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Women - Why do they put up with abuse?

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 36 - January 1999

Although I have worked as a psychotherapist for more than 30 years, I must admit that there are many things about women that I just don't understand. Many of my patients are women caught in terrible, unhappy love stories. Some of these events I listen to as part of my job are totally incomprehensible to me.

The strangest stories involve women who for some reason or other choose men who mistreat them. Often these women are talented, attractive and really could have a wide choice of partners, yet they seem determined to select a man who is destined to make their life miserable.

Yes, perhaps for many that is the purpose of their weird choice. "If I am suffering so much, this must be true love" is the hidden agenda here. Let me give you some examples – Janet is a petite, educated, very cute women in her mid-twenties with quite a good job. She lives with Tom, who is three years younger, unemployed and an alcoholic.

Often he goes out on the town and returns home drunk with one of his buddies. It often happens that one or both of them pass out on the living room floor in their own vomit. Naturally, when Janet returns from work the next day, she cleans up the mess. Now she is eight months pregnant, and having decided to more to a larger flat, she had to drag the furniture up two flights of stairs since Tom was too inebriated to help her on moving day. A nightmare of a life! Yet, if I were to suggest to her in any way that she might do better elsewhere, I know what happens – she'll leave me and end therapy.

This is always the result of direct or even indirect hints in that direction; I know it well because in my early days as a practitioner I was often clumsy enough to just bluntly react – sounds pretty awful, why don't you leave this jerk?

Another woman, Sara, is regularly beaten by her husband Jake. She has no intention of leaving him however; the reason she consulted me was simply to discover WHY he behaves in this way. One day I was so annoyed by her acceptance of this condition that I blurted out: you know, it isn't really so important WHY he beats you; the more interesting question is what do you want to do about it?

But of course that only alienated her from me, and shortly thereafter she stopped coming to my office.

Now, of course there is a generic name for this sort of self-destructive behaviour: Freud called it feminine masochism. Now I know that among some female theorists this term is taboo, but banning the term doesn't eliminate the problem! Not using the word "cancer" will not do away with that disorder either, so there's no logical reason not to continue using concepts that have a useful descriptive value.

According to Freud, there are three kinds of masochism: erotogenic masochism in which lust is found in pain; moral masochism is a condition in which a person goes through life consumed with guilt, usually without cause. Now feminine masochism is the type most readily observed in everyday experience as the above-cited examples show. I'm sure that most of my readers have some knowledge of the prevalence of this phenomenon. This is not to claim, of course, that all women suffer from this warped life style, but certainly a substantial percentage manifest signs of this – let's take a rough estimate and guess around 15-20% of women. Freud argued that feminine masochism has an erotic base which keeps it going, but whether or not it is true, the term definitely describes a form of behaviour which can easily be noticed by any attentive observer.

The truth of Freud's observation can be seen by reading the daily newspaper. When a dangerous criminal makes the front page of the newspaper by robbing a bank or murdering someone, he is sure to receive a large number of admiring love letters from women. One of my former students has worked as a prison psychologist for a decade now, and he writes me whenever an example of this occurs. A few years ago in Sweden a young man murdered three innocent people in the act of stealing their car. He not only received hundreds of letters from love-torn young girls all over the country, one lass actually went to the prison to visit him with a concealed pistol in an attempt to help him escape from gaol. She was apprehended by the police and received a one-year sentence for her love-sick attempt.

The point is that no man ever writes to an unknown woman criminal who hits the headlines, or at least I have never heard of such a case.

So that this type of behaviour seems to be exclusively a female variation. And, of course, often leads to years of unhappiness.

Following are some typical case studies: Beatrice, 39, is a data engineer married to Sid. She comes in with bruises, a black eye, etc. If I ask her "why do you stay with him?" she answers sweetly – "I love him." Sometimes I ask, "what happens after he beats you?" The answer is usually – "we have good sex".

Another example is Laura, a wealthy woman who is also highly educated. She is in her mid 30s, has a Ph.D. in art history and is living with a handsome Greek also in his 30s, a perennial lazy student. One day she had lunch with a male colleague. He found out about this innocent meeting and abused her verbally for hours that evening – "You are a fallen woman!" was one of his classic lines of attack! Then he moved out. Two days later he moved back in, and she was overjoyed.

I'm sure every psychologist gets to see such cases, and for me they are beyond logic. The ability to put up with such mistreatment can only be subsumed under the heading 'feminine masochism', whether one likes the label or not. But as I said at the outset of this article, I don't understand women at all.

What are some of the possible explanations for this bizarre behaviour? One theory is that many women are possessed by what has been termed "the rescue fantasy" – with my true love, I can save him! This is the Florence Nightingale complex, which seldom works in the real world. It's a bit like a young girl picking up a injured bird and mending his broken wing. What a good girl I am!

I admitted right at the beginning that I know very little about women, so I asked a female colleague for her view of this topic. She very smartly said to me – I can tell you why women fall for men who are in jail; it's because they always know where he is! He's not out with another women, or drinking with his friends; no indeed, he's safely in gaol and not running around somewhere. That's where she wants him!

True or not, she was confident in her solution to this age-old problem. But I'm not so sure; I'll continue to ponder this situation and collect more evidence before I risk coming to a conclusion.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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