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Do fairy tales condition your views of romance?

Prince, princes, romantic

© Maciej Es I Shutterstock

Edifa - published on 04/08/21

A Freudian psychologist speaks to how early representations of childhood can affect our attitudes about love.

Many young women dream of Prince Charming, while men think of themselves above all as heroes. This is a misunderstanding that, according to marriage counselor Geneviève Djénati, finds its source very early on, in the early representations of childhood.

In your book Le prince charmant et le héros (Prince Charming and the Hero), why do you address the myth of “Prince Charming” which is already the subject of much discussion nowadays among sociologists?

Geneviève Djénati : This book is based on a simple observation: The women I meet in the course of my work complain a lot about the lack of men’s tenderness. “I don’t care if my husband has a good job, as long as he’s more attentive and around to do things,” they say. For their part, men seek recognition from women through action: they want to prove their strength. But they feel that they are being denied this role. This is where the misunderstanding begins.

To understand it, to avoid disappointment and disillusionment, we must go back to early representations: whereas, in childhood, girls see their ideal mate as a tender savior (Prince Charming), while boys identify with courageous character overcoming obstacles to win over their beloved (the hero). These patterns are set in the famous Oedipal phase. They are part of the fundamental differences inherent in the development of boys and girls. They are an important part of the psychological mechanisms at play during our love life, from childhood to adulthood. Hence the need to pay attention to them in order to better understand the unconscious forces underlying the relationship between men and women. Acknowledging differences will encourage curiosity that ultimately leads to understanding. Erasing these differences, on the contrary, leads to dangerous egalitarianism, a source of serious trouble.

Why do women dream of Prince Charming?

Daydreaming is more familiar to them. Whether in children’s games or in real life, anticipation is to the feminine what the present is to the masculine: a way of structuring thought. Prince Charming is not only a fairy tale creature, but the result of the famous Oedipal phase for the girl. He is the unexpected man. The one who arrives as if by magic: he has the same ability as her father to be strong and her mother to instantly understand. He unites both parents in one person. You are the only one in his eyes! He is strong when needed, tender and present at the right moment, he can be a nurturer, an inventor, etc. He is Shiva, with multiple arms!

Is Prince Charming a good or a bad cliché?

He is the ideal man! But the fantasy that no man is ready to take on. Should a woman “kill” Prince Charming? He is, in fact, what allows a girl to endure adolescence, to dream, to make plans. I believe that she must wait for him (he carries a part of dream that helps to bear reality) and at the same time renounce him (he prevents her from living in reality) — that’s the paradox. By being in a constant state of waiting, one never meets anyone. From a mystical point of view, he is God! Prince Charming also exists in the imagination of married women: in difficult moments, he will be the one who will always have the right answer. This is unbearable for men.

Don’t men dream of their “Princess Charming”?

Sort of. For men, the “Princess Charming” is always mysterious. He will have to overcome obstacles (real or imaginary) to win her over, save her from something and change the course of her life. “Princess Charming” allows the boy to finally realize his childhood dream: to rescue his mother from his father’s clutches. In his imagination, the ideal woman must be unattainable, mysterious, familiar, maternal and sensual. Later, once the couple is formed, she must allow him to live like a hero, that is to say to have overcome the difficulties.

How can primary relationships with parents affect future romantic behavior?

First, very important, if you’re considering this from a Freudian perspective: in the Oedipal period (3-5 years), one must have been able to imagine that there is a special relationship between father and mother and that one day I will be like them. Basically, during this period, the little girl will try to take the mother’s place with the father. She will have to transfer to the father the privileged love she has had for her mother. So she will be in rivalry with her mother, while trying to integrate the female model. Things are simpler for the boy: he must symbolically take the father’s place in order to win over the mother. He will want to be the best, the first.

The drama happens when the father or mother makes it seem like the child already is their object of love. There is then no longer any generational landmark. If I’m 8 years old and I have nothing to imagine for later, I’m bored, terribly bored! This is, for example, the problem with “Lolitas” today. The boy must have a rival with whom he identifies in order to build himself up. If there’s no one to oppose, there’s no one to surpass either. A sufficiently strong, but not exaggeratedly strong, identifying image is needed.It’s a delicate balancing act. An overly authoritarian parent who constantly belittles his or her children will prevent them from developing and integrating the model of a satisfying couple and family. The ban placed on the imaginary then makes the child’s daydreams come alive as something shameful.

Why do some young adults in therapy express the wish not to be like their same-sex parent?

This denial of identification seems to be an early part of the child’s history. It is often found in environments where seduction and tenderness were taboo, with a very present mother, and a relatively distant father not claiming any space or time for her. Any desire to please, and any expression of it, gives rise to guilt. Both girls and boys engage with this desire to seduce, whether or not they try to escape it. They will have to negotiate psychically with this model. If they do not perceive the grace of a male-female relationship, they will not want it.

For the female, this can translate into an escape from the world, looking for refuge at the convent to which you believe you are called to, or the multiplication of love experiences with no possibility of settling down. As for the male, he will try to find a woman who will be more of a mother than a wife. The great danger is to reproduce the “mold” that has formed, without exercising one’s personal freedom and creativity.

