In my 20+ years as a Psychotherapist specializing in the relationship dynamics between people, one of the common presenting challenges single adult women present is; not making healthy relationship choices. It is not uncommon for a woman to label herself as a “relationship masochist”, or report that her friends call her a “relationship masochist”. Do note: women are not the only one’s who struggle with making healthy relationship choices, certainly men do as well. In my work with both genders, I help men and women to understand their relational needs and help them to help themselves in choosing to make healthy relationship choices. I am not one to label a woman nor a man as a “relationship masochist”, even when making unhealthy relationship choices. Rather I help them to understand their underlying emotional issues, their needs, wants, desires, hopes, and help them with action steps to take to make healthy shifts. Although I do not use this label, I am mindful of its relevancy in the lay person’s vocabulary as well as the interesting history of the term. It does tend to be more common that women will label themselves as a relationship masochist then men do. Below you will find Q&A with Dr. K! Yup, that’s me! In this blog article 10 masochist questions are answered where I focus on the concept of “relationship masochism”. A few of the topics within this article includes; my explanation of what a relationship masochist is, the cause, why it is so difficult to walk away when in a bad relationship, and 5 tips for the person who wants to make a healthy relationship change.
Q&A With Dr. K! Topic: Relationship Masochism
1. What is a ‘masochist’?
According to Dictionary.com a masochist is:
“A condition in which sexual or other gratification depends on one’s suffering physical pain or humiliation”. “A person who is gratified by pain, degradation that is self imposed or imposed by others”. “A person who finds pleasure in self denial, submissiveness”.
From the lens of this Psychotherapist/Relationship Expert, although this question may seem basic to answer simply and to offer a clear definition, it actually is not so simple to answer! When you ask this question of this Psychotherapist, the answer is not so simple because there has been much debate through the years over whether the term ‘masochist’ is a real label, a diagnosis. Thus, I say; if the diagnosis is in question, the definition becomes in question. ‘Masochistic Personality Disorder’ is not currently a diagnoses, it is not a clinical label in terms of its utilization under the DSM IV nor the upcoming DSM V. The earliest references to the term masochism was coined in reference to a psychosexual disorder, which referred to the achievement of sexual excitement through abuse or humiliation. Other early psychoanalysts talked about the masochistic character is those of whom continually complain, demand and engage in self-debasement, a tendency toward feeling insignificant, worthless, and a dependency on the benevolence of others. In 1980 the proposal for the DSM III-R de-sexualized the purported disorder, and references to physical abuse or pain were not the focal point. Rather, the description included those who feel unworthy, neglect their own goals and pleasures, they are self-sacrificing, not comfortable with recognition nor success, and remain in relationships in which others exploit, abuse, or take advantage of him or her despite opportunities to alter the situation. Feminists vehemently were opposed to the term masochist to be used as a diagnostic label, as their concern was that women would be blamed for being in an abusive relationship suggesting being in an abusive relationship was due to a mental disorder. Ultimately ‘Masochistic Personality Disorder’ was not approved to be in the DSM as a recognizable diagnosis, whereas ‘Sexual Masochism’ is.
Although there is much history regarding this term and is thus controversial in terms of labeling a person and using the term to describe an individual, nor to describe an individual in a relationship, the understanding of what a masochist is by the lay public is the frame of which I will answer the questions below for this blog article of Q&A With Dr. K. This point is important to note in that ‘masochistic personality disorder’ is not a recognized diagnosis in clinical terms, although as a Psychotherapist and as a Relationship Therapist I am well too aware that the term is used by the lay public when describing a certain personality type. Thus, through the lay public’s lens in terms of what is deemed the definition of ‘masochist’ in conjunction with my psychotherapeutic analysis in my work with men and women, I will be framing the answers to the questions addressed in this article through my lens of the lay public’s lens.
So, if we use the term ‘masochist’ loosely, meaning; through my lens of the lay public’s lens, understanding it is not a clinical diagnosis, and thus in layman’s terms as I understand the term to be in my work with couples and individuals, males and females; a masochist has become a more broad term defined as: people who take pleasure in activities that produce humiliation or pain and/or experience a sense of comfort/familiarity with situations and relationships that they experience suffering, hurt, pain. The inference is that it can be sexual, or not including the sexual aspect of the relationship dynamic between people. It can be about a person’s individual character just onto one’s own self in terms of description of self in terms of being prone to self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors. Who and how one is as an individual of course affects who they are in their relationships. With that, as a mental health and wellness professional, I will share with you that I do not believe masochists always take “pleasure” per say in activities that produce humiliation or pain. In my work with men, women, and couples, I see masochism more as defined as a person who feels a sense of comfort, familiarity, in activities that produce humiliation or pain. Yes, at times pleasure indeed, but not always as pleasure and familiarity is not always one in the same. So, with this understanding of what a masochist is generally understood as by the lay public through my lens of analysis, the questions I answer in this blog are based upon this understanding, this framework.
