Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Long Aside into Domestic Violence and Relationship Behaviors

Ampersand links to a study on relationship cues to domestic violence:
The more often men give flowers to their lovers, or engage in other "mate-retention behaviors" such as vigilance or emotional manipulation, the more often they hit them.

That is the chilling finding of a study by Todd K. Shackelford, an associate professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, and five colleagues. They found that the more men do things to dissuade their partners from leaving them, the more likely they are to be violent. "Although many mate-retention behaviors appear to be innocuous romantic gestures (e.g., displaying resources, giving flowers), some may be harbingers of violence," the authors write.

The researchers surveyed 461 men, 560 women, and 107 couples about their use or experience of mate-retention behaviors and violence toward women. In each group, the researchers found greater violence in men who engaged in more of the retention behaviors.

The authors also found that acts of vigilance — such as dropping by unexpectedly to see what partners were doing, and calling to make sure a partner was where she said she would be — were the clearest predictors of violence, followed by acts of emotional manipulation. Vigilant acts, they note, are examples of "autonomy-limiting behaviors" that are "motivated by male sexual proprietariness and designed to restrict women's sexual autonomy." Earlier research, they say, showed that 40 percent of women with highly vigilant partners also reported being seriously assaulted by their partners.

Reading the post and the article reminded me of my prosecutor internship training session with Linda McGuire during my second year at the University of Iowa College of Law. We had a section on domestic violence. In it, we reviewed the dynamics of abuse and the power and control wheel. I sat in the back, as I am generally inclined to do, and watched in amazement as the discussion brought up stereotype after stereotype: abused people seek abusers because they were abused as kids and that's how they think love is shown; abused people have low self-esteem, so they fall into these relationships because they don't think they deserve any better; etc. etc. etc.

I realized then that people who have never experienced an abusive relationship, no matter how educated, are generally uninformed as to how these relationships start. They see the aftermath, and try to extrapolate from there how things got so messed up. I spoke up then, and given this reminder, I'd like to take a minute to do it again. Because it's not stereotypical, it's counterintuitive, which is why so many abusers are successful in drawing partners into these relationships, even intelligent, emotionally intuitive people. But if enough people understand the signals, they may have a chance of avoiding getting into a relationship that would otherwise end up in tragedy. If you're not interested in this kind of thing, please feel free to scroll past the rest of the post, it will be a rather long one.


First off, the credentials: I can speak to this subject not just as an erstwhile domestic violence prosecutor with three years of experience watching this stuff. I was in an abusive relationship in high school. It didn't escalate, I've no broken bones or burn marks, but the pattern was there, and if I hadn't ended it when I did, there is no telling how far it could have gone. At the time, I had no idea it was a classic pattern, actually a fairly common thing. If I'd had the information I learned later on, it could have saved me significant trauma and self-doubt.

Abusive relationships start out as fantasies, on both sides. For the potential abuser, they fixate on the subject as the one person who will finally understand and complete them as a person, fill the void inside and be everything they ever wanted. As such, they are anxious to shower the potential partner with affection, interest, and spend every possible minute with them. They push commitment, sometimes talking marriage within a few days or weeks. For the partner, the attention is flattering, if a little overwhelming. You have someone who sends flowers, cards or gifts at the drop of a hat. Someone who remembers everything you were wearing, little things you said or did. Someone who wants to be with you all the time, and will talk with you for hours about your day: where you went, what you felt, who you were with. It may feel rushed, but you write that off. I mean, come on, aren't women always complaining that guys don't give them enough attention? Here's one that does, and you're immediately suspicious?

