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The Neuroscience of Romantic Love – Part 4: The Masculine Wound and Feminine Wound

men and women photoExcitement, exhilaration and thrills are the ingredients of romance, but not necessarily love. They can be part of an authentic love relationship, in aspects of fun and friendship, passion and sensuality. For romanticized love, however, thrills equate to love.

In a book titled, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, Dr. Robert A. Johnson weaves two tales from the Middle Ages to demonstrate how a deeper conflict rages in the hearts of marriage partners today. A noted lecturer and Jungian psychologist, and author, Dr. Johnson uses myths and legends to explore common issues people face in their personal lives.

in this work, Dr. Johnson examines how cultural ideals for romanticized love perpetuate a “masculine wound” in men that debilitates their “feeling function,” alongside separate, yet distinct “feminine wound” that debilitates their “doing function” that, together have negatively impacted the Western psyche and relationships between men and women. Another label for this debilitating “feeling function” that wounds men is the cognitive disturbance known as narcissism; correspondingly, the debilitating “doing function” that renders women helpless and ineffective in getting their wants and needs heard or taken seriously is odependency.

The clash between men and women is based on conflicting ideals, or worldviews of power. One views power as a force to dominate, limit, and control or wield “power” over the other; and the other views power as a creative choice to optimize life, harmony, and energize a synergy of possibilities.

One idealizes male dominance and supremacy; the other aspires for partnership relations.

Seeking thrills and avoiding pain is fertile ground for addiction. 

Unlike authentic love, romanticized love is addictive-love. Addictive love is primarily ruled by fear and the senses. When the senses rule our choices, the body’s survival system is in command. This leads to reactive, desperate actions that stem from unrealistic sense of self in relation to self and the other.  A

Whereas romanticized ideals get us stuck, controlled by the pull of sensory pleasures, authentic love goes beyond the five senses. It makes us feel authentically good inside about making healthy choices, thoughtful responses, treating our own and the other’s hope and dreams, feelings and wants, etc., with dignity.

When people authentically love us, while it may not be easy, they want us to feel — just as they want to feel — free to be ourselves, free learn from our mistakes, free to love and to respect ourselves unconditionally as, above all, human beings. In contrast, romanticized ideals for codependency ignite feelings of sacrificial love, for what we can do and sacrifice for the other at the expense of self (codependency); or for narcissism igniting lust to absorb the other’s focus on what they can do in our interest alone.

Make no mistake, freeing one to be themselves is no small task. Romanticized love sets up unrealistic expectations for love to be easy, an effortless feeling, a happily ever after, which is not love. It is a refusal to believe the beast never was, never will be a prince.

Love is based on conscious action to grow and stretch out of old comfort zones to continually expand our capacity for compassion.

Authentic love mirrors two persons living The Golden Rule.

Authentic love always reminds us that what we seek outside of ourselves mirrors the source of love we are ever connected to from within.

In this way, genuine love never makes us feel needy or lacking or anxious. It empowers us with the beauty of its truth, that we are, have been and always will be most powerful when we experience our self as unconditional generators of love (for both self and others), no less than miracle making beings. We arrive at this realization hopefully at some point in life, a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, discovering that we have always had the power to feel loved, valued, and meaningfully connected to life – we just didn’t know it.

The Tale of The Fisher King

The tale of The Fisher King is Dr. Johnson’s analysis of the masculine wound. It is a story of a young prince, soon to be king, who rendered himself impotent when he got distracted from his original quest. Whereas the original search was for the inner power of Love, represented by the lance, and instead chose the outward power of brute force, symbolized by the sword, when a pagan knight appeared before him. By killing a pagan knight, who symbolized the natural human instincts for warmth and tenderness, or being, he chose instead to uphold his “Medieval heroic training.”

This action, Dr. Johnson explains, was a failure on his part to understand “how opposites have a synergistic function and thrive close to one another in nature.” Nevertheless, this left him “wounded in his generative parts” … “too ill to live but unable to die” and, now as King, unable to perform “his duty to the kingdom, which withers…” due to neglect. So overtaken is he by his own pain and agony that he cannot tend responsibly for others.

Only one thing provides the King’s suffering, and that is fishing, which is the only means, if only superficial and temporary, to his inner source of love, otherwise he lies in perpetual agony. Fishing symbolizes addiction to persons, activities, substances, as substitute ways to numb the pain, a pain that ever beckons him to do the inner work of consciousness and healing. Pornography and sex addiction, for example, is a cheap substitute power, a means for men to express their rage for being rendered powerless, not knowing that the real source of their powerlessness is not weakness and vulnerability.

Romanticized ideals for male dominance relegate what is essential to meaningfully connect to life and one another – emotions and feelings – to a status of undesirable, dangerous or at best inferior to logic. In truth, studies from the 1990s revealed emotions play an executive function in optimizing the logical decision-making and reflective thinking functions of the brain.

