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Berliner, B. (1958). The Role of Object Relations in Moral Masochism. Psychoanal Q., 27:38-56.

(1958). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 27:38-56

The Role of Object Relations in Moral Masochism

Bernhard Berliner, Ph.D.


'Moral masochism' is used in this paper as a general term for those forms in which masochism appears as a 'norm of behavior' (6) in contradistinction to masochistic sexual perversion or 'sexual masochism'. Freud defined moral masochism as the form that has 'loosened its connection with what we recognize to be sexuality', in which 'it is the suffering itself that matters'. However, the motivation is found in an unconscious feeling of guilt or need for punishment by some parental authority. Freud concludes that the Oedipus complex is regressively reactivated and morality is resexualized. Libido is after all the driving force in moral masochism as well as in sexual perversion.

However, there are forms of nonsexual masochistic behavior in which a need for punishment in terms of the Oedipus complex does not appear to be the primary motivating force and in which 'morality' is not manifestly involved. Other terms have therefore been proposed, such as 'social masochism' (Theodor Reik) or 'neurotic masochism' (Otto Sperling) or 'psychic masochism' (Edmund Bergler). In searching for more elementary psychodynamic mechanisms I find it impossible to draw a line of demarcation with regard to forces of morality. As the term 'moral masochism' has long been in general use and has outgrown the original narrower definition I see no reason not to apply it to all 'nonsexual' masochistic phenomena.

In psychoanalytic practice, however, the concept of masochism itself has become somewhat clouded because the term is often used for any form of self-inflicted neurotic suffering.

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