Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Thinking About Cycles of Violence in Couples and Families

Doing therapy with victims (and perpetrators) of domestic violence can be both harrowing and rewarding. Anger, grief, shame, a weakened sense of self, and a warped sense of time are just a few of the devastating effects relational violence has on the mind (not to mention the untold effects of trauma held in the body). As hopeless as domestic violence issues can seem, healing is a real possibility in cases where couples or families are willing and motivated to repair their wounded relationships. 

The big question is, of course: How does one go about putting the broken pieces of relationships marred by abuse back together? What about when the line between victim and perpetrator is blurry or the abuse seems mutual? Violence in intimate relationships is an infinitely complex issue but I would like to address a few points from a psychotherapist's perspective that are important for understanding trauma and relational violence.

I see all client issues that come through my office, including domestic violence, through the lens of function and meaning. So, I am always asking myself the question: What is the person getting out of being violent or remaining in a violent situation [Disclaimer: This is NOT victim blaming. It is trying to understand the deeper psychological mechanisms behind cycles of violence]. These kinds of question helps me see beyond the he-said/she-said of the therapy hour, which often devolves into each partner or family member trying to convince me why they are the less violent one in the relationship. This is where things can get very tricky/messy/complicated on my end.

The challenge, then,  in working with couples and families is to somehow deal the all-too-human urge to side with one member of the couple/system over another. Of course it is not possibile to remain 100% neutral in stance toward the client. It is only human to identify/empathize with one person over another. Yet maintaining a clinical, balanced, and (hopefully somewhat) objective view is key to seeing the relational system for what it is. Without this kind of healthy distance from the intense relational dynamics at play in couples and family systems, it is easy to get sucked into the relational vortex and side, perhaps unconsciously, with one member of the dyad/family over another. 

Maintaining a neutral therapeutic stance is easier said than done, because I believe that good therapy does call for the therapist to be emotionally open toward the client's pain - to a point. The ideal balance seems to be involved enough where my full compassion and empathy are aroused, but not so involved that I become a non-reflective member of an unhealthy system - a tricky balance for sure. Working with families, couples, and groups make this an especially difficult task, as I sometimes do notice myself identifying/empathizing with one (or two) family member(s) over another. What I do with those feelings is of the utmost importance for the therapy, because if I allow them to become truth rather than data they will blur my clinical vision. However, if I can step back in mindfulness and process my feelings reflectively, I can restore my empathy for the parter or member(s) of the system who I struggle to identify with. Personal therapy, self-analysis, and good supervision have helped me maintain that necessary stance of reflectiveness (versus embeddedness) toward what happens in the therapy room. 

Theoretically, thinking in terms of cycles is helpful in deciphering the psychodynamic patterns within abusive dyads and family systems. I see violence as cyclical in that it is often both enacted and induced, to some extent. Yes, there are people in the world who are predatory perpetrators and there are people who are truly victims, but my experience has show me that  the line can often get blurry between the two. Thinking in terms of cycles has helped me understand how the victim and perpetrator can sometimes switch roles in relationships. This knowledge can help someone predict what stage of the cycle they are in and what move is likely happening next. Such data gives clients a healthy new perspective on themselves and their relationships, which is what good psychotherapy is all about. 

Lastly, to begin to heal from domestic violence, I contend that the body must be addressed. Trauma is stored in our bodies and yearns to be integrated in a more wholesome way into our everyday experience. Misattunement with the body comes at a devastating cost, because our bodies guide us toward healing - if we let them. Bearing trauma is a monumental task, however. Deep healing and growth call for burdens to be carried together through the healing power of intimate relationship. Only by facing the pain of grief and loss can we move through it. The therapeutic relationship is just one such avenue for healing.




The Objectification of Trauma

My last appointment of the week was with a battered woman who carries the pain of an extensive history of domestic violence and paternal rejection. Though she has moved on in many tangible ways and counts numerous triumphs in her post-abuse life, she still struggles with a sense of feeling "scattered" internally. She has made meaning out of her story by bravely telling it to others and by taking her ex to court, but simply sharing her story has not made her feel whole. In fact, she reported telling it over and over again can become an exercise of talking "about" traumatic incidents, almost as if it happened to someone else.

This is what I call the objectification of trauma. She is no longer the subject when she tells her story. It is like being one step removed from the experience. Talking about trauma from a subjective place is very difficult and sometimes requires the attuned ear and heart of a psychotherapist. I have seen this pattern before and it can be a common one. Though sharing with friends and family the trauma is very commendable and brave indeed, finding a "relational home" for trauma, as Robert Stolorow says, is hard to do. Sometime people just don't understand or are not in a place to emotionally invest in your life.

In therapy, my goal is to help clients find a welcoming home for the painful parts that they bring through the door with them. A welcoming home is one in which a person can feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable. With clients who have experience trauma, integrating those experiences can take time. Pragmatically, the therapy often centers on a traumatized person's most pressing question: "How can I expect to live a full and healthy life after what happened to me? How can I have confidence in my future when my past was so horrific?" The courage it takes to get into a therapy room for the first time after a lifetime of abuse and neglect is immense, and is in and of itself a victory in the life-long endeavor of living with deep relational trauma.