Developmental, Relational and Emotional Etiology of Female Homosexuality

© 2003, Janelle M. Hallman, MA, LPC


            Over the years, I have professionally counseled many women who seek to understand the reasons they have same-sex attraction and explore their options in terms of heterosexual relating or non-sexual female friendships. While most of them are well read on the scientific debate pertaining to the etiology or cause(s) of homosexuality, they often sense that there are issues apart from mere genetics or biological influences that play a role in their same-sex feelings and relational patterns.


The following material is presented in a way to illumine the uniqueness of the female experience in terms of same-sex feelings and relating. It also solely focuses on the developmental, emotional and relational issues that seem common amongst homosexual women since this is the material that they typically want to explore within a therapeutic setting. By discussing these issues, I am not negating or minimizing the possible genetic, biological or cultural influences within a woman’s homosexuality, but I am also clearly suggesting that there are possibly multiple factors that ultimately coalesce and contribute to a woman’s emotional and sexual attractions and intimacies.


            Over the years, I have observed several broad categories in terms of common historic and developmental themes within the lives of women with same-sex attraction:


·         A strained, detached or missing bond and/or attachment with mother without an available mother substitute, resulting in a need for attachment;

·         The presence of sexual abuse or trauma typically at the hands of a male or disillusionment and profound disappointment in relationships with males, resulting in a dismissal, fear or hatred of men;

·         Few if any girlhood/adolescent same-sex friendships, resulting in a need for acceptance and belonging;

·         Gender non-conforming skills and interests often combined with a sense of emptiness or identity moratorium in lieu of a full and rich identity as a feminine person, resulting in a need for self/identity and gender identity.


While the presence of these elements is not a direct predictor or determinant of female same-sex attraction, they are nevertheless the most common and frequently reported facets of a woman’s story. These elements are sequential in order of development or experience, boast of other associated common themes, and often predispose a girl or young woman to the next sequential element and are therefore interrelated.


Within many of my clients is a deep deprivation of “motherly” love. Absent in their story is a sense of being nurtured and cared for by an attentive and sensitive mom. This does not mean that “mother” was not loving or offering the best to her daughter in terms of emotional support, it means that the girl was unable to take-in, receive or appropriate her mother’s loving intention.


One of my clients was separated from her biological mother at birth and was unable to form a warm attachment with her adoptive mother. Many of my clients report that during the time of their birth or within the first two years of their lives, there was substantial stress, difficulty and chaos in their mothers’ lives due to moves, depression, alcoholic husbands, several other children, undue pressure from perfectionistic family members, mandatory adoption of additional children due to abandonment by or death of relatives, etc., all disallowing the mothers to enter into restful and nurturing moments with their young daughters.


            It is also common to hear that a “pre-lesbian”[1] girl was very “close” to her mother because mother “needed her” by depending on her to do the housework, care for and protect siblings, deal with an alcoholic father, be a confidant for mom, while mother hid her self away in bed most of the day. One daughter even had to call 911 whenever her mother was suicidal. This type of relationship is very deceiving in that it holds the appearance of closeness but in essence, totally lacks the actual nurturance and care that the little girl needed.


            There may be no greater trauma in a girl’s life developmentally, than one that interferes with her primal relationship with mom.[2] Mom is not only the first bond and attachment for a little baby girl, but is also the relational object with whom this little girl will form her first sense of self and eventually rely on to complete her identification process as a female. If a little girl experiences disruption in this most primal and ideally ongoing essential relationship, it will not only create a need in her for the byproducts of such a relationship, such as affection, touch, suckling, eye to eye gazing, etc., but will affect all future attachments as well as her developmental process of identity formation.


            To develop healthily, a little girl is to first and always remain warmly and securely attached[3] to mom, one who is like her.[4] The essential relational ingredient of trust[5] is established within this attachment. Eventually, the little girl is to receive the added blessing of a strong and protective father figure who comes along side to affirm her unique personhood and femininity and to protect and support the ongoing special connection with mom. As time goes on, more and more people, male and female, will enter this little girl’s life, and out of each relationship, the girl and young woman will grow in her understanding of her self (Gilligan 1993, Chodorow 1974)) and hopefully, embrace and enjoy who she is as a unique feminine being. Miller (1976, p. 83) comments that “women stay with, build on, and develop in a context of attachment and affiliation with others. Indeed, women’s sense of self becomes very much organized around being able to make and then to maintain affiliations and relationships.” While boys face the difficult developmental task of moving and separating from mom to ultimately find their home and identity in father, girls face the difficult developmental task of carving out a sense of self[6] and separateness (unique identity) within ongoing attachment and relatedness.


            If a disruption occurs in the boy’s process of bonding and identifying with father, he is at least (hopefully) attached to mother. If a disruption occurs in the girl’s initial attachment with mother, she may realistically end up with no secure attachment, dangling so to speak in the universe, and therefore void of the context in which to develop a solid core self.


