Do Some Abuse Victims Have a “Need” to Suffer?
We have considered recommending the book Toxic Relationships and How to Change Them by Clinton McLemore. It is valuable for presenting certain types and styles of personalities that are, as the author puts it, toxic. This is the only book, for example, that we have found which identifies and discusses two types of toxic personality style which the author calls the Drifter and the Freeloader. So we would still recommend it, but with the following caveat. Listen to this excerpt from the book (pp 182-183) and then we will make some observations:
Humiliators are forever searching for those individuals who are willing to be dominated, persecuted and demeaned. They attract dependent people who have an unconscious need for abasement. The psychological qualities that draw another person toward a Humiliator, such as the willingness to grant others oppressive power and the need to suffer in silence, are the very same ones the make it more likely for the humiliation to increase.
If the Humiliator is not too oppressive in establishing superiority, the other person may respond with deferential scurrying, in which case the relationship will become stable. You may recall Edith Bunker’s way of relating to her husband, Archie, in the 1970s series All in the Family. This kind of relationship can be established, for example, between a Humiliator and a Scurrier who is closer to being a Drifter than an Avoider. The Humiliator will conclude that he or she has found someone who truly appreciates his or her magnificence.
It is also possible for a stable relationship t o be established on the basis of more aggressive humiliation. A Humiliator who is decidedly sadistic and a Scurrier who is fundamentally masochistic may be compatible. The former will do a great deal of berating, and the latter will spend a lot of energy trying to get the Humiliator to stop, but the relationship may still endure. Many people, both men and women, remain in relationships with partners on the borderline between Humiliating and Victimizing, not because they lack the strength to get away but because they have an unconscious need to be debased and degraded. Though they may say, and believe, that they remain because they are afraid to leave or to press for change, in reality they stay because they need to suffer.
The problem in some cases may be spiritual. Instead of falling on God’s mercy to forgive and save them, they agonize in the unconscious hope that their suffering will atone for their sins. They are, in a sense, reenacting the crucifixion with themselves in the role of Jesus.
It would seem to me that in cases of abuse, these theories could cause great harm. The author presents a scenario in which a kind of sick, yet workable / symbiotic relationship is formed between victim and abuser so that the victim is really getting what he / she wants. (By the way, I would submit that this is exactly the notion that the Fifty Shades of Grey nonsense promotes). McLemore places at least half the blame on the victim for having some self-debasing “need” to suffer.
Well, you can see how this could easily be distorted to place blame squarely on an abuse victim. “Yes, of course she could have left him a long time ago. But she didn’t. She stays because she likes it. He is giving her what she wants.” Many, many abuse victims will hear their abuser in that kind of talk. “She likes what I do to her. She needs it. I am just giving her what she wants. She is a stupid woman and she needs a real man to give her a strong hand.” Right?
What IS really going on in abusive relationships? Confusion. Fog. Deception. Self-doubt. That is why the victim so often stays (in addition to many other factors such as economics, concern for her children, pressure from her church, etc).
Now, if the victim is a Christian, her motives can indeed appear to be coming out of some “need to suffer.” But again, the real motive is confusion, not a desire to be self-degraded. What do I mean? Simply that Christians have been duped by a whole mountain of man-made tradition that parades as Scripture. One of these very damaging and absolutely unbiblical traditions has to do with the Christian and suffering. We have been taught by our churches and pastors and authors and fellow Christians with baggage of their own that God wants us to suffer. That somehow if we will choose to remain in that suffering, God will be pleased. Even when there is a way of escape. That people who suffer can achieve a higher plane of holiness. And, as always, these partial truths turn out to be no truths at all.
When we suffer, we should always try to escape it. Jesus did. Paul did. But many abuse victims have been taught otherwise, with the result that they can (in their confusion) come to believe that it is God’s will that they remain in the abuse and suffer for Jesus. Could there be a victim or two out there who fits McLemore’s theory of craving and needing to be degraded and thus be at least partly culpable for the twisted jointly-parasitic relationship they are in? I suppose so. But this certainly will not be the normal explanation for the mass of abusive relationships. McLemore’s theory should not be embraced as a common explanation for a victim remaining in an abusive environment. It will only add ammo to the abuser’s arsenal and further promote the damaging ignorance that governs the church today regarding abuse.
Also see our post When is Suffering God’s Will for Us?.