Gay But Unhappy: A New Approach May Offer Hope for Homosexuals

I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing,

—Herman Melville

I don’t mind telling you I don’t understand homosexuals and that’s the truth. I can’t imagine a man going to bed with another man. That’s beyond my comprehension.” So the New York Times quoted Mr. Paul Gann, a successful California businessman who contracted AIDS after receiving a transfusion of contaminated blood. Although Mr. Gann’s situation was tragic and rather exceptional, his expression of bafflement as to the reason for homosexual behavior is shared by most people. For all the often sensationalistic attention the subject has received, little has been done to illuminate the motivation behind homosexuality.

The question is important yet also embarrassing for Catholics. Homosexual political groups have been harshly critical of Catholic teaching on sexuality. Promiscuity, hostility to marriage and family, and a refusal to accept gender differences as an intrinsic part of human nature, are well established aspects of the homosexual lifestyle and ideology. Yet, as has been documented by a series of deeply disturbing articles in Crisis, at least some priests and seminarians are sympathetic to the homosexual movement. Such sympathy ranges from intellectual dissent on Church teaching to active homosexual behavior. Clearly, Catholics must persuasively articulate their traditional teachings on this issue and develop effective pastoral care for those in need of help. Insight into why people are susceptible to such a temptation would be of enormous use in both these important tasks.

Such insight is hard to come by. We might turn hopefully to the discipline of psychology for an answer, but here the issue is often confused or deliberately distorted. The founders of modern psychology, Freud, Adler, and Jung, were all agreed that homosexuality is a serious disorder. However, contemporary psychology has to some extent abandoned the perspective of its founders on this issue. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association reclassified homosexuality as a “condition” rather than an “emotional disorder.” (Although it should be noted that in a poll taken in 1978 of several dozen psychiatrists, 70 percent stated that they considered homosexuality a “pathological adaptation” as opposed to a “normal variation”). Those who consider homosexuality a disorder often express themselves in obscure, jargon-filled language or base their conclusions on theories of human nature that many Christians find questionable.

It is all the more remarkable, then, that a recent work “On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality” (Praeger) by a Dutch psychologist, Gerard J.M. van den Aardweg, shows profound insight into the problem. A condensed version of the book, “Homosexuality and Hope,” has been published by Servant Books, a Catholic charismatic publishing house based in Ann Arbor. (The introduction to this version was written by Paul Vitz, a Christian psychologist who has been sharply critical of attempts by some in the discipline to raise psychology to the level of a secular religion). Aardweg’s theory has also been summarized and discussed with approval in “The Homosexual Person” (Ignatius, 1987) by Fr. John F. Harvey, one of the founders of Courage, a self-help group for those trying to overcome their homosexuality and live chastely.

Aardweg builds on earlier research regarding the subject (particularly that of Alfred Alder) which considered homosexuality a serious disorder. His conclusions are based on clinical experience with 225 homosexuals (200 men and 25 women). He compares his findings against the findings of other psychiatrists, including Irving Bieber, who treated 106 homosexuals, G. Westwood, who studied the cases of 127 homosexuals in Britain, W.G. Stephan, who interviewed militant homosexual activists, and the Sbardelini husband and wife team, who interviewed 72 patrons of “gay” bars in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The book is impressive simply for the amount of information—case histories, statistical research, summary of speculations on the subject—which it brings together. Despite the bulk of information at his command, Aardweg expresses himself in clear, jargon-free prose, and his premises about human nature would strike most people as full of common sense. Finally, Aardweg has developed a strikingly original therapy for the treatment of homosexuality and has carefully documented proof of its effectiveness.

Christian Confirmation

While Aardweg does not write from a religious perspective, his work corroborates traditional Christian understanding of sexuality and moral responsibility on a number of key points. Among these would be: that the differentiation of the sexes into male and female is an intrinsic and inescapable part of our humanity; that “the basic decision of both marriage partners and parents must be that they accept as their primary goal in life the happiness and well-being of the others in the family and are prepared to subordinate all other, more personal goals to this”; and, that whatever disadvantages and hardships might have made one susceptible to psychological problems, everyone has a personal responsibility to struggle against and overcome his weaknesses, whatever they may be.

