First I must apologise that a lot of my writing this year has basically been journaling about our life. This was actually suggested to me as a means of getting over my grief at mum’s prolonged illness and death.
Today I want to share a story that has taught me a lot about dealing with masochistic defence. I think I may have discovered some breakthrough ideas on this subject that could have implications for how masochism (similar in many ways to NPD) is understood and treated, so I hope you will bear with my some what long personal tale.
I mentioned recently to someone posting in our support group that standing up to your partner’s poor treatment of you is certainly a good thing to do.
The methods good people use to stand up for themselves in this world, is something I believe we should always be looking to improve in ourselves.”
I have unfortunately had to work on this in our home again recently with Steve, who because of stress from work, alongside rebellion at some boundaries I have recently set had got himself into a mood where his heart really just wanted to hate and be angry at me.
For more on the background story you can read my last post here:
That post gives an overview of the current challenges I am tackling at our place, while today I will drill down and give more specific examples that might hopefully help in your home too.
Someone in our support group wrote recently about really honing in on how best to deal with this kind of negative stuff when it appears and this inspired me to share this story today.
Even though stress levels had improved in our lives – from me helping Steve get caught up with his work – about a week ago I still found that when it came time to plan or make decisions together, Steve was railing against my boundaries and continuing to use impatience and passive aggression while prioritising his needs over everyone else’s.
These issue around decision making in our family are the battle I decided needed fighting two years ago. If my mother hadn’t got sick I might have made progress sooner – but despite all we suffered through that time, it became obvious that impatience and passive aggression around decision making was a problem that wasn’t going to go away without drastic action.
Before I started the restructuring campaign I discussed in my last post at the motel, on the surface Steve had been helping the staff graciously with their work, while behind the scenes painting himself a victim of everyone’s selfishness and uselessness in this regard. He was angry – but it was a pattern and mood he seemed pretty determined to stay stuck in.
I went to work and did all I could to try and relieve Steve’s over burdened workload, and reorganise everyone to not need his help. I also organised an assistant to help Steve’s get his taxes and book work up to date and put a discipline routine in place with our son who had been acting out.
I laid a foundation for change – but in the process unwittingly unmasked a partially hidden yet bottomless well of hate and self pity in Steve.
Taking away any cause for him to feel victimised didn’t free him. Instead he just shifted to acting like it was me rather than the staff who was now victimising and oppressing him.
I usually avoid getting too deep into psychology, but finally had to accept that his continued reluctance to play team with us and particularly with me signified something much deeper than the original problems we had overcome, that still needed to be addressed.
I saw that while Steve had come a long way at overcoming his idealised fantasy world and that he had done a lot to grow up and take responsibility for himself in his role as husband and father, that within him there was still a deep seated addiction to self pity, anger and hate.
Not a demon kind of hate . . . just the ordinary garden variety, where a person really enjoys getting their teeth into how bad things are and how hard done by they are compared to everyone else.
Steve could hide it, but watching and learning from his triggers and looking over our past endeavours taught me that Steve was never really happy unless he had something to blame for making him miserable and that unless I tackled this, it was going to keep undermining every plan we made together.
Even worse, I saw that it was this that was causing him to be almost impossible to make plans with.
Now to be honest, before I saw this and figured out a solution (Steve is happy and feeling free now) I did all the dumb things I have done in the past of letting his passive aggressive attitude hurt me and even provoke some terrible fights.
Here I was meant to be the expert – but I had been worn down and no matter how firmly I tried to set boundaries against his passive aggression, here I was again, eventually allowing him to provoke me and pull our dialogue down to his level of hate.
But no matter how angry he made me I also saw that the hate was in his heart not mine.”
Now although I generally don’t use much psychology in our work I know enough about it to know that Steve’s symptoms were a pretty straightforward example of what is sometimes called masochism or masochistic defence.
So I searched and found a page online about this and said to him, “I think this page might be talking about you.”
The excerpt I had found calls masochists Endurers and included this . . .
The Endurer presents in life as a self-depreciating, self-defeating, and often self torturing or self humiliating individual who seems to have a need to suffer, and in their suffering, torture others. This personality type will have a need to whine, to complain, and a sense of suffering or absence of real joy. They may also at the same time present with a fixed smile which is what they were forced to put on for their parents as a child, and is now unconsciously in them the “expected thing to do”.
Wilhelm Reich noted this personality had a condition known as the “Masochistic morass”. In this dynamic, anyone who tries to help this individual will be defeated and frustrated by the Endurer’s helpless immobility, which in fact is a passive-aggressive stance towards others and towards life itself. In this stance, their disowned rage and anger “leaks out” in passive aggressive way, from non-compliance via inaction, being late, forgetting, simply not answering a question, or a hundred other ways of resisting passively.”
The article continues to explain this dynamic as negatively self-reinforcing. In short, masochists are very skilled at provoking people to victimise them.
To his credit Steve saw himself in this description and at least owned the whining miserable state he was trapping us both in. But still that state he was in didn’t change.
Later when we were alone driving into town I said, “Masochism is all about a person feeling controlled”.
Steve readily agreed that he felt controlled by me. This was tough and the hate he felt was right there on his face. Still I said that I understood.