2. In what ways do you see being in a bad relationship as a form of masochism?
Being in a bad relationship can be seen as a form of masochism in that you are suffering, and choosing to remain in that suffering. Typically when in a bad relationship in addition to feeling like you are suffering, the person also feels rejected, disappointed, and not treated well and yet remains in the relationship could indeed be considered a relationship masochist. To continue time and time again to choose to be in a bad relationship, or to remain long term in a bad relationship, one could view this choice to remain in familiar territory of hurt as consistent with how masochism is described. As masochism is described as a person who solicits hurt as it is familiar territory. Often when in a bad relationship over time a person will provoke their partner and incite angry interactions. The masochist deliberately provokes angry and disparaging interactions and responses from their partner in order to feel hurt, which again is familiar territory.
3. Although “relationship masochist” is not considered a scientifically and/or clinically proven term, it is not uncommon for the term to be used by the lay public. As a relationship expert, if you were to describe someone who might be viewed as a “relationship masochist” how would you describe one?
A relationship masochist is not a “proven” term in that it is not a “diagnosis”. Although, there are relationship experts including myself, who do understand that there are men and women (an important point to mention as some stereotype suggesting this is a female problem only, which I will tell you in my work counseling women as well as men, is far from the truth) whose behavior could be considered as masochistic in their relationship choices, thus ‘relationship masochists’. This includes; who they choose to be in a relationship, how they behave, act, think, feel, and the interactional choices that they make while in the relationship.
I would describe a “relationship masochist” as someone who chooses a mate that will predictably lead to disappointment, mistreatment, and failure. A “relationship masochist” avoids relationships that will be healthy, loving, and caring. A “relationship masochist” is someone who incites, provokes and solicits rejecting responses from the person they are in a relationship with in order to feel hurt, humiliated and defeated, which is familiar territory.
4. What causes people to be a “relationship masochist”?
The masochist has been taught from an early age to hate one’s self. In addition, the masochist has been taught at an early age that he/she is worthless as a person and unworthy of love. Therefore, in a self-fulfilling validation of who one was brainwashed to believe one is, this person subconsciously lives an existence of self-defeating behaviors, and is prone to making self-destructive choices.
5. Do you think people who find themselves in bad relationship after bad relationship, are subconsciously choosing people who don’t make good partners? Do you think people who are constantly in bad relationships, are subconsciously making them bad?
There are those men and women who absolutely subconsciously choose people who do not make good partners. There are also people who subconsciously make their relationships bad.
A relationship masochist either will subconsciously choose people who don’t make good partners, or if they are in a relationship with someone who has the potential to be a good partner, the relationship masochist will do what it takes to make the relationship bad, subconsciously. For it is the relationship masochist that will self-sabotage, and if the relationship masochist fails at his or her attempt at self-sabotage/relationship-sabotage, the relationship masochist will likely react with rage and likely engage in behaviors that produce hurt, pain, and abandonment. For the masochist, the relationship masochist, deliberately subconsciously provokes rejecting responses from others in order to feel he/she is on familiar territory (i.e., hurt, defeated).
6. Do people subconsciously like the pain of being in a bad relationship?
There are people who feel a sense of comfort being in a bad relationship, because it is familiar. It is human to gravitate to the familiar as it provides a sense of stability in an unstable world. Even if this familiar is hurtful, it is what is known. The unknown offers discomfort and anxiety. I do not like to view people through the lens of liking the pain of being in a bad relationship, in that is not my understanding of men and women in their articulations to me in terms of their self-report in session. Rather, my understanding is all about the theme of familiarity.
7. Why can’t people just simply walk away when they are in a bad relationship?
For the non-masochist, there are several key factors as to why people, in general, have a hard time walking away from a bad relationship and far too many don’t walk away from a bad relationship. A few of the key and most common factors include: fear (of the unknown, of what life will be like without the other person, of how that person will react, of loneliness), dependent, love, embarrassment of what others might think, financial, have kids.
Whereas in contrast/by comparison, the person who has masochistic tendencies, it is not so simple to able to walk away from a bad relationship either, their reasons are not all the same as those mentioned above. Specifically the masochist/relationship masochist can’t just walk away from a bad relationship because the bad relationship is familiar territory. The masochist tends to not solve problems/predicaments and is rather prone to self-defeating and punishing behaviors. The masochist seeks hurt in relationships and thus to reject the relationship that is bad and walk-away, would be counter-productive to their self-penalizing behavior. The masochist’s tendency is to avoid the beauty and benefits of a healthy intimate relationship (e.g., support, companionship) and therefore by engaging in a behavior that produces hurt (i.e., staying in a bad relationship) they keep the feeling of the known, the familiar hurt.
Deep within a person who has felt such hurt as a child and learned to hate one’s self and consider one’s self unworthy of love and worthless as a person, is a person who unbeknownst to him/her, yearns for a different outcome to their life story. In essence, the subconscious goal is to meet a person who is hurtful and then the relationship turns around to be one of receiving love. The desired ending to every hurt child’s life – that mom and/or dad goes from hurting me to embracing/loving me. The problem is, even if the person in the relationship with the adult masochist made a behavioral turn-around from being hurtful to loving with consistency, the masochist would not find the caring loving person attractive, and would ultimately reject the loving partner in order to re-gain the stability of familiarity.
