Normal Marital Sadism

David Schnarch writes in his book Passionate Marriage:

* When we talk about developing a fuller, deeper understanding of marriage, many people automatically think of unconscious feelings or repressed experiences. We’ve grown accustomed to looking at life’s struggles as a reflection of unconscious processes. When we’re unhappy, we look within ourselves for past traumas that incapacitate us in the present. The notion of uncovering repressed feelings has become synonymous with mental health, as if progressively stripping away façades and unearthing unconscious anxieties will liberate our innate vitality and creativity. In this view, therapy is a method of peeling away the layers of your character like an onion. Often, however, the problem is not a matter of peeling away layers but of developing them—growing ourselves up to be mature and resourceful adults who can solve our current problems. Many marital therapists believe childhood wounds drive marriage, leading us to reenact our family problems with our adult partners. I do not. While I don’t ignore unpleasant childhood experiences, I also don’t believe they are the only or even the strongest factor shaping a marriage. Childhood wounds have their impact, just like parental modeling and social conditioning. I believe other aspects have at least as much—if not more—impact on marriage than our childhood or unconscious processes. These involve how sex and intimacy operate within marriage as a system with rules of its own. (I’ll discuss these shortly.) Misguided emphasis on childhood wounds does more than send couples off in the wrong direction. The resulting “trauma model of life” ignores everything outstanding about our species’ determination to grow and thrive. When Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker said our social “maps” trivialize life and destroy any opportunity to feel heroic, this is an example of what he meant. Likewise, in Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore observes “we like to think that emotional problems have to do with the family, childhood, and trauma —with personal life—but not with spirituality.” Passionate Marriage is about resilience rather than damage, health rather than old wounds, and human potential rather than trauma.

* What’s an example of a crucible in marriage? How about the fact that your spouse can always force you to choose between keeping your integrity and staying married, between “holding onto yourself” and holding onto your partner. These integrity issues often surface around sex and intimacy—about what the two of you will and won’t do together. They can just as easily arise over issues about money, parenting, in-laws, and lifestyle. The more emotionally enmeshed you and your spouse are—fused in my lingo—the more you will push this choice right down to the wire. Stay in the marriage or get divorced. The key is not to lose your nerve or get overreactive or locked into an inflexible position. I know that’s tough when you think your marriage is about to explode—or you’re about to sell out your beliefs, preferences, or dreams. But it’s actually part of the people-growing process in marriage. When you’re oblivious to ways marriage can operate as a people-growing process, all you see are problems and pathology—and the challenges of marriage will probably defeat you. Your pain will have no meaning except failure and disappointment; no richness, no soul. Spirituality is an attitude that reveals life’s meaning through everyday experience; however, don’t bother looking for sanctuary in your marriage. Seeking protection from its pains and pleasures misses its purpose: marriage prepares us to live and love on life’s terms. Facing relationship realities like these produces the personal integrity necessary for intimacy, eroticism, and a lifetime loving marriage. How is integrity relevant to marriage? Integrity is the ability to face the realities I just mentioned. It’s living according to your own values and beliefs in the face of opposition.

Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate into emotional fusion. Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship. In this chapter I’ll discuss several ways differentiation dramatically affects relationships. Here’s the first and most important one: differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you. Differentiation permits you to maintain your own course when lovers, friends, and family pressure you to agree and conform. Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves,” and can disagree without feeling alienated and embittered. They can stay connected with people who disagree with them and still “know who they are.” They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.

* Think of differentiation as a “higher order” process that involves balancing both connection and autonomy… Then you can see that emotional fusion is connection without individuality. Lack of differentiation alienates us from those we love. Emotional fusion deceives us into thinking that we’re not connected and we move away in defense. But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us. Or, unable to turn away, we turn ourselves over to the connection, but it feels engulfing.

* Let me tell you a little more about differentiation… the term actually comes from biology, referring to the ways cells develop. All cells in your body start from essentially the same material, but as they begin to differentiate they take on unique properties and perform separate yet related functions. The greater the differentiation, the more sophisticated and adaptive the life form. More highly evolved forms of life display greater variability in response. Mammals show more variable reactions than amoebae or earthworms. Your fingerprints, voiceprint, and handwriting are examples of highly evolved uniqueness. Biologically and socially, humans represent the most sophisticated differentiation in the world. When you have a wide repertoire of possible responses, you, your family, your business, and our species have increased versatility and adaptability. Fewer resources in well-differentiated families and marriages have to be rigidly devoted to compensate for the inability of any one member to take care of himself/herself. Conversely, there is less need for anyone to sacrifice growth or self-direction to maintain the stability of the family or marriage. Differentiation allows each person to function more independently and interdependently. Families are like multicelled living entities, just as your body is composed of many different cells. Families gain or lose differentiation over generations according to the successful struggles of their members to develop.

