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Coaching for Life: Bonds between battered women and violent men

By Michael Ceo



This is a controversial subject. For women, the painful realities of domestic violence trigger a primal outrage and survival response. Men, on the other hand, experience themselves as “set up.” The dance in which a violent couple engages churns up a profound and gut-wrenching inadequacy for men. Violence then becomes a wholly inappropriate and destructive attempt to make the pain stop.


Domestic violence is much more widespread than believed, partly because of the shame surrounding spousal abuse. Couples and families will go to great lengths to hide violence from outsiders. It is the couple who presents the squeaky clean image to the community that struggles with the shame of domestic violence. This shroud of secrecy and anguish prevents families from getting treatment and distorts community statistics on the problem.


To get a sense of the prevalence of domestic violence in our community, I contacted Patricia Marlay, clerk of the Loudoun County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. She informed me that in 2003 alone, 672 spouse abuse preliminary protective orders were filed, nearly 13 per week. In actuality, the number of unreported violent episodes between spouses is estimated to be considerably larger. In a national study conducted in 1999, a staggering 24 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 65 had experienced domestic violence. During 1999, abused women’s shelters in Virginia provided safe refuge for 3,756 women. Domestic violence programs in our state responded to 57,662 people during that year alone. It is simply mind-boggling to get one’s arms around the significance of violent behavior in the home and its collateral damage to children and families.


In my view as a therapist, all couples should learn how arguments can lead to violence.


More importantly, anyone in a relationship ought to examine what it is about them as well as the “dance” they do with their partner that may make them vulnerable to violence. Here are some ways of looking at to what extent your relationship might be at risk of violent behavior.


Let me invite you to suspend your current notions and perceptions of violent couples and look at these dynamics through the eyes of a marriage counselor. Unlike random violence that occurs outside the home, the common notion of a perpetrator, usually the man, and victim, usually the woman, does not necessarily apply. One might certainly argue that the hitter crosses the legal line and needs to be held accountable, but in actuality both partners are responsible for the spiral of violence, and the entire family is victimized. The pathology lies with the couple.


There is a familiar and frustrating cycle of interactive behavior between two people in a relationship that unfolds like a high-stakes series of dance steps. He does this, she feels that, then she says this and he feels that, and so on. The hot buttons that escalate the spiral are familiar to the couple. In my experience, the most incendiary hot button is contempt. When one partner shows contempt to the other in words, body language or tone of voice, it has the same effect as a slap in the face. Contempt is a devaluing expression of hostility that implies worthlessness and utter disgust for someone. Couples would do best to purge contemptuous expressions from their arguments.


It is also fascinating to examine the bonds that link battered women and violent men. Violent men have painfully poor communication skills that keep them emotionally impoverished. They experience themselves as small and powerless, resorting to power grabbing. Their ego-states fluctuate between acting like violent maniacs and wounded little boys. Battered women are typically nurturing and maternal with dismally low self-worth. We might speculate that they grew up having to care for others hoping for a trickle-down effect of care and valuing that never comes. They have learned to lose themselves in relationships and privately resent it deeply.


My hunch is that women become bonded to the “wounded little boy” part of their men, trying desperately to mother him and protect him from the secret pain they know so well. A kind of lock-and-key effect takes place as their pathologies become intertwined. As a young therapist working in a mental health clinic years ago, I was called into a hospital for an initial therapy session with a woman who was severely beaten by her husband. Thinking that the goal would be to have her learn to live on her own and leave him, I was stunned when she looked up from me with her bandaged, swollen face and exclaimed, “But he needs me.” It was then that I knew that there was a troubled symbiotic bond or connection between battered women and violent men.


The period after the violent behavior is often illuminating as the violent party remorsefully assures the battered person it will never happen again. The battered parties experience themselves as forgiving and magnanimously nurturing with the illusionary increase to self-worth. The tension is relieved in the marital system, and a dance of temporary reconciliation takes place only to begin again. If alcohol or drugs are part of the marital equation, it's like throwing gasoline on the fire. Judgments and perceptions are impaired, and the risk of violence increases exponentially. Often times, injuries occur unintentionally or through misjudgment.


In my own practice, I have seen miracles happen if violent couples are committed to change and their relationship. However, there is one type of abuser for which treatment outcomes are more likely to be unsuccessful. When an abuser uses cold-hearted terror to control his or her partner, therapy does not work well. Years ago, when I was a clinician for a mental health clinic in Appalachia, I worked with a woman who told the chilling story of how her husband put three bullets on a shelf and told her that one was for her, one for their daughter and one bullet was for him. For this kind of terrorizing abuser, prison may be the best place.


Preventing domestic violence takes on a compelling urgency. Learning to resolve conflict, develop proficient communication skills, assertiveness and the self-understanding required for a healthy relationship doesn’t happen automatically. Relationship skills should be taught more actively in school as well as in the workplace through employee assistance programs. Places of worship need to do more in providing support for couples overwhelmed with the stress of raising children and making ends meet. Domestic violence cuts across socioeconomic boundaries.


Importantly, you, the neighbors, friends, family and colleagues are the first responders to families in need. Learn about community resources, and feel comfortable referring and asking for help in talking over problems. Shame is like a dark mold that eats away at the vitality of families. It is most easily dispelled by fresh air and sunlight.