Normal Sadism, Weak Boundaries, and Social Unhappiness

I was having a discussion with someone about life in Korea–someone who feels pretty much like I do about it–and something interesting crossed my mind. It’s the concept of “normal marital sadism” that was coined by the therapist David Schnarch to describe the very common form of emotional sadism that seems to develop in a lot–a lot–of marriages. He published an article on the concept back in May of this year, in Psychology Today:

People who refuse to acknowledge their own hatred, vindictiveness, and punitiveness are the most pernicious people to those they love. You can’t learn to control hostile impulses you won’t acknowledge having. The problem isn’t the urge to be mean, because everyone has this at some point. Problems arise when you deny it, because you’re more likely to act it out. It’s better for everyone if you accept a picture of yourself having a malevolent side. Then if you’re wrong, there’s no harm, no foul. When you indulge yourself in a glorified self-perception, other people pay the price when you are mistaken.

What comes to mind immediately when I read these words is the glorified self-perception that I’ve seen among so many Korean parents, regarding the “sacrifices” they’ve made for their children… which are all too often trotted out as an excuse to make all kinds of unreasonable demands on their offspring, and for saying all kinds of horrible things to their kids.

Whether it’s consigning children to a routine of studying they themselves could never maintain–and which they themselves never did maintain as children, when the norms were radically different–or refusing to give an adult child permission to marry the partner of his or her choice, this kind of thing has always seemed much more common in Korea than in places like Canada and the United States.

In fact, as I’ve mentioned before here, Miss Jiwaku has argued, pretty convincingly, that the current generation is something of a Lost Generation for South Korea; born too late to have the bragging rights for The Miracle on the Han, and constantly reminded of the fact by parents who seem to have made it the cultural norm to micromanage their kids’ lives well into adulthood.

I’ll put it this way: basically, whenever a young person comes to me asking for advice about their career, relationship, or even searching for a reason not to kill themselves–yeah, I got a lot of that over the last seven years–I’m no longer surprised when it turns out they’ve been given the kind of advice that adds up to a sure recipe for despair. In fact, that’s the only thing consistent about the advice they’ve gotten: it pretty much always seems to be advice against doing what they want… to the point where usually I start all discussions of this kind with that question nobody else has ever asked them–no, really, that’s what they keep saying to me:

What do you want to do?

You’d think this would be the obvious starting point for any discussion with someone you care about, but most people I ask seem not to have been urged to consider that side of things: if they want to quit a job that’s making them miserable, they’ve usually been told they mustn’t. If they want to stay at their job, because it’s making them happy, they’re usually being pushed to quit. If they don’t want to go abroad and study English, their parents are forcing it onto them, whereas if they do want to go, that’s been forbidden to them.

Suffice it to say that most of the time I hear about parents’ or friends’ advice, it seems to (a) neglect the idea of the individual’s agency (and hence the argument I made in the essay linked here) and (b) maximize the unhappiness of the person to whom the advice has been offered.

Not only that, but a Korean friend of mine has commented, several times, on how objectionable normal happiness is to her family members. When she is with her family and her (Western) husband, and they express normal, healthy affection for one another, her family’s response is usually annoyance, complaints, and so on. It’s not the husband’s foreignness that is the issue, mind you: it’s the couple’s happiness. “When you show that you are happy,” she says, “you remind other people of how unhappy they are… showing your happiness makes them feel bad, and they can’t stand it.”

What I’m proposing is in fact that what Schnarch argues is commonplace in couples in the West–and I’d say is also observable in families, to a much lesser degree–actually manifests in Korea in many more social relationships, especially (but not only) in families.

Caveat numero uno: I know not all Korean families are like this, of course; but at the same time, just because it’s not universal doesn’t mean we should ignore how widespread it is.

Caveat numero duo: Yes, this does manifest in (many) Western families to some degree; but the degree is far lesser, and it is much rarer in other social relationships in the West than it is in Korea. Stick with me, and I’ll show you what I mean.