As the relationship develops, the time commitment becomes an issue. This is generally, but not always, the first signal as to an upcoming power and control issue. The abuser wants to spend more and more time together, becomes jealous of time spent with other people. At first, the jealousy is played off as a joke. Sometimes, it functions to pick off some of the weak spots: getting you to agree to spend less time with a friend who really wasn't good for you anyway, getting you to give up wearing a skirt that really was a little too short. A common tactic on the friendship thing: "I trust you, but I don't trust them." And they may well be right, the person may be trying to get in between the two of you. Perhaps because they are wanting you to stay single, but maybe because they're picking up on the signals you aren't. See, the abuser is still phenomenally attentive and affectionate at this point, giving gifts too often, or ones that are too expensive or intimate for the stage of the relationship. People who have been in abusive relationships or know about power and control issues might have their antenna at full alert, but anyone who is ignorant would still play it off as a minor issue, particularly if the abuser is otherwise "perfect" - which is exactly what the abuser is striving to be.

Meanwhile, within the relationship itself, other subtle clues are surfacing. The abuser will often talk about how hurt they were in past relationships, by other lovers and their families. Remember that most abusers come from abusive backgrounds, so they generally have been badly damaged and are very sympathetic as victims. They use this history to bind you to them, tell you how you really understand them (unlike all those other people) and they know they can trust you not to hurt them like they've been hurt in the past. You feel sympathy for them, want to protect them from their own past and present. This generates a feeling of closeness, a shared "us against the world" attitude that lays the foundation for even more emotional commitment. Breaking up with them becomes quite difficult, the feelings of guilt overwhelming. There is an urge to prove yourself worthy of this obviously sharing, loving person who just wants to be with you and commit to you. Incidentally, I think that the abuser really does feel exactly what they're saying: everyone else has disappointed me, you'll be different. They may not even comprehend that the reason they've been so hurt is that the demands they are making are unreasonable.

Somewhere in the middle of the relationship, the negotiable items (the friend you'd just as soon give up, the clothing you don't care about, a hobby that was really eating up too much of your time anyway) have fallen by the wayside, and the control issues really start to emerge. For the abuser, it is a test: if you really love me and are this perfect person for me, you'll give up (fill in the blank with your favorite hobby, your best friend, going to college). Generally, the partner doesn't simply cave in and give it up. An argument starts, not necessarily a violent one, but it will generally be intense. You are told that you've changed, you don't really love them, you're acting like all the rest. If anything physical surfaces at this first real conflict point, it might be oblique: reckless driving while arguing in the car, hitting a wall out of anguish and despair, threatening suicide, all with the implicit message that if you choose to leave they will be so hurt, they can't live without you, they love you too much. It's an ultimatum, and you know it. But you have so much invested in this relationship . . . .

If you cave, you will find the gratitude and attention overwhelming. The abuser will apologize, sometimes even offer to back off and let you take the decision back, but it will be a lip service apology only and in your bones you know it. There you have your first trip around the cycle of violence, if you have the information to understand what you've just experienced. If you don't, you start to wonder if there's something wrong with this relationship, or is it just you? Are you not willing to compromise - isn't that what relationships are all about? Aren't you willing to sacrifice to see this relationship work?

Note how close that can come to the arguments and negotiations that enter into a normal relationhip, as you start to work through your identity as a couple. But note also the level of control and obsession that differentiates it. An abuser generally has the conscious or unconscious goal of cutting out all "distractions" that keep their partner from focusing all their attention on the abuser and existing to fulfill the abuser's needs. It may not even be a conscious plan. I personally believe that while many abusers consciously choose to batter as a way of conducting their personal relationships, others do not. They just try to use their partner to fill a bottomless gap and lash out when it can't possibly be filled. It's this latter group that might be reachable, with lots of therapy.

As time goes by, other issues arise. These can range from how the house is kept, what the partner wears, where the partner goes, who the partner spends time with. The cycle is repeated, but again, not necessarily with direct physical violence, particularly with an intelligent abuser. Physical violence comes into play most often once the abuser becomes more secure in power: after marriage, once a child has been conceived, after the relationship has gone through enough cycles to show a pattern of re-commitment following a fight like this, and (quite often) after the indirect threats have failed to work because the issue is one important enough to the partner that it won't be given up without it. The only caveat to this: if the partner is emotionally vulnerable, particularly from having been in a prior abusive relationship, the cycle may escalate more rapidly, as the abuser secures power more quickly. Meanwhile, the more physical the argument, the more radical the apology may be. They might make a suicide gesture, to prove how they can't live without you. If they haven't already, they propose marriage or having a baby. Anything to solidify the commitment. The abuser could well get the partner an extremely extravagant gift: a trip somewhere the partner has always wanted to go, or some other gesture that matches the level of violence. The implicit message: yes, I screwed up badly. Yes, I know it. I want to prove to you it will never, ever happen again.

