Health: The dark side of the mood

So sulking is not just an annoying habit, it's a personality disorder. By Roger Dobson
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IT WRECKS marriages and lives, causes mental torment, violence and unhappiness, and affects millions. But its victims are rarely offered any kind of treatment, and more often than not sulking is dismissed along with shyness, embarrassment and a nervous cough, as an unfortunate and irreversible behavioural trait.

Now, however, new hope is on the horizon for chronic sulkers with a recognition that their moody episodes are a silent call for help, and that sulking can be a major personality and mood disorder requiring intense psychological therapy.

Sulking is generally thought of as something which children do rather than adults, but it is a major blight on many adult lives. "It is a little known fact that sulking can take on a degree of severity where it becomes a clinical phenomenon, a personality disorder,'' says psychotherapist and author Adam Edward Jukes. A sulk is a reaction to feelings of being rejected where, instead of getting openly angry or talking about the problem, the sulker retaliates with moody silences or monosyllabic replies designed as a punishment. It is closely associated with envy and a desire to destroy the contentment of the other person.

The object of the sulk is to force the other person to make the first attempt at patching things up so that the sulker can then reject them, thus extracting revenge. After what is considered an acceptable period of time, depending upon the gravity of the perceived misdemeanour, the sulker accepts reparation.

Researchers have found that most people sulk at times, and it is a strategy frequently adopted by children as a non-confrontational way of getting their own way. In adults, short sulks can be regarded as attractive. But in its chronic forms, it is a problem that needs treatment.

The causes of chronic sulking are not clear. There might be a genetic component, but one of the latest theories is that it develops in childhood as a punishment for mum in a way which is least likely to trigger chastisement. According to Jukes, sulking in men can also be the first, vital sign of abuse: "In my experience, a very high proportion of abusers are prone to severe attacks of sulking, and have been in a sulk for most of their lives, deriving as it does from the basic fault and desire to punish the inadequate primary carer, mother,'' says Jukes, author of Men Who Batter Women.

"Most abuse is incremental. It starts in a small way, maybe with sulking, and then escalates. It is very rare that a man begins with a vicious attack. They often start by feeling resentment and then withdrawing.''

Fits of sulking are usually provoked by an immovable sense of injustice, victimisation and unfairness which leads to a withdrawal and the build up of smouldering resentment.

"It can be very serious and disturbing to see. I have seen men with chronic sulking where homicide or suicide are real issues. In fights over child custody, for instance, they talk about killing themselves `to see where that gets her','' says Jukes.

At the heart of the problem is the inability to articulate feelings. The sufferer withdraws, and sulking becomes the preferred form of communication. One of the first steps in therapy is to get the sulker to recognise they are sulking. Many refuse to do so. They invariably blame the other person and find it impossible to make the first move. One aim of treatment is to get sufferers to articulate their concerns. Group therapy is particularly effective, where anything is allowed except sulking. Anyone who gets in a huff is ignored.

`Men Who Batter Women' is published by Routledge this week