What is Madonna Whore Syndrome?
A Major Cause of Sexless Marriages
"We used to be intimate at least a couple times a week, but soon after we married, his sex drive waned."
Women who marry a man prone to the so-called Madonna/Whore syndrome, also known as a "virgin-whore complex" or sometimes simply "Madonna syndrome," can spend years trying to figure out what is wrong with them.
It's especially confusing when their husbands seem to have enough libido to have extramarital affairs, or who claim to be attracted, but then rarely want to get frisky.
Keep reading to learn about Madonna/Whore syndrome, how it differs from other causes of infrequent sex, and whether it's treatable.
The psychiatric community does not formally recognize Madonna-Whore syndromes as a valid diagnosis. The concept originated with Sigmund Freud, who observed that some men had trouble relating to their wives, presumably due to their relationships with the first significant woman in their lives: Mom.
As the video explains, sexual intimacy is a completely different experience for women who have high self-esteem than it is for women who have low self-esteem. However, both types of women can find themselves married to a man with a Madonna complex. They question themselves and their husbands as they try to understand what is happening.
Both she and her husband may believe varying reasons as they struggle with this problem:
- His libido is too low.
- Her libido is too high.
- She's not attractive enough.
- She's attractive, but he's focused on his work.
- They're too tired after dealing with work, family, and other stressors.
- She just doesn't satisfy him well.
- He's secretly gay.
Most of these ideas fly out the window when she discovers disturbing evidence on his computer or learns that he has had an affair. He insists that he wants to save the relationship and cannot live without her, but if she grants him another chance, she finds that his sexual interest only increases temporarily before they're back in the same boat.
Other Reasons for Sexless Marriages
- Physical illnesses like anemia, kidney failure, and thyroid problems.
- Infections and injuries, like urinary tract infections and STDs.
- Medication side-effects.
- Other relationship problems.
- Psychological issues like Inhibited Sexual Desire (ISD), Anxiety Disorder, or Depression.
Only a doctor can rule out physical conditions that can contribute to an ongoing lack of desire, so a physical exam is highly recommended!
What Is a Sexless Marriage?
Most experts claim that having intercourse ten times a year or less qualifies as a sexless marriage, while others say that the definition should rely upon whether the partners feel satisfied with their own frequency or not. After all, they say, once a month might be great for an octogenarian, but not for a couple in their mid-20s.
- When it comes to a relationship where a Madonna syndrome is present, there is a predictable pattern.
Prior to marriage, sexual relations appear "normal." That's to say that the couple is intimate on a regular basis at least weekly. Often, they'll have physical relations several times a week.
After their wedding, the frequency may stay the same for a while or it may drop. Once children enter the family, however, they may discover that they have sex rarely or not at all because he cannot imagine the caretaker of his children being the "bad girl" too.
How a Virgin-Whore Syndrome Evolves
Early in the relationship, a man with Madonna-Whore Syndrome is sexually attracted to his new partner. He doesn't yet know her well enough to determine if she's a "good girl," like the holy Madonna. He does know that when he marries, he wants to marry a good girl, but in the meantime, he's excited by sexually assertive women.
His new lady presents an interesting dilemma that keeps him chasing. She wants to take things slowly, she says. Alternately, she may not initiate the slowed pace but instead, reacts to his claim that he wants to take time developing their relationship instead of rushing in. Either way, this is a test of sorts. A woman who takes things slowly is someone he can classify as a good girl, while a woman who has a high interest in sex falls into his category of "whore."
He'll take the good girl to meet his family. He'd be willing to marry a good girl. He wants to have children with a good girl. A "whore" on the other hand, is someone who he finds sexually appealing, exciting, but not worthy of commitment.
As his new relationship progresses and he learns more about his new partner, he starts categorizing her accordingly:
High Career Focus
MW Syndromes in the Media
- Madonna-Whore Complex - Television Tropes & Idioms
The Madonna Whore Complex trope as used in popular culture, with a list of examples from all media.
In Depth Information
Popular media reinforces the virgin-whore dichotomy. Discussing these important influences may open the way to productive conversations.
The Male Perspective
Men who exhibit Madonna-Whore complex can be misogynistic (meaning "woman hating,") but many aren't aware of their contributions to their marital problems. Most often, they feel devastated to learn that their wives have started emotional or physical affairs. Only then do they recognize that they neglected her and the relationship, and they want to return the relationship to its status quo.
Many of these men feel very much in love with their wives, and always have. With the exception of sexual intimacy, they are devoted, attentive, and good providers. However, something subconscious prevents them from approaching her as a sexual equal. (Sigmund Freud speculated it was related to a man's relationship with his mother.) In some cases, they feel they're being disrespectful or treating her as an object if they seduce her.
