Violence in Families
Violence is a Man’s Issue
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Abuse in families is an extremely complex problem with multiple causes. Recent research in this area shows that there are certain variables, which add to the likelihood of violence. Researchers are looking at the family system, personal histories, interpersonal skills and biochemistry to try to tease out the factors that contribute to aggression in families. At present, research has determined the attributes of violent men. Not much research has been conducted on women’s violent behavior. I use the pronoun “he” in this article as most abusers are men. Men commit 95% of the violence, assault, rape and murder. Of course, in a broader sense, violence is a society issue as we all contribute to it when we do not stand up and say that it is wrong.
There is some evidence that considerable stress during the pregnancy can cause a higher level of testosterone which leads to a child more prone to anger and hostility. There may be organic brain dysfunction present. Severe physical abuse of a child may lead to damage to the frontal lobes of the child’s developing brain, which is the area helping control impulses and reactions. Children, whose experience family aggression or those whose needs are ignored by their parents, grow up angry thinking that no one cares about them. The stress in their early lives causes changes in brain chemistry. These “sheer neglect” children grow up seeing others as objects to be used. Their lack of early socialization and bonding make them into uncaring adults who feel justified in hurting other. They identify with the aggressor in the home because he holds the power. Males learn lethal behavior patterns and pass them down from generation to generation.
Violent men often have cognitive deficits and interpersonal skills. They distort social situations, see threat where there is none and respond with hostility. They often have poor impulse control, a high level of rage and other negative emotions and fear abandonment. Violence can be related to jealousy and fear of being abandoned by their partner. If they sense signs of rejection, they believe their security is being threatened and respond angrily to defend their needs. Fear of vulnerability has been associated with abusive rage in some men. Fear of feeling the deep shameful emotions causes some men to react with anger; they substitute lashing out and hitting in order not to feel the bad feelings inside.
Research shows that marital problems and depression in men was associated with mild to severe abuse. The younger, low-income men with alcohol problems were more likely to commit mild to severe abuse. Drug problems were associated with severe abuse. Long-term relationships with once-in-a-while abuse kept the woman confused as to whether to leave or not.
Recent research shows that some men are too dependent and invest much of their well being in their partner’s taking care of them. They expect their every need met and have unrealistically high expectations from their partner. They have a sense of being wronged when they feel rejected. With their low self-esteem, they blame their partner. They explode in rage when they mistakenly believe that they are not being taken care of.
Some macho behavior is over compensatory. A man’s acting rough and tough is viewed to be a reaction to his deep conflict felt about having feminine qualities. This type of person cannot allow any feelings of vulnerability. He believes that it is the woman’s role to soothe his bad feelings and prevent everyday frustrations that come from living in a family. His controlling of others around him with his anger gives him the illusion of feeling powerful. He has not learned to take care of himself through expression of feelings and self-nurturing and must depend on someone else to do so. He feels justified in confronting the woman if his needs are not met.
The combination of macho behavior and a sense of entitlement in getting one’s own way and alcohol or drugs can set the stage for abusive behavior. Men who are prone to violence become more aggressive when drugs or alcohol are used. The research shows that some violent men have hormonal imbalances with high level of testosterone and imbalances in the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Some men may have a head injury, which can further contribute to impulsivity, chronic irritability and high frustration level. Brain damage may be the result of being born to a crack-addicted mother, experiencing violence from a parent or from a car or sports accident. One expert says that the presence of a head injury increases the chance of family aggression by a factor of six. Men who have been severely burned may also become abusive.
One subset of violent men has a pattern of going into automatic aggression without becoming emotionally aroused or angry. They disconnect from their emotions and engage in violent behavior ranging from verbal to physical abuse acting it out in cold, lethal silence. This shutting down of emotions during outbursts of aggression may be related to learning to numb out in childhood. Many of these men had experienced high amounts of violence in their families.
Research shows that some women in battering relationships stand up to the aggression in their relationships, after a while. They learn to be aggressive by living with an aggressor. Their feisty belligerence does not look like the submissive view of the battered wife often shown by the media. For some women, the getting off of their knees and starting to fight back may be the first steps in leaving an unhealthy relationship. Unfortunately, some women take this learned way of reacting to stress with anger and use it on the children or the new partner in the next relationship. So if you have lived with an aggressor who was a parent or a partner, monitor your own anger and learn better techniques to deal with it. People who live in one abusive relationship often form other relationships that are violent.
Methods of Mind Control
In some relationships, coercion and techniques of mind control may be used to keep a partner in a submissive state through verbal and physical abuse. Mind control refers to a system of influences that disrupts or undermines an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking and emotions) and replaces it with a new dependent identity. Steven Hassan describes these techniques in his book about cult behavior, Combating Mind Control. Hassen’s description of the mind control techniques used in political regimes, enemy prison camps and religious cults parallel those practices used in abusive relationships. People who need to subdue others create self doubt in their partner. They play on people’s fears as a means of control.
