The problem of intimate partner abuse has received wide attention following incidents involving National Football League players. Yet media discussions of the subject tend to deal with superficial considerations. Little is being said about the deeper psychological issues that precipitate and fuel the abuse and violence.
Both the perpetrator and the victim are involved in agonizing behaviors that mirror inner conflict in the psyches of them both. What drives the perpetrators, usually men, to be so cruel and brutal, and why do so many women remain in these abusive situations? What do we need to understand that’s common to the various forms—physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and economic—of intimate partner abuse?
Most articles on the subject seem to consider the intimate psychology of warring couples as a forbidden topic. One article, a research review published earlier this month by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, discusses this problem of domestic abuse and the empowerment of women exclusively in terms of their levels of income, financial stability, and educational achievement—yet even that discussion is framed mostly in statistical terms.
While the problem is complicated, a deeper look at psychological dynamics turns up important facts. An abusive relationship puts on display two of the primary elements in the human psyche—aggression and passivity. A couple that’s trapped in a cycle of abuse is acting out the inner conflict that each experiences in his or her psyche. This conflict is between self-aggression, as administered by the inner critic, and inner defensiveness and self-doubt, as experienced through inner passivity.
The conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity is the primary conflict in our psyche. (Read, “Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity.”) This conflict accounts for a wide variety of emotional and behavioral symptoms, including depression, anxiety, phobias, and addictions. Keep in mind that we’re compelled to act out in our life (and, collectively, in world affairs) some rendition of the unresolved conflicts at play in our psyche.
In cases of intimate partner violence, the male typically acts out the aggressive role and the female the passive role. Yet behind the male’s aggression are large deposits of inner passivity. His aggression and rage are often reactions to (as well as defenses against) recognition of this inner weakness in himself.
Self-hatred, passivity, and a sense of victimization contaminate the psyche of both the victim and the perpetrator. A typical perpetrator believes, ironically, that he’s the one being victimized and mistreated by his spouse or girlfriend, his children, and life in general. He might believe his partner, his children, and others don’t understand him, don’t respect him enough, and make too many demands on him (mirroring how, through his self-aggression and inner passivity, he evaluates and experiences himself). He might feel devalued or disrespected in other areas of his life, particularly in his job, career, or lack of employment. He holds his wife accountable for his frustration, anger, and sense of helplessness or powerlessness. In acting out in an abusive manner, he creates an illusion of power, though unconsciously his aggression is largely propelled by his readiness to identify with her feelings of being violated, demeaned, negated, and powerless. These are feelings that he himself is unconsciously entangled in and which he’s unconsciously compelled to continue to experience.
The greater his deposits of inner passivity, and consequently the more out of touch he is with his own essential value and inner strength, the more likely he is to lack self-regulation of his reactive, aggressive side. Being a NFL star or a successful businessman is not an antidote for this psychological weakness.
The perpetrator’s abusive behavior is a reaction to, and a defense against recognition of, his own entanglement in passive feelings from his childhood involving feelings of being unworthy and helpless. He may have been abused himself as a child, and now he imposes on his partner the mistreatment he once received, recreating through her (by way of the repetition compulsion) the helplessness and shame of being at the mercy of the allegedly cruel, demeaning other and the pain of being treated, as he has internalized it, with disrespect or contempt. He may also have had a decent upbringing and not been abused, yet still identify at a deep unconscious level with a passive, shame-filled, or self-critical parent.
The perpetrator recreates in his partner all the shame and humiliation with which he himself resonates and identifies. He can be unconsciously willing, through his vile behavior, to relive the feeling of being on the receiving end of self-condemnation. It’s an axiom of depth psychology that we recreate experiences that resurrect unresolved negative emotions, either directly or indirectly through identification, no matter how painful that is.
Following a violent outburst, this perpetrator now is likely to experience self-condemnation from his inner critic for his cruel behavior. This self-condemnation arises because, in identifying with his partner’s passivity, he has aroused in himself a corresponding passivity that invites self-aggression, in the form of self-condemnation, to flood into his emotional experience of the moment.
At this point, he often pleads or begs for forgiveness. He does so, not so much out of sorrow or regret for the pain he has caused her, but more so in an attempt to lighten the burden of self-criticism and self-condemnation now weighing upon him.
It’s important to note, at this point, that people (and not just those caught in domestic disharmony) are very reactive to suggestions that they possess such passivity. We all tend to deny it vehemently. This mirrors the inner situation in which, in vigorous defensiveness, we deny the inner critic’s mocking rebukes concerning our hidden passivity. This accounts for why women’s advocates can become defensive and angry when the passivity of abused women is brought into the discussion.)
On the victim side of the conflict, abused women tend to resonate with a familiar painful sense of self. This is the feeling that they’re somehow lacking in value and are essentially unworthy. This is not ultimately true about them, of course, yet their unresolved negative emotions make it feel true. Conflicted as they are, they have not yet discovered their authentic self and the feelings of goodness and value that accompany it. Doing so is a process of evolution for all humanity.
Abused women may also, at an unconscious emotional level, feel deserving of abuse. This is the case when, as children, they felt disrespected, marginalized, or abused—or when they identified with a parent who harbored such feelings. They would have been likely to rationalize those negative feelings with the belief, often unconscious, that they somehow were intrinsically bad, flawed, or unworthy—thereby deserving of punishment. They may also have been reasonably well treated as children, yet still have identified with one or both parents who had chronically low self-esteem or who treated each other with coldness or spite. Women who find themselves in abusive relationships and remain there haven’t liberated themselves psychologically from this old identification. In a sense, they don’t know who they are separately from that limited painful sense of self.
Many people go through their lives unable to shake off old emotional identifications of a negative nature. It’s a great triumph of the human spirit each time a person liberates himself or herself from these old “default positions” in the psyche.
Some abused women try to give their lives a sense of purpose or meaning through the belief that they can rescue their man from the depths of his torment, anguish, and self-pity. This is a characteristic of codependents who, out of a misguided sense of loyalty, sacrifice their own wellbeing for someone else. Often what holds the woman in her painful place is her unconscious willingness to identify with the emotional plight of her partner, thereby resonating through him with the pain that she’s unable to release within herself. She may also give herself a sense of purpose and value (in her desperation to feel value) through the assumption that she can, at some point, rescue him from his crazed side.
Abused women, in explaining why they stay in a dysfunctional relationship, will sometimes say something to this effect: “He makes me feel helpless and worthless, and I believe him. I believe him when he says everything is my fault and that nobody else would ever want me.” Again, the victim is receptive to such verbal abuse because it rings true. Her conflict consists of the wish to feel intimacy and love at the same time that she’s ready to believe the worst about herself. Meanwhile, the perpetrator uses such verbal abuse because the words have power over the victim, and because, when raging, he is compelled to project on to her exactly what he feels about himself. His words wouldn’t have such influence on her if she didn’t resonate with them. She feels debased by his words and “buys into” the cruel allegations because, deep down, she herself remains emotionally attached to that negative sense of self.
At bottom, both he and she are dealing with what, in effect, are emotional addictions to the old unresolved pain of being unworthy, insignificant, and helpless. Women can more quickly be empowered and men can acquire more self-regulation when they are taught to see more clearly how their tragic disharmony mirrors inner conflict and the lingering effect of old painful emotions.