The ‘Taboo’ on Tenderness

By Ian D. Suttie

 Extracted from The Origins of Love and Hate originally published in 1935 by Kegan Paul and was last published by in 1960 Pelican.

 Ian Dishart Suttie was a Scottish psychologist who challenged Sigmund Freud’s view of the human psyche. Suttie thought Freud focused too much upon the individual and his individual development. Suttie and other Scottish thinkers of his time like the psychoanalyst, W.R.D. Fairbairn, and the philosopher John Macmurray, were much more interested in the human being in relationship with other human beings.

 It could be argued that they and others formed a second  20th century Scottish Enlightenment which was concerned with persons in relationship.

 Ian Suttie, who died on the eve of the publication of his book, The Origins of Love and Hate from which this extract is taken, may have  been allowed the status of a significant footnote in the history of psychology, but his ideas about the relationship between mother and child which anticipated and defined attachment relationships have not generally been acknowledged.

This chapter from his book, has some dated cultural references which will reward navigation on the way to discovering an original voice which continues to deserve a hearing.

 The Origins of Love and Hate is currently out of print. My feeling is that with sensitive editing it could be renewed as an important text about the nature of relationships between human beings.

Charles Sharpe December, 2014


The Taboo on Tenderness 

I suggested that Modern Science had a positive aversion to anything savouring of sentimentality. While in the physical sciences this justifies itself on methodological grounds, in psychology it has been carried to such an absurd length (e.g. Behaviourism) as to betray an underlying bias of anti-emotionalism. Yet it may seem incredible that so harmless and amiable an emotion as tenderness, the very stuff of sociability, should itself come under a taboo. Our religious professions exalt love above all the virtues and condemn the unloving life, though our outspoken prejudices centre round sexual morality mainly and our laws concern themselves greatly with property.

Further Freud has laboured to show that tenderness is itself a derivative of sexuality (goal-inhibited), and so any embarrassment at sentimentality or intolerance of pathos might be interpreted as due to an incomplete ‘disinfection’ of the sexual root motive of tenderness. This, too, squares with the fact (true to our culture) that men show less tenderness and more sexuality than women, or, as Freud would say, the latter are more goal-inhibited by a more repressive upbringing and by the special difficulties of the girl-child in sexualizing her love for her mother. (Incidentally, however, this would imply that men have less sublimated culture-interest, since sex-outlets are freer to them.) Altogether the view that tenderness is more or less an artifact and that asexual love is a myth of the idealists is fairly well established in our tradition and everyday life.

The idea that tenderness is a primal independent reality and that it undergoes repression will seem untrue and even absurd unless supported by much evidence. Where can we find it?

The most typical example (indeed proto-typical) can be found in the ‘gang’ of larger or smaller boys who idealize what is called euphemistically ‘manliness’, in contradistinction to ‘babyishness’ and ‘girlishness’. The ideals of such a community are intensely anti-feminist, as indicated by the coining of such opprobrious epithets as ‘milk-sop’, ‘cry-baby’, ‘mummy’s boy’, etc. On the positive side this ego-ideal holds up ‘toughness’, aggressiveness, hardness, etc., as prime virtues. Power, violence, cunning, and crime have such a fascination for these children that (when, in due course, they arrive at Fleet Street) every burglary is ‘daring’ and every swindle is ‘clever’. Obviously this state of mind is a reaction against the sentiments related to the mother and the nursery, from which (mentally) these children have just emerged, in all probability unwillingly. The suggestion arises that the whole of this character-formation is a revenge upon and a repudiation of the ‘weaning’ mother, on the defensive principle of ‘sour grapes’.

