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Abuse By Any Other Name

Deepening Intimacy in Psychotherapy: Using the Erotic Transference and Countertransference
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This article was published in dr. rosiello's sedona times psychology column in 2009.

When someone tells a story about an abuse the people who listen to the story often feel abused by the images invoked from the storyteller.

Still, we're often drawn to narratives about abuse, as though we have no control over the desire to hear what happened and no control over the recreation of the abusive behaviors in our mind.

Often the images of the story stay with us, feeling unshakable. One of the inequities of life is that we can recall bad memories far too easily, and far too quickly for our own comfort.

The domestic violence case that hit the newspapers a few months ago between a young couple, both of whom are pop stars, is one of those recent memories that the media, as well as many of us, are having trouble putting into the recesses of the mind. The scenario is: the boyfriend who is merely an adolescent, and his girlfriend in her early 20s, were sitting in a car together. He received a text message from another women and the girlfriend saw the text message. She confronted him. He became enraged, the conflict heightened, and then deteriorated into his punching his girlfriend in the face, biting and choking her. The girlfriend's injuries were so severe she required hospital treatment.

Now, here's the part that a lot of people can't shake: Public reactions from fans of the two pop celebrities, many of them also adolescents (of both genders), were split on who was the victim and who was the abuser. For instance, the other day, I overheard a group of people talking about these pop stars, and one of them said in reference to the abuse, "They love together and they hate together."

This is a normalization of the abuse. Both the fans of the pop stars and the guy who likened love to hate, have taken a very complex interaction between a couple and turned it into something that barely deserves [and certainly negates] a deeper look at the issue.

An in-depth look at domestic violence highlights many, many factors. For one, (and I think this is where many people find sympathy for both parties involved), both pop stars had to have been abused as children. Abuse is generational. Many of us remember being hit as kids by our parents or by the teachers in school. There was an acceptance of abuse years ago that is no longer accepted by our society. That doesn't mean abuse is gone from families, it's just more underground, quieter, or there are more threats of abuse if abuse is spoken about outside the family.

In the psychological communities, we have a very wide definition of abuse in that physical and emotional neglect; verbal criticisms and threats, physical abuse and sexual abuse are all called 'abuse.' It's not just the actions of the abuser that are considered in defining abuse. Abuse is more defined in how the abusive or neglectful actions have impacted on the victim. A slap can destroy a child's sense of self if it's loaded with shame and humiliation. Constant verbal criticisms that make the child feel they do everything 'wrong,' can over time, wipe out the self-worth or a child. What doesn't look like much to you, may be far too much for a child to emotionally negotiate and grow up with any good notion of who they are when they reach adulthood.

In my work with abused partners, usually women, one issue that is fairly consistent is that many of these women were not necessarily physically abused in childhood, but in adulthood they enter into physically abusive relationships with men. Why? It's because verbal criticisms can be just as destructive to the developing child as physical abuses. Also, a person who experienced verbal abuse as a child, knows how to be in a relationship with someone who makes them feel criticized or 'less than,' and therefore, they seek out similar relationship patterns in adulthood.

So women who were abused as children often seek out some type of abusive relationship as adults. This holds true for men, as well, who were abused as children. Certainly, we all know men who are in relationships where they are (most commonly) emotionally abused, but men, too, can be physically abused by their partners. The difference is that when a woman abuses a man, the man rarely calls the police to break up the violence and so society is less aware of the abuse, or the man can better ward off his partner's physical abuse because the woman is less physically powerful.

In the case of the pop stars, the consensus of their young fans, on who was the victim and who was the victimizer was split fairly equally. Some of the fans thought that the woman 'asked for it' because she read the text message from the other woman on his phone. Some people felt he should be excused from criticism on the abuse because he was a victim of abuse as a child. If we consider this line of thinking, it would mean that if you're abused as a child you have the liberty to abuse as an adult.

This position propagates and promotes the use and acceptance of domestic violence, and even more importantly, it negates personal responsibility for adult behaviors. It is my belief that this female pop star was also abused as a child, maybe just verbal abuse, but had she not been somehow abused, she would have left the relationship at the first sign of aggression. Part of the problem is that if you're raised in an abusive home, you don't see the potential signs in your partner because you are accustomed to abuse and being accustomed to a behavior makes it feel normal. But, in this pop star situation, the woman did not beat, choke, and bit the man because he got a text message from another woman. There was no indication that she physically abused him. I'm sure she became confrontational at seeing the message, but it was the man who took the conflict to the next level and beat her to the point she had to go to the hospital.

The first step in stopping abuse, an abuse by any name, is to take responsibility. Easy to say and extremely difficult to do if all you know is living a life full of abuses. The plight of the abused person is complicated by isolation in a fear of talking about the abuse, a fear of accepting the reality that you're being abused, the realization that the abusive relationship might need to end, and the fear of feeling so damaged that that you will not be loved by anyone other than another abuser. Abuse is isolating and the victimizer and the victim are both emotionally isolated. Isolation, therefore, is also a form of abuse and talking about it is the first step in stopping the abuse. Each word we speak about an abuse is like planting a seed, over time, each word grows into the potential for taking responsibility.