Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Detour Into Domestic Violence

Some time back, Ampersand from Alas a Blog linked 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.

People who have no personal or vicarious experience with domestic violence are generally uninformed as to how these relationships start. They see the aftermath, and try to extrapolate for cause:
  • Abused people have low self-esteem, they choose these relationships because they don't think they deserve any better.

  • Abused people have psychological problems that lead them to condone their partner's behavior long after most of us would have ended the relationship.

  • Abused people seek abusers because they were abused as kids and that's how they think love is shown. They actually like being beaten on some level.
etc. etc. etc.

Research and discussions with victims belie these theories:
  • Traditional theories presumed that individuals with adequate self-esteem would not "allow" themselves to be abused by intimate partners or spouses. In fact, studies have demonstrated that victims of domestic violence fail to share common characteristics other than being female. (Cahn & Meier, 1995) There is little support for the theory that low self-esteem causes victims to become involved in abusive relationships, however, some victims may experience a decrease in self-esteem as a result of being abused, since perpetrators frequently degrade, humiliate, and criticize victims.

  • This characterization of battered women as mentally ill stems from the assumption that victims of domestic violence must be sick or they would not "take" the abuse. More recent theories demonstrate that battered women resist abuse in a variety of ways. (Dutton, The Dynamics of Domestic Violence, 1994) In addition, most victims of domestic violence are not mentally ill, although individuals with mental disabilities are certainly not immune from being abused by their spouses or intimate partners. Some victims of domestic violence suffer psychological effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, as a result of being abused. (Dutton, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Amoung Battered Women, 1994)

  • Victims of domestic violence have historically been characterized as masochistic women who enjoy being beaten. Evidence does not support this anachronistic psychological theory. Rather, victims of domestic violence desperately want the abuse to end, and engage in various survival strategies, including calling the police or seeking help from family members, to protect themselves and their children. (Dutton, The Dynamics of Domestic Violence, 1994) Silence may also be a survival strategy in some cases. Moreover, enduring a beating to keep the batterer from attacking the children may be a coping strategy used by a victim, but does not mean that the victim enjoys it.

In my opinion, based on significant professional and personal experience with the issue, these relationships develop along lines that are counterintuitive to the normal dating experience - which is why so many abusers are successful in drawing partners into them. Debunking the myths may help prevent potential victims from entering into relationships of violence.
NOTE: Because the word "abuse" carries such a loaded connotation, there could be a tendency to pick apart details of the post looking for evidence a particular relationship is or is not abusive. This post reflects my opinions and experiences only, and is NOT the only way these relationships may work. My personal rule of thumb: if you're seriously troubled about whether or not your relationship is healthy, it probably isn't.

The long version: Abusive relationships are birthed from fantasies. Potential abusers fixate on their partners, believing them to be the one person who will finally understand and complete the abuser, fill the void inside, and be everything the abuser ever wanted. As such, they are anxious to shower the partner with affection, interest, and spend every possible minute together. Abusers push commitment, sometimes talking marriage within a few days or weeks.

For the partner, the attention is flattering, if a little overwhelming. Finally, you've found someone who sends flowers, cards or gifts at the drop of a hat. Someone who remembers everything you were wearing or little things you said or did. Someone who wants to be with you, and will talk with you for hours about your day: where you went, what you felt, who you were with. The abuser can appear sensitive, kind, and incredibly infatuated - a very heady mix.

As the relationship develops beyond the initial meeting time commitments become an issue. The abuser wants to spend more and more time together, and becomes jealous of time spent with other people. At first, the jealousy may be downplayed, or dismissed as a joke. A common theme, used either seriously or with a teasing tone: "I trust you, but I don't trust him/her/them." (This may well be accurate, as the person targeted may be trying to get in between the abuser and the partner, either for their own reasons, or from a recognition of the precursor stages of domestic violence.) At first, the abuser may only pick off some of the weak links, getting the partner to agree to spend less time with some friends who truly weren't good people anyway. The partner may start to feel pushed, but can easily write it off: "Aren't people always complaining that their significant others don't give them enough attention? Here's one that does, and you're complaining about it?"

