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“What do women want?” Revisited

Freud photo One of Sigmund Freud’s most famous quotes concerns his apparent inability to understand women. He wrote, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?”

Maybe, just maybe, Freud could not answer this question because it was the wrong question. The question is too vague.

First of all, it assumes that every woman wants the same thing. This is completely wrong. You can’t generalize about women any more than you can generalize about any group. If you ask ten women what they want, you’ll get ten different answers. All women are not alike.

Second, if you ask a woman what she wants, her answer will most likely be, “What do you mean?” The question needs to be more specific. The question could be, “What do you want from a man?” or “What do you want from a sexual partner?” or “What do you want from life?” Now you have a question that can be answered.

If I ask my wife what she wants from me, she will quickly answer, “I want you to listen to me, I want you to love me, I want you to pay more attention to me.” She knows exactly what she wants from me and can tell me without hesitation. Similarly, any man can ask his own wife that question, and I’m certain she will be able to give him an answer right away. If you ask the right question, you will get the right answer.

However, since we are dealing here with a psychoanalytic question by the founder of psychoanalysis, we must also deal with the unconscious. According to Freud, none of us really know what we want because most of our minds are unconscious. Therefore, I may ask my wife what she wants from me and she will give me the answer that comes from her conscious mind. But on a deeper level, in her unconscious mind, might be another answer. And, similarly, if any man asks his wife what she wants from him, she will give him her conscious answer but her unconscious answer will remain unconscious.

And the unconscious answer from his wife is likely to be different than the unconscious answer from my wife. And the unconscious answer of every woman you ask will be different. Again, not all women are alike and you can’t generalize about them.

How do you find the unconscious answer to the question, “What do you want from a man?” Freud’s way, and still a good way up to this day, is to probe a woman’s dreams. Freud frequently wrote of dreams being the royal road to the unconscious, and their is a truth to that. By studying a woman’s dreams over a period of time you will find out what is preoccupying her in her unconscious mind. Sometimes what is preoccupying her unconsciously replicates what is preoccupying her in her waking life. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I know of one case where a woman constantly told her boyfriend she didn’t feel like having sex with him. He would ask her, in frustration, “Then what do you want from me?” Her reply would be that she wanted him to just cuddle with her and not try to have sex with her. But there was something quite different going on in her unconscious mind that came to the surface in her dreams. Her dreams contained a recurring theme of sexual encounters with women; hence, unconsciously what she really wanted was sex with another woman, not sex with her husband.

One of this woman’s dreams was, “I was flying in an airplane with a strange woman, telling her about my boyfriend. I tried to cover up the problem because I wanted her to like me. She seemed understanding.”* Flying in this dream represents sexual intercourse with a woman. The hope is that sexual intimacy with a woman would be more gratifying than sexual intimacy with her boyfriend, and that she would find a woman more understanding than her boyfriend.

In another case a frustrated husband asked his wife what she wanted from him and the answer that came from her conscious mind was always, “I don’t know. All I know is I’m unhappy.” He would then ask her what he could do to make her happy, and again her answer was that she didn’t know. Her dreams were about lost little girls. Sometimes they were lost in the basement of her childhood family home. Sometimes there was a shadowy figure of a man lurking in the basement. Sometimes she felt scared and alone in the basement. She had been sexually molested by her father in her basement and these dreams allude to that trauma. She couldn’t tell her husband what she wanted from him because she had not yet recalled that trauma of her childhood. And because she hadn’t gotten in touch with it, the incident still had a powerful effect on her, causing her to push her husband away.

It is interesting that the above quote by Freud is one of the most often quoted, especially by critics. He wrote so many books on feminine development, but this quote was not from one of his books. It was taken from his correspondence with one his favorite female psychoanalysts, Marie Bonaparte. In a letter to this friend, he was apparently not trying to examine this question from every angle or exam the question itself, as he was prone to doing in his writings. I believe in later life he had become frustrated because of the onslaught of criticism by feminists and others. So this quote about not knowing what women want was probably said out of exasperation.

Although it is difficult to answer the question of what women want, is it much less difficult to figure out what women don’t want. They don’t want a man to tell them what they want.

*This dream is from the author’s latest book, The Dictionary of Dream Interpretation, 2nd Edtion.

“What do women want?” Revisited

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). “What do women want?” Revisited. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 May 2017
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