The Koreans I’m closest with usually express some kind of surprise when a Korean friend’s parent is more liberal, more invested in their kids’ self-determination and happiness than in some kind of vicarious fulfillment through the kid. Usually, an explanation is offered such as, “Well, my mom was widowed when I was little, and she changed a lot!” or “My father lived in Canada as a kid, so he’s more liberal,” or things like that.

And it’s not just in family relationships that this kind of thing shows up, either. Miss Jiwaku’s favorite example is from an elevator ride we took on campus, where a very pretty young woman who’d clearly spent hours on her appearance talked to some young men who boarded the elevator after her. Their comments on her appearance amounted to telling her she looked like a ghost, and like a dog. And no, those aren’t compliments.

But then, I’ve long found that Korean society’s biggest difference from the West is not Confucianism (we have our own ancient philosophy around to mess things up in our society too, and Christianity and Confucianism intersect at several unsavory points) but rather in its sense of personal boundaries. Westerners tend to construct boundaries around themselves in such a way that it is the individual’s choice to “let someone in”; by contrast, I find that constructing boundaries in this way in Korean society doesn’t work: you’re expected (coerced, guilted, pushed, etc.) into having extremely permeable, poorly managed boundaries… at least, within the context of any actual relationship.

Which explains why, when you’re walking down the street with a Korean and a non-mutual Korean friend of yours walks up, they’re as likely as not to ignore one another, and even to distance themselves physically, with one person wandering off until the danger is passed. One expat I know characterized this as being a way of avoiding new social connections because new social connections tend to entail having to suddenly do favors for more people, usually at the last minute. But I think it’s really just the only kind of boundary management that is acceptable in Korea: since you can’t draw healthy, natural boundaries once you’re in a relationship, you need to be very careful who you let into your social world.

I suppose it also explains that othe, very off-putting (to me) norm within the realm of customer service: that is, that the public service person often says things like, “Hello!” or “Welcome to _store name_!” and the customer, not bothering to say hello or thank you, speaks as few words as possible to them. To the tune of:

Server: Hello! Welcome to [restaurant name]!
Customer: One kimbab.
Server: Sure, I’ll get that for you right away. Please have a seat while I prepare it.
Customer: …
Clerk: Okay, that’s one thousand won.
Customer: … (silently hands over the money)
Clerk: Thanks very much! Come again!
Customer: … [silently leaves]

Not that I think people are wary of forming relationships with their local fast food place or anything; I think it’s just a kind of acquired habit: be as closed as possible, as often as possible, to avoid complicating your life with too many onerous social connections. However, it makes me kind of sad. Having worked in customer service myself, I can say that, at least in Canada, even the laziest clerks engaged in a decent amount of chat with customers, and it made the interactions more pleasant because customers usually reciprocated. For those Koreans reading this who wonder what I mean, here’s how I’d expect the above dialog to go in Canada:

Server: Hello! Welcome to [restaurant name]!
Customer: Hi. Quiet day, it looks like?
Server: A little bit. But it was busy at lunchtime… What can I get for you?
Customer: Oh, I’ll have a kimbab. [Well, okay, it’d be a sandwich, but whatever.]
Server: Sure, I’ll get that for you right away. Please have a seat while I prepare it.
Customer: Thanks. Oh, and I’ll have a coffee too.
[skip possible chit-chat.]
Clerk: Okay, that’s five dollars, please.
Customer: Alright, here you go.
Clerk: Thanks very much! Come again, and have a good day!
Customer: Right, see you… [customer leaves]

I want to emphasize, this isn’t an outgoing or excessively friendly customer: it’s about average for my own (long) experience working customer service in my youth. (Maybe seen through slightly rosy glasses, but not too rosy. Most of the problems I had working customer service had to do with the working conditions and specific staff members, not customers.) The really friendly people talk your ear off, and the really unfriendly ones are uncommon enough to warrant a comment after they’ve left.

