The Vicissitudes of Submissive Development

By Yaldah Tovah, M.D.

In an earlier paper, I highlighted the developmental line that produces a healthy adult heterosexual submissive female. I highlighted the role of temperament and environment and how they interact to influence the personality development of girls destined to have a submissive orientation in adulthood. In doing so, I alluded to problems in development that can occur, and in this paper, will expand on those.

There is a concept in the literature of temperament called “goodness of fit.” This refers to the interactions between a child and her family of origin. When a child’s temperament is found to be “good” by her family, and her developmental challenges are handled sensitively and well, development proceeds more smoothly than not. A novelty-seeking, sensation-seeking, socially expressive, high energy child will be seen as “good” in a family of high-energy, adventurous people. The same child in a low energy, novelty-avoiding, socially limited family will stick out like a sore thumb and irritate her parents and overwhelm them with her energy.

Similarly, a child who has an aversion to novelty, is slow to warm up, and takes little intensity of stimulation to react to will be “out of sync” in a family of high energy, novelty seeking extroverts. No matter how well meaning they may be, they won’t “feel with” their very different child. They won’t emotionally understand what the world is like for her, and why she has so much trouble with things the rest of the family finds easy and satisfying. There is a poor temperamental “fit”.

It isn’t so much what the temperamental characteristics are, it’s the goodness of fit between parent and child. A similarly constituted child may fare VERY differently in two different environments, one more and one less well suited for her particular way of being.

This isn’t to say that poorness of fit dooms the child to spend her adult life on some psychoanalyst’s couch, but it does mean that the parent has to work that much harder to stay in empathic touch with his or her poorly fit child. And that during times of stress, their capacity to do so will be sorely strained.

In a situation of poorness of fit, with enough environmental stresses such as divorce, financial stress, or illness, it is inevitable that the child will suffer.

Let’s imagine then a child with the essential temperamental trait of social responsiveness, that common trait in all submissives. That child that picks up subtle tensions, is vulnerable to criticism and praise, and develops a “people-pleasing” nature.

If such a child has OTHER temperamental traits that create a poor fit between her and her parents, she is going to be mightily affected by a sense of “wrongness”, guilt, shame, and anger, because no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be what is “easy” for her parents, and she is exquisitely aware of being difficult for them. Or if a marginal or even good fit between parent and child is strained by unpredictable and overwhelming trauma which renders the parent less than fully available to the child, the child will still be mightily affected. She will still come to experience those painful emotional states of being wrong, bad, unacceptable, because she is so attuned to parental distress, and so likely to squash her anxieties and angers in order to “not make trouble”. What happens then, because such a child is still a child, her attempts to take care of, to cure, her parents will inevitably shortchange her development. Something very common in the backgrounds of submissive women is a history of having, or feeling, overwhelmingly responsible for herself, and her significant others. You can see where that arises: in the child so attuned to the emotional states of others, a child who temperamentally is a people-pleaser, a child who too easily is used inappropriately because she does try so hard to be good, such a child feels the burden of responsibility for making others better.

You have a situation in which a child has no “psychological skin” so to speak; who reacts intensely to the emotions of others, and internalizes the difficulties she experiences with others. Because she is so sensitive to interpersonal nuance, and is so often not validated by her environment, nor taught how to manage her emotions, she develops real problems adapting.

Whereas an adequate, relatively stable early environment in a family with “goodness of fit” will likely give rise to the healthy adult submissive, an inadequate, unstable early environment with “poor fit” will give rise to a more or less troubled adult.

It is my opinion that this last group tends to be troubled by the spectrum of personality disorders in the cluster defined as borderline, narcissistic or histrionic personality disorder. Now, not every woman who has borderline, narcissistic or histrionic personality disorder is also a submissive; this is a critical point. I believe that some submissives do exhibit the life problems that lead to being diagnosed with those disorders. But I believe there are two separate populations, and two developmental lines to account for it.

IF a child with the temperamental axis involving intense, selective attention to social interaction is faced with an upbringing in an EXTREMELY poorly fit environment, with parents so far different in temperament, that they almost cannot empathize at all with their child’s inner experience, THAT child is vulnerable to developing submissively, that is, with a core trait of being exquisitely sensitive to the moods of others, AND a personality disorder. The latter developing because of the repeated failure to actually be able to please her parents with her “essential self”. She grows to feel herself nasty, bad, destructive, unloved, and each misunderstanding damages her more and more. She feels intense rage at her psychological mistreatment, and intense shame at feeling the rage, and black despair of ever being good enough.

If a child without the temperament with the core submissive traits is born into such an extreme mismatch of temperament with her parents, she will still have to deal psychologically and developmentally with the experience of not being empathically understood, of not fitting in with her family, and so on. But because her nature, unlike the submissive, is NOT so vulnerable to the interpersonal nuance, she is less likely to wind up quite as damaged. She may well have a personality disorder, but it often takes more than just poorness of fit to damage her that much. It may take outright abuse, and a host of other environmental factors other than poor temperamental fit. I am saying here, that the submissive child is more vulnerable to damage by poorness of fit by virtue of her interpersonal sensitivity and need to please, as well as more vulnerable to trauma.

Please remember, this is a model, a construct to account for observations. It will be more or less useful, and more or less “valid” the more accurately it can be used predictively. Only time and actual studies can do this “scientifically”; for now, I am interested in less rigidly constructed tests of validity.

