Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Working with women who love abusive men.

One of the most difficult and sensitive issues which arises in my sessions occurs when women are loyal to abusive men. Despite bruises, cuts, public humiliations, hospital visits, the advice of friends and social workers, abusive men can exert a magnetic attraction

Why is this? Part of the answer lies in the narrative. Abusive men do not start a relationship by being abusive. Often, they are initially very charming. Having charm is often an unrecognised sign of having been emotionally, physically or sexually abused. A child who has been brought up in a happy and accepting home will not be afraid of anger, of expressing a contrary opinion or being challenging. A charming man can be a person whose real self has gone into hiding. Anxious to please, the charmer can be a chameleon, and so can present himself as an ideal partner, one who shares the opinions and interests of his victim.

Having been accepted as a partner, the first task of an abusive man is to detach his partner from her friends and colleagues. This may be done on the pretext of closeness or self-sufficiency - now we've got each other, we have no need of others. As Dr. Johnson said, friends are people whose faults we ignore; the abusive man sets about remedying this omission.The woman's friends are represented as irresponsible, bad influences, immature and outgrown, or else as over-serious, no fun. The last has especial appeal if the abuser has a drug or alcohol problem. Only a prude, surely, could object to a couple of bottles of whiskey now and then? 

Or it could work in the opposite direction: a puritanical abuser-abusers are often harsh to themselves as well as others-may argue that friends are loose, immoral, alcoholics, bad influences. In a way, the arguments are immaterial. What counts is the intention-and that is to place the abused person in a position where no outside influence is allowed to provide a friendly standpoint from which the abuse can be perceived for what it is.

In the early stages, the abuser will be on best behaviour. At the beginning of a relationship, this is quite normal, and so there is nothing yet to arouse suspicions. Everyone starts a relationship trying to be their ego ideal, their best self, and also tries to please the other. This is not sustainable, and so there comes the inevitable day when the woman challenges, criticises or displeases her man. He lashes out, perhaps hitting her across the face. At this point, if she takes the advice of domestic violence experts or the Twitterati, she would leave. However, the outburst seems so out of character; the man is so obviously repentant; and surely everyone deserves a second chance? Flowers and chocolates descend from the sky; eternal love is invoked, and a pattern has been set.

After this, there is a recurring pattern. The abuser knows he is skating on thin ice, and so showers the recipient with love and attention. The intensity of it is intoxicating. Even the abuse comes to seem like proof of the reality and sincerity of the abuser's passion. A woman who would have recoiled in horror at the situation she is now in becomes reconciled to it. 

Another vital tactic of the abuser contributes to this. At all costs, he must lower the woman's self-esteem. In one form, this is a subtle business. He must not appear too obviously critical. The art is to suggest that the woman is lucky to have him, is not attractive enough to appeal to anyone else, and yet has special qualities which he alone can appreciate.

The second method is more obviously-to an outsider-vicious. It is the tactics of the Iraq War: shock and awe. The criticism is so strong, so relentless, so frequent and so comprehensive that the woman becomes worn down by it. It helps if the criticism is delivered in angry, eloquent, uninterrupted harangues so that the woman is denied space to refute and consider. Tragically, women can sometimes accept these criticisms as authoritative and true, thereby destroying any semblance of self-confidence and self-esteem.

Amongst the women who have succumbed to these tactics have been some of the most shrewd and intelligent academics and business women. When described, the processes must seem transparent but they are more insidious when you are caught up in them.

As the relationship progresses, what happens becomes increasingly horrific; by this stage, the phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome may come into play, though with domestic abuse rather than kidnapping. Apparently, when a person is taken hostage by someone who treats them badly, an occasional kind act produces a feeling of overwhelming gratitude very much akin to love. This is so overwhelming a sensation that it becomes a central memory. Hence, we might say that there are two ways to win love: one is to be loveable, the other is to be unloveable but occasionally to do a kind act. This is confirmed by a very strange fact-when people are debating in therapy whether to stay in a relationship or not, it is those who have been hospitalised by domestic violence who are most likely to cry out, as the clinching, unanswerable argument 'But I love him, and could never love anyone else as much!'

Situations such as these challenge both therapist and client. The client overtly wishes to explore her relationship, perhaps seeking an ally in her efforts to break free. The most obvious counter-transference is for the therapist to side with the woman as a victim and experience a disorientating hatred of the abuser. Therapist even-handedness may seem pointless or immoral and might run the risk of collusion with the abuser or with the part of the client that sides with the abuser. However, there is a good chance that, by now, the client feels that it is her and her partner against the world, and so the therapist is in danger of joining that dull, unimaginative, jealous group that wishes to destroy a love to rival that of Romeo and Juliet. 

If, on the other hand, the therapist adopts a traditional psychodynamic stance of strict neutrality, the client may compare this with the hostility towards the abuser of her friends. Then the client might suspect the therapist of being unsympathetic towards, or indifferent to, her sufferings, or even to be quietly endorsing a condoning attitude towards the abuser.

In the sociology of organisations, it is well known that workers like to debate endlessly the characters of their bosses, and it is thought that this is a way of understanding them and predicting their behaviour. There is a parallel in abusive relationships. The women involved would like to find a way of conceptualising the abusers, and so take to obsessing over the abuser's motives, both with their friends and their therapists. This could have the dangerous effect of feeding an obsession with what might look like intrinsically fascinating complexity.

I have come to believe that the best way of working with women in this situation is, first, to make sure, as far as possible, that they are safe. This may mean seeking and establishing a place of safety within the house or outside of it-some arrangement with a friend, for example, which can be called upon if needed. If a safe word can be established within the relationship, so much the better, but this is neither always possible or respected. It may be that raising the issues of safety and self-care may be enough to persuade the victim to leave.

A second strategy can be to encourage reflection on the nature of love-love as an emotion which involves kindness and consideration and respect for the boundaries of others.

A third can be to consider the character of the abuser, and what might constitute reasonable expectations of someone whose behaviour is problematic.

A fourth is to attempt to restore or enhance the self-esteem of the victim.

A fifth is to look at the upbringing and family culture of the victim, and see whether it might offer some clues as to the difficulty in breaking free. For example, for a woman whose parent was alcoholic, love may smell of alcohol, and so the abuser may wear a seductive perfume.

I also think it is helpful to realise that breaking away from an abusive partner, like giving up smoking, might involve several attempts before liberation is achieved.

There are many other tactics which the therapist can adopt. This list is neither prescriptive nor universal, and, as always, the client frequently devises approaches superior to any the therapist could have brought to bear. I have come to believe that it is important to directly discuss the therapeutic relationship, and its bearing on the abusive relationship.

If you would like to discuss the contents of this blog, I would be happy to do so. If you are interested in having therapy with me - which, obviously, could be unconnected with its contents-please get in touch. Richard Thomas, September 2013.