By Helene Brun
We live in separate bodies. But our physical boundaries are not right where the skin is. There is a space around each of us that is also considered personal. Everyone has their particular comfortable distances with family members and strangers which they try to maintain usually without thinking about it. Our comfort zones are determined largely by the culture and the family we grew up in. Most people automatically adjust their distances to what they prefer if possible. For example: In line for a movie we accept the temporary closeness of other bodies. Yet inside the theater we spread out from strangers if we can. Of course, there are times when we prefer to cross each other’s boundaries by mutual agreement. For example: With a lover or a visit to the dentist. These things are generally accepted by everyone familiar with our culture.
As a couples counselor I sometimes get calls from people who hit one another. More than simply a sad example of crossing boundaries they are usually people in a tragic grip. Hitting each other is an uncivilized way to “solve problems,” yet it persists in even the most “civilized” of settings. People who resort to physical violence in their relationship think it acceptable for one reason or another or they forget to think when they are upset. All they accomplish is to diminish themselves.
Propensity for violence in a relationship:
* Has little to do with intelligence. Intelligent and/or educated people stoop to this level of conflict too.
* Has little to do with badness. People who hit their partners generally do so because they feel frustrated and helpless. While it is no excuse many hitters do feel remorse and are not sadistic.
* Has something to do with culture. Some cultures accept and justify domestic violence more, but those cultural distinctions do not make a violent situation any better.
* Has something to do with gender, but not entirely. While males usually identify with the role of the hitter and females with the victim role, it can be the other way around. In either case gender can make little or no difference as to damage done.
* Has much to do with communication skills. Often the hitter does not have the skills or the wish to say what he feels and what he wants in the relationship. If he cannot or will not describe what is going on for him, he is likely to expect his partner to intuit his needs and when that doesn’t happen, he gets frustrated and lashes out.
* Has mostly to do with the family one grew up in. What was the child “taught” about how to handle conflicts and frustrations? If one “learned” the two roles of victim and perpetrator well, it is hard to live in limbo between those two extremes later as an adult. Overcoming the urge to take this well worn path - seen as a shortcut or the only way - requires not only intellectual understanding of its limitations but emotional ease with healthier ways.
Often adults abusively hit as children can remember thinking “this is wrong” when they were being hit. Where does this thought come from? They had lived in only their own family and seen mainly what was normal there. It is possible that people outside the family have enough influence on even small children so that they have a sense of how things could be handled better. If so, we as a community have a big responsibility as role model, even when unaware of that role. Perhaps it is innate to abhor violence when it comes from the initial source of survival: Our parents.
Abused children, however, may grow up and forget that “wrong” feeling or over-ride it in search of a partner who will hit them or accept being hit. The volatile relationship seems to pull them in. Although uncomfortable it is familiar. Abuse aside, these relationships offer some of what all relationships offer and usually do not start out being violent.
It is very difficult to interrupt “the figure 8 of violence.” For example: Dick hits Jane on occasion. They are used to this way of interacting. If he decides to stop hitting her, a vacuum is created and if they do not work to put other conflict resolution skills in that space, they will simply feel lonely and isolated. After a bit of that, people move towards each other, warm up to what is good in the other, then the tension starts building again because they do not know how to discuss it when the warming trend cools. Eventually something will trigger another physical outburst and warm-up and violence can continue like this forever.
I believe a person in an abusive relationship should at least be prepared to leave it. When people are capable of walking out, things tend to be more workable at home. An inner resolve not to take abuse can actually help ward it off. The part of Dick that is a perpetrator looks for the part of Jane that is a victim, if that part is gone, there’s nobody to “play out the usual” with. If Jane sticks to her no-victim position, Dick will eventually do one of three things: leave in search of a “better” victim, begin to change and interact differently with Jane, or get more violent in an attempt to bring the victim back in Jane. It is this third possibility that keeps many abused people from trying to change things.
The decision and timing to tamper with a particular system should be left to the abused person since s/he has to live with the consequences. Outside support can help make it a tenable option to leave if the perpetrator will not change. Domestic violence often gets worse over the years, and many abused spouses realize that the risk in staying may be bigger or equal to the risk in leaving. If a perpetrator will not admit he has a problem and actually get help, the person being abused should prepare to leave in the safest way possible.
Often an abused woman is scared her mate will leave her. Though he hits, he is also her source of love, sex, and perhaps financial security . Her self-esteem is usually low. She may say she deserves better, but it is common that she does not really feel and mean that. Sometimes she hits back and thus helps both of them feel they deserve each other. If she also fears retaliation by leaving it can be a catch-22 situation. It takes courage to leave. It takes hope to stay. Hope that he will change or something will make things better. Hope is easier than courage. Wishing is easier than doing. Hence many stay stuck.
With severely violent couples, it makes no sense to start with couples counseling. Aside from needing law enforcement and legal help, they need individual therapy where they can tell the truth about their situation without fear. They should also be assessed by a psychiatrist for possible medication. Eventually capacities for self-containment and self-disclosure need to be strengthened in the partners, and this can be done in couples counseling. Often group therapy is beneficial as well.
Less severe cases may benefit from couples counseling right away. The main perpetrator needs to be challenged not to hit, but it is very important to design that challenge uniquely for that person and some initial rapport should be established first. It is helpful to support the capacity to change while confronting the value system underlying the abuse. If Dick explains: “I can’t help it, I got so frustrated, I had to hit her.” He might be asked if he hits his boss when frustrated at work. This can both challenge and reassure him that he has the internal controls necessary to act differently with Jane as well.
In counseling a basic shift early on is necessary. My expectation is that there will be no violence if I am to work with a couple. Initially I may say: “ I will not be able to do a decent job working with you if you continue to hit each other, so think about whether you can agree to stop that now.” If the couple cannot accept or deliver on a “no violence agreement,” I recommend individual therapy and a psychiatric evaluation.
A shift to no-violence needs to be maintained till it is solid and second nature. This takes patience and acceptance of people’s limitations. Like stopping smoking, it takes time to lose the urge for good. Communications skills, decision making skills, new habits, etc. need to fill the vacuum created by the absence of violence in the relationship. Eventually the couple will be able to decide, without threats and violence, on whether they will stay together or not. If they do stay together, they must rebuild and clean up the relationship like people must do after any war.
I have no ultimate treatment solutions for this difficult couples issue. But I think a broadening of the view on the abusive couple can benefit all couples. Violence in our neighborhoods and our world affects us all wherever we are ourselves on the violence continuum. Existentially it is a basic human concern which will surface if not concretely then internally in worries or dreams in us all. We cannot escape dealing with violence in our lives.
copyright 2000, Helene Brun. All rights reserved.
Helene Brun, MFT 650.949.2879 firstname.lastname@example.org www.helenebrun.com