Another feature of this phase of character-development is worth noting from the social point of view, namely the tendency to form ‘brotherhoods’ or secret societies. We may conjecture that the social need of these juvenile outcasts from the nursery draws them together as a ‘band of brothers’ united by a common bereavement (see Chapter 8 for a further consideration of this social phenomenon and of Freud’s view of the ‘outcasting’). There is a very general tendency to ‘rationalize’: the process of socialization on the grounds of the material advantages (in the way of efficiency) that may be derived from cooperation. But these secret ‘brotherhoods’, juvenile or adult, have no practical purpose whatever. ‘Brotherhood” itself is declared to be the purpose of the greatest of all ‘secret’ societies – the Freemasons. In point of fact, too, we find that juvenile gangs or societies are formed first and decide upon their objectives afterwards, as is amusingly urged by the practical Huckleberry Finn against the romantic Tom Sawyer. Social integration is, in fact, an end-in-itself and not merely a means to practical ends; the brotherhood is constituted for its own sake.

These little boys when grown up and ‘civilised’, have no less inhibition in expressing and embarrassment in receiving cordial regard. Sentiment makes them ‘squirm’. ‘It is simply not done.’ It is ‘wet’. So that expressions of liking and esteem have actually to be disguised more carefully than a smutty joke. One very common ‘cover’ for expressions of warm or tender feeling is mock abuse. Quite outrageous epithets are employed as terms of endearment. Chaff, practical jokes, and horse-play further serve to express and disguise affection. How are we to interpret this? As goal-inhibited homosexuality reinforced by instincts of destruction and inhibited as a sadistic play? Is teasing of this kind merely hatred, repressed and released under the excuse ‘It is all in fun’? Very often it is; but it seems to me that this explanation will not cover all cases. Affection, which either is not sexual or of which the sexuality is efficiently repressed in this shame-faced way, is, if tendered too effusively, rejected with embarrassment and some such protest as ‘Don’t be silly’. Why should a harmless and conventionally innocent emotion come under such a genuine taboo? Is the phobic censure of homosexual offshoots so remorseless that even the most highly ‘disinfected’ derivatives of this instinct are repelled as tainted? If so, why does any human activity escape taboo; and, above all, why is the taboo on tenderness so variable in its incidence as between different individuals, between the two sexes, and between different cultures?

Before attempting to answer these questions let us collect further samples of aversion to and concealment of sentiment, and of indirect and surreptitious indulgence in this. On the supposition that there is a social reaction against tenderness and feeling generally, we would expect to find that these forces seek safety valves and express themselves under various disguises and excuses, which evade the prohibition. We do in fact find much of such evidence showing how strong is this taboo and consequently how important are the impulses subjected to it.

How can the pay of nurses be kept so low in view of their hours and the nature of their work? Presumably there is an invisible remuneration – the right to act sympathetically (although, of course, no emotion must be shown). The exhibition of tenderness is permitted to the mothers of young children, but ‘goo-goo’ talk is rather reprehended. It embarrasses us. Why? Because there is a taboo on tenderness or anything else that savours of infantility. A man may take a condescending interest in children (under the  guise of amusing them); but how many men can exhibit a real tenderness for babies? Yet some young boys will play with dolls and, as I show elsewhere, the envy of motherhood is one of the most potent factors in culture evolution.

Yet again with ‘pets’ we find a permitted release of tenderness, but only on conditions; for here again we find the tenderness-taboo stronger in men than in women in our culture. Pets are adopted children, meant to remain so. (This is correlated with the fact that the sex taboo is stronger in women, but not in the simple manner of extra oal-inhibition by women. Rather I would say that men had substituted sex or love. Even the psycho-analysts are now recognizing this.) The dog can match the man in the dignified ‘reserve’ of its devotion. Indeed the sheepdog’s relation to its master is sublimated to a mere colleagueship of practical interests. Here, however, where it is not forbidden, the dog is often pathetically grateful for a little caressing. (In parenthesis, while human attachment to animals may, by Freudians, be attributed to repressed and deflected sexuality (‘fur fetishism’), how does psycho-analysis account for the reciprocal attachment of animal to man? It certainly cannot all be put down to sexuality, and it is certainly related to the treatment the animal has received when very young.) To return: the exuberant affection of a puppy can be tolerated, or, rather ignored; after all we are not responsible for its ridiculous antics, and our dignity is not affected. It is however rather ‘unmanly’ to like cats, though this indulgence is, rather condescendingly and mockingly, permitted to lonely women.