Aardweg defines homosexuality as a form of “neurotic self-pity” which initially develops without the individual’s awareness and is later sustained by an ingrained habit of compulsive complaining. Sorrow can be a necessary emotion for temporarily coping with experiences of grief, defeat, or frustration. But, if a frustrating situation continues for a prolonged time, self-pity can become habit forming. One tries to escape from a seemingly hopeless situation by wallowing in self-pity—a pleasure rather like listening to sad songs, (“There’s pleasure to be found in a toothache,” according to Dostoevsky’s underground man). Aardweg describes the result of repeatedly giving in to the maudlin enjoyment of feeling sorry for one’s self as “infantile self-pity turned autonomous”; in effect, an addiction. “A child or adolescent who experiences intense self-pity during a longer period of time usually does not get rid of it anymore; it becomes firmly fixated in his mind, leading a life of its own, independent of the person’s further experiences or circumstances in life.”

Aardweg describes this condition as “auto-psychodrama.” The neurotic creates a dramatic image of himself which is designed to call up the sickly but temporarily soothing emotion of self-pity. He has a principal complaint dating back to unpleasant experiences in childhood and adolescence which still exerts an active influence on his mind. The principal complaint might be of loneliness, unattractiveness, not being successful enough in school, not being talented or smart enough, or virtually any negative feeling at all. “Poor me, I am not loved,” “poor me, I am not like the rest,” becomes a refrain that preoccupies the neurotic’s thoughts. There may or may not be some validity to the complaint; the point is that the situation which initially brought about the problem is long past, yet the neurotic has become habituated to the gloomy joy of feeling sorry for himself.

Aardweg tries to give a clear illustration of the nature of autopsychodrama with examples taken from the works of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus, and other homosexual authors. Aardweg considers the works of these men to be elaborate attempts to justify and elevate their self-pity (which is not to say that their writing is without literary merit). In one short story, Gide describes a beautiful dream landscape in which children spend their whole lives playing and swimming in a river. “I became furious that I was not one of them,” is the response elicited by this idyllic vision. As the dream ends the narrator awakes and realizes “I was alone… I shivered from head to foot and I wept about the elusive flight of the dream.” Aardweg comments “this is clearly a… complaint: I do not belong to those free adventurous boys, I am an outsider, poor me!” Gide provides his story with considerable literary embellishment, but it is not essentially different from the pathetic little daydreams that fill the mind of all compulsive complainers.

The basic pattern of development for neurosis is then roughly as follows: first, a disagreeable emotional experience is sustained for a long period of time; seeking comfort in self-pity is repeated until it becomes habitual; the experience of feeling sorry for one’s self is crystallized in a “drama of inferiority”; the sense of inferiority is preserved and makes itself constantly felt by compulsive complaining.

A Case of Self-Pity?

It might seem that merely feeling sorry for one’s self could not be the explanation of such a profound psychological disorder as homosexuality. However, self-pity can become so deeply entrenched in the mind that it exerts an almost constant influence which inhibits one’s capacity to think clearly, work effectively, and enjoy the common pleasures of life.

The development and effect of autopsychodrama is not something exclusive to homosexuality but is an inherent part of all forms of neurosis. As such, homosexuality shares much the same symptoms as any kind of neurotic feeling and behavior. The most common neurotic symptoms are: restlessness and a constant need for distraction; lack of self-esteem and jealousy towards others; a distorted view of the past in which a fatalistic view of one’s problems prevails; and an inability to concentrate and react quickly which interferes with one’s work and social life. Although these problems are not exclusive to homosexuality, Aardweg shows that they are prominent with almost all the clients who come to him specifically for treatment of homosexuality. (Those who might object that Aardweg’s sample is biased should note that he obtained information similar to that of other researchers who interviewed homosexuals not interested in changing their sexual orientation).

