Marriage and family

In 1881 Freud made the acquaintance of Martha Bernays, the sister of one of Freud's university friends. Martha was slim and self-assured, with long dark hair and a narrow face. It seems to have been love at first sight. Martha was five years his junior and only two months after their first meeting they were secretly engaged. But both were too poor to marry and continued a long-distance relationship for another five years before marrying.

With no real prospect of ever earning a livelihood from his scientific work and desperate to marry

Martha, Freud made a painful decision. Just six months after he met her, Freud sacrificed his scientific ambitions for the woman he loved: he decided to become a doctor. At Brücke's suggestion, Freud left laboratory work and spent the next three years at Vienna General Hospital, trying his hand at surgery, internal medicine, and psychiatry, not knowing which might become his specialty.

During their engagement Freud rarely saw Martha. By some estimates, they spent four and a half of those five years apart. She had moved with her family to Hamburg in northern Germany, far from Vienna. He continued working by day, and at night he read incessantly. He also wrote long, romantic letters to Martha every day.

Martha was Freud's first love, and he conveyed a passion for her that was reciprocated by her for him. However, money became increasingly important as he contemplated how to support a partner and the children that would follow after their marriage. Seeking financial support from Freud's father was out of the question. His father had been out of work for some time and was barely supporting his own family. In fact, Freud increasingly felt the burden of needing to help support his parents and sisters in addition to his own family as time passed.

On September 14, 1886, after five years of waiting, 30-year old Sigmund Freud married Martha Bernays. And even though Freud had been trying to save money after leaving laboratory work to pay for the marriage, their celebration was largely funded by generous friends.

They quickly settled into married life by setting up a home, and soon after began a family. Freud and Martha went on to have six children over the next nine years: Mathilde, Jean Martin, Oliver, Ernst, Sophie, and finally Anna. Anna would be the only child to follow in her father's work. Martha quickly became the kind of wife for whom Freud had hoped. She raised their children and managed their household while Freud attended to his medical practice and researched his theories.

Martha also had her own convictions that emerged as their children grew and the theory of psychoanalysis took shape, however. Martha had been raised in a religious family; her grandfather had been chief rabbi of Hamsburg, Germany. Her religious upbringing formed in her a steadfast commitment to her faith that she did not relinquish. Of course, this turned out to be a lifelong point of contention in her marriage with Freud, whose atheistic orientation undoubtedly created distance between them. In addition, Martha disagreed with a number of aspects of psychoanalysis as the theory emerged. What those disagreements were in detail is not precisely known.

It was known to Freud, Martha, and others, however, that their relationship was slowly disintegrating. As Freud delved deeper into his research and explored the mysteries of behavior that still eluded him, the passion once evident in his relationship with Martha faded. Although he remained married to Martha throughout his life, his work became his mistress.

Only one question has been raised regarding Freud's faithfulness to his wife. It concerns his sister-in-law Minna, who originally came in 1895 to live with them for several months, but ended up staying for the rest of her life. Freud had stated at one point that it was Minna Bernays along with his long-time friend Wilhelm Fliess who sustained his faith in himself when he was developing psychoanalysis in the face of much opposition. Freud occasionally went on summer holidays with his sister-in-law while Martha joined them later. Some observers found it difficult to believe that their relationship was entirely platonic.

After 10 years of marriage, Freud had firmly established himself as the patriarch of his own large family. His exhaustive work to find a cure for hysteria, however, had not brought him the fame, success, and happiness he longed for. Fears of poverty from his childhood resurfaced to haunt him.

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