I have already mentioned the tenderness craving that enters into love-making. Here again towards lovers we find a social attitude of contemptuous tolerance. Is this due to sexual envy or blame, or is it due to a recognition of the regressive nature of the sentimental as distinct from the passionate component of human love? We dissociate ourselves from the ‘weakness’ or ‘madness’ of lovers by applying to them such epithets as ‘spoony’. We regard lovers as ‘smitten by disease’, and in general show less respect, if less active reprobation to tenderness than we do to sex itself. In fact we excuse tenderness or sentimentality in this case on the grounds of its sexual intention and tendencies.

Examples of this inhibited social behaviour and embarrassment at harmless emotions could be multiplied indefinitely did space permit. The unsatisfied need for tenderness and for a sentimental play of feeling which results from this social inhibition constitutes the main drive to alcoholism. In a later chapter I will show the significance of love hunger as a motive to the ‘flight into illness’ and the widespread incidence of ‘disease’ of this origin. The uncontrollable feeling aroused in some great disaster seeks a religious or quasi-religious outlet since these are ‘licensed’ by popular prejudice. Yet even Christianity is stigmatized as weak and childish since it avowedly cultivates tender sentiments. National idealisms show the same bent. Economic practice and the ideals of daily life express our admiration for ‘hard shell’, hard-boiled, hard-bitten men who have ‘steeled their souls’. A great if slangy vocabulary has sprung up to discriminate between the character and conduct which is emotionally responsive and that which is not so, and the balance of approbation trends always towards the latter. All this bespeaks a cultural antipathy to a range of feeling and emotion which is socially harmless.

If we take it that the theatre, music, etc., have the function of meeting the interest and emotional needs left ungratified in everyday life (Just as the dream ‘fulfils’ frustrated wishes), we must infer that the privations imposed upon tender feeling are almost as important as those imposed on sex. Indeed it seems possible that refuge from tender feeling and pathos generally is being sought in sex and that this flight is expressed in some people’s intolerance of ‘good’ music and delight in jazz excitement. At any rate this sphere of activity will afford evidence to test the hypothesis here put forward in the following lines: ‘Does the “sickly”, “sloppy” sentimentality of the Victorian Theatre and Concert Halls and of the pantomimes of pre-war times express the sexuality that became goal-inhibited under the repression of these times, or is it an ebullition of tender feeling that is equally repressed in a puritan, patriarchal, community?’

On the supposition that the latter question can be answered in the affirmative, we must consider what possible forces and mechanisms could conspire to inhibit an apparently harmless and even valuable impulse. I would answer this question tentatively as follows.

What we call tender feeling and affection is based not on sexual desire but upon the pre-oedipal emotional and fondling relationship with the mother and upon the instinctual need for companionship which is characteristic of all animals which pass through a phase of nurtured infancy. In our culture in particular the brusqueness of the cleanliness-training, the frequent and prolonged separation of mother and infant, and the mother’s own intolerance of tenderness (the result of her ‘puritan’ upbringing) bring about a precipitate ‘psychic parturition’, attended by an anxiety, acquisitiveness, and aggressiveness which is reflected in our culture and economic customs and attitudes. This process of parturition or psychic weaning must be  intensely painful even where not aggravated by jealousy of a supplanter. The measure of this pain can perhaps be found in conscious memories of solecisms and blunders, which are attended by an acute sense of shame years after they are committed. We really regret these stupidities more than we do ‘crimes’, because they meet with ridicule and exhibit us as children under the criticisms of adults. It seems to me that these painful memories may act as cover-memories for all the rejections and prohibitions which attend psychic weaning.