* …your level of differentiation, and that of your marriage and family, results from how well you and your parents and grandparents succeeded in becoming well-developed individuals while maintaining emotional contact with the family. Differentiation transcends generations because it is partly about intergenerational boundaries. How strong is the emotional umbilical cord between parents and children, particularly during adolescence and adulthood? Have you had to “run away” to other parts of the country to buffer your parents’ impact on you (like Joan’s brother)? Have family members cut off from each other instead of separating emotionally but staying in touch? Do emotional bonds in your family choke its members development? Joan’s comment that “blood is thicker than water” actually describes emotional fusion rather than loyalty. Meaningful sacrifice involves free choices rather than emotional entanglements and guilt. When families (and marriages) have the use of us, there’s no choice involved.

* When people pick marriage partners, it’s not uncommon to pick someone whose family tried the opposite way of dealing with emotional fusion—but who was no more successful.

* Bill and Joan also illustrate why emotional fusion is so tenacious: borrowed functioning. Basically differentiation refers to your core “solid self,” the level of development you can maintain independent of shifting circumstances in your relationship. However, you can appear more (or less) differentiated than you really are, depending on your marriage’s current state. Borrowed functioning artificially inflates (or deflates) your functioning. Your “pseudo self” can be pumped up through emotional fusion, which makes poorly differentiated people doggedly hang onto each other. Two people in different relationships can appear to function at the same level although they have achieved different levels of differentiation. The difference is that the better differentiated one will more consistently function well even when the partner isn’t being supportive or encouraging.

* When we need to be needed and can’t settle for being wanted, we perpetuate poor functioning in our partner to maintain borrowed functioning. Superficially we may look like we’re encouraging our partner’s autonomous functioning, but in truth we suppress it on a daily basis. Borrowed functioning differs from “mutual support” because it artificially suppresses the functioning of one partner while it enhances functioning in the other. It feels good—as long as you’re on the side that is inflated by the borrowed functioning. We all experience a difference between our level of functioning when we support ourselves versus when we are emotionally supported by someone else. The wider this difference is, the more our elevated functioning is not a reflection of our “real” self—not without a partner serving as a booster rocket. We latch onto people with whom we function better. Often we call this “finding someone who brings out the best in us”—but it’s still borrowed functioning. Since differentiation is a complex process that is easily misunderstood, let me offer several important clarifications:

People screaming, “I got to be me!” “Don’t fence me in!” and “I need space!” are not highly differentiated. Just the opposite. They are fearful of “disappearing” in a relationship and do things to avoid their partner’s emotional engulfment. Some create distance; others keep their relationship in constant upheaval. Declaring your boundaries is an important early step in the differentiation process, but it’s done in the context of staying in relationship (that is, close proximity and restricted space). This is quite different from poorly differentiated people who attempt to always “keep the door open” and who bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up. The process of holding onto your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your differentiation. Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when your partner is away or when you are not in a primary love relationship. You value contact, but you don’t fall apart when you’re alone. Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism,” which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connection. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy or independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partners’ needs and priorities into account. As we discussed earlier, differentiation is the ability to balance individuality and togetherness. The differentiated self is solid but permeable, allowing you to remain close even when your partner tries to mold or manipulate you. When you have a solid core of values and beliefs, you can change without losing your identity. You can permit yourself to be influenced by others, changing as new information and shifting circumstances warrant. Realize, however, that this flexible sense of identity develops slowly, out of soul-searching deliberation—not by simply adapting to situations or the wishes of others. Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions. You can connect with your partner without fear of being swept up in his or her emotions. You can evaluate your emotions (and your partner’s) both subjectively and objectively. You have feelings, but they don’t control you or define your sense of self. The self-determination of differentiation doesn’t imply selfishness. Differentiation is not about always putting yourself ahead of everyone else. You can choose to be guided by your partner’s best interests, even at the price of your individual agenda. But it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re being ruled by others’ needs. As you become more differentiated, you recognize those you love are separate people—just like you. What they want for themselves becomes as important to you as what you want for yourself. You value their interests on a par with yours. You can see merit in their positions, even when they contradict or interfere with your own. What I’m describing is called mutuality. Differentiation is the key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship: going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partner’s happiness and well-being. When you’ve reached a high level of differentiation, your view of conflict in relationships shifts dramatically. “What I want for myself versus what you want for you” shifts to “What I want for myself versus my wanting for you what you want for yourself.” If you talk your partner out of what he or she wants so you can have your way, you lose. When you participate in the agendas of those you love and sacrifice out of your own differentiation, it enhances your sense of self rather than leaving you feeling like you have sold yourself out.

