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Sadistic Characteristics of Love Life

By Karen Horney (read by Hugh Mullen)

[In this lecture, Hugh Mullen reads Karen Horney’s work on the element of sadism in a love relationship. Topics include:

« Describes the conditions of conditions after marriage, once the first feelings of love have changed. Results in a loss of happiness.

Sadistic trends that may enter a love relationship. Discussion is less of sexual perversions, rather the stress is on "sadistic character in totality through criticism, degrading, and enslaving others."

-Desire to mold another person, based on selfish motives. Master/slave relationship.

-Devices employed to enslave a love partner. Particularly as related to the relationship between an older man and a younger man. Technique of isolation and disparagement to reduce partner to complete dependency.

Uses three literary sources as examples:

Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen
[LibriVox version (2010)]
[1963 TV version of _Hedda Gabler_, starring Ingrid Bergman]
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw
[LibriVox version (2009)]
[Film adaptation (1938)]
The Diary of a Seducer, by Søren Kierkegaard
[Audio recording]

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from

N.B.: Since this transcript is nearly identical to Horney’s 1946 lecture entitled “Sadistic Love,” included as Chapter 8 in The Unknown Karen Horney (2000), Bernard J. Paris’s introduction to this chapter is quoted at bottom.   — AKS]

Sadistic Characteristics of Love Life

NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, April 17, 1950

Good afternoon. This is Dr. Hugh Mullen, speaking to you instead of Dr. Karen Horney, who was unable to be present at this time. This talk on sadistic love is one which was given by Dr. Horney some time ago. This afternoon, I will try to impart her subject matter and her meanings as far as I am able.

Our love life should be, and could be, the source of greatest happiness in our lives, and besides this, it could be instrumental in helping to offset the distressing situations which plague us in our daily struggle for existence in these trying times. For instance, a healthy and productive love life would lessen the consuming competition and rivalries of our time. It could also lessen the fears of failure, and also, finally, it could lessen the subversive and open hostilities which are present in the family today, in the United States, and also the hostilities which are present in society in general.

With a friend, a lover, husband, or wife, we want and need to find peace, understanding, affection, support, sympathy, mutual faith, and respect. Yet all too often, a relationship which apparently begins auspiciously with falling in love, and even with a will to build something good, becomes a source of misery later on. Two people enter a relationship happily and hopefully, but after a while find themselves disappointed and also disillusioned. When that happens, it is almost always the other fellow who is blamed. In my consultations with married couples, I find for example that a wife will complain of her husband’s staying out late and neglecting her, or perhaps for some other grievance. She feels sure that he should be analyzed. Then, when the husband is interviewed, he insists that he is all right, but that his wife is very demanding, nagging, an impossible person to live with, and that she needs psychiatric help.

We observe that many love relationships end in a loss of happiness, and we should like to find a simple answer to this problem, along with a simple remedy. In order not to arouse hopes which later cause disappointments, we may say at once that there is no simple answer, and there is certainly no simple remedy. A sexual or a love relationship cannot be better than the two people entering into it. Each brings his personal difficulties into the mutual situation, and these difficulties operate to disturb the relation.

This afternoon, we are going to discuss one such difficulty: namely, the sadistic trends which may enter into a love relationship. The word “sadistic” will call forth associations with sexual perversions — conditions in which people find sexual satisfaction only when the partner is tied, beaten, or otherwise mistreated. While such tendencies form an interesting aspect of the general problem of sadism, it is not this aspect that we will stress, and this is for two reasons: first of all, perversions are comparatively rare occurrences; and secondly, they are only one among many more important manifestations of the sadistic character. We shall speak, instead, of the sadistic character in totality, and also, in particular, of its tendency to find conscious and unconscious gratification or thrill in criticizing, in degrading, in humiliating, and in enslaving or exploiting the partner. The sadistic person may be driven by a compulsive desire and need to enslave others, especially a love partner. In consequence, his victim will be reduced to the status of a superman’s slave — deprived not only of any independent wishes and feelings, but of making any claims whatsoever upon the superman.

