Sigmund Freud on sexuality, attraction and relationships (case studies)

“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” — Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychology and our understanding of neuroses, sexuality, and human development.

Freud published more than 22 books and 300 articles and essays in his life in which he often cited his own therapeutic work with clients.

Looking at his case studies, we can find valuable insights into Freud’s discoveries about human sexuality and attraction.

Freud’s main claim

Before getting into his case studies it’s important to understand Freud’s main claim about what motivates human beings.

Although he is often most famous for his theory of the Oedipal complex and childhood sexuality, Freud’s primary belief is that everything in our life revolves around a fundamental struggle between sex and death.

Our libido and biological desire to reproduce (eros) are in constant struggle with a subconscious drive to return to a state of complete rest and non-existence, or death (thanatos) which Freud also called the “nirvana principle.”

Everything else in Freudian psychology emanates from this starting point, including the ongoing struggle between our “I,” or ego, and its competing amoral, self-interested impulses of the id and socially conscious, moral motivations of the superego.

The most useful case studies for studying attraction and masculine and feminine roles in attraction will be extracted from Freud’s books Studies on Hysteria (1895), Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), On Narcissism (1914), Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1917) and Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).

Freud on the Feminine

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Freud believed that repressed female sexual desire can lead to hysteria, anxiety, hallucinations, and neurosis. As Freud said:

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

Freud believed that all women subconsciously envy the male penis, which he called the Electra Complex. Between 3 and 6, small girls begin feeling separation from their mother and desire approval and affection from their father.

Upon realizing they have no penis, girls attribute this lack to their mother not bestowing them one.

According to Freud, they then “hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage.”

Freud was an early proponent of women being educated and having sexual freedom but he didn’t believe women were equal to men and did think that they were inherently overly suggestible and weaker than men.

Freud claimed that women often try to compensate for their lack of a penis by becoming more masculine in behavior and using rationalization to adopt male roles and push down — or sublimate — their inner desire to be approved of by the father figure.

The traumas and confusion of early childhood caused many women to become unstable, in Freud’s view, and begin seeking out toxic or unfulfilling relationships with men in which they would try to “prove” their worth and value.

This process of low self-esteem and seeking validation due to being stuck in childhood sexual phases is something Freud called “fixation.”

Freud linked most personality types and behaviors to early childhood sexual development, depending on what “stage” (oral, genital, anal) one got stuck on or was less successful at sublimating and whether you were “aggressive” and dominant or had learned to become “passive” and submissive in trying to reconcile and achieve your unfulfilled desires.

For example, someone with an oral-passive personality is very sensual and enjoys eating, drinking, smoking, and kissing. They often bite things when they get nervous and tend to depend a lot on others but they also express frustration through arguing, getting angry, and so forth.

An anal-aggressive woman or man will be stuck on the power they had while potty training and will tend to burn down the people and things that displease them, exulting in the power they have but also relishing control and domination.

The cases of Anna O. (21), Emmy von N. (40), in Studies in Hysteria (1895).

In his famous case studies of Anna O. and Emmy von N,  Freud looked at how submerged sexual issues and romantic disappointment can cause psychosis and mental breakdown.

Anna O. was the name Freud used for Austrian feminist Bertha Pappenheim initially to protect her identity when treating her. She was a longtime patient of his and of Freud’s colleague and friend Dr. Josef Breuer.

Anna was having paralysis in her limbs, fear of water, hallucinations, nervous tics, and mental confusion.

Breuer treated her but didn’t realize how many of her problems were sexual according to Freud who said that Anna’s dreams and fairy-tales that she told were obviously thinly-veiled sexual fantasies and her desire and need for a strong man to sweep her off her feet which had been subconsciously dashed when her father (the hidden object of her affections) died suddenly.

Of Emmy von N., Freud believed she had many repressed desires and due to losing her competent and well-providing husband she had sort of lost a part of herself.

He observed that:

“When she was twenty-three she married an extremely gifted and able man who had made a high position for himself as an industrialist on a large scale but was much older than she was.

After a short marriage, he died of a stroke.

To this event, together with the task of bringing up her two daughters, now sixteen and fourteen years old, who were often ailing and suffered from nervous troubles, she attributed her own illness.”

Freud believed that patients like Emmy were becoming ill because of the tension between their desires and the reality of their unfulfilling life.

Part of them enjoyed the tension, while another part rebelled at the lack of satisfaction.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud wrote about the paradox between unfulfilled sexual desire being both frustrating and enjoyable at the same time.

Freud wrote:

“I must insist that a feeling of tension necessarily involves unpleasure. What seems to me decisive is the fact that a feeling of this kind is accompanied by an impulsion to make a change in the psychological situation, that it operates in an urgent way which is wholly alien to the nature of the feeling of pleasure.

If, however, the tension of sexual excitement is counted as an un-pleasurable feeling, we are at once brought up against the fact that it is also undoubtedly felt as pleasurable.”

