Understanding the Causes of Sadomasochism,
In Intimate Relationships as in Social Structures
An Ethical View of Life Widens One’s Horizons
An Editorial Note
Life implies a degree of suffering. “Pain” or “Dukkha” corresponds to the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. However, there is an unnecessary attachment to pain in human soul, and there may even exist a desire to cause suffering, whether to oneself or to others. Such a double impulse is often involuntary. Human individuals learn to get rid of such a disease as they search for wisdom and happiness.
Masochism is entirely different from self-sacrifice. A generous renunciation to comfort belongs to the higher self and implies an indifference to personal pain or pleasure. Such a stoic attitude is ethically and philosophically correct. It is theosophical. It produces equilibrium. Attachment or rejection to pain or to pleasure, on the other hand, are both expressions of spiritual ignorance and threaten the individual’s emotional balance.
This set of unhealthy impulses is at the root of all systematic hatred among nations. It explains wars, long and short. It marks many a social movement and political conflict. It is present in struggles involving the conquest of “political power” within the modern theosophical movement. Conventional religious devotion often has a sadistic or masochist trend which stimulates religious conflicts, violence and intolerance, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Satisfaction in pain is not exclusively social: Erich Fromm shows that no family or marriage is easily free from attachment to suffering as a cause of false satisfaction. And freedom comes from understanding its whole process.
The following text by Erich Fromm is a fragment of his 1941 extraordinary book “Escape from Freedom”.  It discusses the individual and collective “pleasure” involved in inflicting pain to others or in feeling pain oneself.
In order to make a deeper reading easier, we have divided longer paragraphs into shorter ones.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
Freedom from Attachment to Pain
The first mechanism of escape from freedom I am going to deal with is the tendency to give up the independence of one’s own individual self and to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking. Or, to put it in different words, to seek for new, “secondary bonds” as a substitute for the primary bonds which have been lost.
The more distinct forms of this mechanism are to be found in the striving for submission and domination, or, as we would rather put it, in the masochistic and sadistic strivings as they exist in varying degrees in normal and neurotic persons respectively. We shall first describe these tendencies and then try to show that both of them are an escape from an unbearable aloneness.
The most frequent forms in which masochistic strivings appear are feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, individual insignificance. The analysis of persons who are obsessed by these feelings shows that, while they consciously complain about these feelings and want to get rid of them, unconsciously some power within themselves drives them to feel inferior or insignificant. Their feelings are more than realizations of actual shortcomings and weaknesses (although they are usually rationalized as though they were); these persons show a tendency to belittle themselves, to make themselves weak, and not to master things.
Quite regularly these people show a marked dependence on powers outside themselves, on other people, or institutions, or nature. They tend not to assert themselves, not to do what they want, but to submit to the factual or alleged orders of these outside forces. Often they are quite incapable of experiencing the feeling “I want” or “I am”. Life, as a whole, is felt by them as something overwhelmingly powerful, which they cannot master or control.
In the more extreme cases – and there are many – one finds besides these tendencies to belittle oneself and to submit to outside forces a tendency to hurt oneself and to make oneself suffer.
This tendency can assume various forms. We find that there are people who indulge in self-accusation and self-criticism which even their worst enemies would scarcely bring against them. There are others, such as certain compulsive neurotics, who tend to torture themselves with compulsory rites and thoughts. In a certain type of neurotic personality we find a tendency to become physically ill, and to wait, consciously or unconsciously, for an illness as if it were a gift of the gods.
Often they incur accidents which would not have happened had there not been at work an unconscious tendency to incur them. These tendencies directed against themselves are often revealed in still less overt or dramatic forms. For instance, there are persons who are incapable of answering questions in an examination when the answers are very well known to them at the time of the examination and even afterwards. There are others who say things which antagonize those whom they love or on whom they are dependent, although actually they feel friendly toward them and did not intend to say those things. With such people, it almost seems as if they were following advice given them by an enemy to behave in such a way as to be most detrimental to themselves.
The masochistic trends are often felt as plainly pathological or irrational. More frequently they are rationalized. Masochistic dependency is conceived as love or loyalty, inferiority feelings as an adequate expression of actual shortcomings, and one’s suffering as being entirely due to unchangeable circumstances.
Besides these masochistic trends, the very opposite of them, namely, sadistic tendencies, are regularly to be found in the same kind of characters. They vary in strength, are more or less conscious, yet they are never missing. We find three kinds of sadistic tendencies, more or less closely knit together.
One is to make others dependent on oneself and to have absolute and unrestricted power over them, so as to make of them nothing but instruments, “clay in the potter’s hand”.
