Freud thought that the male psyche was forged by our relationship with our mother. Our repressed Oedipal wishes form the “nuclear complex” of our neuroses. As a result, Freudian psychoanalysis tends to emphasize the role of the maternal figure when excavating our childhood. (Look, for example, at Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi.) A new study, however, casts some skeptical light on this Freudian/Sophoclean hypothesis. It turns out that, at least when it comes to depression in male adults, our mothers matter less than our siblings:
Men who had poor relationships with siblings during childhood are at significantly greater risk for depression in adulthood than those who got along better, a new study has found.
The findings, published in the June issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, are based on an analysis of data from 229 men who were followed for more than 30 years beginning at age 18 or 19. They were first assessed in the period 1939-42 by internists, psychiatrists, psychologists and anthropologists, and then they completed questionnaires every other year. Researchers also interviewed their parents.
None of the 21 men who had a parent die in childhood became depressed.* The 15 percent who had a poor relationship with their mothers and the 16 percent who had a family history of depression suffered depression later in life. But among those who had poor or destructive relationships with siblings, 26 percent had episodes of major depression as adults.
That said, the researchers are careful to point out that poor parenting is often the cause of destructive sibling relationships. So parents still matter, even if their influence is indirect. Take it away Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad./
They may not mean to, but they do./
They fill you with the faults they had/
And add some extra, just for you.
*That’s a pretty interesting finding, no? It’s almost as if suffering a tragedy during childhood inoculates you from depression as an adult.