According to psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo, psychological research has shown how hard it is for people to resist aversive forces designed to bring them to their knees. He describes mind control as “the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes…. Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification create a powerful crucible of extreme mental and behavioral manipulation.”
Dominant people start “training” their unsuspecting partner to give in early in the relationship. They use looks of disappointment, glares, verbal threats, and withdrawal as well as outbursts of anger to get their way. These acts of domination may be subtle at first then they become overt. Dominant people need to have the upper hand in the relationship to control their own sense of inner anxiety. They may be charming and loving at first to get the woman to fall in love with them. After they “get the woman in their pocket, they start objecting to her small acts of independence and starts to corral her behavior by criticizing whatever threatens them. The woman, feeling validated because someone loves her, starts to give up small autonomous ways of acting. Her self-esteem starts to erode and she gives her power away in order to keep the relationship.
The woman goes along with the cutback of her independence at first, without recognizing what is happening. She makes excuses and denies the power dynamics that crates inequality. The man denies the problems in the relationship and uses put downs, criticisms and abusive language. If attempts are made to discuss problems, the dominant partner says, “We don’t have a problem. You have a problem.” and starts using verbal abuse or withdraws into cold, rejecting silence. The woman begins to feel guilty and that the problems in the relationship are her fault. She has been blamed and hounded into her that she is bad so much that she starts to believe it.
Some abusers are so charming. The charming abuser is the hardest kind to understand, as the woman cannot justify the two sides of the man’s personality in her mind. The typical mind control starts out with making the woman feel special but over times her mind becomes so confused that she cannot recognize what is going on. They use isolation of their partner and intimidation to protect themselves from this fear of loss. Unless the woman sets strong boundaries or walks away, the scenario is set for domination/submission. She must be willing to give up the relationship at this point to gain any bargaining power. If she stays, she will pay the price of decreased self-esteem.
There can be an attraction to dominance and authority that appeals to some submissive people. Some dominant men are charismatic. The pressure to conform is so great that the person who has tendencies to be submissive gives up free choice. The romantic bond in some relationships keeps the couple locked in a love/fear cycle. The one who is berated appears to desperately need the berater and vice versa. The use of anger, guilt, fear and manipulation coupled with physical and sexual often causes the submissive partner to shut down. Tongue lashings interspersed with kindness puts the partner in a total state of confusion, fostering extreme co-dependency.
There is a strong imbalance of power in disordered relationships. The dominant partner justifies the negative means by which he keeps the other person in tow. The dominant person may have some form of psychological instability or an antisocial personality. They develop entitlement beliefs and seek partners who have high degrees of guilt and submissiveness who are easier to control. They suffer from a power addiction. As children, they observed how anger and intimidation were used in their family to control others and learned to identify with the aggressor as a means of survival.
Anger responses are often anxiety driven. The need to dominate others becomes a way that the individual handles feelings of inner anxiety and helplessness. Aggressive behavior can be used in an attempt to avoid feeling vulnerable inside. Checks and balances in the system to threaten his absolute power are not allowed. Lord Acton summed it up well: “Power corrupts, absolute power absolutely corrupts.”
The components of domination include controlling the partner’s behavior, thoughts, emotions and information. Strict obedience is an absolute rule. Hassen says, “If behavior is commanded, the heart and mind will follow.” In abusive relationships, the dominant partner controls what to eat and whether the other partner should work outside the home. Permission must be asked for minor things. Control of thought is accomplished by rigid thinking with “You must think as I do or you are bad.” There is no room for interpretation or deviation from the black and white reality that is presented by the dominant partner.
One type of mind control used by the dominant partner is “Read My Mind” where the man expects that his thoughts should be interpreted and carried out by others. The controlling partner gives minimal information or a part of the story verbally and expects others to be on the same wavelength with him. When asked for more information, he gets angry and berates the other person for not understanding. The listener is caught in confusion and feels stupid, as she falls into this trap of rigid control. The submissive partner becomes helpless due to the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the abusive relationship. The nebulous internal boundaries of the submissive partner become fluid allowing the dominant partner to take over, with harmful results.
How Do You know if You are being Abused?
Love is not about hurt, pain or constant chaos. Love is about finding ways that allow two people to be happy together. Some people are not capable of being happy with a partner. They use whatever works to shut their partner down, so they can have the upper hand. Patricia Evans, the author of “The Verbally Abusive Relationship says you are being abused:
“When you are yelled at, snapped at, told that you are acting wrong, acting smart, acting dumb, trying to start a fight, imagining things, twisting things around, interrupting, trying to have the last word, going on and on, thinking wrong, thinking you’re smart, thinking you know it all, picking a fight, asking for it, looking wrong, looking in the wrong way, looking for trouble, trying to start an argument, and so on and on.”