Another consists of the impulse not only to rule over others in this absolute fashion, but to exploit them, to use them, to steal from them, to disembowel them, and, so to speak, to incorporate anything eatable in them. This desire can refer to material things as well as to immaterial ones, such as the emotional or intellectual qualities a person has to offer.
A third kind of sadistic tendency is the wish to make others suffer or to see them suffer. This suffering can be physical, but more often it is mental suffering. Its aim is to hurt actively, to humiliate, embarrass others, or to see them in embarrassing and humiliating situations.
Sadistic tendencies for obvious reasons are usually less conscious and more rationalized than the socially more harmless masochistic trends. Often they are entirely covered up by reaction formations of overgoodness or overconcern for others. Some of the most frequent rationalizations are the following: “I rule over you because I know what is best for you, and in your own interest you should follow me without opposition.” Or, “I am so wonderful and unique, that I have a right to expect that other people become dependent on me.”
Another rationalization which often covers the exploiting tendencies is:
“I have done so much for you, and now I am entitled to take from you what I want.”
The more aggressive kind of sadistic impulses finds its most frequent rationalization in two forms: “I have been hurt by others and my wish to hurt them is nothing but retaliation”, or, “By striking first I am defending myself or my friends against the danger of being hurt”.
There is one factor in the relationship of the sadistic person to the object of his sadism which is often neglected and therefore deserves especial emphasis here: his dependence on the object of his sadism.
While the masochistic person’s dependence is obvious, our expectation with regard to the sadistic person is just the reverse: he seems so strong and domineering, and the object of his sadism so weak and submissive, that it is difficult to think of the strong one as being dependent on the one over whom he rules. And yet close analysis shows that this is true.
The sadist needs the person over whom he rules, he needs him very badly, since his own feeling of strength is rooted in the fact that he is the master over someone. This dependence may be entirely unconscious. Thus, for example, a man may treat his wife very sadistically and tell her repeatedly that she can leave the house any day and that he would be only too glad if she did. Often she will be so crushed that she will not dare to make an attempt to leave, and therefore they both will continue to believe that what he says is true.
But if she musters up enough courage to declare that she will leave him, something quite unexpected to both of them may happen: he will become desperate, break down, and beg her not to leave him; he will say he cannot live without her, and will declare how much he loves her and so on. Usually, being afraid of asserting herself anyhow, she will be prone to believe him, change her decision and stay. At this point the play starts again. He resumes his old behaviour, she finds it increasingly difficult to stay with him, explodes again, he breaks down again, she stays, and so on and on many times.
There are thousands upon thousands of marriages and other personal relationships in which this cycle is repeated again and again, and the magic circle is never broken through. Did he lie when he said he loved her so much that he could not live without her? As far as love is concerned, it all depends on what one means by love. As far as his assertion goes that he could not live without her, it is – of course not taking it literally -perfectly true. He cannot live without her – or at least without someone else whom he feels to be the helpless instrument in his hands.
While in such a case feelings of love appear only when the relationship threatens to be dissolved, in other cases the sadistic person quite manifestly “loves” those over whom he feels power. Whether it is his wife, his child, an assistant, a waiter, or a beggar on the street, there is a feeling of “love” and even gratitude for those objects of his domination. He may think that he wishes to dominate their lives because he loves them so much. He actually “loves” them because he dominates them. He bribes them with material things, with praise, assurances of love, the display of wit and brilliance, or by showing concern. He may give them everything – everything except one thing: the right to be free and independent.
This constellation is often to be found particularly in the relationship of parents and children. There, the attitude of domination – and ownership – is often covered by what seems to be the “natural” concern or feeling of protectiveness for a child. The child is put into a golden cage, it can have everything provided it does not want to leave the cage. The result of this is often a profound fear of love on the part of the child when he grows up, as “love” to him implies being caught and blocked in his own quest for freedom.
 “Escape from Freedom”, by Erich Fromm, Rinehart & Company, New York – Toronto, 1941, 305 pp. The fragment is on pp. 141-147 and belongs to the item “Authoritarianism”, which is part of chapter V, entitled “Mechanisms of Escape”. We have compared the 1941 edition with the 1965 edition of “Escape from Freedom”, Avon Books, Discus Books, 333 pp.
See also the text “Love Without Violence”, by Erich Fromm, which is available at our associated websites.
On the role of the esoteric movement in the ethical awakening of mankind during the 21st century, see the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline.
Published in 2013 by The Aquarian Theosophist, the volume has 255 pages and can be obtained through Amazon Books.