            So while the words separating, striving and differentiating are important and primary words for a boy’s identification process, these words should not be a primary or defining part of a little girl’s experience. If a little girl’s experience does involve more separation, disruption in attachment, and striving to find someone with whom to attach, than closeness, warm restful attachment and connection, the girl will 1) not only potentially lose the opportunity to practice and fully develop her relational capacities (attachment, reciprocity, mutuality, etc.) and core identity, but will also 2) come to mistrust and even expect abandonment and therefore suffer from a classic form of separation anxiety (and/or abandonment depression). So is the plight of many of my clients.


            One woman poetically writes of the dilemma and types of compensatory styles of relating that are often developed in a young girl’s life as an attempt to survive early abandonments:


In the beginning, my roaring ache sprang from not enough love transfusions while my soul was still taking shape…. My suction cups, meant to attach me to others, didn’t quite grow. I never developed my ultimate core, the ability to love, trust, and give myself to life’s divine flow. …Instead of attachment, I learned to calculate, weigh, use and maneuver my way through humanity’s jungle, to devour or be devoured. Instead of openness, I built fences, shields and impenetrable walls. Instead of acceptance and understanding, I learned power struggle, manipulation, judgment, demands and contempt. “Product of Abandonment” by Caterina James, Where Grace Abounds Newsletter, March, 1993.


Further 3) every rejection and abandonment a girl experiences will cause her to believe that she, a girl, is the cause of the painful separation. A girl may carry a very strong core belief that she, a girl, is not okay, acceptable or loveable. One of my clients shared that she came to believe that she was toxic because every relationship she entered abruptly ended. “It must be something about me,” she thought, “that keeps poisoning or victimizing all who dare to come close.” Many women with same-sex attractions struggle with a deep self-hatred against their personhood and femininity, methodically self-rejecting their feminine identity. This of course disturbs the normal process of gender identification.


            Sexual abuse does not cause lesbianism, but when sexual abuse occurs in the life of a little girl who is already experiencing a lack of warm and secure attachment with mom and therefore a budding deep sense of mistrust, the abuse will clench the existing relational deficits, neglect and/or abandonment, by sending the girl into a place of secretiveness and hiding due to the ensuing shame. The horror of abuse will all but solidify her toxic self-image and belief that she is subhuman or a distortion of what once was called “girl.” It is also here that anger towards men may issue out of her experience of being violated, disrespected and used. This anger is fueled by the reality that now neither female nor male can be trusted.


            While the following begins to fold over into the topic of symptoms, it is important to note that at this point in many of my client’s survival, they might develop a very restless activism in their life style. Not feeling secure in the relational realm of life, she may continuously find herself in the great outdoors, climbing trees, building forts, fishing with dad (if he is somewhat kind and benevolent), working in the garage, playing sports, and indeed, becoming the “son” of the family. Many of my clients have brought in pictures of themselves by age six. They dressed, stood and postured themselves like young boys. These girls often found themselves closer to and identifying with their father. This connection however, is usually not a fully meaningful or healthy attachment IF the girl has never developed a full sense of attachment and identification with mom. Further, mom is often jealous of such closeness between her husband and daughter, creating an even greater rift between herself and her daughter. Once again, the girl’s process of gender identification is derailed and confused by these strained and default attachments.


            This “tomboyish” posturing in life also often sets the girl up for great disappointment in terms of connecting with other little girls her age. My clients report that they just didn’t fit in with the other girls in their town or school. Often, if they did find a special friend, it wasn’t long before that special friend moved. These girls also seem very susceptible to the betrayal and ostracizing unfortunately common to pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, further confirming the themes of abandonment and toxic self -image.

            So in summary, many of these adolescent girls experience 1) disconnectedness from others, male and female, riddled with a deep fear that they may never be able to attach, 2) disconnectedness from self, marked by an inner desolation, an absence of a self or at best, a self that is distorted, marred and unlovable, and 3) confusion around the benefits or blessedness of being female. The earlier the separations, neglect and violations begin for a girl, the deeper these realities will be. The primary theme of gender identity confusion can be seen in the woman’s story first introduced above:


I was a tomboy and my mom seemed to encourage it in me. She rarely nurtured me. I never remember being held or comforted by her. She never taught me anything that would have been considered feminine or female. She was not feminine herself and probably did not like being a woman. She thought women were weak.


In the midst of the empty space and black hole left by my family, a male also sexually abused me at age of 7. The touch felt good but I was demeaned and rejected by the boy afterwards. I vowed to never need anything again; I hated my femininity and thought it was weak.


