Gender Role Conflict and the Disidentification Process: Two Case Studies on Fragile Masculine Self

Article excerpt

This paper argues that changes to the original definition of the disidentification process are in order, including reconceptualizing the restrictive gender role behaviors from boyhood onward as an early form of gender role conflict. It is further suggested that the disidentification process consequentially harms the development and functioning of the masculine self. One may react to this process (the emotional residual of the disindentification process) by adopting one of two masculine stances in relating to self and others. One stance is characterized as moving away from self and others. This may appear as the adoption of many of the stereotypical male gender roles. The other stance is one of moving toward others in an overly dependent fashion where the affect residual of disindentification is dealt with through turning to others to help modulate its effects. Two case studies are presented.

Key Words: gender role conflict, boyhood, disidentification, masculine self, self-psychology perspective, moving away from others, moving toward others, case studies


Traditional psychoanalytic theory addresses masculine identity development, that is, how boys become men, through disidentification. This according to Greenson (1968) is a two-pronged process whereby (a) a boy must renounce emotional ties to his primary caregiver (traditionally held as his mother), and (b) he must counteridentify with his father or male role model. These developmental tasks have been held as necessary steps toward emotional autonomy, psychological separation, and most important here, securing the development of the masculine self.

This paper argues that the developmental task of disidentification needs to be expanded and reinterpreted beyond its original conception. Issues of changing gender roles and the rejection of the traditional gender identity model make its original definition somewhat limited. To that end it is suggested that the process of disidentification goes beyond that of childhood into adulthood. It is further suggested that men are left with emotional residual from this process that leaves their masculine self weakened and in need of bolstering through psychological defenses. It is argued that men learn styles to deal with this residual. The two that are proposed include one of moving away from the residual and with it more deeply connected relationships with themselves and others. The other is moving toward others in hopes that they will help contain and/or metabolize the emotional residual of disidentification.

Part of the original conceptualization of disidentification that is maintained is the emphasis upon the normal psychological separation/individuation that occurs with both caregivers as a male develops into his own unique person. This is viewed as healthy and normative and is not equated with disavowing or disconnecting from either caregiver.

The first proposed change includes reinterpreting those aspects of disidentification that call for unhealthy restrictive gender roles for boys. Some of these expectations are in line with what David and Brannon (1976) referred to as "stereotypes for boys" and what Pollack (1998) called the "boy code." It is suggested that these types of traditional expectations that stem from disidentification are actually the earliest forms of gender role conflict. Gender role conflict is what O'Neil, Helms, Gable, David, and Wrightsman (1986) defined as "... a psychological state where gender roles have negative consequences or impacts on a person or others" (p. 336). This early gender role conflict leads to psychological maladjustment and the use of psychological defenses that may be considered developmentally normative (but unhealthy) thoroughout life.

The second proposed change focuses upon how the gender role conflicted aspects of the disidentification process manifest themselves in problematic ways in adult men. It is suggested that having experienced gender role conflict since boyhood, men develop different stylistic ways to deal with the residual of the process. …