In an object relations view of the demon-lover complex, men who stir up oedipal lust in women for a powerful, aggrandized, and seductive father figure are also magnets for a re-enactment of the tragic lack of both maternal attunement and paternal protection, both of which condition a life from its infancy. The demon-lover complex always involves a woman’s destruction by a malignant man, where the woman is unable to assert her power with a man due to early pre-oedipal failings in mothering. When the demon-lover complex is seen in the context of well-known women artists and writers, who express the complex in their work, there is always a woman yearning to merge with an idealized male figure, who takes on the grandiose aspect of their own split-off power, and who is seen as an omnipotent god-like figure (Kavaler-Adler, 1993a & 1996).
Not only is the power of the woman split-off, but the sexual and aggressive impulses that the woman has trouble containing can also be split-off and projected onto the man, lending to the woman an exaggerated form of innocence. Some Victorian literature that talks about this is referenced in Auerbach’s (1982) treatise on Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. In this literature, the repression of female sexuality lends to the woman a contrived aspect of being a “lady,” which drives her to seek an overly aggressive male, demonic figure, to usher instinctual life into the woman’s own repressed and neutered being. In the twentieth century, this mythic “lady” can be seen in the theme of the Stepford wife.
In the demon-lover complex, the lady’s yearning to merge with the male figure has various levels of psychological motivation. Since the lady yearns for a maternal nurturance from a male figure, this kind of female yearnings is more oral than genital, although they are often acted out genitally. These female object needs are more like hungry craving than heartfelt yearning. They are constituted by insatiable oral hunger merged with a diffuse and eroticized oedipal instinctual lust. In addition to her cravings for a mother, the woman with the demon-lover complex also craves the erotic thrills of oedipal-level lust arousal, and its adolescent and adult instinct evolutions.
In this state of combined oral craving and oedipal yearning, the woman projects all her power onto the man. However, since she psychologically merges with the man (as opposed to marrying a whole object-differentiated man), she tries to own the idealized man’s power, while she also projects the power of her own into her idealized male image, which then must inevitably turn demonic, as the projected and introjected power begins to possess her undeveloped infant feminine self. Then the lady wants the man as an aggrandized sexual object. She also wants him to offer her the compassion and maternal empathy of a highly attuned lover. Yet tragically, the early trauma of her pre-oedipal maternal failings inevitably reoccurs with the man to whom she has chosen to surrender. Surrender becomes submission as she endows the man with a hyper-masculinized (and even god-like) power. She projects her instincts (erotic and aggressive) that become combined with her idealized images, onto the man to whom she addictively attaches. In the woman’s mind, the man then becomes a reflection of her own psychic fantasies.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.