Masochism is an often misunderstood personality concept. Many tend to think of masochism as the love of being in pain, and as the opposing force to sadism, which is the love of causing it. If you recall Kanye West’s comment about slavery, the understanding goes something like this: if they don’t want to leave, that sounds like a choice. But, it’s deeper, and more complex, than merely a choice between one good option and one bad one.
In her book, Psychoanalytic Diagnoses, Nancy McWilliams writes, “Emmanuel Hammer was fond of saying that a masochistic person is a depressive who still has hope. What he meant is that in the etiology of masochistic as opposed to depressive conditions, the deprivation or traumatic loss that led to a depressive reaction was not so devastating that the child simply gave up on the idea of being loved.” For her, McWilliams would maintain, any form of attention, even cruelty, supersedes erasure. In the book, she goes on to provide an example of a client who left an abusive relationship, recalling that the victim couldn’t, subsequently, function without her partner, failing to find the will to even eat. Again, feeling abandoned was far worse than being beaten.
Thus, the masochistic type isn’t someone who merely enjoys making bad decisions. They’ve learned that survival depends on having minimal needs and using their wit to elicit responses that would make many shudder. Most cases of masochistic tendencies, however, don’t involve severe mistreatment. They’re more so related to the notion of “taking what you can get.” In this respect, the unhappy partner settles for a relationship in which they’re virtually invisible. For them, enduring the risk of dating, and perhaps being in love, is inconceivable. On the one hand, they’re dissatisfied because they’re being breadcrumbed (i.e. their partner only periodically appears); on the other, they believe that attempting to foster reciprocal love is akin to failure.
So, when you speak with them about their grasp of their options, you’ll realize that based on their premises (e.g. their underlying beliefs about what’s possible for them), their conclusions are sound. Fundamentally, most of us are highly rational actors. And if you asked any of the clients I’ve worked with on this problem, they’ll tell you that willful ignorance about what’s in front of them is mostly a myth. It isn’t that they aren’t aware of, or delude themselves about, their partner’s shortcomings, they’re more so convinced that with enough effort, and enough love, their partners will change, or learn to love them. It’s a childhood fantasy brought back to life. Some therapists focus on helping them de-idealize their partners when they might be better served by exploring their patients’ self-enhancing beliefs. Returning to McWilliams, masochism might be preferred to hopelessness, but this isn’t the end of the road. You can beat your head against the wall only so many times.
Therefore, contrary to popular belief, helping a person take responsibility for staying in a bad relationship, as opposed to just feeding into the narrative of being a victim (and playing the role of a savior), by framing their decision to do so as a rational one (based on a well-reasoned argument) can, in reality, be empowering. Instead of labelling themselves dumb or masochistic (which contribute to feeling helpless), the individual struggling to leave becomes more convinced of their ability to care for themselves, thus cultivating the possibility of making better choices.
The goal is to help the client cultivate a centeredness apart from feeling completely helpless and able to change one specific person. In essence, it’s to work on creating a self-conception apart from the fluctuations of omnipotence and infirmity.