Relationships are a steadfast part of what it is to be human, and yet also one of the most complex. Consigning oneself to another person brings with it a multitude of experiences and emotions which encompass far more than just love. Understanding this core part of the human experience is vital for counsellors and therapists, and not least the darker side of violence and abuse within a relationship.
We worked with Anna Motz to explore the dynamics of violent and abusive relationships. Anna is a leading Clinical and Forensic psychologist and psychotherapist working within the NHS. She has extensive experience of treating couples and individuals who experience longstanding difficulties with violence against themselves and others. She is the author of Toxic Couples: The Psychology of Domestic Violence (Routledge, 2014).
The critical issue of domestic violence
Seven people die each month in the UK from domestic violence. In her workshop, Anna helped give an insight into domestic violence dynamics. She helped us to understand the forces of attraction that bind people together, the attachment patterns that are integral to violent relationships, and how we might assess and treat these clients.
Here, we have summarised 5 key takeaway points from Anna’s talk, as well as given a overview of how to assess risk as some treatment aims.
Domestic violence starts with attachment styles
The significance of our attachment styles is undeniable; it is key to understanding our later adult relationships and parenting styles. The way we love and hate is defined by our attachment systems, and separation and reunion in adult life are triggers that activate our attachment systems. This means that an understanding of attachment theory is vital when looking at the dynamics of violence within couples.
An insecure attachment system can form when a child has not had his or her needs met for various reasons. Anna Motz suggested that the origin of violence in adult relationships can be in some of these insecure attachment systems.
Transmission of disturbance: a cycle of abuse in relationships
If a child has experienced early disturbances, this increases the risk that this disturbance will be repeated in the child’s adult relationships–particularly in intimate couple relationships.
If a child has watched their mother be abused, this provides a model to the child and demonstrates that this is how relationships work. This makes it more likely that domestic violence will be repeated. The person may unconsciously identify with the abuser, or may feel that they repeat the pattern of abuse as a way of having some power over the abuse they received as a child.
If a child is abused or neglected, this is likely to be repeated in some way in future intimate relationships.
Violence as perversion
An insecure attachment pattern can turn into a perversion when:
- There is a severe difficulty in relation to adult intimacy.
- There is an identification with child dependency and vulnerability.
- There is a desperate wish to control the object and prevent abandonment.
In intimate couple relationships, violence can create a sense of comfort and control, and can be used by the perpetrator as a way of regulating unbearable emotions. There is often objectification of the victim and secrecy around the relationship.
Often there will be ritualised behaviours around the violence, which act as a form of terrorising the victim to increase control.
For the perpetrator, acts of violence can cause a temporary alleviation of unbearable state of mind and a short lived feeling of euphoria.
Is domestic violence gendered?
Studies suggest that both women and men commit situational acts of violence, such as a partner lashing out violently in a spur of the moment attack. However, studies show that coercive controlling domestic violence (intimate partner terrorism) is perpetrated almost entirely by men.
The extent of domestic violence
1 in 4 women in the UK will experience violence from a partner in their lifetime. It is women and girls who are most at risk from partner violence. Women who are victims of domestic violence are more likely to experience psychological, physical and emotional ill health.
It is also important to consider the dynamic of re-victimisation which can leave women feeling disempowered by their relationship dynamics and getting stuck in a cycle of not leaving. The children of domestic abusive relationships are at the highest risk of poor outcomes. They have an increased likelihood to experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as a risk of becoming victims of abuse themselves.
How to assess risk in a relationship
There are a number of indicative factors when it comes to assessing the level of domestic violence, abuse, and subsequent risk in a relationship. Some issues to look at include…
- Consider what type of violence is taking place: is it controlling coercive violence (which is the most serious form of domestic violence)? This may include total domination, threats to kill or threats of suicide.
- Are household pets being harmed? The smashing of intimate objects is like a rehearsal for violence.
- Did the violence begin in pregnancy
- Does the victim believe they will be killed?
- Is the victim isolated?
- Are the children displaying symptoms of disturbance?
If any of these criteria is met, this is cause for concern of extreme domestic violence.
Treating perpetrators and victims
When working with clients who are part of a violent relationship, Anna highlighted several important issues that the therapist must keep to mind:
- Do not forget how important the therapeutic relationship is. Enable your client to move from impulsive action to thoughts and reflections by considering the transference and counter-transference processes within in the therapeutic relationship itself.
- When exploring your client’s situation, do not take him or her to a place they cannot tolerate. Try to imagine and be curious about what is going on for this client. Resist interpreting in the moment where possible.
- If there is evidence that the violence has become a perversion, attend to the anxiety against which the perversion is a defence. After all, the violence is built on defences against the terrors of intimacy.
- When ‘perversion’ recedes, depression may surface. Previously, the perversion afforded the perpetrator a sense of power and control.
- It is important as therapist to maintain one’s own integrity and boundaries.
Thanks for reading! If you found this article useful and informative, please take a minute to share with friends and colleagues.