So let’s turn these ideas given in Evan’s paragraph around and define the behavior of an abuser. Likewise, if you habitually yell, snap, tell other they are wrong, dumb, stupid, or if you try to start a fight, imagine things, twist things around, interrupt, try to have the last word, think you are smart and know it all; if you pick fights and look for the wrong in everything to start arguments, and so on and so on, guess what? YOU ARE AN ABUSER!
The American Medical Association defines psychological abuse as:
“Such as degradation, humiliation, intimidation and threats of harm; intense criticizing, insulting, ridiculing and name calling that have the effect of making a person believe that they are not worthwhile and keep them under the control of the abuser; verbal threats of abuse, harm or torture directed at an individual, the family, children, friends, companion animals, stock animals, or property; physical isolation that separates someone from social support networks; extreme jealously and possessiveness, accusations of infidelity, repeated threats of abandonment, divorce, or initiating an affair if the individual fails to comply with the abuser’s wishes, monitoring movements and driving fast and recklessly to frighten someone.”
Here are the generic forms of abuse:
The man uses mind control to make the partner feel guilty and worthless. He makes her feel that she is at fault for his problems and deserves to be hurt. He will try to make her feel bad over things which she has no control, such as “If you loved me like you should, I wouldn’t have to drink so much or see other women.”
The man keeps his partner poor and dependent oh him. If the abused partner works, she must give her money to the man. He may keep the home, bank accounts and car in his name. He may control her spending and keep her in the dark about how much money they have. There will always be money when he wants to buy something, but none when she asks for something she wants. She may be forced to beg for spending money or even money for the household expenses. He may destroy her property.
Another form of abuse is treating a woman like a sex object or forcing her to perform sexual acts that she finds disgusting. He may threaten to have sex with someone else if the partner does not give him what he wants. Rape is rape even within the relationship bonds if the woman is forced against her will.
The woman is told she is ugly, stupid, and worthless as well as sexually derogative names. She hears the taunts and derisions so often that she starts to believe them. Jealously is an issue of 35% or the violence in relationships. The man tries to protect the relationship by accusing the partner of being unfaithful. Rage about infidelity without clear evidence is insecurity on the man’s part.
The woman is kept away from friends, family and others who would be supportive of her. She is forbidden to watch television or read about the topic of abuse. New information is kept from her giving the man the total control of her mind. He keeps track of his partner at all times making her feel as if she is stalked.
Some men are abusive only with their families and present a “nice face” to their community. Others are generally violent and have antisocial personalities who feel free to intimidate anyone who crosses them.
Abuse should always be stopped immediately. Unless help is sought, the violence gains in frequency and intensity. It should be reported to authorities and made public so that consequences can take place. It is the secrecy that allows battering to flourish. It is the right of every human being to live without fear and to have a life free of physical and verbal abuse. Here is a list of rights for human beings.
- The right to be treated with respect.
- The right to express my opinions.
- The right to be listened to and taken seriously.
- The right to ask for what I want.
- The right to show feelings.
- The right to say no.
- The right to live without fear of abuse.
- The right to have friends and outside interests.
- The right to make and be responsible for my own mistakes.
- The right to say, “I disagree.
Abuse is always a relationship issue where each partner must take responsibility for his or her part in continuing unacceptable behavior. Battering, whether of a verbal or physical nature, is never love. It is violence and should be called by its real name.
Beware of Men Who Wear T-shirts with “BOSS” on Them
A few people should not live with others due to their out of-control-anger that harms the people around them. Their anger is such a destructive part of their personality that they are better off living alone. Their sense of humanness and fair play has been destroyed by abuse and trauma in childhood. They seem to have a lack of conscience, and do not care or even enjoy hurting hurt others. These damaged people harm their family members by their actions. But often they find a “bleeding heart” type of partner who is unable to set strong boundaries and allows themselves to be walked on. With no limits put on outbursts and abuse, the situation gets worse.
There are personality disturbances in some people, which cause constant havoc, and chaos in any relationship that the person has. These include the severe extremes of the psychiatric disorder of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some individuals with Dissociative Disorder, which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, have an extremely angry part, which is abusive. Some people with brain damage from an accident or long-term use of alcohol or drug use can be highly irritable, easily frustrated and do not have the internal inhibitors in the brain to refrain from impulsive lashing out.
You can do a web search to find out more about each of these psychiatric disorders, but do not take it on yourself to “diagnose” anyone based on what you read. You can learn about the characteristics of personality disorders and perhaps how to deal with them, but do not put these labels on anyone. Only trained professionals can give diagnosis of these extreme disorders. Read my articles on Narcissism, Children of Entitlement, and The Right Man and Right Woman Theory on my website to better understand these dynamics.
