Following Freud, the failure to extricate oneself from painful, punishing relationships has traditionally been attributed to the finding of pleasure in pain—i.e., to masochism. I have found, by contrast, that the perpetuation of painful relationships is most often the product of blaming oneself for their punishing aspects. The developmental basis for this pattern can by found in what Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn famously called the moral defense, which is captured in the aphorism, “Better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to be an innocent in a world ruled by the devil.” It is much too terrifying for a young child who is traumatized to perceive the devilish, destructive aspects of a parent, so he/she attributes the traumatization to his/her own badness or defectiveness.

Similarly, adults often remain endlessly in unhappy, abusive, or depriving relationships by blaming their suffering on their own shortcomings, their not having “gotten it right” yet: “If I can just get it right, the punishing other will smile upon me.” Such an interpretive pattern can keep someone futilely trying to get it right forever.

The breaking of the shackles of such a pattern is grippingly captured in a song, Jar of Hearts, performed by Christina Perri. Have a listen to its emancipatory message: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v_4O44sfjM

Copyright Robert Stolorow  

About the Author

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.

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