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.