And of course, living here, some of that has rubbed off on me. My expectations of how people will behave, for example. When I was visiting Miss Jiwaku in Jakarta, for example, some random Indonesian guy started talking with us. He was clearly well-to-do or rich, and not trying to scam us for money, and I was baffled and immediately on my guard… not because I don’t trust Indonesians, but because after so long in Korea, I didn’t quite know how I was supposed to react to someone being suddenly, spontaneously friendly and social with us. (Miss Jiwaku picked up on that right away and reassured me that this kind of thing is quite normal in Indonesia, but it took me some time to get used to it.)

I’ve changed in other ways, too, not only in my expectations:  for example, I react more like a Korean when I encounter Koreans engaging in the kind of emotional sadism I described above. I posted a while back about a party where someone obnoxious harassed me–at first, because I wasn’t speaking Korean, and then because my Korean wasn’t (by his estimation) good enough. Had it been in Canada, I would have probably told him to go annoy someone else, and I would have expected my friends not to be amused by the situation (after, say, the first ten minutes) but instead to tell him to, yes, get lost. But that’s not how it’s done in Korea; the asshole never gets told to fuck off, even when everyone knows he’s being an asshole. Because that would entail the kind of boundary-setting that is just beyond the pale here.

And I guess that’s why what manifests in North American society as “normal marital sadism” seems to manifest so much more broadly in Korean society: because where in North America, boundaries are mostly poorly-maintained and blurry between couples, but a little clearer in other social relationships, boundaries in relationships in Korea seem to be rather more difficult to establish, let alone maintain. Which is interesting, especially since it was here that I myself learned a lot about establishing healthy boundaries. (Though there’s always more to learn.)

Then again, I have a friend whose favorite argument is that Korean society is simply still in the throes of a kind of society-wide case of PTSD… which doesn’t sound exactly wrong either, though I’d note that I’d locate the cause as much in the excesses of the Park and Chun dictatorships as in the Korean War. That makes me wonder, though, about epigenetics… since brutal childhood (or even prenatal, vicarious) experiences can have an impact on one’s epigenetic legacy through one’s children. (Something that has been observed before, and hotly debated, in terms of the mechanisms by which the transmission of trauma occurs from Holocaust survivors to their children.)

Wow, I didn’t expect to say that much on the subject. Ah well…

16 thoughts on “Normal Sadism, Weak Boundaries, and Social Unhappiness

  1. One of my favorite Korean expressions: “My stomach hurts when my uncle buys property.” It nicely sums up much of what you were writing about.

    1. Ha, that’s a good one, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. I find the expression that is even more telling is the one a certain guy we both know (ahem) said was on his wife’s face as she said, in shock, “They’re… nice?!?!?” when she met his family.

      And… speak of the devil. The society-wide PTSD idea is yours, Noah, and it seems to be grabbing more attention than my main point, at least over on Twitter. :)

  2. Very nice article. Judging from the picture you portray so well, your application of normal marital sadism is dead-on. I was alerted to your piece by someone who sees normal sadism within the educational system, and in the families teachers are exposed to. Thank you for referencing my work.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Schnarch. I’m flattered to have you comment here. I’ve moved your comment to the pertinent post, by the way, just to avoid confusion for those visiting this site.

      (And as for normal sadism within education, oh yes. The stories I could tell… it’s more evident in Korean education, but I get the sense it’s long been an inextricable (or almost-inextricable) component of schooling in general as well.)

  3. GREAT post. I agree so much with your perspective on this, especially the observations on boundary-setting in public & with strangers.

  4. This article really resonated with my own experiences of (Korean) family life. I have a complex relationship with my mother, because the reality of our often-sadistic relationship is more complex than the model you set forth here (as, I know, are most parent-child relationships).

    I actually would not agree with the theory of PTSD, because the strict definition of PTSD does not really apply to Korean society today… perhaps more recent experiences such as the Asian Financial Crisis, but I would argue that that is a vehicle and not a cause in itself.

