striving after the highest goals; opposition to all stupidity, narrow-mindedness, injustice, and laziness; willingness to make sacrifices for what is regarded as right, sometimes bordering on heroism; perseverance, inflexibility and toughness of will; a curiosity that does not shrink even from the riddles of the universe; and finally, a revolutionary spirit which strives to put a new face upon the world. [Ibid., pars 164f.]
In the daughter, the effect of the mother complex ranges from stimulation of the feminine instinct to its inhibition. In the first case, the preponderance of instinct makes the woman unconscious of her own personality.
The exaggeration of the feminine side means an intensification of all female instincts, above all the maternal instinct. The negative aspect is seen in the woman whose only goal is childbirth. To her the husband is … first and foremost the instrument of procreation, and she regards him merely as an object to be looked after, along with children, poor relations, cats, dogs, and household furniture. [Ibid., par. 167.]
In the second case, the feminine instinct is inhibited or wiped out altogether.
As a substitute, an overdeveloped Eros results, and this almost invariably leads to an unconscious incestuous relationship with the father. The intensified Eros places an abnormal emphasis on the personality of others. Jealousy of the mother and the desire to outdo her become the leitmotifs of subsequent undertakings. [Ibid., par. 168.]
Alternatively, the inhibition of the feminine instinct may lead a woman to identify with her mother. She is then unconscious of both her own maternal instinct and her Eros, which are then projected onto the mother.
As a sort of superwoman (admired involuntarily by the daughter), the mother lives out for her beforehand all that the girl might have lived for herself. She is content to cling to her mother in selfless devotion, while at the same time unconsciously striving, almost against her will, to tyrannize over her, naturally under the mask of complete loyalty and devotion. The daughter leads a shadow-existence, often visibly sucked dry by her mother, and she prolongs her mother’s life by a sort of continuous blood transfusion. [Ibid., par. 169.]
Because of their apparent “emptiness,” these women are good hooks for men’s projections. As devoted and self-sacrificing wives, they often project their own unconscious gifts onto their husbands.
And then we have the spectacle of a totally insignificant man who seemed to have no chance whatsoever suddenly soaring as if on a magic carpet to the highest summits of achievement. [Ibid., par. 182.]
In Jung’s view, these three extreme types are linked together by many intermediate stages, the most important being where there is an overwhelming resistance to the mother and all she stands for.
It is the supreme example of the negative mother-complex. The motto of this type is: Anything, so long as it is not like Mother! … All instinctive processes meet with unexpected difficulties; either sexuality does not function properly, or the children are unwanted, or maternal duties seem unbearable, and irritation. [Ibid., par. 170.]
Such a woman often excels in Logos activities, where her mother has no place. If she can overcome her merely reactive attitude toward reality, she may later in life come to a deeper appreciation of her femininity.
Thanks to her lucidity, objectivity, and masculinity, a woman of this type is frequently found in important positions in which her tardily discovered maternal quality, guided by a cool intelligence, exerts a most beneficial influence. This rare combination of womanliness and masculine understanding proves valuable in the realm of intimate relationships as well as in practical matters. [Ibid., par. 186.]
At the core of any mother complex is the mother archetype, which means that behind emotional associations with the personal mother, both in men and in women, there is a collective image of nourishment and security on the one hand (the positive mother), and devouring possessiveness on the other (the negative mother).
© from Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon, reproduced with kind permission of the author.