The Complexity of Love

Effie Gray's family homeThis excellent paper (free to download) by Jungian analyst Dr Judith Woodhead explores the mother complex and its effect on personal development and the ability to relate to others, especially in the context of marriage.

Using Jung’s description of complexes, Dr Woodhead explores the impact of trans-generational trauma on John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray. Indeed, in the film Effie Gray the story starts in the house where Effie Gray and John Ruskin marry (see image above) – which is also the place where John Ruskin’s mother witnessed the suicide of John’s grandfather. Dr Woodhead describes the “dark shadow of dread, terror and hatred” that hung over the Ruskin household and its long-term impact on a young developing mind.

Ruskin’s mother (played by Julie Walters in the film) is unable to see her son as a living “feeling-full human being who had his own thoughts, perceptions, feelings, wishes and spontaneous impulses”  - with terrible consequences for Ruskin.

Ruskin’s inability sufficiently to separate from his mother, leaving him caught up in a collusive conjoined state with both parents, leaves him paralysed. Indeed, Dr Woodhead notes how in the film Effie Gray, Ruskin looks quite dissociated on his wedding night when his new wife slips off her nightgown. Eventually, as we know, Effie Gray sues Ruskin for an annulment on the grounds of impotency and we become aware of the intense shame that all too often accompanies such difficult family dynamics.

Dr Woodward notes how Ruskin’s mother complex endures, even after she has died and he has achieved considerable public acclaim. Aged 66, Ruskin sits in the Nursery Room of his childhood home, too overwhelmed by turbulent mental states to continue his Oxford Fine Arts Professorship. He reflects how he was whipped as a child if he cried or tumbled on the stairs, until eventually he achieved a serenity by tracing squares and comparing the colours on the carpet, by counting bricks in the opposite houses. This survival strategy was later celebrated in Ruskin’s extraordinary powers of observation. Just as he found comfort  in hard objects as a child, so he continued in his marriage, admiring a beautiful stone carving in Venice, but unable to relate to the beautiful living wife beside him.

Dr Woodward describes how the attachment dynamics in Ruskin’s relationship with his mother lead to relational trauma that is “felt deeply not only in the mind, but also in the body.” The emotional and bodily damage were locked away, “the pressure of dissociated affect” eventually seeking expression in Ruskin’s writings in these later years.

Please click The Complexity of Love to download a copy of Dr Woodhead’s paper.


Posted on

Comments are closed.