* First, we emerge from our family of origin at about the highest level of differentiation our parents achieved. Our basic level of differentiation is pretty much established by adolescence and can remain at that level for life. In the process of regulating their own emotions, poorly differentiated parents pressure their children for togetherness or distance, which stops children from developing their ability to think, feel, and act for themselves. They learn to conduct themselves only in reaction to others. Raising our level of differentiation is not easy. We can raise it through concentrated effort (like therapy) or crisis (as commonly occurs in the course
of marriage, family, friendship, and career). In general, though, the level of differentiation in a family tends to stay relatively the same from one generation to the next. It changes only when a family member is motivated to differentiate him- or herself enough to rewrite the family’s legacy. This reality differs from the popular belief that your spouse is supposed to pull you out of your family’s grasp. Eventually, your partner’s grasp seems most important to loosen!

Second, we always pick a marital partner who’s at the same level of differentiation as we are. If partners are not at the same level of differentiation, the relationship usually breaks up early. Sometimes one partner is a half-step farther along than the other—but it’s only a half-step. The fantasy that you’re “much farther along” than your spouse is just that—a fantasy. If you and your partner argue over who’s healthier or more evolved, you’ll be interested in three important implications: You have about the same tolerance for intimacy, although you may express it differently. You and your spouse make splendid sparring partners because you have roughly the same level of differentiation. Assume you are emotional “equals” even if you’d like to believe otherwise. If you want to discover important but difficult truths hidden in your marriage, stop assuming you’re more differentiated than your partner. Look at things from the view that you’re at the same level and you’ll soon see the trade-offs in your relationship.

* The many small steps toward core transformation involve more than a self-indulgent search to “find yourself.” Solitary pilgrimages can lead to discoveries, but so can staying with your partner. The end result can bring you the best of what life offers, but that doesn’t mean the process feels good. No one ever wants to differentiate. You’ll probably do it for the same reasons most people do: differentiating eventually becomes less painful than other alternatives. It’s what Gloria Steinem referred to as outrageous acts of heroism in everyday life. So although becoming more differentiated makes your life less painful, it will not be pain-free. The very process of differentiation can be excruciating at times. Loving is both beautiful and painful. Differentiation offers the ability to tolerate it, enjoy it, and see its meaning. Psychotherapy can do many things. It can aid poorly functioning people and assist those who seek self-knowledge. It can help us affirm ourselves, raise our self-esteem, and remove constricting guilt, doubt, and despair. We function more effectively and efficiently when we’re less fragmented and bottled up. But there are many things psychotherapy cannot do. Psychotherapy can “free you up” but it can’t give you joy—something Freud well understood, but which we rarely understand about Freud. We’ve promised ourselves paradise through self-knowledge: love, sex, and transcendence will be easy once we know ourselves and our partner. But that’s often when you need to soothe your own heart and calm your own anxieties to take care of yourself. That’s what differentiation offers. By now the paradoxes of differentiation should be clear: while differentiation allows us to set ourselves apart from others and determines how far apart we sit, it also opens the space for true togetherness. It’s about getting closer and more distinct—rather than more distant.

* How can you tell the married couples in a restaurant? I’ve posed this question to audiences in different cultures and the response is always the same: there’s a long pause for introspection, then the sudden realization, “They don’t talk to each other!” “And how do you know the couples who are dating?” The universal answers come quick, now that they’ve got a frame of reference. “They talk to each other!” “They look into each other’s eyes!” Some responses sound wistful. “They touch!!” “They still drink beer together!” (That last one rang a bell with many Australians, although it was new to me.) Too often new couples talk nonstop while long-married couples sit in silence. As we discussed in Chapter 2, when you haven’t achieved much differentiation, you depend on validation from others and you look in their eyes for your sense of self. When you’re dating, conversation is designed to reduce anxieties about being rejected and keep open the possibility of a lasting relationship. You search for commonalities and things you agree about. Discussing differences can create awkward silences—not a great strategy if you want a second date. Young couples gab like magpies because they’re stroking and reinforcing each other in their quest for commonality and union. The next question I ask audiences is “Why aren’t the married couples talking?” Responses are usually slow again. Audience members seem to be thinking, “Why don’t we talk?!” The answers trickle in. “They have nothing to say to each other.” “They’ve said it all.” Some are more idealistic: “They know each other so well, nothing needs to be said.” Then I point out that the silence is more often icy cold than warm and relaxed. This is not the quiet of long-term intimates. Immediately, people see what I’m driving at: we experience this marital silence as alienation and failed communication. Ask yourself the same question: “Why aren’t the married couples talking?” If you’re married, you know from personal experience that “they’ve said it all” isn’t true. Important things are yet to be said—so why do they remain silent? When I ask this question a second time, a few in every audience eventually call out a difficult truth: “They don’t want to hear what the partner has to say!” Now here’s the million-dollar question: “How do you know you don’t want to hear what your partner has to say?” The answer is: “Because you already know!” What we call “lack of communication” is often just the opposite: if you truly “can’t communicate,” you wouldn’t know that you don’t want to hear what your partner has to say. The silence of married couples is testimony to their good communication: each spouse knows the other doesn’t want to hear what’s on his or her mind!

