I am often amazed that a woman who has been beaten will not or cannot leave the batterer. Leaving would be the most instinctual and self protective thing to do. In my clinical practice I’ve heard women make excuses for the batterer and talk about the times when it is really good between them. Usually such times are referred to as the making up, honeymoon period. From where I sit, this is a lull that lasts roughly six weeks between episodes. When the beating stops there is overwhelming relief, and often a powerful high. He is attentive, contrite and “very very good”. He has the power to deliver the lowest lows of his “not self” (just not like him) contrasting with the highest highs of his “real self”. He swears that it will never happen again, and because she has no plan in place to leave, believes him.
After the immediate relief, the batterer verbalizes and the victim believes that he’ll never do it again. It is incongruous situation when somebody one loves can cause such a see-saw existence. One woman told me that in the middle of a beating she saw her surroundings and her husband as dark and dangerous. When the beating was over she was so relieved, she felt she was at home with a protector in a safe environment. After each episode things tend to rock along on a more or less even keel for a while. Between violent attacks women have described the man as “the kindest, most affectionate, most attentive and a gentle person”. They are often in such denial, they believe that this is the “real him” and the dark side they experienced was “not him” and expect it to be different going forward.
Although the man may be sincere in the saying “never again”, he cannot maintain it due to the fact that he has not made the necessary deep level changes. The cycle starts again with a pick, pick, here; a demeaning remark there, until tension starts building between them. She starts walking on eggshells, still in denial that he will hurt her again, until he does.
Why don’t women leave? Logic doesn’t work. Giving them statistics of the likelihood of beatings getting worse does not work. Why not? Why would she choose not to get out? Notice I used the word “choose”. Before the first beating she may not know that he was capable of such behavior, but after an incident, she does know and she does choose. As in other areas of our life when we do not take action we are choosing, even no choice, is a choice.
What I have learned over the years is that most females involved in a violent controlling relationship have more the likely come out of a traumatic childhood. Such upbringings diminish the abilities to judge what is dangerous and what is inappropriate. Many children in order to survive the violence in their homes, literally dissociate from the heightened anxiety or terror within. What happens when a child dissociates is that the fear or anxiety is more manageable or dulled. When the fear is dissociated, or split off, one loses the ability to access degress of risk, or violence and they cannot tell what would be normal fear under such circumstances. A client of mine continued to stay in an abusive marriage. As a result of early trauma she did not have available to her the part that could realistically judge the different levels of danger that lead up to abuse. One such incident occurred when she denied that danger she was in, when her husband who said “never again’, stabbed her and she saw blood gushing out of her side.
When a child goes through traumas at an early age, he or she does not develop that part of them necessary for self-protection and self-empowerment. Usually there is nobody in the family able to nurture this development within the child. If a child has developed a degree of self, it is often numbed out because needs cannot be met.
My client referred to above related that as a child she was subject to many layers of abuse. During treatment process she remembered leaving her body(dissociating) and being near the ceiling in a corner of the room watching herself being raped. An important part of treatment during our time together was to revisit the part of her that split off from the whole in order for her to be able to feel more integrated and feel more of herself available. She learned that she was indeed valuable and learned to trust her instincts. Not every trauma causes such severe consequences, however on a spectrum all trauma causes some degree of loss of self when it happens early in life. Just like “Humpty Dumpty” many of us do not know how to put ourselves back together again. We suffer many years before considering professional help, if at all.
The above mentioned client continued her treatment, however the real impetus for leaving the marriage were her two children, girls age 8 and 10. They were readily becoming targets in addition to herself, for her husband’s escalating violence. Sometimes women who can’t find the power to leave for themselves, will leave to protect their children. They are less likely to split off their horror, when they witness their children being hurt, and are more able to trust their instincts when it comes to the little ones.
From where I sit the abuser does not have to be overtly violent with the children for enormous damage to be done to them. Alas, many mothers do not find the will and the courage to leave, and the children witness her having no power and being a victim. Children internalize the woman’s weakness and if they are of the same gender tend to take on such behaviors of weakness, helplessness and being victims etc. The male children often learn behaviors that treat females as weaker, often growing up to be bullies themselves. The children absorb the imprint of “this is what a marriage looks like” based on what they see, hear, feel and experience.