The distress of this process must after all be far greater than that attending sexual repression; for, in the case of psychic weaning, the child is being deprived of something it has enjoyed ‘from time immemorial’; while in sexual repression it is merely being forbidden something that is reserved for ‘grown-ups’. To the anger attending the thwarting of tenderness-feelings must be added the grief for the loss of the mother and above all the anxiety caused by her changing attitude. This hits at the very foundation of the sense of security. The child discovers that what it has painfully and obediently learnt does not after all satisfy the parent who exacts these sacrifices, that its childish ways of pleasing are no longer acceptable, and that there is really nothing on which it can depend. The very root of its sense of security and justice are struck at by the denial of baby caresses, and by the rejection of those offered by the child, for we must remember that touch is a more fundamental reassurance than sight or sound. This fact must be of some importance in deep analysis, wherever the physician deliberately avoids being felt, seen, or heard. But it must be of supreme importance in the determination of culture and character, since upon it depends the first orientations of ego-idealism and ambitions.

It seems probable that this psychic parturition is relatively painless and harmless under one condition only, namely, that the child’s resources in companionship and play-interest increase ‘pari passu’ with the separation from the mother and the loss of the direct love-caressing-interest in her. Where separation outruns substitution, anxiety and anger appear. Unless the interest in the self, shared with the mother from the beginning (Narcissism; see Chapter 2) develops in secure and widening circle before the direct tenderness and nurtural love-relationship is seriously, threatened, anxiety must appear; and the child then turns back from the developing Interest-Companionship to insist upon, and hold on to, the companionship-of-Love, much as an army must turn round to defend its threatened Base of Supplies.

That is to say the child will easily renounce more primitive enjoyments and security if offered a more social but equally secure substitute. But we find that circumstances and certain peculiarities of temperament cause the mother unduly to accelerate the psychic parturition. One by one the attentions formerly enjoyed by the infant are withdrawn and this is appreciated by the child mind as a withdrawal of love, and more important still, as meaning that its love and itself are not wanted or welcome to the mother. The child must then either (1) develop companionships and interests in lieu of the contracting love-absorption (normality), or (2) fight for its ‘rights’ and/or (3) find surreptitious regressions or substitutes (Delinquency and Psychopathy), or (4) submit and avoid the pain of privation by repression (the Taboo on Tenderness). In the latter event the avoiding reactions tend to spread (as will phobia proper) in order to exclude all reminders of painful loss and all incentives to ‘dangerous’ appeals or indulgences.

Such a counter-rejection of love or self weaning from affection serves an obvious defensive purpose. As I see it, this protective indifference is essentially a ‘sour grapes’ kind of self-comfort – a self-insulation from love hunger by the ‘cultivation’ of a ‘loveshyness’ – but it demands a psychic blindness to pathos of any kind – a refusal to participate in emotion. It can be carried to such a point that the individual is not only ‘steeled against’ the appeal and suffering of others, but he actually dreads appealing to their sympathy, and may, for example, conceal illness for fear of making a ‘fuss’ or ‘scene’. One can only suppose that the privation of love is here recognized as so inevitable, yet the longing remains so painful, that the whole conflict is forced out of mind. Anything that tends to re-arouse it (pathos and sentiment) is therefore resented exactly as the prude resents an erotic suggestion and for the same reason. The taboo upon regressive longings extends to all manifestations of affection until we can neither offer nor tolerate overt affection.

The repression of affection seems therefore to be a process likely to be cumulative from one generation to another. The mother who was herself love-starved and who, in consequence, is intolerant of tenderness, will be impatient of her own children’s dependency, regressiveness, and claims for love. Her suspicion and anxiety really amount to a feeling (rooted in self-distrust), that children are naturally bad (St Augustine I) and require to be ‘made’ good by disapprobation and the checking of all indulgence of  ‘babyishness’. This creates a corresponding anxiety in the children about retaining approbation and winning more. The child feels too early that love must be deserved or earned, and excessive anxiety may easily reach the point of despair.

