Domestic Violence: Checking Our Assumptions
In the world of relationship violence, one size does not fit all. Dr David Wexler, clinical psychologist and author specialising in men’s issues, shares the complex realities he has encountered in his work with men – and women – who commit acts of domestic violence, and urges us to listen to the vast range of stories that can get lost between the labels ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor’.
The traditional models for understanding domestic violence perpetrators taught us that they are always male, that they are always motivated by power and control needs, that there is always an identifiable abuser and an identifiable victim, and violent men will never really change.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of men who commit acts off domestic violence who fit these profiles to the letter. They are dangerous, they recidivate, and they inflict long-lasting physical and psychological damage on their victims.
But there are many men – the majority, in my decades of experience – that do not. Waves of research and clinical observations have shown us that many of these men who commit acts of domestic violence are NOT motivated by power and control and they are NOT misogynistic. And a certain percentage of them are women.
It is because of the complexities of intimacy, for so many offenders (male or female), that straight and gay rates of abuse are similarly high; the impact of attachment conflicts and related anxieties can activate shame and fear of abandonment – which, as we all know, can generate anger and abuse.
As one group member describes it…
• I did NOT think I was superior to my wife.
• I did NOT believe I deserved to make more decisions than her, or that I should have more power in the relationship than her.
• I just wanted her to stop saying really hurtful things to me.
• I was in pain. I felt worthless and unlovable, and I was not dealing with it well. This is likely the same way many batterers – male or female, gay or straight – feel.
We also know that a substantial percentage of domestic violence incidents take place in the context of a highly dysfunctional relationship, which generates bidirectional violence and abuse. This does not mean that the couple where the guy beats her up regularly and she occasionally attacks or provokes him should be considered bidirectional (the imbalance in this relationship is what is most prominent). But if we listen carefully to the actual ‘blow-by-blow’ accounts of some of our cases with documented aggression, we find that the assigned labels like ‘aggressor’ and ‘victim’ are sometimes much more nuanced than we have been led to believe.
The takeaway here is that, in the world of relationship violence, one size does not fit all. It is essential that all of us who work with couples in conflict recognise the vast range of stories that explain the tragedy of domestic violence. And we need to check our biases and assumptions at the office room door, so that we can offer all of these individuals (offenders, victims, and the hard-to-define) the best we’ve got.