    I would instead go with your explanation of unopposed cruelty in Korean society being enabled by the lack of formal boundaries, in conjunction with the tendency toward absolute and rigid hierarchy of privilege, based on age (not so much on sex, in modern times) and social position.

    I say this because my mother’s form of “sadistic” behavior is much as you described, but also includes elements you haven’t described, such as a total intolerance for any form of “talking back”, which includes pointing out her cruelty, the irrationality of her words and actions, and point-blank declaring my refusal to conform to her demands. According to my mother’s thought process, not only should I respect her position as elder by considering her word as law (or at least, her opinion to be rationally superior to any of my own simply by dint of her greater experience), but ignore all injustices, indeed not harbor any anger at all, for gratitude to her and a belief that everything she does, however hurtful, is done with my best interests at heart.

    And this is not a simply rhetorical device, but a real emotional hurt of hers, because she feels that I am rejecting her person by refusing to accept her advice and dictates, all made in what she genuinely believes to be my best interests. And, to a point, that is right, because I am so sick of our relationship that I find it helps my sanity best to pretend I don’t have a mother at all.

    Simply put, both a lack of boundaries AND a one-sided dimension to almost all relationships facilitates the expression of inner human cruelty. Koreans often rebut this claim* by saying that
    this lack of boundaries also allows an intense sense of fellowship and warmth not experienced by people in other, more polite societies, but I am personally of the opinion that, even if such a thing were true, the price is too great.

    *(Actually, I’ve noticed Koreans never confront criticisms, especially of society, head-on by deconstructing their validity, but come up with excuses for why such wrongs are a necessary evil, or try to “counterbalance” by pointing out why some other reality is just as bad.)

    1. Anne,

      Thanks for your comment. Wow, that sounds rough, but… well, not altogether surprising. As I think I said in the post, usually when Mrs. Jiwaku and I encounter a Korean family where the relationships seem healthy and balanced, and the parents not overbearing, we’re kind of shocked… and her friends are shocked when they see it, too.

      You’re right to note my not mentioning the absolute intolerance of any kind of protest of the cruelty, and so on. That said, one of the reasons I can talk about this in the way I do is that my own family was relatively intolerant of my approach when I was told X or Y or Z was forbidden: I’d ask why, and the answer was–much as you say, regarding the common avoidance of confronting criticism in Korea–usually something along the lines of, “Because I said so.” Asking, “Okay, but why did you say so? What’s your reasoning?” was the only rational thing I could do, but it always led to answers like, “Because this is our house, and while you live in it, you do what we say.” So an avoidance of rational discussion or criticism isn’t something Korean families have a premium on: it’s just that this also seems to map out into general society in a way that it more generally doesn’t do in a place like Canada.

      In any case, that’s one vote against PTSD and one vote for poor boundary construction in Korean society. I agree that the one-sidedness of relationships is probably also a huge factor. Anywhere that one person is vested in so much “authority” and “respect” that they believe the should not have to brook criticism from anyone, trouble is sure to follow, and when this combines with a tendency to see another person (like, say, one’s kids) as a mere extension of oneself to be micromanaged, well… yeah, it’s not a recipe for healthy relationships.

      Often my students have had a strong desire to go out and do something with their lives, but have feared that their parents would forbid it. I always have told them that it will be a hard struggle, but that they ought to do so, not only for their own sake, but because it will help their parents to grow up a little more. (Because, as is obvious as soon as you point it out, having kids doesn’t magically make a person more mature or adult or responsible. The behaviour of a lot of parents proves that most adults still have a lot of growing up to do. That is only further complicated by the weak boundaries that predominate here.)

  5. Oh, definitely, Korean parents are often immature and little better than tantrum-throwing children. Once I figured out my mother’s tongue-lashings were in fact, just that–tantrums–it became far easier to bear. I now indulge her as I would a child who is incapable of reasoning, which sounds extremely condescending and terrible of me… but it does work.

