Being in a relationship with someone masochistic can be incredibly trying and frustrating. If all they want to do is beat themselves up – and anything positive you say or do is batted away or denied – then you can find yourself wondering why you bother.
Masochism is defined as a “pervasive tendency to engage in a wide range of self-defeating behaviour in one’s social, emotional or work life”. (Stephen M. Johnson). This article does not address sado-masochistic dynamics in a sexual context. It looks at the relationship implications of the social and personal aspects of having a personality that is fundamentally structured around defeating itself.
The roots of masochism are in early childhood, around the time when a toddler starts to show signs of independence. A domineering or over-controlling parent who needs to have things their way can turn these signs of independence into a battle of wills. There can only be one winner. Parents who consistently force their will onto a child leave the toddler with no option but to submit. The child has no way of fighting back. Giving in, submitting, becomes a behaviour the child needs to survive. Inside they might be raging and feel it’s unfair, but on the outside they have learned to show submission.
Over time – even when parents have stopped imposing their will and the child grows up – he or she can internalise the parents’ behaviour. They can continue to treat themselves in the same way as their parents did: with contempt and lack of respect for themselves as an individual.
If your partner has masochistic tendencies, they may:
- Be unable to tell you when they’re angry with you, and instead resort to passive-aggressive behaviours such as slamming doors, sighing, and making sarcastic comments. They may feel hurt but not able to put their truth into words for fear you’ll dismiss their feelings or – even worse – abandon them.
- Feel guilt or shame if they act or express themselves openly, and shut down soon afterwards for fear of negative repercussions.
- Work themselves to the bone in a bid to prove they’re good enough.
- Never feel truly loved – leaving you at a loss to know how to support them or show them love in a way they receive it.
- Allow their inner critic to dominate – as it becomes critical of self, you, and others in your life.
- Find it hard to say no.
- Refuse offers of help, preferring to make things harder on themselves.
- Complain and complain without believing anything will change – or taking action to change things positively.
- Be unable to enjoy themselves fully.
- Find it difficult to trust.
How to cope with a masochistic partner…
Be patient. Above all, patience is the virtue you need to be with a masochistic partner. Don’t sigh or tell them off for their self-defeating behaviours.
Don’t echo the parents’ behaviours in forcing your partner to take your point of view or do as you say. You’ll be falling into old patterns that will potentially reinforce your partner’s masochism.
Don’t give in to rage. You may begin to feel persecutory towards your partner when they are shrugging their shoulders and giving up on something again. An angry reaction will make them shrink into themselves and they may not come out for days.
Try to understand. Not always easy, but knowing the roots of their personality traits may help you develop more empathy towards them.
Don’t threaten to leave. A masochist fears abandonment more than anything. If they aren’t doing what you want them to do then allow them to express or act in that way. Support them in it.
Encourage open communication. There was never room in a masochist’s early life to have an opinion of their own. Speaking their truth was unheard of. A building block of your relationship is to encourage them to start to say what they truly feel and think – and know that they can survive that experience without punishment or repercussion.
If you or your partner are considering seeking professional support in coping with masochistic or self-defeating behaviours, then give us a call on 020 8673 4545 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org We have sessions available seven days a week at our centres in Clapham SW4 and Tooting SW17. We also have a network of therapists across London who are available through our TAC Directory.