Can lack of love in early childhood also be an obstacle to a love relationship?

Relationships formed with the father and mother during early childhood build self-esteem. They strengthen our feminine or masculine identity. They incite us to invest in other, external relationships.

The first condition to love is to have been loved, obviously. The lack of affection on the part of the mother (or father) leaves traces: uncertainty, even feeling unworthy of love, and a quest for love that is difficult to satisfy. This quest then becomes the whole focus, sometimes leading to a destructive spiral. The partner is only a mirror or an accessory conquest that hides the identity deficit.

The seducer is the prototype of the unloved child: his drama is that he never believed he would be able to seduce the mother. Hence his permanent flight forward, in the hope of obtaining reparation for maternal love. Relationship problems, possibly depression of their partners, are the characteristics of these impossible loves.

One could also speak of the loner, unable to receive what the other has to give, for lack of a place in him or her to receive it. As soon as the doors of affection are opened, they close again. Any encounter that provokes emotions confronts them with their own uncertainty about their ability to give. Unless they renounce all forms of difference, the loner says to himself: “One is never better served than by oneself.”

What are the difficulties encountered by children of divorced parents?

Some tend to reproduce their parent’s failure indefinitely: unconsciously, they equate success in love with betrayal of the aggrieved parent. Some women, for example, steer clear of romantic relationships in order not to disqualify their mother, or do not have a love life and keep the famous Prince Charming in their head. They only have a virtual man, and arrange so that their relationships never work!

But a lack of a good model in childhood is not fatal. Neither are the “wounds” of childhood! Wounds that have been identified, named, overcome, give an even greater taste for life. They make us aware of how important it is to listen to others to avoid minor misunderstandings that lead to serious misunderstandings.

What actually happens in these therapy sessions?

During a meeting, each person brings the baggage with which he or she has consciously and unconsciously constructed himself or herself. Thus, in spite of the impression of symbiosis, of perfect connection between the two, they are still “disturbing strangers” to each other.

At the beginning of the romantic relationship, from love at first sight to de-idealization, the fantasy works. Reality is put aside. Each one unconsciously sees in the other what they want to see. But each one also brings the building blocks of their whole story, happy or painful. Example: I have seen families where all the girls married foreigners to distance themselves from the memories of an incestuous climate. However, they found in their companions the same characteristics of the one they were trying to escape.

But be careful, this moment of fusion is not to be avoided: it is an essential phase, involving emotion and surprise. This illusion of completeness, necessary for a state of love to blossom, must, however, give way to reality, to the discovery of differences, in order to lead to a true relationship. It is a perilous and at the same time exciting moment. Love could not do without imagination, but when the imaginary is a prisoner to idealization, it condemns the real relationship. Love is rooted in difference.

How do you get past the de-idealization stage?

Accepting the other with their differences and not simply adorned with all the attributes they had been given. At the moment when the conscious takes over—that is, when the socks thrown on the floor are no longer the pretty little socks snatched from the rival (the mother-in-law)!—things become more delicate. Lovers must then be able to exchange, even confront, but no longer “share,” their visions of life (a very important nuance).

While the passionate couple had been built on the misinterpretation of fusion, the couple now will be based on differentiated complicity, in greater maturity. Each one will be enriched by the characteristics of the other, avoiding the trap of rivalry or possessiveness. We will have to admit that we do not live with a mirror. We will have to love this difference instead of distrusting it. Listen to the other person, let them express themselves (instead of thinking for them), and imagine how to do them good so that they, in turn, give something back. I am struck by how some couples don’t know each other, have no real curiosity about each other (“I don’t know what to offer him or her,” they confide in family therapy sessions), remain factual when they communicate or don’t even consult each other when making important decisions.

It will also be necessary to take into account that the other is not only a source of pleasure. This consideration requires investment, presence and listening. However, more and more couples prefer to live separately and meet up only to share pleasant common activities. It is a way of not letting the other person be sad, tired, unhappy or frustrated.

In fact, you’d like to reconcile Prince Charming and the hero.

Prince Charming and the hero are two ideal men. The misunderstanding stems from the belief that they are the same. In fact, the ideal would be for everyone to have their own way: the woman to make room for the hero, and the man to make room for the dream. If we recognize the man as a hero, he can be a bit of a prince charming. In the same way, the woman must be careful not to “kill the seductress” by becoming a mother. The difficulty for her is to juggle between her role as mother and that of wife.

Man and woman must admit that they are not made the same. That they have different representations of masculine and feminine. Understanding all these mechanisms and learning from the other is a continual enrichment. It is also an excellent antidepressant! Love is as simple—and complicated—as that!

In a couple, you should not take yourself too seriously either, but on the contrary know how to cultivate your share of fantasy, your capacity for imagination, your playful side inherited from childhood. Allow for the interaction between dream and reality.

Diane Gautret


Read more:
Does having children together destroy the romance in a marriage?

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