So we can see that there are three major variables interacting to account for adult outcome. The center of the interactions are with the child’s temperament and the goodness of fit with her parents. That interaction constitutes the most central and most highly determining of outcome. The third variable is the impact of trauma on the child: sexual, physical, emotional abuse, loss of significant others through death or divorce, severe socio-economic strains on the family, illness in self or others, and such other often unpredictable severe stressors.

I am postulating the following three developmental lines:

I. The Healthy Submissive: is born with the central developmental trait of social responsiveness leading to sensitivity to others’ expectation, needs, and emotions, and ultimately to becoming an adult people pleaser with an external locus of control. Her sexuality follows along these lines, and she has her most intense pleasure when in sexual service, even if, and often especially when, she suffers in service. She is relatively unconflicted about both her dependency needs and her sexuality, and is happiest in a consciously D/s based relationship.

2. The Submissive with a Severe Personality disturbance: This child is born also with the central developmental trait of social responsiveness leading to sensitivity to others’ expectations, needs and emotions. However, due to either extreme poorness of temperamental fit, or extreme environmental trauma, her development goes seriously awry. She suffers such intense neglect, misunderstanding, devaluation by her parents, and often horrendous abuse that she develops severe disturbances in self-regulation. She exhibits the typical problems associated with such disturbance: a lack of trust in her own perceptions; misperceptions of others (detecting slights and attributing malfeasance to normal, everyday empathic failures); inability to modulate affect (emotion), ranging from intense overwhelming emotional states such as panic, rage, sadness to depression; inhibited grief, with many periods of emotional shutdown; cycles of alternately overvaluing significant others and then devaluing them (often manifested by the numerous hirings and firings of many many therapists during those cycles); and finally, a tendency to act out the rage and despair in self-harm: alcohol and drug misuse, promiscuity, eating disorders, self-cutting, burning, head-banging and other such acts.

What distinguishes the submissive borderline from the nonsubmissive borderline is that IF HER PATHOLOGY IS NOT SO DAMAGING AS TO PRECLUDE LONGTERM RELATIONSHIPS AT ALL, SHE CAN BE HELD BY A DOMINANT MAN LONG ENOUGH TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEMATIC ASPECTS OF HER DEVELOPMENT AND FUNCTIONING. A non-submissive borderline is no more likely to be held by a Dominant than any other woman with a personality disturbance. The submissive borderline, in the hold of an extremely strong and healing Dominant, along with the judicious use of therapy, and perhaps medication, can do a great deal of healing work. The path is never easy, and carries risks: the risk of self-harm getting mortal; the risk of suicide when the woman feels her life will never get better, or is overwhelmed with grief and rage; the risk that in anger or rage she will turn her destructive impulses on her helpers and destroy the helping frame. While the submissive borderline has the characteristic underlying sexuality of the submissive, it is distorted by her interpersonal difficulties. She may be conflicted, shamed, guilt-ridden, and find herself acting out her conflicting needs in sexual promiscuity, sexual avoidance, or repetitive abusive relationships that repeat her earlier traumatic histories. But underneath all that, and coloring all those difficulties, is a submissive sexuality. Often, this is the woman for whom self-harm (cutting, scratching, burning self) has an element of eroticism; is a distortion of the healthy submissive’s pleasurable response to sexual sacrifice, sexual suffering. This kind of self harm, rather than being the joyous, intimate act of a healthy submissive in a good relationship, is a distortion of that healthy impulse.

3. The NonSubmissive Borderline: This is a child whose temperamental mix does not have the prominent interpersonal sensitivity that the submissive child does. This child instead has experienced the traumas that typically result in the features of severe personality disorder and phenomenologically may look indistinguishable from the submissive borderline EXCEPT THAT SHE DOES NOT RESPOND TO DOMINANCE IN THE WAY A SUBMISSIVE BORDERLINE DOES. I think that while a submissive borderline may suffer more intensely from interpersonal contacts, her very relatedness, distorted though it may be, is a good prognostic indicator, because she will be so influenceable. The nonsubmissive borderline does not have that same influenceability: therapy with her will be and feel different because she is less permeable to healing influences. This woman’s sexuality is NOT characterized by the central images of pleasure through being used, disciplined, forced, swept away in the way a submissive’s is. Her sexuality is not “fixed” in that way, is far more fluid and influenced by the rest of her personality, which as we have said, is not submissive. [Eds. Note: I talked over the ideas above with Yaldah Tovah after having realized that it confused some people. The kind of submissive experience that Yahdah Tovah refers to here is primarily that of submissive girls who undergo massive aversive treatment as children and youths and then spend the better part of a lifetime developing highly neurotic and self-destructive responses to those events. She does not mean here to refer to submissives for whom the most important aversive events come much later in life.]

The reason I think these distinctions are useful is because when a troubled submissive woman reports to her therapists the nature of her submissiveness, she is likely to encounter an uninformed therapeutic stance: that her submissiveness is just another manifestation of pathology: of disturbed interpersonal relations. The therapist does not know how to use the woman’s submissiveness in a therapeutic way, because s/he doesn’t understand what an ally in the healing process the submissive response is. Nor is it understood that a GOOD outcome is enough healing to allow the submissive to express her nature and sexuality in a healthy manner, like that of her more fortunate sisters who didn’t face such difficulties in development. In other words, she doesn’t need to be cured of her submissiveness, just her “borderline” pathology. She needs to be helped to become a healthier submissive.

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