But it does. When and how often is largely a function of how rational the partner is at this point. I mean, you know something is wrong. This person, who was so wonderful to you in the beginning, did something well beyond the pale. But it wasn't as bad as (fill in some horrific abuse story here). I mean, it's not like it's a burning bed situation, right? You've never met anyone this charming, this attentive. They've been so hurt, it's no wonder they haven't learned how to fight without lashing out. If you could just be a little more patient. Teach them how to argue, get them to be less jealous. And yet.

You weigh it out, pros against the cons. While you struggle with the capitulation, the abuser bides their time. They know you very well now, they know how much you can take. They know, consciously or unconsciously, not to try the violence until you've become comfortable again. They may even be truly sorry for what they did, and searching for a way to make it up to you. Remember: their goal is to possess you, not drive you away.

Once the relationship has made enough trips around the wheel, the partner has become so emotionally or physically committed to the abuser that friends, family, co-workers all seem distant connections, people who just don't understand. There are often real ties that bind them to the abuser: the abuser may handle all the money, they may have a child together, they may have moved away to a place where the partner has no support system. And because there has been a systematic rewarding of compliant behavior and punishment of non-compliance, the partner may feel a false sense of control of the situation, as if they somehow caused the abuse to happen. They feel responsible in a very real sense, and may argue vehemently against the idea that they are actually the ones being controlled. These things are all contrived to bind the relationship as tightly as possible, so the partner feels that leaving is impossible.

Some of these relationships stay on a lesser level of violence than others, it may never progress to a broken arm. Others will escalate until the partner, and sometimes the abuser, ends up dead. But all of them have the common, pervasive theme of power and control. Note that many non-abusive relationships can have moments in which power is a big issue. Note that many non-abusive relationships can have an argument in which one partner throws something, speeds, or threatens suicide. But abusive relationships have these interrelated themes as an almost constant undercurrent, once the pattern has been established.

One thing to watch out for: if you have come from a dysfunctional childhood, you are at particular risk for falling into this trap. Yes, I know dysfunction is something used as a catch-phrase for anything from outright abuse to minor odd tendencies, but what I'm talking about is a rather co-dependent way of tiptoeing around one parent or the other, because if you don't they'll drink/do drugs/become verbally or physically violent. This is because you've already learned the "you control the bad behavior" model, and if you're not aware of this tendency, you can fall right back into the role with an abusive partner, without realizing what's being played out. Particuarly because the abusive partner acted (at first) so different from the uncaring person/people who raised you. You may think you're choosing the opposite, when actually it's the same.

In my case, the guy came from a neglected household, had girlfriends who had treated him rather poorly, and thought he'd found a perfect person who would give him the security and love he so desperately wanted. Over the course of the relationship, he isolated me from most of my friends and family, many of which really didn't have my best interests at heart, but others that did. It was always a choice: them or him. And he was so giving, so kind in so many ways. . . At the time, I thought that if he could actually see what he was doing, he'd change. I was too young and/or naive to understand that some people don't want to change, and others simply can't. I got out when he wanted me to marry right out of high school and move across the country with him. He had joined the military, a culmination of what I later realized was a lifelong obsession with authority. That is when the door would have been open for the "real" abuse to have started, alone, away from my remaining friends and family, with little money. And with plenty of guns nearby, too.

By then, how could I have admitted I was wrong? It's hard, admitting you're one of "those" women, slapping a stupid label on your forehead. I feel uncomfortable enough in hindsight that there's only a 50/50 shot this will ever get posted. Not to mention the practicalities. I mean, how could I have afforded to get a plane ticket home, me without a college education? How would I have handled the overwhelming amount of paperwork and expense involved in a divorce? What if we'd had kids?