Sometimes, this compulsive drive expresses itself in the impulse to mold or educate the victim. In its most benign state, it may have some constructive aspects, as in the case of parents who mold children, or teachers who mold pupils. More frequently, however, this desire to shape and mold another’s personality is activated by purely selfish motives. These motives stem from a deep-seated neurosis which has existed from childhood, and which has been enlarged upon during adolescence and during early adulthood.

The master-slave aspect is occasionally evident in sexual relations and, as mentioned earlier, many perversions are practiced either actively or imagined, at these times. The function of the perversions is to maintain the false, inhuman relationship by degrading and humiliating the thought-to-be inferior partner. This same general idea might hold true in homosexual relationships involving a younger and an older man. Frequently though not invariably, the sadistic partner in a sexual relationship is haunted by a possessive jealousy, and exercises this jealousy in order to inflict torture. Such involvements are characterized by the fact that keeping a bulldog grip upon the victim is of such vital interest to the sadist than his own life. Consequently, he is inclined to neglect his career, and will even to forgo the pleasures and advantages of meeting other people, rather than permit his partner any degree of independence.

Very characteristic of sadistic impulses are the devices employed to enslave a love partner. These devices vary only within a comparatively limited range, depending upon the neurotic structure of both persons involved. Thus, the enslaved recipient will be given just enough to make the relationship appear worthwhile. And although the sadistic person will fulfill certain of the partner’s needs in a tantalizing, inadequate sort of way, he will at the same time impress upon him the unique quality of what he does give. Through brow-beating and intimidation, he will succeed in convincing his partner that nobody else would be capable of giving him such understanding, such powerful support, so much sexual satisfaction, so many varied interests, et cetera. In fact, who else would tolerate him? All these tactics achieve the desired goal — effectively isolating the partner from all contacts. And when, through the combined pressures of possessiveness on the one hand, and disparagement on the other, he is reduced to a state of complete dependency, then would be the moment selected by the sadist to threaten to leave him.

We can use as illustrative material three pieces of literature: Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and Søren Kierkegaard’s The Diary of a Seducer. You have probably read them, but if not, you can read them later on, or perhaps reread them, if you already know them. Points escaping you this evening may then become mucch more understandable and much more vivid.

From Hedda Gabler, we can learn almost all there is to be learned about sadistic tendencies. Hedda feels bitter resentment toward life because it has not fulfilled any of her expectations, and her resentment toward life is actively turned back onto life, and onto her environment. She actually has all that should make for happiness: security, a home, and a devoted husband; but for inner reasons, she can enjoy nothing. She is intelligent, very attractive, but she cannot love. Her life is actually empty and useless. Her permanent attitude is one of boredom, and beneath her boredom, we see a profound hopelessness. She is like a person who is tied to a tree at the fringe of a beautiful garden full of fruit, food, and water; she can look into the garden, but starves within the sight of its abundance. Although Hedda is unable to get anything out of life, she is by no means resigned. Her desire to participate in the environment about her, however, takes many distorted forms.

It is important understand the intense despair of a person who feels forever excluded from all life has to offer, and who, because of the shriveling of his emotional capacity, is completely cut off. It is important to realize, too, the pervasiveness of his sense of deprivation, bitterness, and despair, because it is the soil in which sadistic trends grow. A desperate inner suffering turns a person sour and venomous towards others. The attitude becomes: “If I can get nothing from life, why should you? I’ll make you pay for my unhappiness.”

In Hedda’s case, the attempt to extract such payment from the people around her takes several characteristic forms. First, she makes endless demands. She must have parties, a new piano, a butler; not because she really wants these things, but in order to make her husband feel guilty for not having supplied them originally. Everything has been prepared her welcome home, but in return, she offers only criticism.

