Monday, October 30, 2006

Understanding Systematic Domestic Violence

Thanks to the heads up from Red State Feminist about the 20/20 segment which aired Friday night on a domestic violence case where the abusive husband ordered one of their children to videotape his wife as he verbally and physically assaulted her.

The videotape was key to getting a jury to believe that abuse occurred, but it was the victim's boss's decision to record in her calendar each sign of abuse she saw which provided evidence that this was a systematic abuse rather than an isolated incident. And it was that documentation of multiple acts of violence which resulted in a sentence longer than 9 months.

As I watched the videotape of the abuse, it not only brought back memories of my first marriage, it also reminded me of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment where half the students in the study were assigned to be guards and the other half were assigned to be inmates and then the situation was allowed to unfold from there. The behavior was so disturbing the experiment had to be stopped early.

The power imbalance between the assigned roles, the isolation and the lack of ethical guidelines were a toxic mix at Stanford and they are a toxic mix in relationships. This toxicity is protected by those who say what happens inside a family should never be interfered with. This toxicity can turn a house or apartment into a mini-prison and the victim's outside activities become like carefully monitored furloughs.

The people who abuse in an attempt to enforce their control inside a marriage or a relationship, unlike the ones who attempted to do the same within a mock prison will find less satisfaction because they want validation from their "partner." That loss of validation and an accompanying loss of respect can lead to escalation. When "I love you" stops being offered freely, the person who takes on the role of prison guard can coerce the words out of the other person or use acts like choking to break the other person.

Children in this type of situation then either take (or are given) the role of inmate or fellow guard.

Once the toxicity enters the relationship, the relationship will be unsatisfying for all involved until someone leaves, is killed or the abuser gets help to break their pattern of behavior. For the relationship to possibly change to a healthy one, the person who takes the role of guard must see the situation for what it is and stop believing that the problem would go away if the partner shaped up. If only those in the inmate role change, those in the guard role may see the other person's behavior change as rebellion and may respond with increased violence.

The traditional model of the man being the leader and the woman having to obey her husband explains why in this toxic environment men are more likely to inflict the greatest damage. It also explains why women who leave are at great risk for being murdered since the men may be in the same mindset as prison guards responding to a jail break, but without the training on when violence is not allowed.

Support for the institution of marriage should never equal support for a spouse's right to inflict psychological and/or physical torture.

The good news in this parallel is that it means that this dynamic is not biological. The bad news is that abusers have to acknowledge the damage they've done before their behavior can change and they have to stop blaming those they've hurt. It may also mean dealing with past experiences where they were put in the role of inmate. Then they need to find a healthier model to replace the guard/inmate model.

Breaking this mindset is a painful process for a variety of reasons and some people will go into denial to avoid the painful truth.

If the model doesn't change this type of abuser will fall back on familiar habits in future relationships. And of course if they refuse to see what role they've assumed as their own, their abusive behavior will be seen as being caused by the other person's unacceptable behavior or attitude.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:12 AM   3 comments links to this post


At October 30, 2006 11:07 AM, Blogger Gracchi said...

Brilliant article. I like the way you put it in game theory terms- I think your analysis is right- this is I think the best article I've read on your blog and I've read a good many good ones.

At October 30, 2006 8:57 PM, Blogger Holly Desimone said...

Dear Marcella,
The interesting point, that you mention is the victim's boss documenting the abuse.
This is as gracchi states a brilliant article, Marcella!
With many women/men living in abuse it is like a prison.
We need to learn to love unconditionally. If we do not offer our love unconditionally in our daily life's we are the paralyzed and can not function in any relationship equally.
Thank you for the awareness once again. Take care

At October 31, 2006 10:26 AM, Blogger Txfeminist said...

Fabulous analysis. And thanks for the link! ;-)


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