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Stopping Domestic Violence

Illustration of the cycle of ruin and recovery

What seems an endless cycle
         can be broken...

Where violence occurs in a relationship, it is usually a reoccurrence after a period of calm when, once again, we find ourselves becoming irritated or annoyed with the other person— perhaps vaguely at first, but then with a gradually increasing intensity. In time it may seem that we are gathering evidence that the other person is responsible for the discomfort that is accumulating in our lives. In time this blame spills from an internal attitude into an external behavior, and we begin losing our temper, arguing about the things that bother us.

During the conflict that follows, the tension typically builds to an emotional catharsis through some form of violence. The violence may not be necessarily physical the first time around; usually it begins with threats and gestures of violence. Inevitably, however, the abuse of boundaries will escalate during later repetitions of the cycle towards the eventual ruin of the relationship in some kind of physical destruction.

With the climax of this catharsis the outward focus of our attention abruptly collapses. The confusion produced by this collapse initiates an internalization of the emotional upset, in which a new-found shame is mixed with the pre-existing blame. Now we begin to contain ourselves, where we had been emotionally self-indulgent. We hold ourselves responsible for the situation, rather than the other person— with just as much intensity, and an equally arbitrary oversimplification. We begin apologizing in an atonement for our destructive behavior, and would do anything to reclaim the original calm.

As with any addictive cycle, certain phases of this sequence have been variously identified and studied to help measure and gain control of the situation. Like the cycle of the seasons of the year, these phases follow a natural continuity made up of two sets of alternating forces. The first set involves indulgence (fight) and denial (flight), while the second set involves projection (blame) and introjection (shame).

Fight or Flight

The common reaction to a crisis is the choice of fight or flight— encountering and struggling with the issue directly, or attempting to escape it. In balance, these are healthy choices; we actively work on our problems until we need to rest and recuperate, at which time it is appropriate to take some time out before returning to the task at hand. Carried to an extreme, however, we may over-react to the challenge before us; then we lose our temper as we run from our problems or indulge ourselves emotionally.

Having a temper implies having the flexibility needed to handle such extremes; losing it implies an inability to cope. Steel is tempered by heating and cooling, so that it is not brittle and will not shatter when subjected to extremes of stress; a musical scale is tempered when it has been adjusted to resolve dissonances that otherwise may occur naturally.

Denial is the opposite of indulgence, and is an extreme form of flight. It involves the dangerous assumption that, with abstinence, the problem that once had troubled us no longer exists because we are no longer experiencing it— consciously. This assumption is dangerous because, like winter, it invisibly carries and shelters the seeds of the next cycle within it

The calm that we remember and yearn for, and pretend in our denial, is a comforting but narcotic rest, rather than a real resolution of what troubles us. Instead of going to the addictive extremes of indulgence and denial we must develop our temper; we must maintain a simple awareness of our problems in order to effectively address the challenges that will arise in our relationships.

Blame or Shame

A second set of alternating forces operates within the psyche, which also contributes to the cycle of violence: projection (blame) and introjection (shame). Like the polarity of denial and indulgence, they result from the reduction of issues to an artificial duality, ignoring a broad middle ground that contains its resolution.

This duality originates in the overly simplified belief that some one particular person caused— and is therefore ultimately responsible for— the problems that are taking place. Belief in this duality provides the illusion that solving the problem would be a simple matter of getting one person or another to fix it. It ignores the fact that the problem, and its solution, actually lies in the relationship between these two people.

As long as this belief is maintained, their relationship will remain unconsciously enmeshed in a constantly recycling co-dependency. They will continue to project and introject responsibility and guilt as reflections of their unconscious and unspoken assumptions, in an arbitrarily alternating dance of blame and shame.

To become free of this unconscious dance we must become consciously aware that the relationship itself actually does exist, with real boundaries that must be observed; it is not simply an expression of our personal fantasies. Furthermore, we must learn to account for the disparity between our fantasies— what we hoped and dreamed might happen— and the reality of the presence of another person in our lives.

Recovery or Ruin

And so the cycle of violence moves from a calm stillness (often referred to as the "honeymoon") that denies there is a problem towards the projection of blame in a steadily mounting criticism, at first as an attitude of irritation and then as the behavior of conflict. Arguments and fighting build as indulgence supersedes denial, and the abuse increases until the tension is at last, finally, released by means of the violent act.

Immediately after the violent act an intensely chaotic emotional upheaval results from the collision of projected blame with introjected shame. With this, the self-consciousness of remorse and a yearning for the calm that is remembered leads to the eventual containment of behavior in an attitude of atonement. Promises are made, and kept— as long as possible.

It would be oversimplifying this description if we ignored the tendency things have to grow. As the addiction for a substance develops, it is well known that more of that substance will be needed to have the same impact. The same rule holds for addiction to violence. Early on, the cycle may simply lift and fall as it does for most of us— in periodic shifts from easy times to hard, or mood swings from happy to troubled. In time however, if we do not watch ourselves, the moods will deepen, the resentments will grow more severe, and the regret will become more poignant.

God, it is said, will continue to speak more loudly each time— until we finally hear. The cycling will grow in intensity over time, until we are eventually faced with two inevitable conclusions: recovery or ruin. Recovery is most possible when a sense of personal responsibility has been regained, as signaled by the attitude of remorse. If the remorse is authentic— that is, not focused upon seductively looking good for the other person but upon one's own self— the real work can then begin, because denial has been broken through.

Because the cycle of violence is essentially couched in the context of an unconscious relationship however, the recovering person must learn to avoid co-dependent enmeshment with other people. Still, a healthy relationship is required to support and mirror the work that is to be done. Active membership in a 12-step program or participation in therapy can provide this support, but it will not replace the personal commitment needed to live a moderate, responsible life, in which boundaries are observed and never violated.

This article previously appeared in The Observer Quarterly: volume one, issue four (Summer 1998)
and in The Listener: volume four issue four (Winter 1999).

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