Meanwhile, the abuser is still phenomenally attentive and affectionate. Abusive people may give gifts too often, or gifts that are too expensive or intimate for the stage of the relationship. It seems sweet, and again, only a little "off." People who have been in abusive relationships or know about power and control issues might have their antenna at full alert by this time. But anyone who is ignorant could still dismiss any doubts as paranoia, particularly if the abuser is otherwise perfect . . . which is exactly what the abuser is striving to be.

After a time, deeper psychological issues often emerge. The abuser could talk about the pain inflicted on them by other lovers and/or their family of origin. Remember that most abusers come from abusive backgrounds, so they generally have been badly damaged and are very sympathetic. The partner can be flattered by these heart-wrenching confessions about how "you really understand me" (unlike all the others), or "I know I can trust you not to hurt me" (like they've been hurt in the past). This engenders a closeness, a sense of protectiveness, an "us against the world" attitude that can be quite seductive. Breaking up with the abuser can become difficult, the feelings of guilt at 'betraying' them overwhelming, particularly if the partner also had an abusive family of origin.

At some point, the negotiable items have fallen by the wayside. The partner begins to resist further pressure to conform, justifiably reluctant to give up anything that truly matters. The power and control struggles then escalate. For the abuser, it is a test: "If you really love me, you'll choose me over (your favorite hobby, your best friend, going to college)." An argument starts. The abuser flings accusations at the partner: you've changed, you don't really love me, you're acting like all the rest.

Oblique physical threats may ensue. Reckless driving while they're arguing in the car, hitting a wall right next to the partner, throwing things, using size to intimidate or block the partner from exiting the situation, and so forth. Sometimes, the abuser might direct the violence at themselves, in a suicide threat. Regardless, the implicit message this: if the partner chooses to comply, things will be wonderful, but if not . . . . . Some of these relationships stay on a lesser level of violence, and may never progress to a broken arm. When violence does surface, it often doesn't manifest until the abuser is secure in power: after marriage, a child is conceived, etc. A caveat: if the partner is emotionally vulnerable, particularly from a prior abusive relationship, the cycle may escalate more rapidly as the abuser secures power more quickly.

If direct physical violence begins, there is generally a correlation between the level of physicality within the argument and the extravagance of the apology - hence the tie with the flowers. BUT this pattern may vary and change over time.

A side theory I have: the goal is to possess the partner, not drive them away. Skinner box studies done on animals regarding intermittent vs. consistent reinforcement of desired behavior shows that extinction of the behavior is slower following an intermittent reinforcement schedule than following continuous reinforcement. If battering behavior is equated to punishment/negative reinforcement, and the flowers and apologies correlate to positive reinforcement, the theories of operative conditioning explain why the pattern is constantly shifting: it keeps the subject/partner off balance and perpetuates the dynamic. Not that this is necessarily the result of a a conscious analysis by the batterer - I believe the principles are generally practiced more by instinct than a rational analysis of the victim's psychology - but the desired effect is the same.

Note how close this model can come to the arguments and negotiations that enter into a normal relationship. 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 the partner from focusing total attention on the abuser and existing to fulfill the abuser's needs. Many non-abusive relationships can have moments in which power is a big issue. Many non-abusive relationships can have an argument in which one partner throws something, speeds, or perhaps even threatens suicide. But abusive relationships have the control theme as an almost constant undercurrent, a pattern.

After enough trips around the wheel, the partner may become so emotionally or physically committed to the abuser that friends, family, co-workers all seem distant connections. People "just don't understand." 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. Further, 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 "made" the abuse to happen. They feel responsible in a very real sense, and may argue vehemently against the idea that they are being controlled. The entire dynamic is contrived to bind the relationship as tightly as possible, so the partner feels that leaving is impossible.

The short version: 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, I saw this:
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? Don't think that an 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 without you. I'm doing this all for us, honey. They don't really understand us. They are always trying to break us up." Meanwhile, the partner is being asked to deny the very core of who they are and give it all up to someone else. The kicker is, the abuser may not even understand the dynamic themselves. They may really believe love means living your life for 'someone else' in the most literal sense - and that 'someone' is them. 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 you to perfect happiness.

The comment also reinforces my belief that we need to continue debunking the myths, in the hope these relationships may someday be eradicated.

End of soapbox. If this helps even one person to avoid a bad situation, it will have been worth the effort.

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