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Howell, E.F. (2013). Masochism: A Bridge to the other Side of Abuse (Revised). Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 7(3):231-242.

(2013). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 7(3):231-242


Masochism: A Bridge to the other Side of Abuse (Revised)1

Elizabeth F. Howell, Ph.D.

Masochism”, behaviourally defined as the tendency to be abused, hurt, or humiliated by others or oneself, is a highly controversial term. On the one hand the term usefully describes a recognisable problem in living. A term that accurately refers to a recognisable behaviour and provides a useful, experience-near dynamic formulation is a benefit. On the other hand, the term may connote victim-blaming or be used in a victim-blaming way. Unfortunately, the term masochism, has traditionally come with a dynamic formulation that is experience-distant, humiliating to the person to whom it is ascribed, and in my view, simply wrong. In much of the previous literature, a problematic logic has prevailed, according to which what might be called masochistic strategies for living have been viewed solely in motivational terms, involving the imputation of a desire to be abused, hurt, humiliated, or dominated—presumably because these are found pleasurable. This motivational definition of pleasure in pain has led to a diagnostic dismissal of the abuse and suffering of many people who have been harmed in relationships, or who inordinately hurt or punish themselves. When the pattern that has been called masochism is reframed as an outcome of trauma and dissociation rather than of volition, the person's experience is more understandable. This article presents a view of this pattern as post-traumatic and dissociation-based, emerging from attachment need, specifically attachment to the abuser, and dissociation. This interaction is at the heart of the syndrome. Finally, the article describes how masochism contains the seeds of its own transcendence.

This tendency to be abused, hurt, or humiliated by others or oneself can range across different levels and kinds of psychopathology as well as across a dissociative continuum, from “moral”, or superego-driven masochism, in an otherwise relatively well functioning person, to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), or Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS). The pattern can also characterise certain presentations of borderline personality disorder. It is the author's thesis that despite these differences in severity or type of organisation, all of these presentations are dissociation-based. The overriding formulation of this article is meant to apply to these different levels of dissociative processes and structure and is not limited to DID or DDNOS.

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