Fortunately, I knew instinctively that I had to get away, that no matter what I could not put myself into that position. I actually left the country for several months as soon as I was able to after the breakup, a good thing as he'd gone AWOL to come after me. I don't think he would have done anything violently drastic, but then, neither do a lot of women who end up dead. That's another side note to the "why don't you just leave" end of the argument: somehow, you know it's dangerous. The abuser has threatened suicide, they are desperate, and they may try some very final gesture to keep you with them 'forever.' That's not just imagination: statistically, it's the most dangerous time of any abusive relationship. If you're going to get killed or seriously hurt, that's when it will happen.

Given my age, and the fact I knew nothing about the pattern, I feel I was lucky. If he had been a little more savvy about my buttons, my limits, it's possible he wouldn't have asked for so much at once. If he had eased me into it, first living together, then a marriage, then the move, would I have still come to my senses in time? I'd like to think so. I hadn't let him deprive me of all my friends. I had not ceded my all outside hobbies. There was a line beyond which I didn't let him cross. But with time - I can't say.

To this day, when I have a friend who says a guy is just a little too perfect: spending all their time together, giving tons of thoughtful gifts, talking marriage after a few weeks, I cringe a little. I try not to pass judgment too quickly, after all, some whirlwind romances do work out, though I won't engage in one myself, it's too reminiscent of the past. I don't insert myself into the relationship - it would be a dangerous tactical error even if I were right about the abuse. Instead, I gently advise caution and getting to really know the person, I try to keep the conversation grounded and the lines of communication open, and above all I make sure my friend knows that I'm always available, no matter what happens.

And, as Ampersand noted: basically, if your partner wants to monopolize your time, checks up on you to know where you are, and says they'll die without you - then maybe you should run. I personally would leave out the "maybe."

In reading the comments to Ampersand's post, this made up my mind to publish this post:
It’s cute how they frame it as innocuous romantic gestures being a harbinger of violence, rather than violence being a harbinger of innocuous romantic gestures. I love the spin they put on everything. Dropping by unexpectedly to see your partner is an Act of Vigilance. Vocalising how important the relationship is to you is Emotional Manipulation. Wanting to be with someone is Monopolization of Time. And, yes, evolutionary psychologists are behind it all - trying once more to turning science on its head by attempting to confirm, rather than disprove, their theories.

That's not what's being said. Degree is essential, context is everything. It is the undercurrent of control, the act of tying another human being to you so very closely that the two almost literally become one person - the abuser.

Why does this quote make me cringe? Even if it's well-intentioned, and comes from someone who would never dream of engaging in this type of behavior, don't think that the abuser won't say these same things. "What do you mean, I'm trying to control you? I only want what's best for you, best for us. I wasn't spying on you, I just wanted to see you. It's not that I don't trust you, I don't trust them. I wasn't threatening you with suicide, I really don't think I could live withut you. I'm doing this all for us, honey. They don't really understand us. They are always trying to break us up." Meanwhile, you are being asked to deny the very core of who you are and give it all up to someone else. The kicker is, as I said before, the abuser may not even understand what it is they are asking. They really do believe that's what love is. Love means living you living your life for someone else in the most literal sense. They're puzzled why you don't feel the same way, why you can't just see that their vision of your life together would lead to perfect happiness.

I know that even if someone is in an abusive relationship, this might not get through to them. They'll read the text carefully, looking for an out, something that makes their relationship different. Some partners will think that if they know about the pattern, they can instigate a solution, force their abuser to change. If they only understood what they were doing, things would be different. . . .

But I hope that by putting this into cyberspace, maybe someone will come across it by some weird Google search at just the right time, and will make a connection that they didn't see before, and either avoid getting into one of these relationships, or find the strength to get the hell out. It can be done, no matter how overwhelming it seems. Go to the local domestic violence shelter, if you can safely do so, even if only to get information. Learn how to make a safety plan. Learn how to get out safely - I'm very aware that not everyone has a friend who is leaving the country at just the right time and can take you with. It can be done.

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