This on the one hand constitutes a temptation to abandon the struggle in favour of regressive dreams (Dementia Precox) or to cultivate invalidism (Hysteria). Or, on the other hand, it may lead to a jealous competitiveness, the quest for power, position, ‘prestige’, possession. Love has now become aggressive, anxious, covetous. Unintentionally the mother has imparted her own inhibitions (on tender feeling) to her children, has substituted the ideal of duty for that of good-fellowship and established a morality of guilt and distrust in place of that of benevolence and confidence which I maintain would have developed naturally.

The ‘hard’, puritanical, character thus developed is intensely jealous and intolerant. For the indulgences we have been forced to renounce ourselves, we will certainly not permit to other people. We are in effect jealous of the child we affect to depreciate, we dread that it will be a ‘molly coddle’, and force in turn, our own children to ‘grow up’ too quickly to allow them time to outgrow their childishness. We make them ‘serious’ – preferring ‘success’ to enjoyment – efficient competitors in the struggle for existence, but we do this in ways apt to increase the intensity of the tenderness-taboo to a point hardly compatible with the maintenance of social living.

This philosophy of life is idealized in Stoicism, which avowedly seeks a defence from suffering by eschewing desires that expose us to privation and rebuff. More typically however it produces a competitive materialism which cuts out ‘playful’ and cultural interests as trivial or actually (if guilt plays much part as in Puritanism), ‘sinful’. Since there is no natural satisfaction obtainable in such modes of life we naturally find that they tend to intensify themselves. The Stoic becomes the cynic, the Puritan becomes morose, intolerant, anti-Christian in every essential respect, a ruthless ‘favourite’ of a ruthless God.

Apart from these individual variations in responsiveness and spontaneity of feeling we find wide and general differences between the people of different cultures in this respect. We actually find, for example, that the taboo on friendly relations can become explicit even while sexual indulgence is regarded as harmless. Professor Malinowski reports of the Trobriand Islanders that while it is quite in order for a girl to sleep with her lover, it is regarded as improper for her to be too friendly (e.g. to prepare food) before marriage. They regard this very much as we are supposed to regard pre-marital intercourse. If their civilization were like ours presumably they would consider a restaurant bill good grounds for divorce; the Sunday papers would print the menu and the Bishops would talk of the decay of morality and the dangers of neo-paganism. Still they do not carry the taboo on tenderness anything like as far as their neighbours and trading relatives the Dobuans, whose ideals of civic conduct would qualify them for Broadmoor Prison even in this country. This latter people profess an ethical attitude that would justify the Freudian metapsychology. They consider the only worthwhile object in life is to get the better of your neighbours and the only means of doing so are force, fraud, and sex-appeal.

A study of the conditions of upbringing in these peoples shows a pseudo-matriarchy – a state of affairs in which, in spite of nominal matrilineal inheritance of property, the actual mother can have no confidence, no stability, and no dignity in the children’s eyes. The emergence from the kind and sheltered world of infancy into the ruthless competitiveness of the adult life of this people must be accompanied by stresses, resentments, and regressive longings with which the mothers are quite unfit to deal. There is not space to analyse the effects of the complex conditions of rearing, but the evidence is compatible with the view that the racial character of this people does not result from the release of natural badness so much as from the acquisition of hardness and the repression of a childish (natural) friendliness and generosity which cannot survive under ultra-competitive conditions.

At the opposite extreme of racial character we find certain African peoples whose children, Audrey Richards reports, hardly ever quarrel. They can hardly be said to undergo any weaning compulsion, are protected from supplanting anxiety and jealousy with the most elaborate care, and are not subjected to any cleanliness training, because, the mothers say, ‘It would be so cruel. They will learn for themselves in good time.’