8. How does this form of masochism, “relationship masochism”, where you are always feeling hurt in a relationship, differ from other forms of masochism? Is it easier or harder to end “relationship masochism” over another form of masochism?
Masochism by its understanding of what we understand it to mean by definition, is similar whether we are talking about one’s self in a professional environment, in a dating relationship, or in terms of one’s own self. For who we are in terms of a personality is who we are in all forms of our existence. If a person is a masochist, and thus prone to self destructive and self defeating behaviors, their choices are all about seeking out pain and hurt in all of their situations and relationships. There is no one form of masochism. And there is no one form of masochism that is easier or harder to end. For if masochism is a believed reality in that there are those who have this character trait, then that infers it is a personality disorder. Personality disorders affect one in all of their situations and relationships. From a relationship perspective, are not all experiences relationships? The relationship we have with our emotional health and wellness, the relationship we have with our body (physical health), the relationship we have with our professional environment (boss, colleagues), the relationship we have with our lover/partner, the relationship we have with friends, the relationship we have with family, the relationship we have with healthy vs unhealthy choices (e.g., exercise, eating healthy vs. drugs, alcohol) – these are all relationships. If a person is a masochist then they are a masochist, not likely just in one aspect vs another aspect of their life. In essence, if you are a relationship masochist, then you are a masochist likely in the other relationships in your life for everything can be viewed as a relationship. For if you feel you are unworthy of love, if you feel you are worthless as a person, if you have been taught from an early age to consider yourself as worthless as a person and are prone to punishing behaviors, that likely carries in all of the situations within your life.
9. Are there mental or emotional issues that you see in your work which could influence someone who consistently is in a bad relationship, if we rule out the concept of relationship masochism?
A few of the mental/emotional issues that could influence someone who has a pattern of being in bad relationships include: borderline personality disorder, low self-esteem, sex-addicts, drug/alcohol addicts/abuse, co-dependency, and handicap.
10. How would you treat someone, or what advice would you give to someone who appears to be entering bad relationships repeatedly?
Treating someone who repeatedly enters bad relationships/advice that I would give as a relationship expert is as follows below. Do note: it is typically not so simple as to just tell them to go for the opposite person. That is a behavioral assignment. The person who repeatedly enters bad relationships needs a combo platter of a behavioral action assignment plus insight into their thoughts and feelings, mindful awareness and therapeutic wisdom. In essence, the combo platter tip needs to be both advice that is cognitive (to help the person to think differently and thus, behave differently), and behavioral (to help the person to behave differently and thus experiences things differently and thus ultimately thinks differently). Below you will find the 5 tips that I help men and women to do in order to make a true shift, to go from someone who repeatedly enters bad relationships to someone who makes healthy relationship choices. As a Relationship Therapist, I will share with you that it is so beautiful to see when a person goes from 0-10. It is possible with the right help.
My 5 tips/advice/what I teach clients includes:
- I teach the client to choose to create a new narrative of the past in an effort to re-program the brain. And, I explain this concept to them. The lens of which a person who repeatedly enters bad relationships views their past in terms of their self-worth, personal view of self, and view of their relationships with the most significant people in their life while they were growing up (e.g., parents) plays a significant role in why they are in these unhealthy relationships in their now. This new narrative includes a positive re-frame of self, when thinking about the past.
- I teach the client the importance of positive self-talk. E.g., “I am _________.” State something positive about yourself that you value, appreciate, respect, or like about yourself. State this sentence once per day in front of the mirror. Smile at the mirror while saying it (show your teeth). This technique is about your relationship with you. By making positive statements out loud to yourself, and seeing yourself while doing it along with a smile, you feel, hear, and see the reality of what you are saying. By accessing these 3 senses you experience this as a reality on your developing self journey of wellness and self-worth. Also, include healthy positive daily mantras that you state to yourself. E.g., “My identity is not how others have treated me.” “I can choose to have healthy relationships if I want to, and I want to, therefore I am choosing to.”
- I educate the client that there are triggers that remind them of their past pain and that triggers a snowball effect of negative thinking and behavioral actions. I help the client to uncover what their specific triggers are. Where possible, removal of the triggers are necessary, we discuss how to remove those triggers in their life. Where not possible to remove the trigger, I help the client with healthy strategies so as to manage their reactions to those triggers rather than the triggers controlling them.
- I explore with the client the meaning they have in their life. Having a healthy focus of something they do in their life to relish in is important so they feel special. People who live a life that they feel is meaningful and with purpose offers them the gift of focusing their energy on healthy things, rather than unhealthy things.
- Healthy interests, healthy support network – make active choices to surround yourself with a healthy positive environment.
What prompted you to write this particular article?
I wish to take a moment to thank Ashley Papa. Ashley is a writer for FOX News Magazine. In her desire to write an article on relationship masochism, she asked me a variety of insightful questions, many of which are included in this article. It is her and my discussion that prompted me to write this blog article. I invite you to check out Ashley’s informative article which includes quotes from me, as well as other experts within the relationship industry entitled: Are You A Relationship Masochist?