The Tale of The Handless Maiden

The Handless Maiden is a Dr. Johnson analysis of the cultural wounding of the feminine. This tale is about a miller who, in exchange for riches, sells his daughter to the devil, who instead of taking her away, cuts off and runs away with her hands.

The handless maiden symbolizes the “feminine wound,” a state in which the ability to act is incapacitated. Like the Fisher King, the maiden suffers an agonizing fate. Though the maiden understands what is most essential and meaningful in life, she has no ability to take matters in her own hands, so to speak, and is completely dependent on others to do for her what knows is vital, and left helplessly wondering, “What can I do?”

Dr. Johnson explains that, while there are parallels, both sexes “suffer quite differently” from either a “wounded masculinity” or “wounded femininity,” and that the effects of this wounding is so widespread in our society as to make us oblivious to its impact. Additionally, since what is defined as “masculine” and “feminine” attributes are in actuality emotional qualities found within both men and women, the masculine or feminine wound, or both, can occur in either men or women, especially in our modern world today, where prohibitions have been lifted to some degree.

    A set up for men and women to be at cross purposes.

As a result of these gendered wounds, men and women often find themselves at cross-purposes in their couple relationship. Subconsciously, it’s a competition for who will thwart the other’s attempts to define their relationship.

The disconnect is rather due to the prevailing gendered beliefs that define both men and women in limiting ways, and in particular, limit and set them up to fail. This ideology imposes an artificial dichotomy on the emotional systems of men and women by setting an emotional taboo for “good” women, who are prohibited from expressing the emotions of fear, hate or rage, and for men, who are barred from expressing emotions of fear, hurt, sadness, and emotions of either vulnerability or exuberance in general.

Men overall expect their partner to value them for what they provide (financial security, protection), affirm them as strong heroes, please them and make them feel comfortable, happy and loved (primarily through sex and other physical comforts). Women expect men to value them for what they provide (emotional support, pleasure, comfort), affirm them with affection, express their love, appreciate their value as emotional support systems by communicating, sharing their feelings and thoughts. Their expectations oppose one another.

Most men spend a lot of energy in attempt to prove they do not need an emotional connection, or relatedness, or communication, or nonsexual affection with their partner. Most women expend enormous energy in attempt to develop a connecting love relationship with a man, making it their mission in life, it seems, to help him deal with difficult emotions, taking responsibility for when a man withdraws or reacts angrily in a communication. Men have been conditioned to primarily seek love through sex, thus, they are surprised when their partner loses interest in sex after the initial romantic phase. They tend to see their partner as an extension of themselves, rather than a separate being with different emotional needs.

A brain chemistry ruled by survival-love fears of inadequacy and abandonment.

In today’s vernacular, based on neuroscience and attachment research, it speaks to protective neural patterns that form subconsciously early in life when we learn in our families to disown certain parts of our self in order to get the love we need to survive.

When the brain picks up a danger signal, it automatically goes into protective mode. In this mode, our thinking patterns are limited to “either-or” patterns, and our options are primarily “fight or flee.”  Protective “fight” patterns, we communicate that “the other is not okay (deserving of love and value) as long as they are not making us feel loved. Protective “flee” patterns, we communicate that “we are not okay (deserving of love and value) as long as we are not making others feel loved and valued.

Today advanced methodology in neuroscience substantiates that there is a subconscious or “unconscious” mind that operates separate from conscious awareness. Addictive relating, sex and love addiction increasingly impair and erode intimacy in a couple relationship, as each partner loses a sense of connection with what they yearn for the most, being loved, valued and recognized for who they are in the relationship.

It is not surprising that so many couples do not succeed.

At neural levels of emotional experience, defensive attempts to influence (control) our partner to change or cooperate fail. They fail because they are desperate attempts driven by fear. Defensive strategies, by design, rely on the use of force and tools of emotional manipulation (words and nonverbal gestures that instill fear, shame or guilt) to “influence” the other to love, respect or value them as persons.

In effect, these cultural standards produce a huge disconnect between men and women—and not because they are from either Venus or Mars. Addictive relating, sex and love addiction increasingly impair and erode intimacy in a couple relationship, as each partner loses a sense of connection with what they yearn for the most, being loved, valued and recognized for who they are in the relationship

The good news is that the plasticity of synaptic connections in the brain are remarkable in their ability to shift given and the right healing conditions. Although threat of relapse may be a lifelong possibility, the brain has an amazing capacity for healing. Results from imagining studies report that dopamine levels can increase to levels in the normal range following just months of refraining from the behavior.

Partners in a couple relationship can break the trance of toxic expectations. For too long, the primary responsibility to change has fallen on women. This matures women; arrests men’s emotional development. It takes two.


Photo by Oakley Foxtrot

The Neuroscience of Romantic Love – Part 4: The Masculine Wound and Feminine Wound

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2019). The Neuroscience of Romantic Love – Part 4: The Masculine Wound and Feminine Wound. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Dec 2019
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