For most of us, the phrase sadomasochism elicits thoughts of a fringy leather-clad subculture that's into whips and chains. As a psychosocial dynamic, sadomasochism is considerably more subtle -- and considerably more pervasive.
Sadomasochism is about power and control. In every relationship, there is a minimizer and a maximizer. The minimizer tends to be more subdued within the context of the relationship, while the maximizer tends to be more evocative. When this delicate balance turns into a game of "Who Has the Power?" then minimizing and maximizing turns into submission and dominance, but not necessarily in the way that you'd expect. Typically, the minimizer becomes dominant, and the maximizer becomes submissive.
In a relationship driven by power and control, rather than compassion and cooperation, one partner becomes "parentalized" and the other "infantilized". Most often, the maximizer, being more emotional, tends to become infantilized and submissive for fear of angering or disappointing their partner. The minimizer, being more contained, tends to gather the power in the relationship, whether by intention or default, and, in this way, becomes parentalized.
Here's the cool part - it's not a static dynamic. A colleague of mine, Richard Rubens, used to call this "lap climbing", where the balance of power shifts within the relationship based on the actions of the partners.
As the submissive/infantilized partner withdraws emotionally and physically in a misguided effort not to rock the boat, the dominant/parentalized partner becomes anxious and begins to "ramp up" their activity in the relationship - becoming more attentive, more needy, more, well, infantile. The s/i partner responds by re-investing, the d/p partner is satisfied that all is well, and the balance of power shifts back again. The cycle is endless - and exhausting.
Here's an example: The woman in a particular relationship is affectionate. The man is not. The woman, tired of always being the initiator, the one to grasp a hand when crossing the street or stroke a lock of hair away from his eyes, withdraws her attention, maybe to punish him, maybe to ‘test' him, maybe to make a silent statement about her resentment. In any case, the man notices, questions, complains, and becomes needy for that withdrawn affection. The woman responds by reinstituting the past pattern, the man is satisfied, but nevertheless returns to his complaints about her always being "all over him" and, as her resentment again begins to build, we are back to square one.
This pattern is not just about affection, it is pervasive. It can be about money, or parenting, or household responsibilities or even walking the dog. And it is a pattern that can and does play out in all relationships, not just the intimate ones. Remember the first rule of forensic psychology - the way that people do one thing is the way that they do everything. People are nothing if not consistent.
It is also a pattern that is not always specific to gender. While our acculturated tendency is to assume that the woman in a relationship is submissive and the man is dominant, speaking emotionally that is not always the case. As a good friend of mine if fond of saying, sometimes the man can be the "girl".
Similarly, in non-traditional and same-sex relationships, while there is a propensity for individuals in these relationships to assume the acculturated social roles associated with traditional and heterosexual relationships, that does not necessarily dictate the way the psychosocial dynamic of minimizer/maximizer, submissive/dominant, infant/parent plays out. Even if those social roles are not assumed, and the social style and presentation of the partners is similar, the dynamic of emotional interchange plays out based on the manner in which each partner participates in the relationship.
To that point, I once counseled a triple in which the male was the maximizer/submissive and the girlfriend of the married couple was the minimizer/dominant. But in the relationship between the two women, the wife was the minimizer/dominant. It's complicated stuff.
In a relationship driven by power and control, these subtle sadomasochistic elements come to the fore. The relationship then becomes a tiresome and never ending struggle for balance in a system that cannot be balanced. When the underlying dynamic shifts to one of compassion, cooperation and communication from one of push and pull, the cycle ceases, or at least recedes into the background, and the stage for authentic relationship is then set.
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