Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships

Psychiatric TimesPsychiatric Times Vol 13 No 9
Volume 13
Issue 9

An explanation of the cycle of abusive dynamics as it exists in abusive relationships, in commonsense language.

Following the O.J. Simpson trial, it appeared that some of the jurors did not understand the possible connection between the physical abuse of Nicole Brown Simpson in 1989 and her murder in 1994. This paper will explain the cycle of abusive dynamics as it exists in abusive relationships, in commonsense language. In other places, I have described a model for managing aggression based on the dynamics of a "fair fight" called the linear aggression sequence, and the dynamics of repetitive aggression which result in what are called aggression cycles (Maier and colleagues 1987; Maier and others 1988; Maier 1993).

It must be said, however, that the specialized issue of abuse to women has received little attention from clinicians and is undeveloped, and that most of the authoritative work on battered women has been written by women who work with battered women. This paper draws on the work of Norwood, Forward and Torres, and Engel.

Both men and women abuse and are abused. Men most frequently abuse women (Jones). Women most frequently abuse children (Miller). The big hurt the little. Because statistically men batter women more than 10:1, this paper will identify the abuser as a male and the abused victim as a female. In an unknown number of cases it is the reverse (Browne).

The Linear Aggression Sequence

Before one can understand abuse, one must understand the process of an argument or a fair fight. In a fair fight the unstated rule is that each party acknowledges the other party's right to hold opinions and to be respected. Briefly, a fair fight has five stages: preaggression, aggression, control, assessment and management.

While each of these stages has well-defined boundaries, sometimes the intensity of the emotions in an individual argument or fight blur the boundaries. So to place this sequence in a plausible social context, the stages can be illustrated in the following example.

For uncertain reasons the couple begin to argue. They know they are arguing when they raise their voices. They may criticize and denigrate one another, swear at one another, and as tempers increase one or both parties may verbally threaten, physically threaten and even physically strike the other. The most common way that a fight ends is that one of the parties regains enough self-control to leave. If the argument occurs in the home, the male usually leaves unless the female, terrified, escapes. The situation stabilizes after the parties separate and regain self-control. Both parties then assess the situation. In the usual process they think about the things they said that were right, and about the hurtful things and angry things that were said about them. But as time goes on, if they are committed to the relationship, they will want to make up.

When they reconnect, they apologize for their behavior and then spend time analyzing the events that led them to fight; that is, they go back and look at the preaggression stage before it erupted into the aggression stage. They then finish the management phase by talking about what they need to do not to enter into an argument again. A healthy resolution will only occur if the fight was fair, meaning that both parties maintained their self-esteem in the process.

That brief description of a fair fight is necessary to understand how a fair fight can devolve into an abusive fight. The dynamics of a fair fight change to abuse when the "irritable" aggressor uses the issues to beat up the self-esteem of the abused. The disputed issues are no longer the focus. The self-esteem of the abused becomes the focus as in the following: "The Bears play in Chicago, not Detroit. You don't know what you are talking about. You're stupid!" The example shows how the aggression stage transforms into the power and control stage ("you're stupid, I can say anything I want to you") so the male can then exercise control over the female. The dynamics of power and control supplant the dynamics of respectful dispute.

In addition to allowing participants to maintain mutual self-esteem, a fair fight offers the hope of resolution with an outcome acceptable to both parties. A fair fight is about the issues and not about self-esteem. An abusive fight ends with male dominance and female submission, a winner and a loser. This subtle shift in the focus of the pattern of the couple's arguments usually occurs early in the relationship. Because the pattern is subtle and hard to identify, our culture has been slow to identify it as abuse (Evans).

Power, Control and Abuse

There are many types of abuse. Tactics used by abusers include: private criticism leading to doubt and hurt; public criticism leading to shame or humiliation; threats of emotional or physical withdrawal leading to abandonment; withdrawal of money or sexual contact that leads to a devaluation of financial power or decrease in sexual self-esteem; verbal threats that can begin a process of fear; verbal and physical tirades or tantrums (i.e., power displays) that can leave the victim feeling helpless; and finally, physical aggression that can lead to fears of physical death.

In the process of a relationship where a man uses these "tactics" on a woman, any or all can be used in any order, at any time. Usually in the beginning of the relationship, criticism and withdrawal are the two most used tactics that lead the man to have an increased sense of power and control, and the woman to have a decreased sense of power and control. The man's self-esteem will go up as the woman's self-esteem goes down. The man will establish his dominance, and the woman will become timid and submissive. Over time she will adopt a victim's role and, when he is around, she will feel that she is "walking on eggshells."

The process will continue as long as the man denies the impact of these tactics on the woman and the woman also denies being victimized. He will deny the impact because of acculturation and insensitivity; she, because she comes to believe that this is normal behavior in a marriage, because she has observed it in her family of origin, or the strategies she uses to try to change the situation or to liberate herself are met with well-meaning but ineffective support (Jones and Schechter).

To further confuse the picture, the abuser often keeps up a good public appearance (Farrell). The abuser may appear as a gentleman in public, especially in the early stages of the relationship, although it may continue throughout. He may have a stable work record and be a good provider. He may be a family man and quite social. If he has financial means he may be very generous. The gifts to the abused may be exotic and expensive.