* We all have a nasty side. Not the “dirty sex” type of nasty (which so many cannot harness). Nasty, as in “You’re not a very good person.” There’s a side to all of us that’s bad—evil. All of us have a touch of it; some have more. We all torment those we love while feigning unawareness. Marriage is perhaps the place we do it most frequently—and with impunity. We withhold the sweetness of sex and intimacy while acting like we want to please—and in the course of this deceit, we pervert our sexual potential. Early American philosopher Thomas Paine said that infidelity (as in “religious infidel”) is not about what we do or don’t believe—it’s professing to believe what we do not. Jokes about marriage and masochism abound, but we rarely acknowledge marital sadism. “Snorgasms” (“I’ve had my orgasm; good luck getting yours!”) and lousy oral sex may originate in ignorance, but they are perfected within marriage. The long-term marital relationship is where you learn to screw your partner two ways at once—withholding the erotic gratification he craves while having sex with him. J. P. McEvoy said, “The Japanese have a word for it. It’s judo—the art of conquering by yielding. The Western equivalent of judo is, ‘Yes, dear.’”

The American Psychiatric Association glossary defines sadism as “pleasure derived from inflicting physical or psychological pain or abuse on others. The sexual significance of sadistic wishes or behavior may be conscious or unconscious. When necessary for sexual gratification, [it is] classifiable as a sexual deviation.” The Association also considered (and then dropped) a diagnostic category of “sadistic personality disorder.” The criteria included (a) humiliating and demeaning others, (b) lying to inflict pain, (c) restricting the autonomy of people in close relationships, and (d) getting others to comply through intimidation. Apparently, the psychiatrists favoring this diagnostic category considered marital sadism to be normal: the diagnosis wasn’t applicable if sadistic behavior was directed toward one person, such as your spouse.

If given the chance, spouses (hesitantly) acknowledge hating their partner. They seem relieved to admit it—as long as they’re not sitting next to their spouse when they do. But exactly this kind of difficult face-to-face acknowledgment enhances differentiation and reduces normal marital sadism. Author Stella Gibbons has written, “There must be a dumb, dark, dull, bitter belly-tension between a man and a woman. How else could this be achieved save in the long monotony of marriage?” In my workshops and public lectures I discuss marital hatred. Audience members laugh nervously, realizing they are in a sea of nervous smiles.

Most of us feel it’s okay to be angry, angry, angry at our partner—as long as we don’t hate him or her. Labeling what we feel as hatred can seem like crossing a line beyond which love cannot exist. Hating is to anger as fucking is to sex. It makes us nervous to do either one. Lots of people act like they’re ignorant of both. More of us know more about hating than fucking. Sometimes we hate our spouses because we love them. Our love makes us vulnerable to what they can do to us, what they can do to themselves, and what can befall them (and, indirectly, us). We deny our hatred because it hurts our narcissism and makes us feel unlovable (but it’s apparently okay as long we’re “blind”—that’s normal marital sadism). Why do we attempt to deny when we feel hatred? The superficial reason is that most of us are taught that it’s bad, bad, bad to hate. But there’s something deeper: children (and immature adults) can’t tolerate the powerful tension of ambivalence towards those they love. Many people believe, “You can’t love and hate the same person at the same time.” They believe: “If you love me, you can’t hate me.” “If you hate me, you can’t love me.” “If I hate you, I must not love you.” “If I love you, then I can’t hate you.”

The fact is, people who cannot acknowledge their hatred are most pernicious to those they “love.” One cannot control what one won’t acknowledge exists. Mature adults have the strength to recognize and own their ambivalent feelings towards their partner. They self-soothe the tension of loving and hating the same person at the same time—and the fact that their partner feels similarly. Marriage invites the necessary differentiation: it’s hard tolerating hatred when your marriage is rancorous. But it’s tougher seeing it when everything is going fine. It makes you respect couples who are friends. Marriage helps you realize you’re living with an out-and-out sadist! And then there’s your partner to deal with . . . Normal sadism is observable in every family.

