Domestic Violence- A Dissociative Perspective
Dissociation theory has long understood the dynamics that takes place in domestic violence specific to the extreme contrast between “terror followed by submission and reconciliation (Walker).” Dissociation theory is based on the premise that there is compulsion to repeat our unresolved childhood traumas often through behavioral reenactments. In our personal relationships, we unconsciously seek out, provoke, and trigger situations that recreate and replay our childhood abuses albeit from witnessing our parents fighting and or being physically, sexually and or emotionally abused. Recreating but not resolving dramas from our childhood is the essence of symbiotic relationships. The feelings that are blocked off/dissociated in childhood are powerful primary emotions, that when triggered years later, manifest in their original emotional form as panic, despair, and or rage.
The observer is often confused about the dynamics of domestic violence: lack of remorse with the abuser, and the minimization and self blame of the abused. Why does the abused go back with the abuser? Understand, both partners match up at the same level of differentiation. They are playing out the same struggle, powerlessness and helplessness, in different roles- a positions of dominance and control versus one of submission and self blame. Victims of child abuse can remain in a victim role, become the victimizer, and or switch from one role to the other. All of my male and female juvenile sex offenders were sexually abused as kids. Ninety percent of them have no recollection of their earlier trauma, but their blocked off feelings are propelling the acting out behavior.
The process is as follows: there is a trigger or a provocation that can be evoked by either partner. Then a dispute ensues. An episode can involve jealous rage, verbal threats, intimidation, and physical aggression. Both partners enter a depersonalized/detached state of mind, replaying powerful childhood emotions with seemingly contemporary causes. The dramatic episode is followed by a period of calm, then a heightened phase of reconciliation which reinforces the symbiotic traumatic bond that is usually based more on obsession than love. At varying levels, the partners do not remember the intensity of the abusive episode. It should be noted that drugs and alcohol are disinhibitors that can facilitate the reliving of childhood trauma.
“The lack of self-regulation is possible the most far-reaching effect of psychological trauma in both children and adults (Van der Kolk). The reliving of our childhood wounds does not resolve those powerful feelings. Each partner needs to resolve their blocked off trauma through a deep healing process. For my practice, the hypnotic/abreactive process has been very effective in the healing of childhood trauma.
Van der Kolk, B.A., McFarlane, A.C. & Weisaeth, L. (1996). Traumatic stress. New York: Guilford Press.
Walker, L. (1979). The battered women. New York: Harper & Row.