What confuses most observers and still confuses clinicians is that in abusive relationships what usually look like strengths are, in fact, tactics to control or buy off the abused. They are not heartfelt gestures. When the abused can no longer deny the physical abuse, the "positive" aspects of the relationship are examined. The abused accepts these as the strengths of the relationship. When the negative tactics have taken a toll, she will cling to the "positives," i.e., "He says he loves me. He's sorry. He doesn't want to break up. He'll change." But with greater examination even these are seen as hollow, which can result in a crisis of trust so that she will have trouble trusting any relationship. If this happens, it can shatter her self-esteem.

When she complains of abuse but stays in the relationship, friends and family say "then you deserve what you get." They blame the victim, which further isolates her from her natural support group. If she decides to leave, he says, "Look at all I have done for you," "How can you do this to me?" and "Explain that to the kids!" These lines create more guilt feelings and make it more difficult to leave (McCarthy).

The Problem with Fighting Back

Some women identify the abuse and directly engage the abuser by fighting back. But even in a fair fight, women may still be underdogs because they are not as practiced in being assertive or aggressive. In fact, in most cultures women are socialized to accept their role as passive recipients of male energy. They are supposed to "take it." As one of the blues songs of the '30s said: "Shut your mouth. Don't try your man." So when a woman begins to assert herself, she also takes on the cultural stigmas governing her behavior.

When a woman fights, her aggression follows a characteristic sequence (Campbell). First, she must let herself feel anger. This is an important step but is itself problematic because anger (his anger) has become a force of destruction that looms as a constant threat to the relationship (Tavris). So initially when a woman feels angry, it is accompanied by restraint and self-control. But when his provocation continues, as it does when her restraint is mistaken for submission, her anger mounts. Crying is the first release for most women. But when fury builds up even higher, she can erupt into physical aggression, to the horror, amusement or embarrassment of the abuser and those around her.

Their response reinforces her realization that she has broken the rules. Rather than question the unfairness of the double standard that condones aggression in men while condemning it in women, she distances herself from her anger, laughing at her outrageous behavior, piling public shame on top of her private guilt. Working through these issues may take months or even years. They are important to work through because at some point she must become assertive if she is to leave the relationship (Jeffers).

While a woman is working through these issues, but is still in the relationship, she is ill-advised to rebut her abuser especially as the intensity of the abuse grows. Such behavior is likely to enrage the abuser. "Back talk" will most likely result in an increase in abuse. Instead, telling the abuser to stop is the technique most associated with helping the abuser regain self-control in those out-of-control tantrums.

Getting Free

An abuser will use these tactics in an almost random manner to keep the abused off balance and in place, but physical assault on a periodic and random basis is the most powerful mechanism to keep the victim intimidated, uncertain and unable to find effective coping means with which to change the situation.

If the victim has enough personal power and support she can, early on in this process, identify it and find ways to change it, and some abusers can adjust and change their way of relating. Some women physically assaulted once leave the situation and end the relationship. This is often the healthiest resolution. Some women who are victimized for weeks or months break the silence by talking with family or friends, with somebody at a battered women's shelter, or by consulting an attorney. They then confront the situation with support. Such action can cause a change in the dynamics.

Unfortunately, all too many women remain in the victim role for years, and when they try to make attempts to change, they discover that they do not have enough energy to overpower the abuser. They become so distrusting of their own judgment that they do not feel that they can cope by themselves, especially when there is the reality of raising children, and they are uncertain of financial support. It is in these circumstances that the cycle of abuse can continue for years. Even though she may be a competent mother and homemaker and/or employee, the constellation of control tactics used against her and her perception that she has no support erode her confidence. The cycle of abuse continues.

In these circumstances women need to enter long-term supportive therapy, individual and group, to identify the relational disorder and to solidify their self-esteem (Guttman). They need to build a support group of family and friends. Then when the time is right, they need an attorney familiar with these issues and they need to leave the relationship, which means divorce if they are married. During this process they should report abuse to the police, leave the home as soon as possible and seek support in a women's shelter prior to or after being abused, and use the law to restrain the abuser. They may also need to deal with addiction, his or hers. Once physically separated they can, unabused, start the longer process of psychological separation and personal healing.

O.J. and Nicole

In the context of this model it appears from the trials and depositions that O.J., narcissistically entitled, abused Nicole for years. According to testimony, he used all the control tactics identified here. The witnessed episodes of physical abuse were just the most dramatic abuse episodes. He beat on her self-esteem continuously. He also gave her expensive gifts and employed members of her family, but the goal appears to have been to control the family system. He denied his abuse and from current accounts he remains in denial. Nicole finally broke through her denial, identified the abuse dynamics and planned her "escape."

She was in the process of freeing herself from him, regaining her own identity and moving on in her life when someone killed her. But in this context, O.J. hit her and bought her cars for the same reason: to keep his trophy wife in her place. In my opinion, because the jury did not understand these dynamics, it was too hard for them to connect the charismatic and generous O.J. with the battering O.J.

Clinicians have a responsibility to become more aware of these dynamics so they can identify patients who are victims of abuse and provide them with the specialized help they need. Clinicians also need to identify abusers and offer them counseling or a referral to a batterer's program.




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