The Other Side of the Coin: Continuing Dysfunction

Yesterday we looked at the Madonna/Whore Complex, the separation between sex and love, and how that can impact people and characters. Today I want to look at the opposite idea, as mentioned yesterday – the person who cannot separate sex and love on any level (not implying that sex can’t be a sign of affection, merely that there are obviously people who use it for other purposes). Not sure if there’s a proper name for this, but these people/characters tend to stay in abusive relationships, as it’s quite easy for the man who deals in the Madonna/Whore complex to see that woman as a “whore”, and have casual sex with her. When the woman sees this as a sign of love from the man, it sets up a tragic bond of user and used. You see this in fiction quite a bit, and it’s another component to the strange world that is sexual addiction. Interesting that I set out to explore relationships in fiction in more detail, and ended up focusing on this sort of dysfunction. I wonder what it might betray!

Anyway, let’s look at the ramifications of a character having this particular disorder. This belief system is usually built upon some sort of childhood abuse – exceedingly violent abuse, molestation, etc. Something that has taught them that sexual attention of any kind is equal to love. It’s a lesson that’s learned very early, and the character would likely have a blind spot to that part of their psyche. Let’s do a character study to see what I’m talking about.

The woman in the relationship that I described yesterday, for instance – the one with the husband who refuses to touch her because she’s the idealized, perfect woman. The big dynamic for her is that she has always felt unworthy of love somewhere deep in her psyche; her husband treating her that way both affirms that feeling and feels familiar, safe, and secure, even as it may be completely unhealthy and unsafe for her. This dynamic keeps her hooked on the relationship and desperately trying to draw her needs out of someone who is incapable of meeting those needs.

You see a lot of these protagonists in Lifetime movies, actually – the woman who is put upon by her husband and the world, and slowly learns to reclaim her life. I’m not dissing those movies, either, some of them are very enjoyable, if incredibly melodramatic. I say this more as a warning: if you’re going down abusive husband territory, be sure that you have some sort of fresh spin, as there are already a million tales out there.

If that’s the case, why bring it up here then? Because I do have some ideas for using it as a fresh fashion. Rather than creating a story that is about an overt romantic relationship, one could apply this dynamic to any sort of platonic relationship where two characters are working closely together. Perhaps you could equate sex to paying a compliment, or listening to what the character who suffers from this particular dysfunction has to say. Both become vectors for love in that character’s mind, and now you have a dynamic between two characters where, say she’s the protagonist, and she craves attention from a support character. This sets up a scenario where the support character feels smothered by this constant need for attention and creates internal conflict within the group.

So let’s say you’re writing a Western, with two trailhands riding together. One is constantly badgering the other for attention, for his stupid ideas. This doesn’t work, and the target of this attention-seeking behavior pushes the other one away. This causes the attention-seeker to act out in negative ways, at last learning that negative attention is all that he can get from the target. You can see the potential for plot impacts here.

This entry and the previous entry were meant to examine one model of relationships for characters and the way that an author can play with those dynamics based on real-life dysfunctions and psychological factors. If you know your character has that craving for sex as love, it becomes easier to build their backstory, especially once you understand how that dysfunction-generating event or events influences the character’s life and choices.

So we’ll continue to look at relationship dynamics in the near future. There are a lot of other theories and concepts that I think could make a story seem more realistic and provide more of an opportunity to emotionally engage with the reader.

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  1. It can even apply to platonic relationships. But there are those who equate sex with love and put their entire stock of self worth into it. Would make a very interesting character study.

  2. I’d like to point out that it needn’t be any sort of heinous abuse, at least where women are concerned. Often times, it’s a combo of low self-esteem or alienation, sometimes coupled with the lack of a father (or attention) while growing up. If a guy pays attention to her, then she’ll do anything to hang on to him; it often means sex on the first date as a means of “keeping” him. (Of course, that often sends him on his way.) I wonder what would happen if a decent guy turned her down when she came on to him; would she appreciate the fact that he wanted to wait? Or would she take it as a rejection? Hmmm.

    BTW, welcome to the REN3 blogfest/writing project 🙂

    • Good point! Sometimes it’s not easy to tell where the exact cause and trigger lies, and some people react differently to those upbringing than others. Some people can grow up with all three factors that you mentioned and, while having a rocky few formative years, turn out fine. For others, it becomes a cycle of trying to fulfill that need in broken ways, being let down, and continuing the pattern. The question of why it happens to some and not others could make for a fascinating story in and of itself.

      And thanks! Looking forward to getting my episodes out there.

  3. Great material here, Jonathan, for both character development and general human behaviour purposes. I really enjoyed reading both posts and look forward to more!

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