People who fit these diagnostic categories can be toned down a bit, but their basic personality does not change. Many of them have structural and chemical problems in the brain that feed the violence. They have a sense of entitlement of their right to hurt others that is not easily checked. Few are willing to give up their anger and intimidation, because it discharges pent up tension and gets them obedience from their partner.
Do not be gullible enough to think that you can change this type of person by giving them more love. Love is not what they need. The only way people change is to make a decision to become a better person and then do the hard work to make that happen.
If you choose to stay with a partner with explosive anger, be prepared to pay a high price of your shattered piece of mind and loss of self-esteem. And if he uses anger and intimidation to keep you in the relationship, be prepared to give your life away.
Think long and hard before having a child with a partner with severe anger problems. Your child might develop the same type of destructive anger problems, which will give you two explosive people in the household to deal with. Or if you divorce, the harassment and manipulation from the angry partner can continue for years over child custody and visitation rights. Before choosing a prospective partner, think “Do I want to have a child who acts like this person?’ Some destructive gene pools should not be passed on to the next generation.
If you have cause for concern with your partner’s fly-off-the-handle anger over small incidents, get him to seek psychological help before someone is hurt. And if he won’t go, then you have some heavy thinking to do. Think about how your life will be five or ten years down the road with this same level or even escalating anger. Personality disorders rarely change.
When your angry partner says he cannot change and will not get a plan to get help, believe him! He is saying in words and actions that he refuses to try to be different. I like the advice columnist, Sadie’s words on change. She calls it Sadie’s Man Changing Maxims: A.) Men who say the can’t change don’t have to. B.) Men who say they can’t change don’t want to.” Either way this type of person decides that he has the right to continue things the way they are and will not invest time and energy needed to make things better for everyone.
Zero Tolerance for Violence
Victims of abuse can end up leaving the relationship or taking more abuse as the violence escalates. Some victims stay until they are so beaten down they have no will to live. Abuse can kill. It certainly kills the quality of the partnership.
If you are physically abused, call 911 to contact the law-enforcement officers. Make zero tolerance for violence a clear contract before the next altercation starts. Define yourself as a person who will not tolerate physical abuse at you or the children.
Zero tolerance for physical violence is always the rule. Allowing people to be aggressive and hurt others only gives them permission to be more abusive. Apologies after an angry outburst are not enough. Do not be off put by an angry partner’s promises that he will do better. A plan on how he will change his behavior will bring about a deeper change. Promises made from guilt and remorse such, as “I will try to control my anger in the future” are usually empty ones unless there is a plan to make the changes happen.
Some angry people seek help only when they are threatened with their partner leaving. Some people do not get help until their partner walks out the door. Others, who are more rigid and fearful of being told they are wrong, refuse to get help no matter what. They end up playing their anger patterns on the next unsuspecting partner.
Typically the courts will mandate the abuser to an anger management class. Sometimes calling the authorities after acts of physical violence is the kindest thing you can do for a person whose angry behavior is out of control. Physically hurting others is a serious act and is a crime in many cities and states.
Many people with severe anger problems have gotten help through forced attendance in anger management classes. Without the lever of the court saying they had to get help with domestic violence issues, they do not have the incentive to change. The anger management classes teach new skills and techniques to deal with frustration. The classes are designed to help people break out of the belief that they are justified in hurting others with their anger.
Once you understand that you have a violent partner, it is up to you to make changes in yourself so that you can live a happy life. Recovery from the insidious forms of mind control can be accomplished through understanding the subversive mind control techniques and associating with others who have escaped from similar situations.
The only person you can change is yourself. Get the best deal that you can-reword the contract in your relationship so that you have some piece of mind. Sometimes you can’t make a deal for changes in the relationship, so you decide to leave. It is up to you how you choose to live your life. You deserve to have some peace and happiness, but that will happen only when you decide to make it happen.
Hassan, Steven. Combating Mind Control.
Hassan, Steven, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Thrive for Themselves. Freedom of Mind Press, 2000.
Lerner, Harriet, The Dance of Anger. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985.
Namka, Lynne. How to Let Go of Your Mad Baggage. Talk, Trust and Feel Press, 1996.
Namka, Lynne, The Mad Family Gets Their Mads Out. Talk, Trust and Feel Press, 1997. Just found out that my book is on the list of the 100 best sellers on domestic violence and abuse. My book was number 23 out of one hundred! See the entire list.
For more information on mind control, go to the Freedom of the Mind Resource Center.
If you give yourself away in relationship, read my article Why People Stay in Relationships with Angry People.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) is the voice for victims and survivors.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a national data base and is staffed 24 hours a day by trained counselors who can provide crisis assistance and information about shelters, legal advocacy, health care centers, and counseling. 1-800-799-7233.
The State Coalition phone numbers for domestic violence can be reached by following the link.
Dr. Irene’s Verbal Abuse Advice Site has many articles on personality dynamics and abuse.