How can compulsive complaining lead to homosexuality? According to Aardweg, the compulsive

complainer becomes susceptible to homosexual desires to the extent that his drama of inferiority centers upon his sense of himself as a man or woman. The origin of this sense of inferiority goes back to childhood and, at first, is not specifically sexual in nature. The pre-homosexual child feels isolated from other children. (Aardweg is careful to indicate that “pre-homosexual child” does not mean that certain children are predetermined to become homosexual; it is a way of describing influences that can culminate in homosexuality.) For whatever reason the child develops a feeling of being socially clumsy and exiled from the world of other children. Lacking the power to change his situation, the child might have few alternatives except to find compensation in feeling sorry for himself. If the loneliness continues for a prolonged time, the child can become habituated to the drama of feeling inferior and isolated. He thinks of himself as “the outsider,” “the unpopular one,” “the boy who does not belong.”

Aardweg offers a detailed breakdown of his clients’ isolation during childhood. Of the men, 94 percent reported that they were afraid to fight; 91 percent did not play soccer; 88 percent were not mischievous and instead overly obedient; 78 percent felt they were not part of an informal “gang” of neighborhood boys. This isolation almost always preceded any homosexual thoughts or acts by many years. It is the subjective sense of being an outcast—somehow not good enough to be part of the tribe of other children—that Aardweg feels is the foundation for an inferiority complex which, among other problems, can lead to homosexuality. Among the factors which can act as a catalyst for the child’s sense of inferiority, Aardweg lists envy of siblings (this is particularly true of the youngest children in a family), teasing, older parents who are no longer sympathetic to the ways of children, and sometimes prolonged illness which prevents a child from playing with others.

Yet the primary factor that can influence a child to develop an inferiority complex about himself is the attitude of the parents. Aardweg has found through interviews with his clients that the mothers of homosexuals tended to be overprotective and overconcerned with their children. Seventy-nine percent of Aardweg’s sample of male homosexuals described their mothers as “overprotective”; 67 percent described their mothers as “interfering.” This information is all the more impressive when compared against the research done by other psychiatrists. Irving Bieber found that 70 percent of the homosexuals he interviewed described their mothers as intimate to the point of dominating their children. G. Westwood found that 57 percent of the men he interviewed considered their mothers dominant and 44 percent thought their mothers overprotective. “My mother had a love for me that stifled me to death”; “I felt her personal property… I wasn’t permitted to do anything because of her”; “Mother already thought and executed things for you before you could do something for yourself”—are among the descriptions Aardweg’s clients give of their relationship with their mothers.

Along with the overprotection by their mothers, Aardweg notes that most homosexuals report lack of masculine influence from their fathers, ranging from lack of involvement in the child’s education to open hostility. Seventy-one percent of Aardweg’s clients thought that their fathers “were not involved in their daily activities and did not participate very much in their upbringing”; 38 percent thought their father critical of them; and 30 percent thought their father “outspokenly hostile.” Again, Aardweg compares his findings against earlier research. Bieber found that 75 percent of his sample described their fathers as detached and 45 percent described their fathers as hostile. Stephan reports that 32 percent of the gay activists he questioned felt “consistently rejected” by their fathers, and a total of 75 percent felt rejected either by their fathers, brothers, or other male peers. Aardweg quotes homosexuals’ descriptions of their relationship with their fathers: “My father was interested in my brother and not me”; “My father was a weak person; he was frequently ill”; “I only met my father on Sundays when he was not working… for me he was no more than a visitor.”