Over the years I have seem many women(usually women) who were controlled by their husbands, partners, boyfriends. Sometimes it starts out in a relationship whereby the controller hides the need to control to a greater or lesser degree. It may show up as a gentle whisper of focused attention, benevolent suggestions, that disarms the receiver as being really special in his eyes. A client I’ll call Anne, remarked to me that in the beginning she could not believe her luck after coming from a family dynamic where by she was relegated to being more or less invisible. Her “Mark” even noticed the smallest change she made to her hair, or the colors she wore that caused her eyes to brighten. She was quite intoxicated and never questioned that if he was so great in personal, intimate relationships, the reasons he had been married twice with two children with whom there was no real involvement. She enjoyed her illusions to the point of not noticing when it started to be more and more controlling. Not just wanting her hair a certain color, he wanted it longer than she was accustomed to wearing it. Just to please him she acquiesed. Next it was how she dressed. Remember the clothes that made her eyes seem brighter, he started buying her many items in those colors, while being negative about her choices when she bought some of her favorite colors. The criticism expanded into other areas of her life and she started to feel inadequate around him. But he was older, worldly, very smart, and besides he was only trying to help her be more sophisticated or polished, so she thought.
This situation did not lead to violence but it left to Anne feeling confused inadequate and quite hurt. It is an example of how easy one can give one’s personal power away, especially if one is a “people pleaser”. A need for attention, to be seen, to be accepted fed Anne’s need to pretzel herself in the name of what seemed to be love. But as it is with most “control” freaks the closer they got the more license Mark took to bevel the intimacy with his moods that alternated between being rewarding and punitive. Anne loved him without questions and had a struggle with her own feelings when resentment started to build. She realized she had lost trust in herself to know what was best for her. She came into therapy and worked at a deep level to heal the wounds, she carried from her family of origin issues. If she had not healed the deeper wounding from early years she would have been prey for another control predator, as we tend to repeat the cycle. Anne got strong enough to leave Mark and reflect on the fact that she got into it with “eyes half shut”.
When control becomes more dangerous, there are usually many red flags leading up to violence. I have had as clients, many wives whose husbands insist that they want to take care of them financially if they would quit jobs, careers or school, to stay home and have children and take care of the household. Now I am not about to say that all such agreements are dangerous, some are perfectly egalitarian and loving, with husbands who value their wives and all that she brings to the relationship and their quality of life.
When I see clients in such a predicament they are generally not a part of an egalitarian couple but often it is one of them, more often than not, the wife who is suffering and feeling stuck. Many controlling husbands start with the money, either doling it out, or keeping secrets about bank accounts and other financial concerns. Some control the amount of money spent on groceries and clothing. Some want to control the amount of time spent with family and friends. I’ve had a client I’ll call Sue whose husband was an established professional with a good income. She told me her husband checked on her spending to the extent of going over the grocery receipt, line by line. She said her mother gave her cash to come and see me as she feared leaving a paper trail. He would not have approved her seeking “outside help”. As the control escalates and become more malevolent the controlling one does not want outsiders “knowing their business” and may be threatened if such actions are taken.
If a woman starts to take a stand for self, starts school, or becomes more assertive he may feel more desperate, which opens the door for violence to start or escalate. At some level the controller believes he has to have control of his loved ones because it is the only way he can be assured of having love in his life.
What is really confusing for the controlled one is that he can be so gentle, sweet, etc. until he is crossed or challenged if she starts changing. She may refer to the benevolent side of him that puts her on a pedestal when things are going his way, his “old self”, denying that his shadow side is him at all. She may refer to an incident as I don’t know what come over him, he wasn’t himself. It was as though something took him over and made him do such and such, as he would never do that in his right mind. Denial works for us until such time as it clouds our perception and we are endangered by it. When one is in denial, one is not using discernment and cannot see the wisest possible choices.
In such situations control may work for a while but in the controlled there builds resentment, fear and anger. Such feelings in turn create distance in the relationship which is felt by the controller, who in turn “tightens the noose”. As she starts to experience the above feelings as a matter of course, she may get angry enough to start planning a way to leave. As one gets more assertive, the controller gets more threatened.
Such men do not usually come for treatment to do the serious inner work to know themselves in order to make core changes. Such work creates feelings of vulnerability. Professional help means truly letting go of controls and surrendering to the healing process. In essence by refusing help they make a choice of continuing to use violence. They have come for help in a bind, a crisis, telling their wives “I’ll do anything if you will stay”, only to stop coming, as soon as the crisis abates.
Although I believe one should choose to leave a controlling relationship especially when there is intimidation or it has turned violent, I realize there is real danger here. Over the years I have had wives, girlfriends tell me “oh he would not do that to me, hit, slap, intimidate etc as he did with other relationships”: “He knows that I love him or understand him better more than the other women in his life”. How naïve is that when it is evident he is full of conflict. He hates his mother, calls his high school girlfriend a drama queen who make mountains out of mole hills. He calls his ex wife a bitch, who took a lot of his money. He has never worked through his anger towards women and you believe he’ll treat you differently because you love his potential to become a better person. Maybe as he courts you, you find his excessive kind preoccupation with you loving and you deny you are feeling more and more suffocated. You are in love, you tell yourself. You ignore his bullying of his dog, or rage in traffic or his calling a store clerk names because he was kept waiting.