Secondly, Hedda uses every opportunity to humiliate others, and is clever at finding people’s weak spots so that she can wound them even more effectively. In the second act, there is a telling example of this attitude. Her husband’s old aunt has bought a hat to honor Hedda’s arrival, and has left it in the living room. Hedda knows whose hat it is, but she picks it up with this remark: “Look there! the servant has left her old bonnet lying about on a chair.”

Thirdly, Hedda tries always to enslave others, to have them constantly at her beck and call. She shows possessive jealousy, not only toward her husband, but toward an old friend, Ejlert Lövborg. Because another woman has helped him, Hedda drives Lövborg to suicide, and then with savage glee burns the manuscript which was his life’s work. In addition, she intimidates everyone around her; she has the capacity for inducing fears in all; everyone is fearful of not doing what she expects, and Hedda finds fault with everyone and with everything.

Also, she shows an uncanny capacity to sense other people’s wishes, but only to frustrate them — never to fulfill them. She leads people skillfully and drops them at the moment when they will be apt to feel the disappointment most. She goads a man into wanting her, and then turns frigid and tries to make him feel guilty. Finally, Hedda is invariably right; others must be made to feel the blame for any failure, any disaster, any misfortune.

Now, certain sadistic trends can to some extent be attributed to bitter envy, a tendency to devaluate, and consequently, pervasive discontent. Although we understand why the sadist is driven to make greedy demands upon others, to find fault, to frustrate, and even to inflict suffering, we cannot appreciate the degree of his arrogant self-righteousness nor the extent of his destructiveness unless we realize what his hopelessness does in his relationship to himsielf. By this, I mean that the sadist is not related in a healthy fashion to himself.

At the same time that he disregards the most elementary dictates of human decency, he cherishes an idealized image of himself, involving especially high and rigid moral standards. Because he feels woefully unable to live up to such standards, himself, he determines to be as “bad” as possible. This compulsive resolution may even drive him to engage in his badness with a kind of frantic, feverish delight. Having pursued this course, he has succeeded merely in immeasurably widening the gap between his idealized concept of himself and his real self. Consequently, he is imbued with a sense of irretrievable loss and of hopelessness, and plunges into recklessness with a fanatical vigor.

Such a person, it is easy to understand, would be driven to disparage others. Also, the inner logic of his compulsive fanaticism in wishing to reform others — especially his partner — becomes clearer. Because he cannot measure up to his own idealized image, he is determined that his partner shall do so; and the merciless rage that he feels over his own inadequacies — which are many — he will vent upon his partner for any failure in this direction.

To perpetuate these aggressions, and to feel that other people are upset, hurt, agonized, crushed — afford the sadistic person a special kind of satisfaction that, which more often than not is quite unconscious. In a diabolical way, he will sometimes use the “victim’s” reactions as means for further injury. He may, for instance, scold him for being all too easily upset. The satisfaction derived from this pernicious game is a thrill, comparable to the excitement of the hunter or the gambler. While these satisfactions do not bring happiness, they do provide a temporary feeling of being alive, which, owing to the sadist’s emotional barrenness, he otherwise completely lacks.

Going back for a moment to Hedda Gabler, we see nothing of real love here. She is a cold person, with seemingly no other side to her nature. The artist presents only the essentials, and Ibsen has simplified the picture very much. If we translate his account into everyday experience, we find many Hedda Gablers, both male and female, in our community, but either they are not so far gone in sadism as Hedda, or their natures show much more conflict. They will generally feel more need to deceive themselves and others into accepting them as fair, generous, sacrificing, and decent. They will show the same tendency to irritate those around them with endless demands, reproaches, humiliations, and exhibitions of possessive jealousy; but at the same time, they will not be in the least aware of such attitudes, and will probably feel misunderstood, neglected, and also abused. They do show that they possess at least a vision of charity, warmth, and love, though actually they deal with their partners in love in exactly the same way that Hedda does. When the picture of sadism is not so stark, the victim may be even more helpless, and will often feel more guilty, if he does not fulfill any of the exaggerated demands made upon him by the superior partner.

In Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Professor Higgins exemplifies sadistic tendencies very similar to those of Hedda Gabler. Professor Higgins is an elusive, ascetic man, and is emotionally quite dead. He is a person whom we could not possibly associate with the enjoyment of a good show, or a good joke, or a beautiful sunset. We cannot imagine him showing any affection. He is absorbed in his own ambitions, and even this ambition has a negative and cynical goal: it is, mainly, to fool society. Emotionally he is a sort of Zombie, entirely cut off from life — for we live only insofar as we feel, not more, and not less.

In Pygmalion, Professor Higgins tries to turn Eliza Doolittle, an ignorant flower-girl from the London slums, into a lady; and in his behavior towards this girl, we find a repetition of many of Hedda’s attitudes. We see his complete disregard for the girl as a human being with rights of her own; we see the arrogance with which he dominates her, and makes her into a creature who responds to his demands and fulfills his wishes and his ambitions; and we see the cutting impatience of his criticism wherever she does not meet his very exacting requirements.

We could round out this picture, too, and bring it nearer to the experience of everyday life. Then we should have someone who has another side to him, who is at least able to fall in love, and be at times charming and affectionate. Again we should see that there are many Professor Higginses. Such individuals are apt to find themselves attracted to people from lower economic levels—very much the same as in Pygmalion—with little education, or to people who are simply in trouble. To these unfortunates, they offer help, support, advice, and may actually be helpful, to a certain extent; but the help is usually given for the purpose of gaining a thrill in the power to rescue, to educate, or to mold another human being. They are immediately mortified when the creature they create shows signs of independence, or of attempts to enter into a real relationship with them, on terms of equality.

The Diary of a Seducer, by Søren Kierkegaard, tells the story of a sophisticated man who succeeds in seducing a girl who is a virgin. All his plans and thoughts are directed towards persuading this girl to yield to him. Every move he makes is carefully schemed to the last detail, and considered in the light of its possible effect on her: for instance, he may decide to keep her waiting five minutes, to see her, not to see her—it is all minutely mapped out. In this “seducer,” we see another example of a man who lives in his reason, a man for whom even physical desire is bare, meager, and completely intellectual. What he enjoys is the power he has to attract, and then reject; to arouse, and then disappoint another human being. He shows a completely callous disregard of what his attitude may mean to the girl. He is absorbed in the thrill of stimulating her sexually and then frustrating her, building her hopes and then crushing them, keeping her apprehensive of a break, and withdrawing at the exact point to cause the greatest suffering.

In translating this third case into actual life, I am reminded of a patient of mine who believed himself madly in love with a girl, and who spent most of his time and thoughts in attempts to possess her. One side of his nature was unfeeling and calculating, yet he seemed very much in love. The girl on her part was obviously playing cat-and-mouse — and she continued, over a great number of months, to continue this cat-and-mouse game. I told him that there was nothing of love in his attitude towards this girl, though he did feel sexual desire. He later accepted and confirmed my interpretation. He confessed that though he finally proposed to the girl — and was refused — he had not given a thought to the possible development of such a relationship, to how it would work out and to what it would require of him. He had no thought further than to the moment when he would possess the girl, sexually. He pictured how he would enjoy tying and beating her.

There you have the sadist! Attracting and rejecting; arousing and disappointing. By such means he is able to gain absolute power, and to feel the thrill which is so necessary to him, because he cannot really love or enjoy anything. A less neurotic individual, who is happy and productive, does not have this absolute need for thrills and for excitement.

