Sexual identity – a war with the self
In recent years there has been an increasing variability in the emotional and/or sexual relational dimensions.
For the self alone, more than verbally, many people express astonishment, surprise or even indignation at this so-called phenomenon. Some blame it on Western trends, others on too much freedom, the effects of drug use, the education provided by parents, society etc.
These relational, emotional and sexual dimensions have existed since the beginning of mankind and only their form, space and mode of expression have changed. Families and people are of different dimensions as soul unions. Some are more ‘conventional’, while others more readily accept the realities of a particular community.
In general, people are afraid of change, of what they cannot control in their lives. It’s human nature, not a deviance.
As I mentioned in a few previous articles, adolescence is a vulnerable time in terms of personality formation and shaping. Of course, social dynamics also leave their mark on parents through the way they are required to attend a job and take on daily tasks or simply by imposing or influencing their beliefs about life.
In our work at the institute with families and their members we have been able to observe that several young people, aged between 12 and 17, request individual sessions in which they take the liberty of confessing their sexual orientation or experiences, but also the confusion that arises about their own identity, which is still unknown to them.
Sometimes parents know the so-called problems and become concerned. Usually, under another pretext, they bring the teenager to the office for psychotherapy. Well, as psychotherapists, we cannot “cure” someone to become heterosexual because it is not an illness, a diagnosis, but we discover the need of these beings to feel stability in their lives, to have a clear perception of what life and relationships mean.
The way in which an adolescent son or daughter may experience dysfunctional family relationships or take over from their parents’ states often leads to certain confusions about the shape of their personal or sexual identity; they can become significant factors rather than obligatory causes of such a process of personality transformation.
The following references are from the systemic perspective of family therapy and the way such issues are dealt with, both in the life of an individual and between family members.
We have observed that a common and marked component for the sexual transformation of adolescents and young people is the emotional abandonment and major emotional neglect in the family, which is caused by the way of emotional expression of the parents, the emotional over-involvement of one of them or, on the contrary, by the way of emotional avoidance between adults, confrontation with trauma and the assumption of identity.
As therapists, we will always explore the context in which a situation concerning a person’s life arises and not think linearly about what we hear. It is essential to look for answers and familiar contexts to which children’s sexual experiences relate.
People who are searching for their orientation, defining their gender identity emotionally and not necessarily sexually are confused. Through their manifestations they seek to find AFFECTION, and ORIENTATION is the form they find and develop to feel some emotional balance.
There are also cases where, in adults, for example, the same emotional gap takes the form of extramarital affairs, excessive alcohol or drug use, or leads to emotional compensation through overeating. These are all contexts in which a person seeks and obtains a certain attachment, an emotional peace, even for a short period of time. It’s similar, I would venture, to the development of a mental pathology, even schizophrenia sometimes.
In some cases of identity definition, trauma is also involved. But not every context is traumatic.
“My parents were blind and deaf to my needs. They were simply so caught up in the daily grind of life that they couldn’t see me; one out of desperation perhaps and the other out of disbelief. We lived in the country and I had a little lamb that I was very attached to and they cut it in front of me. I was so shocked and desperate that I had a sort of epileptic fit on the spot.”
Here, the shock of breaking the emotional bond triggered a somatic episode. The only emotional bond in which the little girl found the context to express her emotional feelings was through her attachment to that little lamb.
All of us, from the moment we are born, have an instinctive need to attach. If we can’t have it with those who gave us life in the first place, we’ll do it later with something else, someone else. These people, lacking attachments, find it quite hard to have personal boundaries or feel stability, even when they enter into same-sex relationships. Why? Because we all basically want the same things: to be heard, accepted, seen emotionally and, above all, to be attached to our mother in the early years. It’s about the ongoing search for that kind of secure attachment, the emotional space in which to trim the warmth of closeness with someone who loves us unconditionally.
“Before the sexual abuse, before I realized what had happened, I was experiencing an atmosphere in my family that, for me, was normality. My mother was always arguing with us and my father frequently drank alcohol. There was no point in her shouting at us, because she would never assume otherwise. She repeated the same mistakes and never changed no matter how much she asked us to change. I really wanted to have that peace and quiet with my mother, to have a good home and feel loved. I would try on my sister’s clothes and have preferences for certain items: my mother’s lipstick or her nightgown.”
Boys will usually draw attention to the need for affection and, by extension, to problems in the family. They will show preferences for objects of the opposite sex: mother’s lipstick, sister’s dress, mother’s stockings and nightdress or other personal objects.
Girls impacted by major emotional gaps will manifest the need for affection through inclinations and traits of the other sex: short haircut, preference for something stiffer, more linear, masculinity, the need to dominate or express affection with difficulty, etc. They will seek to feel an inner control in these manifestations, a circular cause, something that happens in a certain cycle and not because of anyone, but through the existence of cumulative factors, but dependent on one person (mother, father) for the way they are put together. In this case I’m referring to emotional climatic issues that set the tone of the emotional structure, in a family.
Overly rigid relational delineations (boundaries) put the parent in the position of non-involvement. For this reason, even if he is in the home, but does not allow emotional experiences, he will in reality be uninvolved.
Girls, on the one hand, grow a resilience and autonomy of the other, but in a way that leads to isolation and limits warmth and affection. The opposite is that those who are too close to the needs of the other leave no room for the development of initiative and so children can develop anxiety. And culturally speaking, for the most part, the expectation is that ‘involvement’ is mostly from the mother.
“Common sense tells us that gender is a fact of life. As long as society expects even primary parenting to be done by mothers, girls will form identities with someone they expect to resemble, while boys will respond to being different from that.” Nancy Chodorow, in 1978, called this “Mother Reproduction.”
The quality of human relationships lies in the balance between giving and receiving. This is, in fact, a dynamic that constantly alternates from one position to another. It is a process based on the reciprocity of rights and obligations; the child’s right to receive care and the parent’s obligation to provide emotional and material care. The way this balance is struck ensures the relationship is healthy, trusting and secure; whether it is between parent and child or between life partners.
If until adolescence it is the adults who have to invest emotionally and cognitively, constantly and sustainably, in the quality of attachment, in adolescence the young person begins to look outside the family for other people to show or receive attachment. Where relationships have emotional gaps, symptoms will appear, insecurity, confusion, acute stress and sometimes pathology will be observed.