What I want to emphasize is that if you find yourself in such a relationship do not stay and believe he will change. In moments of the aftermath of violence, he will seem sincere in the wanting, to be better, to love you more, and never do it again. Do not believe him. Do not wait for control and violence to escalate in order to make a plan to leave. What I have witnessed is that in most cases the sooner one gets out the less possibility of horrendous acts including murder of the one leaving. The more time a perpetrator of control and violence has, the more invested he is in ownership and the more rageful he becomes if left.
The way our court systems are set up at present there is no real protection for a woman. Remember Nicole Simpson, she called for protection from the LAPD several times. Her fears were minimized and her ex husband was protected. I am not insinuating that police as a whole would minimize the woman’s pleas but often their hands are tied within limitation of the systems. Whatever you do, do not believe that taking out a Restraining Order as they may suggest will provide you with safety. Do you believe for one moment that somebody in a murderous rage will honor a piece of paper? A battered woman’s shelter will give you and your children the best possibility of protection. Many women in such situations are reluctant to go there. Yes they are inconvenient and will take some getting used to. In order to make such a decision one has to let go of one’s denial and be firm in a decision to leave. Usually at this point there is no turning back and for those who cling on to possibilities of things being different, most often they don’t go to a shelter but choose a Restraining Order instead.
Over my thirty years in clinical practice, I have known clients who were wives and girlfriends who had a Restraining Order that were totally ignored by their perpetrators. The women felt falsely safer. I’ve known them to be robbed, raped and beaten by the men they thought they were protected from with such an order. When women take their abusers names to a public forum, it becomes a public rejection. Such action combines with the humiliation of being left is usually intolerable for the pride and ego of such men. Once the bully has time and energy invested in the relationship, the more entrenched is the idea of ownership becomes and the more danger is present when one tries to leave. It becomes evident that it is very important to take definite action early in the relationship. At the first hint of excessive control, bullying or violence leave. It is more dangerous to wait to see if he’ll change.
Often I see a woman who raptures on about their newest involvement and it is obvious that they are falling or are in love with a man’s potential. The potential maybe around who he will become when he is not stressed out, out of rehabilitation, finally divorced and on and on. I hear many such stories as I follow many through the years. My clients marry for potential and divorce when it becomes an ever moving target. It becomes clear one should not marry a potentially, kind respecter of women dependable, generous, financially solvent, faithful man. If he is not already such a man, move on. “What you see is what you get”. Women are notorious for buying into the future with images of romance and intimacy, overlooking the reality of the present. A women who met a man in November, wondered how she is going to get enough weight off to look good in her bikini when she goes to the beach with him during the summer. Two or three dates and she is ignoring the reality and pushing into the possibilities. You can bet that the man is not pretzeling himself with thoughts of how he’ll look in a bathing suit by summer.
What she should be doing is using discernment and asking open ended questions if she is interested in him. In the beginning men are more inclined to tell you who they are. Listen carefully to how he talks about his relationships with his mother, his ex wife, or ex girlfriend.
Following are some things you need to notice, question and note early on about your new relationship.
Does he have male friends?
Do people like him?
Does he take responsibilities for his part in relationship difficulties?
Does he blame others?
How does he handle disappointments?
How does he show anger?
Is he inflexible?
Does he resist change?
Does he refuse to take “no” for an answer?
Do you feel free to tell him no?
Is he moody?
Does he have an interest in violent TV shows, movies or books with violent content?
Does he use or talk of weapons as an extension of his personal power?
Does he have to be right?
Does he hate?
Is he jealous? Is there a history of jealously?
Is he jealous of anybody who takes your time away from him?
Does he abuse alcohol, drugs or use them as excuses for bad behavior?
Is he cruel to animals?
Is he kind to children? Does he respect them?
Does he throw or break things in anger?
Do you minimize your feelings of concern regarding any of his behaviors?
Why are you choosing him? Really?
Do you trust yourself and the red flags you see?
Does he call such behaviors the “not me part”?
Does he say “I don’t know what came over me”? (Believe me that is him too)
If several of the above red flags are present, get out, get out, before an incident happens or you two get more invested in each other. Once he is more invested, it becomes more dangerous to leave, not impossible but more dangerous. Do not threaten to leave or tell him you plan to. Do not expect a reasonable discussion. Make your plans deliberately if you have time and engage others to be supportive. It is best if you are in danger to go to a shelter.
Once you get out decide not to become a repeater of the pattern, of being victimized, by anybody else. Go into treatment with someone who is skilled in helping people dive deeply into the core of their being. It is there that the healing needs to take place. The feeling of unworthiness and low self-esteem factors into the denial of self. Often there is early childhood trauma to be freed up from as well as getting back the feelings that one has numbed out to keep going. If you were not wounded to begin with, it is highly unlikely you would be in such a situation.