Aardweg correlates the influence of both mother and father on his clients and notes that while some report a fairly normal relationship with one of their parents the majority (76 percent) report both estrangement from their father and overprotection/interference from their mother. The overall result of such an upbringing is that a boy does not develop a sense of masculine self-confidence and does not learn to compete or assert himself with other children. (For lesbians the pattern is roughly the same: isolation from other girls in childhood and weak influence by the parent of the same sex). Such a frustrating family situation can contribute to a child’s isolation from his peers and tempt him to seek solace in self-pity. As already cited, very similar findings have been discovered by researchers working in Britain, the United States, and Brazil. Homosexuals in Europe, South America, and the United States reported the same alienation from others in childhood, the same unbalanced family situation, and the same complaints of inferiority.

But how does a sense of inferiority as a man or woman take on a sexual connotation? Aardweg explains that as a child feels increasingly isolated from others he begins to look up to those who seem to have the masculine—or for girls, feminine—attributes that he lacks. He admires boys who seem genuinely daring, adventurous, and strong—or a girl admires other girls who seem truly feminine, stylish, and graceful. (If this seems contradictory, Stephan reports that 60 percent of his respondents admitted being sexually aroused in childhood by the same boys and men who rejected them as a friend). Over time such admiration takes on an erotic element which can eventually surface in sexual fantasy and masturbation. It is also possible that an adolescent or young adult might have a vague erotic interest in members of his own sex for many years without realizing the nature of his feelings.

A Sort of Homesickness

From the comments of his clients, Aardweg shows that homosexual attraction is not at all comparable to healthy heterosexual desire. It is usually accompanied by all the other neurotic symptoms already described: restlessness, jealousy, depression. One woman described lesbian longing as “a sort of homesickness.” An ex-homosexual says, “I have visited gay bars in many of the world’s cities… and the prevailing atmosphere is one of desperation.” A common experience reported by Aardweg’s clients is that an intense homosexual impulse will flare up right after they have some difficulty at work. Eventually the combination of intense self-pity and sexual frustration can take on a self-destructive element. Rage at being cut off from a normal sexual life can become sadistic; the addiction to self-pity can eventually lead to masochism.

Aardweg stresses that homosexuality is not essentially a sexual problem but a psychological problem rooted in a deep sense of inferiority. “The auto-psychodrama or complex of the homosexual is not a sexual matter in its essence but a continued, specific self-drama of inferiority.” Consequently, “without the elimination of the basic infantile self-pity, homosexual wishes and interest can perhaps be modified to some extent but not fully eradicated. On the other hand, a homosexual who would become free from infantile self-pity… would not feel any more the attraction of his own sex.” Aardweg’s remedy to overcome homosexuality is thus a form of “anti-complaining therapy” designed to break the habit of compulsive complaining which sustains the homosexual’s sense of inferiority.

The technique Aardweg has developed for use in anti-complaining therapy is “hyperdramatization,” which employs humor and exaggeration to expose the self-drama of inferiority as infantile and ridiculous. Aardweg trains his clients to recognize their specific complaints—of not being strong enough, not being successful, not having enough friends, not being a real man or woman, etc.—as manifestations of infantile self-pity. The client is then encouraged to verbalize his complaints in an exaggerated way, rather as if he were making fun of a child who was afraid of being left alone in the dark. Since the client already has an unrealistic attachment to his complaints, it is necessary to hyperdramatize, that is, to exaggerate the drama of self-pity so much that it begins to seem ridiculous. The point is to get the client to laugh at his own complaint, to see that the excessively melancholy view he has of himself is silly to begin with.

Hyperdramatization is to be used at the very moment that the client begins to complain and continued until he finally laughs at himself. Aardweg offers several examples of hyperdramatization in action, among them one used to undermine the complaint of loneliness: “You are softly crying, big warm tears dripping down on your hands, your sensitive, big eyes staring through the window, longing for some human attention, which never comes…. In your hands the picture of your beloved friend, wet with tears. He has left you alone, although you are so ill and suffering from a high fever. Now you hear a touching song on the radio, the man singing: ‘Daddy, daddy, why don’t you come back to us? We need you so!’ and you sob even more. Before you lies a pile of sheets, soaked with your tears, and you have no more fresh sheets in the cupboard, so you have to use the curtains now.” Aardweg gives numerous other examples of the same technique used to deal with complaints of being criticized, of jealousy, of being ridiculed.

