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The Madonna Complex

Community Member

Hi There,

This is maybe a bit of an awkward topic but I wonder if any one has any information or experience with the Madonna Complex?

My ex recently admitted to feeling "dirty" after sex. He sees me as pure and "too good" for sex. But admits looking at other women for sex, but not love. He has not had sex with anyone is 3 years (even after we split up...)

I am so confused by this all.

We broke up over 6 months ago because he said he "didn't look at me like that anymore" and had been having "urges".

Then 2 months ago he came to me crying saying he has only ever been happy with me, that he loves me and it is "just the sex thing" that is stopping him from being with me. He feels like he is throwing away his one chance at happiness. He has started seeing a psychologist about his issues but I haven't been able to find much support or advice for myself about it all.

I have started having panic attacks and anxiety because of all of this. I am seeing a psychologist myself but I'd like to know if anyone has experienced this time of thing themselves? I believe it is called The Madonna Complex.

16 Replies 16

Community Champion
Community Champion

Dear BunnyMuffin~

Thanks for your post, it's a most puzzling situation and I hope someone here has more answers than I. I do know you will find more about this as the Madonna–whore complex and that even such notables as Elvis are supposed to have suffered from it.

From what you say there are two problems, your health and well-being, and your ex's. I'm not sure there's much you can do for him, he has his professional help - particularly as you do not say you are back together.

If you are back together then a measure of understanding can help I guess, you might have to talk to his psychologist to see. From the tiny amount I know I have the idea that the man might think the relationship can continue 'sexless' but the woman becomes hurt, and possibly bitter with a corresponding reduced feeling of self-worth due to constant rejection or lack of advances.

Your own situation is a much more trodden path, and if you are already undergoing medical assistance you are definitely on the right track. Panic attacks and anxiety are something familiar to me personally. A great frightening burden. Coping techniques, therapy, possibly medication, and support all play their parts.

Do you have anyone to support you? Parents, siblings, good friends?

May I suggest you look at The Facts menu on the top of this page for information on Anxiety, causes, symptoms (including panic attacks) and treatments. Also have a browse though the Anxiety section of this Forum, there are very many there who experience similar symptoms and lots of hints on how to cope.

If you feel overwhelmed you are welcome to ring our 24/7 help line on 1300 22 4636 and have the comfort of talking to an understanding professional voice.

Please feel free to post as often as you like - you will be met with understanding and warmth.

My best wishes


Thanks Croix for your reply.

It is a super confusing situation to be in. I feel so low about myself right now and it's not my issue, it's his. I just feel like he is stringing me along, even though I don't think that is his intention.

I have tried researching the the Madonna–whore complex and most of the information is about the mans point of view and there seems to be little information or research on the affects of the partners of these men.

Part of me wants to wait and see if therapy can help, part of me wants him out of my life immediately, never to look back. I am angry and hurt by all of this.

All of his past behaviors now make sense. It is like he was grooming me to become the "Madonna". While he did what he wanted.

I am seeing my GP tomorrow and have been seeing a psychologist (thought the panic attacks just started and I haven't been able to see either professional since). I'm just sick and tired of feeling like this.

Hi there

I found your postings very concerning. My first and strongest reaction is to say I read that you are a very caring, intelligent and positive person. It is right that you dont let this problem, which is his, get you down and destroy your confidence. It is ok to be caring for him, but there are many others out there that would give their right arm to be your partner and show you the respect and care you truly deserve.

Just Sara
Champion Alumni
Champion Alumni

Hello and welcome BM;

Your post is hard hitting for me as my last long term relationship was fraught with this very same syndrome. Do I have advice for you? Yes...leave, nurse your emotional wounds, and learn how to promote yourself first!

Sounds really harsh I know, but I had 3 yrs of rejection resulting in me having panic, anxiety and a type of sexual post trauma effect. I loved him more than any other in my life. He proposed to me and we planned the wedding together. It tore my heart to pieces when we split.

Madonna/Whore syndrome relates to issues in men who had confusing and attachment/detachment issues with their mums or those who took on this role. In my ex's case, it was his mum, sister and nan.

