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Psychological Sadism in Immature Relationships

Fromm (1956) described a pattern of psychological sadism and masochism that appears in many immature relationships. The masochist in such a relationship is a person who takes a passive or submissive role. In our culture the masochist is usually but not always female. She is typically a sweet, nice individual who simply allows herself to be dominated. Perhaps this is due to observing her mother play the same role. Thus it seems normal to her.

The book Sweet Suffering (1984) by psychoanalyst Natalie Shainess portrayed the masochistic role among females as very common, almost inevitable in human relationships.

What did Shainess say about women's suffering? What was Caplan's reaction?

Paula Caplan, who authored The Myth of Women's Masochism (1984) responded that this view "does women a profound disservice." She argued that rationalization or acceptance of the masochistic role is an undesirable product of socialization, family upbringing and cultural role models in a male-dominated society. It is not acceptable in male/female relationships. If accepted as normal or inevitable, it becomes a more serious problem.

"Once violence starts, it just goes from bad to worse," warns Mary Haviland, a counselor for battered women in Brooklyn. "Violence begets violence. It always escalates. And if you start your dating life by experiencing and accepting violence, the chances for experiencing terrible violence when you're older are great.

What are typical characteristics of male who assumes a sadist role?

In our culture, the psychological sadist in a lopsided relationship is typically (but not always) a male. He is likely to believe in traditional values and male superiority over women. Fromm describes a psychological sadist as one who commands, exploits, hurts and humiliates the partner. A psychological sadist often shows the world a hard exterior. If male, he is likely to be macho, physically impressive, or just tough. Ironically, this may indicate an insecure streak.

The family background of the psychological sadist often includes alcoholism, divorce, or constant fights between family members. One might speculate that this creates a compensating drive to be strong and avoid being vulnerable or abandoned.

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