As a teenager I wore jeans and t-shirts or army fatigues and combat boots. I eventually joined the Army Reserve. In college I met a girlfriend who cared for me and cried when she heard about the sexual abuse. The next close female friend I had held me in her arms and comforted me when I felt pain. She was a lesbian. Was I a lesbian? All I knew is that this relationship was what I had been looking for my whole life - a safe, loving, tender, non-abusive relationship with a sense of mutuality and of deep care.


Throughout their lives, most of my clients dream and long for safe, warm and caring attachment and relationship.


            The core of a female same-sex relationship is not sexual behavior as is often seen in male homosexuality, but a deep relational bond which often develops into a dependency. In an effort to resolve or alleviate the unwanted themes of separation, neglect, deprivation and abandonment and the constant consequent feelings of loneliness, emptiness and anxiety, these women will unconsciously (sometimes consciously) move towards the very things they perceive they are missing: mother (safety and security), a girl friend (affirmation and mutuality), and a sense of self and feminine identity. When a girl or woman enters into a friendship with another female that may unconsciously remind her of mom or the best friend she never had, the relationship can often rapidly (even within the first hour) turn into an all-consuming emotional dependency.


            Emotional dependency is not an inordinate love but is in fact the consequence of a woman’s deep fear of intimacy. This fear or defensive detachment as defined by Moberly (1989), creates a vacuum of relational and identity need into which a woman attempts to draw another woman who may symbolize mother or her lost friend or lost self. At the same time, this woman who is so hungry for attachment, “loses” herself in the other by positing her well being, security and even identity in this rapid and therefore unstable “relationship.” It is important to stress that within these dependencies, it is the connection or sense of attachment[7] that is the focus and the commodity that is desired, not the unique individuality of the other. Often the other is barely even known.


            So a woman unconsciously says, “My well being depends on my connection with another. If the connection or relationship is constant, warm, secure and loving (perfect) I feel ok. If the connection is threatened in any way, I am in crisis. I am not ok. I may even die.” If an actual or perceived threat arises then, the woman will activate an entire list of defensive efforts, such as seduction, manipulation, coercion, force, etc. to ward off the surfacing separation anxiety. She is not desperate for the other woman, although it would appear that this is the case, she is desperate for the symbolic attachment. Without it she once again becomes vulnerable to the truths and realities within, i.e. the three conditions listed above.


            One can often see within a female same-sex relationship a defensive posturing and maneuvering, yielding dissatisfactory attachments in terms of a woman’s true need to be loved, accepted and affirmed for her true self so she can establish her own unique sense of self and feminine identity. Nevertheless, the underlying true and real need of the woman for a warm and caring mother can be clearly seen in these relationships. For example, these women simply want to nestle into another woman’s arms and suckle at a woman’s breasts. They want to “be,” to be a self that matters based on the proof of being cared for and nurtured. I can hear that infant cry for a mother when my clients regularly state, “I just want to be held”[8] or “I don’t want to be alone.”


            You can also see within these relationships a possible adolescent need for a best friend. During adolescence girls not only dress identically, but also often hold hands or clasp arms and of course call each other five times a day. Women in lesbian relationships often dress alike and are in “constant contact” throughout a day. There seems to be a compelling drive to repair their missing or broken adolescent same-sex friendships that were meant to provide another piece to their own identity formation. Other common phrases regularly spoken by my clients include “I just want to be liked” and “I want to have fun.”


My clients are often drawn to women who have a solid career and appear to live a full life. My clients want this life, believing they do not have an identity or passion or direction of their own. When I ask my clients to tell me who they are, they look at me with a blank stare and simply reply, “I don’t know” or “I hate being a woman.” Often within the same-sex bond is a reparative energy to literally find a life and identity for themselves.


But as I explained above, all is not well in these reparative attempts. Many female same-sex relationships are fragile, unpredictable and extremely volatile. No human being can guarantee a perfectly and continuously warm, secure and loving friendship. If our “life” or sense of well-being depends on it, our life will be very precarious at best. Often a woman faces a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. “The more I depend on another woman to make me feel complete and ok, the more likely I will be disappointed. This disappointment and failure however, creates even more of a need in me. So I grasp and demand even more. My grasping and need unfortunately suffocates or drains the other woman so she must leave or distance herself from me. I am devastated, even close to emotional death, so I reach out even more desperately than I have in the past.” And on and on it goes.


Again, a woman often faces a sense of deep insecurity. And in this deep insecurity, these women, on the outside, will revert back to that tomboyish or very tough, self sufficient, competent, hard, cold style of relating, projecting a pretense that they don’t need anything or anybody, thickening their internal cocoon of isolation and emptiness. Don’t be taken by this false bravado. On the inside they are truly a fragile and small innocent girl who still needs to rest in a mother’s arms and enjoy a close girl friend and discover her unique self.