In this culture also, the sex taboo and sex secrecy is extraordinarily light, so that the difference (from Dobuan character) cannot be due to this factor. It seems to me that the child is able to reach maturity without developing anxieties, resentments, regressive longings for a lost happier state, etc., and without having to immunize or insulate himself from tender feeling. Where the child has not been wounded by the refusal of love or by the rejection of his own, it does not need to develop a character ‘hard’ and ‘cold’, contemptuous of enthusiasms and incapable of loyalties; it does not develop a defensive inhibition of and unresponsiveness to feeling.

Another important consequence follows. The undefended, unreserved character makes a far better parent. Not having any anxious regrets for lost childhood to repress (or not repressing them) such an adult has no aversion to children or embarrassment under their attention and appeals. He makes effective contact with children because he has a childlike or feminine mind.

There need be no lack of   strength, resolution, or penetrative capacity in mind, he has merely not cut out what our culture teaches us to despise. Have we not mistaken a mere desertion or suppression of the open mindedness of childhood for maturation, manhood, and regarded this negative quality – a defensive reaction – as good in itself, very much as aggressiveness is idealized by Fascism? The fact that we do so gives us more than a hint as to the origin of sex differences in temperament.

These ‘secondary’ sex characters have generally been assumed to result from the physiological characters of the organism, but a number of facts suggest that this factor in character development has a much more limited influence than we had tacitly supposed. We find highly ‘masculine’ (as we think) mental characters in physiologically feminine women and vice versa. Further the differences in character between men of different cultures (alluded to above) are paralleled or exceeded by differences in the character and ideal of womanhood. Broadly speaking the greatest differences are found in patriarchal cultures where the woman becomes the protégé or toy of the man. Under matriarchal cultures, such as that of ancient Teutondom, no distinction was made between the virtues proper to a man and those of a woman. Brynhild is depicted in the authentic sources as equal to Sigurth in every respect.

It is quite conceivable then that features of our mode of upbringing, which I have vaguely generalized as a tenderness taboo, create an artificial mental differentiation and consequent emotional barrier between adult males on the one hand and women and children on the other. Women, of course, can never, consistently with their rearing functions, lose touch with the child so completely as is possible for men. Besides the prospect of having children of their own, their own development differs from that of their brothers in that neither the Oedipus wish nor custom can ever bring about the same kind of cleavage between themselves and their mothers and they may even be associated with the latter in the care of younger children.

There is no need to postulate an instinct of maternity when we find the disposition and the habit developing unchecked from infancy, and this is bound to have an influence upon the formation of the general character of women.

My point is that the taboo on infantile activities, gratifications, and relationships to mother, the condemnation of regression, spreads to harmless and even necessary feelings and attitudes of mind. It artificially differentiates men from women, making them bad comrades and throwing the women back upon a dependency on their children, thus further widening the breach and aggravating jealousy. But its worst effects lie in separating parent from child. The former, unconsciously resisting and defending himself from regressive longings, is impatient with childishness and forces the child to grow up and to abandon its naïve, unguarded, emotional relationship to its social environment. Such a parent, while denying the ‘right to childhood’, presents to his children as the goal of life an adult nature and relationship which is unattractive to the child’s mind or even productive of anxiety and depression. ‘If that is all maturity has to offer’, we might imagine the child feeling, ‘I had better stay as and where I am.’ Thus a puritan intolerance of tenderness increases the unconscious regressiveness it hates, and interposes unnecessary moral obstacles in the way of the maturation it designs to accelerate. It forces development to proceed by a violent change with repression instead of by gradual process. It does not produce really mature minds, but merely a hardness and cynicism with a core of anxious, angry infantility. It loses the generosity of the child without acquiring the stability and integration which should belong to the adult.

At any rate it appears that the notion of a taboo on tenderness, related as it is to the general hypothesis of the nature of love which this book is sketching out, throws new light upon certain facts of character-differentiation between men, women, and children and between different races, and places them in a new relationship. As such it seems worth working out.