In marriages where unconscious shame and mutual idealization have played significant roles, the aftermath of a divorce can be particularly destructive. The couple often enters into a battle to establish who is the “winner” and who is the “loser”, even going as far as enlisting the loyalty of their children against each other. This tragic behavior stems from the narcissistic needs of a parent who prioritizes vengeance against their ex-spouse over the well-being of their child.
This damaging dynamic is further compounded when it intersects with the Oedipus Complex. While I will describe this scenario in relation to divorced mothers and their sons, it is important to note that it can also apply to fathers and daughters. In cases where infidelity by the husband instigated the divorce, the ex-wife may harbor legitimate anger, but it is crucial to recognize that this does not justify harmful behavior.
One common manifestation is when the ex-wife turns her son into the “little man” in her life. She relies on him for companionship that she would typically seek from a spouse and shares thoughts and concerns that are inappropriate for a child to hear. These conversations may touch on her financial struggles, subtly making the boy feel responsible and protective. Additionally, she may complain about the difficulties of being a single woman and running a household alone. While it is understandable for a mother to assign her son certain household chores, it becomes problematic when she expects him to take on the role of a confidante and life partner in place of his father.
By poisoning the relationship between father and son, the ex-wife places the boy in an even more toxic environment. According to Freud’s Oedipus complex theory, the resolution of this complex occurs when the son identifies with his father and internalizes him as part of his conscience. However, this resolution relies on a intact family structure, where the father’s authority opposes the son’s desire for exclusive possession of his mother. It requires the boy’s respect for his father and an understanding that the father does not seek retaliation for any patricidal thoughts the son may have harbored.
When the mother enlists her son as a surrogate husband and simultaneously attempts to destroy his relationship with his father, it reinforces the Oedipal fantasy. By trashing her ex-husband, she subtly encourages the boy to “kill off” his father. How then can he resolve his Oedipus complex in the usual way, by internalizing a positive authority figure as part of his superego? Even if one is not convinced by the Oedipus complex theory, it is evident that we internalize our parents as part of ourselves. Therefore, internalizing a damaged father will undoubtedly have an impact on a boy’s sense of self. It undermines his self-esteem and fosters a hatred towards authority, even legitimate authority, which can hinder his ability to navigate roles and relationships in the wider world.
In conclusion, the toxic combination of unconscious shame, mutual idealization, and the Oedipus Complex can have profoundly damaging effects on children in the aftermath of a divorce. It is crucial for parents to prioritize their children’s well-being over their own need for vengeance. By fostering healthy relationships with both parents, children can develop a positive sense of self and a healthy understanding of authority.
Written by Joseph Burgo