(Note: This column is about human relationships and interactions, and how some might be characterized as sado-masochistic. We’re not talking whips and ropes and bondage and stuff today. If that’s what you were hoping, we’ll do that in another post. This is about communication patterns. This disclaimer is here so you can decide if you want to read further or not. I promise not to take it personally if you opt out now.)
I have spent a large part of my 30+ year career working with emotionally disturbed children (and some adults). All children are experts at playing adults off one against the other. Children with severe emotional problems are masters of the craft. In one residential program where I worked, the staff met weekly to review its work with the kids. We also spent some team time each week reviewing our interactions with the kids (and with each other) with our consulting psychologists and psychiatrists. I learned many things from these experienced and wise teachers, and some have stood the test of time throughout my life. One that stands out is related to the interactional dynamic of sadism-masochism, and that’s today’s topic.
In our modern times, the terms sadism and masochism have many connotations. We think of beating and hurting, and ropes and whips, and bondage, and all that stuff (will be covered in another post!) when we hear the words sadism, or sadistic. The basic definition of sadism is “deriving some intrinsic pleasure or satisfaction from hurting someone else” (my words). With masochism we conjure up images of being beaten, whipped, bound, flagellated, or hurt in some manner. The basic definition of masochism is “deriving some intrinsic pleasure from suffering, or being the victim, or being abused” (again, my words). A common feature that characterizes many non-productive personal relations and interactions is the presence of a sadistic-masochistic relationship and style of interacting with one another. This is true in adult-adult relationships, as well as adult-child relationships.
The presence of sadistic and masochistic components of human personality is in everyone. Yes, everyone. It is a normal part of child development; of growing up. At around 18 months – 36 months of age we see this characteristic surface in children. This is the age of the “terrible twos”, and the origin of the phrase “you are acting like a two year-old!” Children have learned to say “NO”, and they do. Almost every parent has a story of how their toddler seemed to delight in saying “no”, ran away in the store rather to them when called, messed up something and then sat there with a smile and waited for a parental reaction. They seem to delight in getting a rather negative, angry response from the parent. In many chronically disturbed family interactions this dynamic prevails for years (even into adulthood). The thing is that this behavior is normal for two year-olds. Then it is “outgrown” and replaced with higher order coping mechanisms. This style of interacting with the world remains; however, within all of us (as does each developmental stage and its accompanying characteristics).
For some adults, we find that the predominant relationship style may be characterized as “sado-masochistic.” One partner frequently inflicts hurt (verbal or physical) on the other, and the receiver seems to simply “accept” it. Each party is receiving some intrinsic gratification from the relationship. To outside observers, the relationship may appear very abusive. But somehow, and for some reason, the partners stay “glued” to one another. That is because neither sadism nor masochism can exist by itself. Each has to have a “willing partner.” These roles can also flip-flop in a relationship, and the masochist becomes the sadist for awhile, and then things flip back as they were. Take one partner out of the equation (as in separation) and both parties often have that uneasy feeling that something isn’t right, and pretty soon they’re back together again. It does defy all common sense and logic, because this is emotional and not logical. How many times have you seen the abused return to the abuser after a brief separation? How many times have you seen either party get into a new relationship, and voila, all the “sins of the past” are recreated?
Even people in positive, mutually satisfying relationships have the capacity for sado-masochism in them. Here’s what I mean. Let’s do a little visualization exercise. Picture in your head for a moment someone you have a strong emotional relationship with (e.g., partner, spouse, friend, parent, sibling, child). Good, got the person in mind? Now picture the two of you getting into a verbal argument (I want to keep this civil for now). Imagine how it is as each scores verbal points in the escalating argument. Perhaps voices are rising a little. Statements such as “you always”… are popping up. Okay, now you’re in the middle of this argument and I want you think of the one word or phrase that if you say it will absolutely jack your partner up against the proverbial wall – the word or phrase that will make them explode. Good, the phrase is in your head and you’re arguing and you’re thinking “should I say this or not?” You know if you do, that your partner will explode in rage or tears. You do it anyway. That’s the sadistic moment. You are deriving pleasure at that moment from hurting someone else. You very deliberately stepped over the line, and you knew it, but you did it anyway. This sadistic stuff is more likely to occur when one is tired, angry, sick, or under the influence. You have momentarily reverted back to being a two year old. It happens to all of us at points in time.
So what/why does all of this matter? Well, if one’s typical interactional style (hence relationship) is sado-masochistic, it’s not much fun. People get hurt. It’s especially no good for the children, if there are any. It’s very difficult to break out of this type of relationship (ask any therapist), but it can be done. It usually requires a combination of willingness on the part of the participant, and skillful counseling/therapy. This type of behavior is often learned in childhood through modeling by parents. It seems generational; because the truth is that a child grows up only knowing how to live by how they learned. It’s really the only coping skill one has until something bad enough happens that one is willing to try something different. I have seen, and know today, too many adult couples in a basically sado-masochistic relationship. It tends to eventually become very isolating for the S-M couple (who wants to be around the constant fighting and negativity all the time?) It teaches the children that “this is how to have an adult relationship.”
As a parent, when my children are “acting up” it can tap into that little bit of S&M inside me. Especially if I’m tired, sick, agitated, under the influence, etc. As a professional working with disturbed children, and their very disturbing behaviors, we had to learn to recognize these feelings in ourselves so that we could respond somewhat therapeutically over time. The natural dynamic would be that of the sado-masochistic variety; the kids can say and do some pretty hurtful things. In short, they bring out the “worst” in adults. That’s why we learned different intervention strategies to break that dynamic. Turns out that the strategies work with adults as well.
There is a real difference between the occasional reverting back to the level of a two-year old, and constantly interacting in this way. We all occasionally say hurtful or ugly things to those we have an emotional attachment to. It’s not pretty, but it’s human and can be managed. Some only know how to interact this way (for the most part). It’s not pretty either and it is continual and cyclical. Remember, in these sado-masochistic relationships there are no real victims. In order for it to continue over time, each party has to play its role, and to derive some intrinsic satisfaction from it.
Next up…some strategies for avoiding or ending these inevitable power struggles.
© GWG 2008