Now, what kind of people are these sadists? Very egotistical, you would probably say, and I certainly would agree with you. But it is an egotism of its own kind. It differs from the egotism we find in the wonderful study of a neurotic, What Makes Sammy Run? Sammy has simply no feeling for human relations. No moral values exist for him. All he wants is to make a career. Though he does step over people, it does not bother him, it does not even interest him, nor does it thrill him. The only thing that can excite him is to go a step ahead in his career. The egotism of the sadist differs also from that of a pleasure-loving person who only wants a good cigar, good food, good wine, and who does not mean to be bothered with anything else. Such a person is egotistical, but he can still enjoy something of life.

Or one could say that sadistic people are hostile. This is certainly true. They no doubt have a great deal of hostility — but it, too, is of a special kind. We are all hostile at times. If someone hurts us, or attempts to interfere with our work or purposes, or commits an injustice, we all react with hostility. This is reactive hostility. But sadistic people are fascinated by their power to hurt, exploit, enslave, and to humiliate. Their attitude is quite different from reactive hostility. André Maurois describes their uncanny intuition for discovering exactly where others are the most vulnerable. He states, “X-rays which reveal the straw which breaks the beam’s stability,’ and this means that sadistic people are able to make unerringly, point out, find, and use the other’s vulnerable spots.

Why don’t we call these people simply mean? Well, they are mean, or they do have mean streaks; but they are not born mean, and I think no one is. They have become mean through crushing experiences in their childhood. They have suffered not only too little respect and love, but in a positive way, they have suffered too many humiliations. Their experiences have left them determined to get even with the world. For most of them, there is also another side—a side which wants to be decent and fair—opposed to the desire for revenge. It is somewhat like the problem of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They have become so entangled in the conflict that they feel completely shut off from life. They go empty-handed. And that is why they want to get even with those who have humiliated them.

So, we might call them vindictive people. Yes, if one single term which can describe the special quality of sadistic trends, it is vindictiveness — vindictiveness certainly comes nearest. They need to avenge themselves on two scores: on the one hand, for what they have gone through in childhood, experiences which have greatly undermined their pride and self-respect; on the other hand, for what these experiences have done to them, and are perpetually doing to them, in the present. What sustains the sadist’s attitude and makes it poignant is his further development, the distant end result of the early humiliations, the stifling and shriveling of his emotional life, the inner despair over himself. In spite of any surface bravado, he has given himself up as a bad and a hopeless job. He does not expect, and in many cases, defiantly, does not even want, what life has to offer.

From this basis of bitter envy, resentment, and despair, he has come to want only two things: these are, first, to get even, and secondly, the enjoyment of vindictive triumphs. As he cannot enjoy anything, he must ruin others’ enjoyment. As he cannot feel pleasurable anticipation, he will mar the hopes and anticipations of others. And, as he has lost his pride and self-respect, he will constantly attempt to humiliate other people’s dignity as human beings, and degrade them into mere creatures whom he dominates and exploits. In spite of an aura of righteousness, he feels guilty; and therefore he must make others feel guilty constantly. His desire for vindictive triumph shows itself in a determination to gain a victory over all who have frustrated him, and also in a restless drive to excel. In some respects, the fairy tale of “Cinderella”—her early humiliations at the hands of her step-sisters, and her final triumph over them, illustrates this aspect of sadistic trends — the need to excel over others.

However, the sadist’s desire for revenge is not merely expressions of his bitterness and resentment. It is also something else, and this is what makes it strong: it is his way of solving all of his problems. He regains his lost pride by crushing the pride of others; he recaptures a feeling of strength by the sense of power he acquires in enslaving and in controlling others; he rids himself of some measures of guilt by accusing other people and thereby making them feel constantly guilty.

It is really amazing how much sadistic behavior can be manifested over a period of time without the individual himself realizing it, or recognizing it for what it actually is. He is merely sporadically aware of occasional inclinations to mistreat a weaker person, of being stimulated when he reads about sadistic acts, or of having some obviously sadistic fantasies. For the most part, he is unconscious of the significance of his daily behavior towards others. Until this numbness of feeling for himself and others is dispelled, he will not emotionally comprehend what he does. Unfortunately, the self-justifications that camouflage the sadistic trends are often clever enough to deceive not only the afflicted person, but those who are affected by him.

