Love and the Formations of Family

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Love and the Formations of Family

Book excerpt

By: Sigmund Freud

Date: 1930

Source: Freud, Sigmund. "Love and the Formations of Family." In Civilization and its Discontents, edited by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1961.

About the Author: Sigmund Freud is considered the father of modern psychotherapy. While many of his ideas have since been dismissed, his groundbreaking research on the function of the unconscious mind laid the foundation for the current understanding of human motivation and behavior.


Human behavior is often difficult to explain. Despite centuries of study, philosophizing, and scientific inquiry, the reasons for human decisions and behavior still frequently confuse or confound us. While numerous explanations for the vagaries of human choice have been proposed, none has more profoundly influenced human thinking than the work of Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud lived in an age of reason and logic. Born in 1856, Freud grew up and was educated in a world where science was becoming king and rational analysis was believed to hold the key to unlocking all mysteries. Shortly after Freud's birth, Charles Darwin had published his monumental work on natural selection, and scientists and theologians the world over were debating the relationship between science and religion. The world in which Freud grew up had primed him with the expectation that any aspect of the world, even the sometimes strange behaviors of human beings, could be explained rationally and logically.

While previous philosophers had proposed and discussed the existence of a subconscious mind, Freud was responsible for bringing the concept into the public dialogue. Freud believed that human intellect is made up of three distinct parts: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. He proposed that these three aspects of the human mind co-exist in an intricate dance, seeking pleasure, meeting basic needs, and tailoring behavior to specific situations as each part pushes and tugs to achieve its own ends. Freud also believed that the id, the pleasure-seeking portion of the mind, was the largest of the three, and played a major role in determining virtually all human behavior.

In practical terms, this perspective meant that Freud saw humans as creatures constantly driven by their physical desires; Freud labeled these desires instincts, and included the desire for physical survival, the desire for sex, and the desire for death, which Freud believed all people unconsciously experience. Of the three, Freud believed that the desire for sex and sexual fulfillment was the strongest, and many of his models of human behavior hinged on this perceived drive for sex.

While Freud's understanding of human thought and emotion included higher order processes such as showing compassion and the need to help others, he ultimately perceived human beings as creatures driven by the id, the basic underlying needs of the organism. Consequently, when Freud examined the structure of the human family, he observed an arrangement dictated by basic underlying drives, and he concluded that families were merely a manifestation of the basic human desires for sex and power.


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While science often struggles to explain the functioning of love and other human emotions, Freud's explanation was particularly mechanistic, portraying human love and commitment in the most self-centered and calculating light possible. To Freud, families arose to satisfy the need for sex, societies arose to satisfy young men's need to overcome their fathers' dominance, and the two were destined to remain locked in eternal conflict, with family love pushing against the bonds of the larger society.

Freud's influence remains significant a century after he completed his most groundbreaking work; TIME Magazine named Freud to its list of the 100 Most Influential People of the twentieth century. Modern critics dismiss Freud's theories almost entirely, particularly his apparent obsession with the role of sexuality in behavior and motivation. They also make light of his formula for interpreting human dreams, which Freud perceived as a window into the unconscious mind, but which modern therapists attribute to a variety of causes including late-night snacking.

Freud's supporters, while acknowledging the limitations of his work, praise him for his role in crafting a new perspective on the human mind, and in particular for his efforts to explain why human beings often make such inexplicable (even to themselves) and unfortunate choices. Most men and women today acknowledge that human behavior is influenced by childhood experiences, unrecognized and unfulfilled needs, and unresolved conflict; psychoanalysis remains a common therapeutic approach within the field of psychiatry. In popular discussion, Sigmund Freud is most commonly mentioned when an individual makes a Freudian slip, such as accidentally calling a current boyfriend by the name of a previous partner. In Freud's analysis, such mistakes are not mistakes at all but are simply the subconscious mind trying to communicate its true feelings.



Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Avon (Reissue Edition), 1980.

Mitchell, Stephen A. and Margaret Black. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Nicholi, Armand M. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Free Press, 2002.


Doidge, Normal. "The Doctor is Totally In." Maclean's 119 (2006): 40-42.

"Who Moved My Superego?" Business Week (May 29, 2006): 14.

Wong, Ting-Hong and Michael Apple. "Rethinking the Education/State Formation Connection: Pedagogic Reform in Singapore, 1945–1965." Comparative Education Review 46 (2002): 182-200.

Web sites

The Freud Museum of London. "1856–2006: 150th Anniversary of Sigmund Freud's Birth." 1999 〈〉 (accessed July 20, 2006).

Shippensburg University. "Sigmund Freud: 1836–1939." 〈∼cgboeree/freud.html〉 (accessed July 20, 2006).