I explained that masochistic defence (as described in the article) starts in childhood and while I could see he was feeling anger and frustration at me, I could remember times he has felt exactly the same way towards other people.
I reminded him of a few situations from our past where he had felt this same way about people we both know. He still looked bored and angry with me but said he could see the truth in this and agreed.
I then asked him to remember how I raised our kids. Did I force them to eat?
Did I embarrass them about going to the bathroom?
Did I assist and control every aspect of their lives?
“No,” he had to admit I had not done that at all.
Then I asked Steve to remember how it was with his family when he was young. “Did they monitor and control just about every aspect of your life?”
This didn’t break Steve out of defence of course, because of all the defence types this one (and Steve himself) are about the most stubborn you will ever come across. It did set up a foundation however that I felt more solid to defend myself from.
I then asked him if the ways I am controlling might in fact be his masochism reinforcing itself?
For instance,”Is it controlling of me to ask for you to keep your hands on the wheel when you are driving or could that simply be a request that is about me not feeling safe in the car with you? Because you know it makes me nervous, perhaps you might be creating a situation where you force me to nag you?”
He admitted that was probably true but then immediately started acting sleepy behind the wheel. Sleepiness, of course, is another way masochistic defence plays out its passive aggressive resistance.
I asked him to stop the car and took the wheel and let him sleep.
Later I came back to it and explained the only reason I have been so ‘controlling’ is the fact that he hasn’t been prepared to communicate reasonably and plan with me. He has a job and desk and routine still in tact but since mum got sick and my office up the top broken into and my computers stolen I don’t have a desk to work at or secure space to put it and he has done nothing to help me sort that out. Besides being called on to help with unpaid labor and everyone else’s dramas I have no plans in place that would allow me to work independent of needing to discuss our direction now.
Every day I am asking for time to talk and plan, because unlike his situation, without that I have no idea what I am doing except looking after everyone else.
I let him know that I understand the desk problem can’t be solved easily for now – but he needs to accept that if I am in bed working on my laptop he needs to respect that is because it is the only place I can really concentrate and that the kitchen table or other options he has thrown at me impatiently really are not viable.
He admitted he could not work at the kitchen table either.
I was making progress in this conversation and not getting deflated or provoked but Steve’s demeanour was still stuck and the conversation slow and heavy and felt like walking through thick angry goo.
A few times I asked him to look in his heart. He acknowledged that all he could see there was hate, anger and self pity with no vision of a bright future for us to work towards.
I said, “Until that changes and you can see a vision as positive as I do – it won’t be possible for our efforts to end up doing anything but serving your self pity by hurting you.”
I shut up and got out the big guns after this (selling him the idea of him finding a more positive vision) and started showing him inspiring episodes of Hotel Impossible.
After that I said, “look there is not so much wrong with this place except for how Keith messes with us and puts pressure on us all.” Imagine if we called Anthony Melchiorri to come help our motel? Imagine how he would take on Keith!”
Well that broke the ice finally and Steve had a lot of fun with that idea.
Even though everyone told me he is not worth wasting time on, I have spent nearly a week since this conversation negotiating with Keith (Steve’s boss), giving Steve and I a few more cards in our hand and a bit more breathing space in what we do here.
When Steve got out of defence I praised him, but still named the behaviour and set an anchor (Dallas teaches these in Baggage Dumper) saying “When it happens again, instead of letting you provoke me I am going to say “Cheer up Charlie” in a really sweet voice (that he probably doesn’t really deserve) to remind you that being part of a loving team is really a lot more fun than feeling sorry for yourself!”
Most mental health professionals reading this would probably say, “Oh no, look at how controlling you are being! You cannot deal with masochism that way! A masochist needs to want to get better himself and deal with the inner rage he has at his parents (and in Steve’s case Grandparents) that they were so controlling when he was young.”
I understand that line of thinking. It used to really disempower me to deal with this aspect of living with and loving Steve.
The thing I realised after talking about it with Steve, however, is that he actually kind of loved it back when his nan, pa, mum and dad did just about everything for him.
He wasn’t angry at his parents or grandparents, Steve was angry at me for refusing to allow him to force our lives into only revolving around his needs (like his parents and grandparents lives did).
Steve’s rage now is not that they did not adequately prepare him to be independent and take care of himself in an adult manner, but that the world really does expect that of him now.
Rather than insist a person with masochistic tendencies must free themselves, I would say they would be as helpless at achieving this as a bird that has grown up in a cage.
So together Steve and I came up with the idea that I will accept a short list of ways he still wishes to still be cared for as if he was the centre of the universe and I will provide these, where possible, in exchange for him working on a few important areas where I need him to become more of an adult.
Steve absolutely loved that idea and is smiling at me like he loves me again and making plans happily with me now.
What I did wasn’t controlling in any negative sense, instead I took control of a situation that otherwise would have kept hurting us both.
So until I get Keith to agree to the simple renovations we have planned for the motel (which will provide me with desk space to work at) I am back at work in my bed for now, with Steve out and about acting freer and more loving than ever.
But I still have a close eye on him.
From now on, the minute he says something which shows me he is enjoying feeling sorry for himself, I am going to say sweetly, “Cheer up Charlie!”, make him a coco and read him a nice story or two.