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Domestic Violence & Abuse

It is a little bit wild to think I haven't written about #domesticviolence before. It is a very intimate discussion for me; one I am especially passionate about but I think, as many women do, that speaking about it is very uncomfortable. I've always been super transparent; not one to shy away from my authenticity, but people would much prefer not knowing. When you are oblivious, or at least pretend to be, you don't have to create opinions that may be unpopular or intervene and make things ugly, or even be burdened with someone else's emotional baggage.

As much as we eagerly label abusive people as monsters and are more than ready to tar and feather them, when they are people we love, it is really hard to be open about these issues or even acknowledge them at all. They gaslight us and we gaslight ourselves. It becomes our normal. We rationalize, fawn, and freeze. We hope to heal them, fear abandoning them as we know they too, are in pain, are suffering, and don't know any better way to cope. We remember the good times. We believe our loyalty is paramount and we script ourselves, "but he is a good man."

When we share our stories, we have to look within and ask ourselves why we stay. Why do we make excuses? What would our younger selves say? What is so broken about me that I've allowed this, that I stay? Speaking our stories aloud, and hearing the words is a very dissociative experience. The great disconnect is complex. It involves generational patterns, shaping of #neuroplasticity, evolution of abuse and trauma bonds, social disparities and many times deep religious beliefs, even naive emotional intelligence and very, very low self-worth.

My grandmother was a victim of domestic violence. My mother was a victim of domestic violence. I've been a victim of domestic violence. My daughter has been a victim of domestic violence. My best friend has been a victim of domestic violence. Many of my clients have been, or are, victims of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence Holds Such a Social Stigma That It Is Typically Hidden from the Public Eye

Violence can be physical, emotional, mental, sexual, or financial. It may even be neglect physically, mentally, or emotionally. The perpetrator may be male, female, or non-binary, although the great majority is perpetrated by men against women (Rakovec-Foster, 2014). Although both men and women can and do initiate violence, the #violence enforced by women is less frequent and has less severe consequences compared to male offenders. Injury for women is six times greater than it is for men and men are more likely to use weapons. Around the world, half of all women have reported being hit or physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. However, when men are the victims, their having been taught to suppress their feelings and be strong, to be the provider cause them not to share their experience of abuse.

We typically define domestic violence as a wide range of any or all of these types of maltreatments when used by one person in an intimate relationship against another in effort to gain power unfairly or to maintain that person's misuse of power, control, or authority (Rakovec-Foster, 2014). Abuse of any of these types causes significant damage, may result in physical injury, often escalates, and may end in death. When women become pregnant, the initiation and escalation of domestic violence increases and is a leading cause of maternal mortality in the United Kingdom, the United States, and in Australia. Another period that is especially dangerous for women is at the ending of a relationship because their partners become threatened by a clear indication of a change or loss in the relationship.

Emotional and mental, even financial abuse hasn't received quite the attention that physical abuse has, although even physical abuse has largely been tolerated by our society, even encouraged at various times in our history. Emotional abuse absolutely does cause brain damage. It enlarges our amygdala and shrinks our hippocampus. Our neurotransmitters and neuroplasticity are altered. Psychological abuse has more severe long term psychological effects than physical abuse. We often see this as criticizing behaviors, ridiculing personal traits, jealous control behavioral patterns, ignoring, even hostile withdrawal, domination, intimidation, denigration, and restrictive engulfment.

Homes in which women are battered, often mean children are abused or neglected. There is a relationship to watching your mother being abused and your developing your own emotional and behavioral disorders, even during the earliest stages of development (Rakovec-Felser, 2014). These children are often excessively irritable, are rather immature, have sleep disturbances and emotional distress. They fear being alone and regress in toileting and language. Their normal development is altered. They don't often trust, so they don't often explore, so their autonomy is limited. These children often have post-traumatic stress disorder and a reduced sense of security. Ultimately these children end up with more anxiety, more social withdrawal, more depression, fewer interests and social activities, a preoccupation with physical aggression, and withdrawal and suicidal ideation. They may be aggressive, hyperactive, have issues at school, may have issues with truancy. Often they may bully, scream, or even the opposite; they may be clingy. Headaches, bed wetting, gastrointestinal issues, disturbed sleep, and failure to thrive are also more common.

The Pattern of Abuse is Typically that of the Perpetrator Alternating Between Violent, Abusive and Apologetic Behavior with Apparently Heartfelt Promises to Change

The abuser can be very pleasant most of the time. Once abusive relationships are established, and they can be sneaky, there often becomes a fairly predictable repetitious pattern of abuse (Rakovec-Felser, 2014). Sustained periods of living in these cycles may lead to a sense of helplessness. We often refer to this as the Battered Women Syndrome which consists of three symptoms: re-experiencing the battering as if it were recurring even when it is not; attempts to avoid the psychological impact of battering by avoiding activities, people, and emotions; hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance; disrupted interpersonal relationship; body image distortion or other somatic concerns; and sexuality and intimacy issues. When women lack support, they often become depressed and passive. They do typically reach out for help as the violence increases, but most do not receive much help at all. Half of women have negative views of shelters and programs for battered women because of negative experiences with those programs.

Abuse is rarely constant but alternates between four stages: a period of tension building; an acting out period; the honeymoon period; and the calm period accompanied by gaslighting. These cycles of apologizing, begging for forgiveness, showing sorry, promising never to repeat behaviors then leads to blaming the victim or denying the abuse at all. They minimize the abuse, and we all want that to be true because the truth is so hard to accept. The abuser may give gifts to victims, and the reality is that if she does choose to leave, the abuse doesn't stop. They typically continue to harass, stalk, and harm the victim long after she has left, sometimes ending in one or the other's death. In one study within the United States, 70 percent of reported injuries from domestic violence occurred after the separation of the couple (Walker, 1999).