            While the above outlines the relational symptoms, there are other notable themes in the lives of many women with same-sex attraction.


1.                  Inability to connect, identify or express deep emotion especially involving tears. This is due not only to a lack of practice and experience which would have been automatic in ongoing warm and reciprocal attachments, but is an aspect of the self rejection and contempt with which many lesbian women struggle as well as the tough bravado false self that is developed to survive the inner and outer isolation.

2.                  Intellectualizing. The girl often overdevelops her already high IQ as compensation against her insecurities as a person and/or developing woman and the emotional and relational emptiness.

3.                  Mocking, daring, spiteful, arrogant false self with an accompanying young and fragile inner and true self. Many of my clients believe they have already endured enough rejection and hurt for a lifetime; they are very reluctant to take any more risks, yet for healing and growth, they must do this very thing.

4.                  Deficit of healthy community. These women may continue with the former sense that she doesn’t belong or fit in with “normal” women. This of course compounds her relational needs and may fuel the dependency once a relationship or connection is established. Often a woman’s only community is with a group of other struggling lesbian women. The pattern of emotional dependency is simply expanded to accommodate the entire group, leading to cross enmeshments and romantic betrayals.

5.                  Deep fear of being alone. I would suggest that this is one of the core fears behind therapeutic resistance within my clients. There is typically a deep hopelessness around any future possibility of being in a relationship with a good man, yet most of my clients admit to desiring just that. They question themselves, “Why should I address my unhealthy relationships with women if all it will lead to is being alone for the rest of my life?” One client concluded, “sewer water is still better than no water.”

6.                  Habitual pattern of busyness and activity, serving as a defense against unwanted feelings and also creating an obstacle towards taking risks in developing new relationships.


While this article is not meant to cover the clinical process of working with a woman with same-sex attraction, I hope it at least identifies the categories and various areas towards which therapy may be directed. Work with the lesbian client is not only exciting and challenging but deeply rewarding as you watch a grown woman discover her own unique self, life and relational capacities.



Brodzinsky, DM; Schechter, MD; Henig, RM (1992): Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. Doubleday, New York,NY.

Chodorow, N (1978): The Reproduction of Mothering. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Edelman, H (1974): Motherless Daughters. Dell Publishing, New York, NY.

Erikson, EH (1959): Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY.

Gilligan, C (1982): In A Different Voice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Miller, JB (1976): Toward a New Psychology of Women. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

Moberly, ER (1983): Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic. ??? Not sure who is publishing this currently.

Rentzel, L (1984): Emotional Dependency. InterVarsity Press, Madison, WI.

[1] The term “pre-lesbian” implies that sexual identity formation does not occur until post puberty.

[2] Erik Erikson notes that “A drastic loss of accustomed mother love without proper substitution at this time can lead (under otherwise aggravating conditions) to acute infantile depression (Spitz, 1945) or to a mild but chronic state of mourning which may give a depressive undertone to the whole remainder of life.” (1959) I believe depression is a very common theme amongst lesbian women.

[3] Attachment is defined by Brodzinsky (1992) as “emotional relationship that develops gradually, after weeks and months of daily contact, conversation, caregiving, and cuddling.”

[4] As eluded to above, this is not supposed to be a suffocating or consuming attachment on the part of mom. Such a relationship will yield the same effects as a disruption in attachment. The little girl is forced to tragically separate herself from mom so that she can in essence “breathe” and exert some of her own uniqueness.

[5] Erikson’s (1959) definition of basic trust is relevant to this discussion in that he views it as an attitude not only towards the world or others, but an attitude toward oneself, allowing for the future development of a healthy identity and personality.

[6] It should be noted that up to this point, I am not referring to a young girl’s sense of gender identity, but a more core and basic sense of personhood and self. This must be in place before a girl can fully appropriate a healthy feminine identity. Often in our therapy with the lesbian client, we attempt to restore or build a woman’s femininity without addressing the deeper core emptiness within her. She will let you know however that you’ve missed the mark by reacting with an obstinate attitude towards anything that is girlish or feminine. In a sense she rightly, albeit defiantly, states, “Those things don’t matter.” She speaks intuitively with knowledge that something first must be formed within her before she can assimilate her womanly identity.


[7] Rentzel (1984, p. 7) states that “Emotional dependency occurs when the ongoing presence and nurturing of another is believed to be necessary for personal security.”

[8] Hope Edelman in Motherless daughters (1974) quotes many of her lesbian clients admitting that they know they are looking for their lost mother in their relationships. One woman who admits that she has always been attracted to woman, confesses that she has avoided dating them because she’s “hyperconscious of trying to reunite with her mother.” “’When I’m with a woman, there’s always a transference going on,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes I want to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I was just thinking you were my mother. I hope you don’t mind.’ …We’re like two lost people holding each other.’” P. 169.