This man wrote about his experience on Health Central:
Like the other guys with this disorder, sex with all the other women was a blast and they were just our "whores." The sluttier a woman was the more I was into her. I never loved them though, Never could I love such a woman! I may have told them I did, but that was just so that I could keep getting what I was getting. Is that right of me? Absolutely not! I feel horrible and ashamed for having treated those women that way. As for my wife, she is the most precious jewel in the world to me. I love my wife, I adore my wife!!!!! Now why in the freaking world can I not make love to her?????
Some experts believe that all narcissists have this complex, and that their humiliating, dehumanizing behaviors result from it. Others believe that when a man categorizes women in this way, he automatically is a woman hater (misogynist). However, there is no solid evidence to support these claims.
A misogynistic male might think, "She's had sex with a dozen men! There's no way I'd want to be with that promiscuous slut." Another guy might avoid her and feel uncomfortable without being able to pinpoint exactly why. A third man might pursue her because he finds her exciting. All three of these men could still have MW complexes that drive them to categorize her as a "whore" rather than as a "good" girl.
This objective book looks at men's and women's roles that contribute to sexless marriages, including physical and emotional conditions. It includes information on ways that come couples address their problems.
Counseling and Treatment
Because a Madonna-Whore complex isn't viewed as a psychiatric disorder, there is no particular diagnosis or prescribed treatment. In fact, most people who have sought marital counseling with their partners say that counseling did not work.
The Madonnas who have spent many years married to a husband with MWC say that wearing sexy lingerie doesn't work. Their husbands simply cannot allow themselves to see their pure, wonderful wife get sexually defiled, so they ignore and avoid her attempts to seduce him. At worst, they may belittle or ridicule her attempts.
Deeply rooted psychological issues like these are nearly impossible to change. Personality disorders, for instance, can be treated to some extent but aren't recognized as curable. However, highly motivated individuals who recognize that they want to change may be able to improve to at least some degree. So how could this work in the MWC?
Dr. Nerdlove's article on this subject raises what may be an important point:
Men are frequently portrayed as being absolutely at the mercy of their own sexual desires, leaving women as the guardians of morality. Men, already feeling at a disadvantage, resent the authority and power over sex that women represent and blame women for their feelings of… impotence. Regulating female sexuality into the acceptable form – under the authority of men (the Madonna) and the unacceptable form – acting in a manner similar to men (the Whore) provides the illusion of control.
Many men have reported that as their children grow, they start perceiving their wives as being in control of the family and they begin to feel as if she's in control of them as well.
Taken together, it seems that two important elements are at play in a Madonna-Whore scenario. The man is willing to submit to his woman in most ways, but submitting sexually to her desires means debasing his family's morality, something that he finds unacceptable. In order to change this, any treatment must be focused on helping him do two things:
- Reframing his views of morality
- Governing his own sexuality
Some therapists claim that NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) is effective, but I found no instances where someone reported that they'd found success using this method. Sex therapists are best suited for handling MWC because they're the most likely to be familiar with its dynamics. As noted in this New York Times article on sexual desire, tackling the underlying reasons causing lack of desire are necessary to generate changes.
If a couple isn't ready to seek outside help, here are some unproven suggestions to consider:
1. The man must feel safe enough to acknowledge his beliefs and feelings. This means he must not worry that he'll be judged or criticized if he reveals what's making him tick.
2. The woman in his life, whether she is Madonna or his whore, can invite him to "help" her solve her problem.
If she is his Madonna, the problem is that she feels too confined being a "good girl," and would treasure a "protector" who makes it possible to break out of such a confining role without compromising anyone's morals. After explaining this, she might ask him to be that protector and advise her on how to go about having a "safe zone" to pretend she's a bad girl. This might involve some role-play or perhaps light bondage, but only within the safe zone he sets up. He may be able to let himself see "pretending" to be bad as an acceptable activity for himself and his Madonna as long as he feels secure knowing it won't truly corrupt her or damage the family's reputation.
If he's seeing her as the whore, she might ask him to guide her to be a "better woman." Such a request doesn't mean she isn't a terrific woman already, it just means that she's using phrases he can understand. (I don't know that there's a lot of hope here, though, since he's motivated to commit himself only to the Madonna types.)
3. Get informed. The book above reveals a survey that followed 4,000 couples in sexless marriages to discern what contributed to their sexless marriages, and includes a chapter on what other couples are doing to address their problems.
Some women stay married to men who have a Madonna-Whore complex for decades. Their relationship tends to be good in every other way. They're best friends with their husband and are treated well by him everywhere except in the bedroom.
Others have affairs to meet their needs after months or years of exhausting themselves trying to find a solution.
Most eventually divorce. The wear-and-tear on a woman's self-esteem can be grueling and eventually, she thinks it's "just not worth it anymore."
There is no right or wrong way to cope with this issue. There's just the "best way you can".