Since sadism is the terminal stage of a very severe neurosis, the kind of justification employed will depend upon the structure of the particular neurosis from which the sadistic trends derive. For instance, the compliant type will enslave the partner under the unconscious pretense of love. His demands will be attributed to his special needs for attention, due to frailty or due to, perhaps, timidity. The aggressive type, on the other hand, although expressing sadistic tendencies quite openly, is not necessarily more aware of them. The detached person is characteristically unobtrusive in manifesting sadistic trends. He proceeds to quietly frustrate others, making them feel insecure by his readiness to withdraw, and subtly conveying the impression that they are cramping him, he takes secret delight in letting them make fools of themselves.

From this exposition, it becomes clear that a person is not sadistic by nature. His attitudes are part and parcel of a neurosis, and need to be treated as such. Only a person who despairs of himself and life can be sadistic. A happy, strong person could not be so.

There is one other factor to be considered in regard to the problem of sadism: the victim. Brickner—in the chapter “The Paranoid and His Victim” in his book Is Germany Incurable?—holds that the more decent and fair a person is in his attitude toward a sadist, the more readily will he be victimized. I think that that is not always so. It is my experience that there is generally also something the matter with the person who becomes helplessly involved with a sadist. One of the two will seem the more openly and obviously sadistic; the other may be very dependent, but will also possess somewhat more hidden sadistic trends, but about of equal intensity.

The best way, therefore, to protect oneself from a sadist is to analyze one’s own sadistic trends; that will make the whole problem easier. For only a person who is pretty healthy, and who is capable of love, can deal effectively with a sadist.

Love has been badly treated here this afternoon. This capacity to love is in a way the direct opposite of everything involved in sadistic trends. The sadist is unhappy, and makes other people unhappy. Love, on the other hand, is the capacity to be happy and make others happy. The power to love is not like the ability to eat, to sleep, or to walk, something of which we are all capable. It is not so much a given capacity, as a goal to strive for. It therefore behooves us all to do something about it if we can.

« There are two versions of this lecture. The first bears the heading “The summary of a lecture by Dr. Karen Horney, before the Auxiliary Council to the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis [AAP], given October 14, 1943.” The second was copyrighted in 1946. Both versions were printed by the Auxiliary Council—the lay arm of the AAP, founded in 1941, which was the umbrella organization for the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, and later the Karen Horney Clinic. The Auxiliary Council made copies of this and other lectures by Horney and her colleagues available for ten cents each, as part of its effort “to aid in broadening the public understanding of Psychoanalysis.” Many of the lectures were based on chapters of Horney’s books. All were aimed at a lay audience.

Although “Sadistic Love” is described as the summary of a lecture, I believe that it is the entire lecture in Horney’s own words. The 1943 version is neither as full nor as well written as the one from 1946. Horney seems to have revised the lecture after the publication of Our Inner Conflicts in order to incorporate some of her latest ideas. There is no evidence that she delivered the revised version, although it is possible that she did [Based on the existence of this lecture in the NYC Municipal Archives, Dr. Horney intended to read the revised version, although it was Dr. Hugh Mullen who read it on her behalf.  — AKS]. She used some of the material from the original version in the chapter “Sadistic Trends” in Our Inner Conflicts, but the discussions of Hedda Gabler, Pygmalion, and The Diary of a Seducer are much fuller here than in the book. Horney made many references to literature in her writings and frequently taught a course on literature and psychoanalysis at the New School for Social Research. She may have developed some of the interpretations that appear in this lecture in that course. I have made a few editorial changes in the wording, punctuation, and paragraphing of the 1946 version of “Sadistic Love.” »

   — Bernard J. Paris (2000), The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Gender, Culture, and Psychoanalysis, pp. 124–125