Why Do Perpetrators Abuse Their So-Called Loved Ones?

There are many theories here, but the large majority fall into either feminist theories, conflict theories, or social learning theories. The feminist argues that wife abuse is directly connected to the patriarchal organization of society, which is reflected in the pattern of behaviors and attitudes towards women (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Dobash & Dobash, 1998). Masculinity is often characterized as being authoritative and controlling of women. A feminist approach emphasizes the significance of gender inequality and the violence and abuse are the result of social power. When men feel powerlessness, they often resort to aggressive forms of control. We can't ignore either that important social institutions have tolerated the use of physical violence by men against women in the past.

Conflict theories expose family and society as a place involving conflict between their members and whatever different perspectives or interests they may hold. These produce conflicts, and aggression and violence are the way that individuals may utilize to resolve the situation in their favor, particularly when other strategies fail. This theory seems especially applicable to violence between siblings which is often driven by sibling rivalry, or powerlessness brought on by favoritism (Hoffman & Edwards, 2004).

Where the two previous theories are more about social structures, the social learning theory is more about interaction patterns in the family (Rakovec-Felser, 2014). Behavior is learned through observation, imitation, and reinforcement. Prior to engaging in an observed behavior though, the observer generates ideals about probably rewards and punishments. Reactions from others are used to develop implicit rules that are applied to future in similar situations. This is a complex modeling and reinforced concept, but aggressive behavior can be learned. Those with more social power are typically those observed and imitated. When fathers abuse wives, sons abuse siblings (Pagelow, 1984).

What are the Red Flags for Identifying Abusive People?

Whether male or female, aggressive people share a cluster of traits, including high rates of suspicion and jealousy, sudden and drastic mood swings, poor self-control, and higher than average rates of approval of violence and aggression. Experts also argue that antisocial men exhibit two distinct types of interpersonal aggression: against strangers and against intimate female partners, while antisocial women are rarely aggressive against anyone other than intimate male partners (Moffit et al., 2001). Those who abuse, no matter their preferred method, have an exceedingly high rate of personality disorders, upwards of 80 to 90 percent; hence, narcissism goes widely undiagnosed because at least half of women worldwide have experienced violence. In the general population, personality disorders are thought to be about 15 to 20 percent. As the violence becomes more severe and chronic, the likelihood of psychopathology in these men approaches 100 percent (Hart, Dutton, & Newlove, 1993; Dutton & Hart, 1992; Dutton & Hart, 1992).

Dutton (1998) argued that three specific forms of personality disorders were prevalent among wife assaulters, including those who were diagnosed antisocial, those with borderline, and those who were deemed over-controlled. Borderline would lean into shame-based rage, a tendency to project blame, attachment anxiety manifested as rage, and sustained rageful outbursts primarily in intimate relationships. The profile of an abuser correlates with these personality disorders in that someone who is antisocial will have a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, and they lack empathy. Borderline personality disorders have a pervasive pattern of instability in relationships, in their own self-image and identity, and their behavior and affects often lead to self-harm and impulsivity. Narcissism is more a personality of grandiosity and a need for admiration, as well as a lack of empathy.

Each of these personality disorders involve grandiose #delusions and a self inflated sense of importance which are critical behaviors for an abuser to have in order to maintain strict and severe control over their victim. The abuser also needs to have a very low affect and low sense of #empathy so that they do not have remorse for the abuse and actions they are inflicting on their victim. All of these qualities are characteristics found in the DSM-V.

Abusers may aim to avoid household chores, care for the children, or exercise total control of family finances. They can be manipulative, often recruiting friends, law officers and court officials, even the victim's family to their side, while shifting blame to the victim (Rakovec-Felser, 2014). They deny the violence and abuse or rationalize it and tend to use defenses such as outright denial, alloplastic defense, altruistic defense, or transformative defense. Outright denial is completely denying the abuse ever happened, that the victim is just imaging it, and may even blame the victim for wanting to hurt them. Alloplastic defenses again, blame the victim, but more in a way in which they say they were provoked. Altruistic defenses occur when the perpetrator try to convince you that the did it for you, and that it was in your best interest. The transformative defense is when they tell you what they did was common and accepted behavior.

If You Are a Client of Mine and Feel Unsafe at Home, Physical or Otherwise, Connect with Me

If you are not a client, please contact your own primary care provider, your local domestic violence organization, your best friend, your therapist. Create a plan of action.


Dobash, R. E. & Dobash, R. P. (1979). Violence against wives. Free Press.

Dobash, R. E. & Dobash, R. P. (1998). Violent men and violent contex. In: Rethinking violence against women. Sage Publications, p. 141-168.

Dutton, D. G. & Hart, S. D. (1992). Risk factors for family violence in a feederally incarcerated population. International Journal of Law Psychiatry, 5, 101-112.

Dutton, D. G. & Hart, S. D. (1992). Evidence of long-term, specific effects of childhood abuse and neglect on criminal behavior in men. International Journal of Offender Therapy, 36, 129-137.

Hart, S. D., Dutton, D. G., & Newlove, T. (1993). The prevalence of personality disorder among wife assaulters. Journal of Personality Disorders, 7, 329-341.

Hoffman, K. L. & Edwards, J. N. (2004). An integrated theoretical model of sibling violence and abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 9, 185-200.

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Rutter, M., & Silva, P. A. (2001). Sex differences in antisocial behaviour. Cambridge University Press.

Pagelow, M. D. (1984). Family violence. Praeger.

Rakovec-Felser, Z. (2014). Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationship from public health perspective. Health Psychology Research, 2(1821), 62-68.

Walker, L. E. (1999). Psychology and domestic violence around the world. American Psycology, 54, 21-29.

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