How effective is anti-complaining therapy? Aardweg sets high standards for himself. “In my opinion, a real change theoretically must imply what I see as a natural aversion to homosexual imagery,” and “I regard our task as fulfilled when it appears that normal heterosexual interests, wishes, and striving exist for at least two years, and that homosexual interests and fantasies have been absent during the same period of time.” Aardweg judges 101 of his clients whom he was able to contact for follow-up interviews by this criterion. Of the sample, 43 percent ended therapy after only 2 to 8 months—too early to show any positive results—leaving 58 percent who continued therapy for at least two years. Of this group 19 percent (11 people) underwent “radical change,” as already defined, and 46 percent underwent “satisfactory change,” defined as “heterosexual interests prevail but still periodic homosexual upsurges in fantasy,” or “no more homosexuality but weak or rudimentary heterosexuality.”

Aardweg admits that the total number of people who made a full recovery is small. Those who wish to believe that homosexuality is irreversible can point to the large number of drop-outs and the fact that many who stayed with the therapy still experienced occasional homosexual fantasies. Aardweg takes all this into account and is cautious not to be overenthusiastic in interpreting his results. He is interested in helping those who are suffering, not in raising false hopes or in making a narrow ideological point.

Yet, if Aardweg is cautious, he is also essentially optimistic. In anticipation of the reader’s skepticism Aardweg points out that a total of 65 percent of those who remained in therapy put an end to their active homosexual behavior. Also, along with relief—or at least diminishment—of homosexual yearning, those who completed the therapy benefited from a general alleviation of neurotic problems which improved their ability to concentrate, enjoy life, and act decisively. Finally, the fact that some people did radically change their sexual orientation proves that change is possible in practice as well as principle.

The most important factor in the success of anti-complaining therapy seems to be “staying power,” that is, the very will to change. “The faculty of will is not overly popular in modern personality theory,” according to Aardweg, but he insists that “the will has to decide for a fundamental change in any psychotherapy whatever.” Although Aardweg’s technique makes use of the healing power of humor, the foundation of the therapy is a marshaling of the client’s psychological and moral forces to overcome a personal weakness. As one of Aardweg’s clients notes, “the decision to change is a moral one.”

Perhaps more important than the question of whether homosexuality can be overcome is the issue of prevention. As already noted, Aardweg believes that a disturbed family situation is the primary cause of an inferiority complex that can lead to homosexuality. Aardweg emphasizes that prevention must start with the dedication of parents to raise their children in a happy and stable environment. They must be willing to sacrifice their personal wishes to the health and happiness of their children. The question for parents to ask is, “Do I treat the child according to what is best for him?” Each child must be accepted for himself—a boy must be valued as a boy and be allowed to follow the aggressive behavior typical of boys; a girl must be valued as a girl and not turned into a tomboy to satisfy her parents’ ambitions.

In keeping with his belief that homosexuality is not strictly a sexual problem, Aardweg is skeptical of the value of much sex education. He writes that “instruction on sound principles concerning a happy marriage, child-rearing, and on the importance of acquiring some basic self-insight is far more crucial for later happiness in marriage and family than instruction in sexual matters, the pet-child of modern pedagogy.” Prevention must start with the education of parents and the improvement of marriages.

Aardweg’s analysis of the dangers of melancholia and self-dramatization is certainly not limited to the problem of homosexuality. According to Pascal, “Of all the entertainments contrary to the Christian life there is none so dangerous as the theater.” Aardweg’s work might be considered an elaboration of Pascal’s insight and as such of value to us all.


  • William Main

    At the time this article was published, William Main was a free-lance writer living in New York.

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