Madonna refers to the virgin mother; Mary. She gave birth without sexual contact. This legend is reproduced in men who can't imagine their mothers being intimate with men, not even their fathers. Sex with women who aren't seen this way might be easier, but it's an individual thing.

It becomes so ingrained, the thought of it scares them to death. When young, their libido's create (unemotional) intent to physically be able to satisfy normal youthful urges, but as yrs pass, the libido lessen's. This means it's more difficult for them to make an effort; their head, body and heart are at odds.

If you're loved by this person, you'll take on a maternal image within him, especially if you spoil him or treat him as a mother might...his mother.

Please don't take this on as your fault; it's nothing of the sort. His beliefs and how he acts on them, belong to him alone, not you.

I'm still friends with my ex, but the thought of being intimate with him had to be pushed out of my mind for this to occur. Basically, I had to stop loving him.

This isn't easy for me to talk about, but as you seem to be in a similar place, I think it only right I share my experience.

I totally empathize with you...


Hi again BM;

You posted at the same time I did, so I didn't read your second post.

You can ask me anything ok? I've been through the gammit of trials, research, therapy and arguments. I've cried a million tears, and blamed myself because he told me about other women he'd had sex with. His behaviour and wishes, ended up as the be-all and end-all of life with him...just like it was with his mother!

Manipulation, lies, excuses and a lack of empathy for me and what I endured was a daily thing. And the secrets!!? Don't get me started. Ok...I'm taking a breath. Whew..

If my words are resonating with you, let me know. Ask away...

Sara (hug)


Thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. It is completely heart breaking. I understand when you say it is difficult to talk about.

We have split up. I think part of my anxiety now is that perhaps I am moving towards making my own decision about this situation and that is to completely leave it all behind. I don't know if I would be able to remain friends with him if I know he is going to be intimate with random women rather than be in a loving, grown up, mature relationship with me. I think that would tear me up inside.

His Madonna/Whore syndrome (he hasn't been professionally diagnosed with this...it's just a conclusion I have reached from my own research based on what he's told me) steams from his childhood. His parents used to make him watch them have sex. He now sees sex as "dirty". He has commenced counselling with a qualified psychologist.

In that case, do you think he actually has a madonna/whore complex or is he just damaged from what has happened to him as a child? Is it something that he can recover from?

Part of me wants to find out, part of me wants to run for the hills.

Thank you Quiettall 🙂

It is his problem and I think it is time to walk away. I deserve to be happy. I want to be happy.

Hi BM;

I've spent an hr with a counseling service dealing with the fall out from my post to you. This of course isn't any reflection on you hun, it's just the nature of the beast I'm afraid.

I was a basket case from my experience with 'ex'. He and I have both changed for the better, and we're getting on with our lives independent of each other. That's the only reason it's working. Mind you we don't see each other very much either; this makes a difference.

Re your man's childhood, please don't go there ok. HE CAN'T BE FIXED! He may find a way to cope with his thoughts, but basically, he'll be this way forever.

The thoughts he has about sex are likely to pervade other areas of his decision making processes; there's so much distortion about right and wrong for them. It also creates a type of Jeckal and Hyde duel character. It's like dealing with 2 people instead of 1. There's so much guilt and shame for them to deal with, you'll be confused to a point where you won't know who's right or wrong, and start to blame yourself.

Of course I'm bias and won't say otherwise. Take my advice or leave it, just consider what I've said carefully. In my opinion, you should leave and never look back. Find love (and respect) somewhere else, preferably after you learn to trust and respect yourself first.

My best...

Sara xo

hello BunnyMuffin, nice Avatar, however what I see here is that your ex has an anxiety which could mean that he may have OCD, just the same as people with this illness some people have to keep washing their hands because they feel they are always dirty, so that is his obsession, but you have to remember he is your ex and you broke up for a reason.
If this is what he does have then life can become very difficult, and the thought of leaving him or you want to walk away from him, to me seems to be a good, idea. Geoff.