    My boyfriend used to tell me that the job of the eldest child is to “clear the path” for the younger. Food for thought.

    It is odd, because my boyfriend’s family comes from Jeonju, have never been outside of the country, and are self-professed to dislike “drawing boundaries”… his mother was put-off that her daughter-in-law wasn’t, in the end, a surrogate daughter (having raised three boys, her disappointment is somewhat understandable). Yet in actual fact they’re the most respectful parents I’ve seen, and allow my boyfriend and his brothers freedom in their daily lives and in planning their careers and love lives I can only envy (though I’m curious if they would have allowed a daughter such latitude).

    I think with the vast majority of Korean parents, even the good ones, it’s a total crapshoot: a tyrant, or a benevolent monarchy?

    1. Ha, actually, I’ve found families in Jeonju to be among the most likely to be nice of any. Not, like, paradisical, but more often nicer. Maybe it’s the stress of Seoul? Maybe it’s all that history of being left out in development? I dunno, but there’s something to it. Jeju too.

      I, too, found that in my family, it was the job of the eldest to clear the pathway… a thankless one, I might add. (My sisters were clever enough to just say yes to everything, and then do whatever they wanted, or that at least was my impression.)

      The crapshoot: yeah, seems like it, though tending towards the tyrants in my experience. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I don’t think so.

  6. Pretty cool blog. I’m research (at the moment) boundaries and the sadism that develops in children that don’t have them… sort of like… they’ll experiment and keep experimenting waiting for a response. It’s the response they seek, not the result of their experiment. So they go too far. I suppose it’s the same in any relationship where one party feels power over the other party, such as parents over children, husbands over dependent wives, bosses over employees, guards over prisoners, etc. It can be a nasty world. Power to the people! Burn that bra! and … what would a child say?

    1. Meredith,

      Thanks! The insight seems interesting. So you’re saying the boundary violations are sort of brinksmanship experimentation, aimed at getting a response, any response?

      Would that be cross-culturally true? I was under the impression that anyway, while probably boundaries is a universal (if often vague) concept among humans, cultures enshrine different understandings of where those boundaries belong. Which is why, for example, standing in a grocery store lineup or the queue for an ATM in South Korea, people standing so close that I can feel their breath on my back through a shirt aren’t really “violating” boundaries: that’s normal there, whereas in North America that’s be weird, icky, and clearly a boundary violation.

      Which, you know, casts interesting questions on the idea of boundary-testing as a response-provocation behaviour. (For example, what about in families where different ideas of acceptable boundaries exist?) There’s also the question of unconscious motivations: how it may not only be to provoke a response, but also, on an unconscious level, an effort to inflict actual pain onto others. I can say that what Schnarch says about “normal sadism” seems to be borne out to some degree in non-romantic relationships, too: I’ve found myself both inflicting pain on others, and also being on the receiving end, and it was clear that neither I nor the other person fully consciously realized we were doing so, and yet the behaviour was clearly purposive. Which is to day, human motivation is a complex thing, and while I appreciate the usefulness of theoretical reduction in science, I’m still leery about reducing the motivation in the case of “normal sadism” to a desire for a response.

      This seems to be even more the case in a society predicated on the unhappy self-abnegation of its members, which I find Korea is. (And, for that matter, which Victorian England, and even America in the 1950s, seems to have been.)

      (There’s also the question of to what degree, and whether, some people exert a form of “normal sadism” towards themselves; I certainly know people who make a habit of provoking others into harming them, or in any case putting themselves directly in harm’s way.)

      As for that the child would say, I can’t help but think–if kids fully understood their situation–they’d call out in a resounding voice, “Treat me like a human being! Respect me too!” But that’s probably idealistic. Some kids would shout “Fuck you!” or “Wait till I’m grown-up, asshole!” or “Just leave me alone!”

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