At some point every parent, for one reason or another, withholds the emotional gratification his or her child wants. And at some point, spouses are bound to use torture to achieve their ends. (One husband tortured his family by making them all whine about his procrastination; then he wouldn’t fulfill his commitments because they had complained.)

Emotional fusion fuels and shapes normal marital sadism. You see it when a spouse attacks the partner’s reflected sense of self. Statements like, “If you were good enough, I’d have orgasms . . . or no sexual difficulties . . . or desire for you” are invitations for the partner to feel bad. Or when women fake orgasms and then have contempt for their partner, who feels proud. One variant involves faking not having an orgasm! Women who practice this kind of sadism want the pleasure but don’t want their partner feeling good about it, so when they reach orgasm they hide it. Some husbands do it by blatantly ogling younger women, or sending sexual vibes to their wife’s best friend. Disparate sexual desire is inevitable, but emotional Siamese twins interpret any disparity as sexual incompatibility. It’s better to think of sexual compatibility as having the willingness to use divergent preferences.

Properly managed, you picked the right partner. As commonly managed, disparate desire is a playground for normal marital sadism. Monogamy operates differently at different levels of differentiation. I didn’t know this until I saw it with my clients. We think of monogamy as an ironclad agreement containing no ifs, ands, or buts. But it is really a complex system with rules and dynamics of its own. Differentiation changes monogamy by returning genital ownership to each partner. Emotional Siamese twins act as if their partner’s genitals are communal property. Monogamy is a prison when it’s based on emotional fusion, for fusion shackles desire and prompts withholding as a means of reaffirming emotional boundaries (Chapter 5). But monogamy per se is not the problem. The problem arises when we lack the differentiation necessary for the kind of monogamy we want.

Monogamy between undifferentiated partners creates a sexual monopoly: the partner with the lower desire controls the supply and the price of sex. Deprivation and extortion flourish at low levels of differentiation in ways that dating and open marriage “free markets” won’t allow. Poorly differentiated couples approach monogamy as a promise to each other—and later blame their spouse for their mutual deprivation pact. Some inflict the effects of personal (sexual) difficulties on their spouse. They justify this by citing their partner’s shortcomings or saying, “Look, it’s happening to me, too!” They get so good at inflicting their problems on their partner that they overlook the fact that they enjoy the act of inflicting per se. Some spouses wield monogamy like a bludgeon, battering their partner with their commitment in ways never intended by marriage vows. They say, “You promised to love me for better and for worse—and that includes my (sexual) limitations!” Yes, we all marry “for better and for worse,” but the assumption is that spouses will do everything possible to overcome their limitations—not simply demand their partner put up with them!

Although many of us lack sufficient differentiation for the kind of monogamy we want, the monogamy we have often provides the crucible in which we can develop it. Like a pressure cooker, monogamy harnesses pressures and tensions that produce differentiation. Absence of other sex partners, along with disparate sexual desire and styles, drives spouses toward gridlock. This forces the two-choice dilemma of self-confrontation/self-validation vs. normal marital sadism. This is the process Audrey and Peter were going through—although they hardly appreciated the elegance of it at the time.

Monogamy operates differently in highly differentiated couples: it stops being a ponderous commitment to one’s partner (or “the relationship”) and becomes a commitment to oneself. The relationship is driven more by personal integrity and mutual respect than by reciprocal deprivation or bludgeoning. It’s no longer your partner’s fault you don’t have sex with other people; it’s part of your decision to be monogamous. And the pressures of disparate sexual desire come with your decision, too. Having an affair becomes more a self-betrayal than a betrayal of your partner (since you promised yourself and not him). That same integrity supports the self-validated intimacy necessary to keep your sexual relationship alive and growing. You feel less controlled by your spouse, and less motivated to have an affair. That’s fortunate, because it’s also not safe to have affairs or withold from a partner whose integrity runs his monogamy: if he won’t tolerate adultery or sexual laziness from himself, he’s not likely to tolerate either one from you. There is less room to offer mercy fucks—and no reason to believe they’d be accepted.

I first learned the term mercy fuck from a client. Couples intuitively recognize that it refers to, “I’ll do you a BIG favor. I really don’t want sex or you. But if you insist, I’ll accommodate you. You can use my body—and you’d better appreciate it!” Normal marital sadism surfaces in gifts given or received that are never quite right. Mercy fucking withholds the sweetness of sex, breaks your partner’s heart (if he or she catches on), and leaves little recourse. You let your partner climb on top of you to get him off your back. The goal isn’t doing your partner—it’s getting done with it so you don’t have to do it tomorrow

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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