Debunking Myths of the Mind

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3 Counterintuitive Ways to Deal With a Painful Relationship

Reverse your own masochism.

Relationship challenges are not a new phenomenon, yet they continue to puzzle and confuse us. One such challenge involves relationships where one person appears to be hurting the other despite a previously declared love.  For example, I work with a remarkable young man who loves his mother dearly but is constantly at the receiving end of her depriving ways and insincerity.  I also work with a sensitive, devoted and beautifully caring woman who never feels as if her husband actually appreciates her, and always feels like he holds back and is constantly angry.  In both relationships, the “other” is experienced as “sadistic” and the man and woman in my practice think of themselves as masochists-people who seek out pain and self-sabotage.  A revealing and very insightful recent article points out that this formulation may have missed the mark, and that rather than being in a sado-masochistic relationship, each of my clients may actually be in a maso-masochistic relationship.

What is a maso-masochistic relationship? This is when two people have an agreement to be related but compete for the status of “victim”.  Each person feels like he or she is at the mercy of the other.  However, subconsciously, each person actually relies on feeling victimized and misunderstood in order to feel connected to the other. At first glance this sounds unproductive and nonsensical. Why would we be predisposed to finding a relationship in which we could mistreated in this way? 

One leading theory is that we have a hard time owning our own aggression, so we find others to express it and then depend on them for this.  When you cannot comfortably live with your aggression, you position yourself in relationships where the other person can demean, degrade, ignore, misunderstand or hurt you, and thereby justify the anger that you feel. When they become angry with you, you have a chance to experience your own anger outside of yourself and this provides a temporary relief and function on your behalf.  They don’t like being aggressive. You don’t like being on the receiving end of this.  You both feel misunderstood.  But the need for someone to represent your aggression by being mean to you keeps you connected to them. In fact, when we cannot own our own anger, we tend to invite it from others or subtly express it in a way that we do not consciously recognize. The anger gets passed back and forth between both people like a ping-pong ball and love becomes this game of unpleasant back and forth. In my experience, other innocent bystanders (e.g. friends or siblings) can also be brought into this dynamic.  Why do we do this, and what can we do to change this?

While there are many reasons that one can end up in a maso-masochistic relationship, the author points out in the article above that for each person there is usually an early life experience in which he or she felt helpless, needy and unable to defend himself or herself against powerful caregivers.  The type of care given (usually in the very early years) is experienced as disappointing but we are afraid that of we become angry, we will be abandoned.   So we accept this suboptimal care to preserve the relationship and in the process, protect the connection and hide the anger. 

In life, we often seek out relationships that reflect this dynamic.  In psychology, we refer to the memories of our harsh, demanding, or sacrificial caregivers as “internal objects” that we carry around with us expecting for others to behave in the same manner. In fact, masochistic partners have an extreme unwillingness to grant the other person the permission to satisfy them and even if they are being loved, turning to this love will mean that they will have to turn away form their internal objects-so they reject love.

What then can we do about this? There are three basic assertions that you might want to question and change. The first is that love can only be experienced through suffering.  The second is that we need to hold onto self-sabotage as a way of controlling our earlier sadistic objects by staying related to them. The third is that we need to repair earlier disappointments by “giving in” to the power of others who are hurting us. 

The new frames would be that love can be nourishing and fulfilling, that we can give up the control of sadistic loved ones and that we can give in to those who love us rather than those who hurt us. If you do these things, you will seek out very different relationships, or perhaps invite your significant other to change the contract of your relationship to be one that is mutually loving rather than torturing. This is not that simple to do, but a good start would be to take a look at the wounds that your early life has left you with and realize that you have survived them to become the resilient person that you are. 

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the author of the book: Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School.

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