Ida Bauer (who Freud referred to as Dora)

Dora (Ida Bauer) was another of Freud’s patients who were suffering from hysteria and an anxiety disorder. Her mom caught an STD from her husband and began being a clean freak, which caused Dora to have a nervous breakdown at a young age and even have to go for electroshock therapy which was common at the time.

At a later age, Dora was hit on by a family friend: the dad of kids she used to babysit.

He was also the husband of the woman her dad had been sleeping with. It messed her up badly and she turned down his advances, becoming increasingly depressed and anxious as the boundaries and limits she thought had existed in family and work relationships crumbled.

Freud said the real problem happening in her psyche was actually repressed lesbian desire to the man who had hit on her’s wife.

This increased the tension between Dora and her dad as well, since — according to Freud — they both were competing over the same woman.

Freud on the Masculine

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Freud believed that all men have subconscious anxiety about castration by their father because of their hidden desires for their mother.

Freud said that this deep, submerged fear forms a core of male behavior and motivations.

According to Freud:

“A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes, but to get into accord with them; they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.”

Men aren’t just afraid of castration, however, Freud said they also desire to be dominant and displace the father, serving as a new protector and provider for women, but also subconsciously playing out their frustrated desire for the mother from childhood.

According to Freud, many men may become separated from a healthy relationship to their libido and masculine core due to restriction of ego from the unfulfilled desire of the mother.

They may intellectualize and isolate themselves in order to downplay the level of internal frustration and rejection they feel, embarking on a number of unsatisfying romantic and sexual relationships where they don’t really “feel like a man.”

In other cases, men who have a bad relationship with their mom may redirect that hate onto women in general or may substitute their affection for the mom onto a hobby or personal passion.

He may also “overdo” it and become very macho or outwardly dominant, while a woman strongly rejected by her dad may become ultra “feminine” in the stereotypical sense, as part of an ongoing and subconscious quest for male approval and affection.

The cases of Little Hans and Daniel Schreber

The case of little Hans is one of Freud’s best-known. It reveals a lot of his deeper beliefs and findings on masculinity.

Hans Graf was the son of the famous music critic Max Graf. He was severely traumatized and afraid of horses since witnessing a horse collapse and die while pulling a wagon near his house as a young kid.

Freud said it wasn’t the upsetting experience that had traumatized Hans, it was sexual issues.

He was especially afraid of large black halters on horses because they represented his dad’s bushy black mustache and the blinders on horses made him think of his dad’s glasses.

Hans was also becoming curious about the penis as a five-year-old, asking his dad about it often and being fascinated by the size of horse penises.

Around five is when Freud believed boys enter the genital phase of development. As a “competitor” against his dad (who was larger and a fully developed adult male), Hans was suffering from an Oedipal complex, torn between guilt and happiness overseeing the symbol of his dad’s collapse and die in the street.

Hans later overcame his problems and grew up to be normal, but he became famous as an example of Freud’s conviction that Oedipal issues formed the root of many traumatic problems in men.

The case of German judge Dr. Daniel Schreber is also fascinating in terms of Freudian analysis. Freud didn’t actually have Schreber as a client, but wrote an analysis of him in a 1911 essay he entitled “Notes upon an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides).”

Schreber himself wrote a 1903 book called Memoirs of My Nervous Illness where he talked about his mental health struggles that led to him being in a mental health ward at Sonnenstein Castle.

Schreber started having serious issues when running for German parliament in 1884 in his early 40s. He started to get really bad episodes of hypochondria and worrying he was very ill, and eventually got help from a prominent psychologist called Paul Flechsig.

At first, Schreber found this helpful, and he went back to Flechsig again in 1893 when he started having hypochondria again and severe insomnia.

However, Schreber eventually became very dissatisfied with Flechsig’s approach and called him a “soul murderer” who was secretly trying to destroy his divine destiny.

Schreber began to believe he was actually a cosmic hero who had been sent to save the world and was destined to be turned into a woman and impregnated by God in order to create a super race of spiritually advanced beings who would repopulate and save the world after the apocalypse.

Freud was fascinated by Schreber’s religious focus.

Schreber wasn’t a believer in monotheism and was agnostic, but Freud felt he had a “redeemer delusion” that was actually the sign of repressed homosexuality which had built up as a desire for his brother and father as a kid that he’d sublimated out of guilt and had eventually come back up as psychosis and delusion.


Although some of Freud’s ideas are merely interesting and others have since been discredited as misogynistic products of his time, other of his theories have held true and produced helpful solutions for millions of people.

Freud made powerful observations about how hidden sexual impulses can be repressed or sublimated and come back up in surprising ways.

Contrary to what some believe, however, Freud was not arguing that we should give free reign to all our sexual desires.

What he was actually arguing is that the stages of sexual development must be properly processed and experienced in order to sublimate or transform these unhealthy and irregular impulses into healthy and productive ones.

He didn’t actually think we should try to kill our dads and have sex with our moms.

Through his important work in psychoanalysis, Freud showed the ongoing tension between sex and death, raw physical pleasure and true affection, consciousness, and unconsciousness, and for that, his work is well worth studying.

Related: 7 teachings from Sigmund Freud that we all need to unlearn

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Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on and visit his website at

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