Q. What is my definition of family violence?
I have often heard many stories involving family violence in my work. There are many different forms of violence apart from the stereotype of an angry male hitting a defenceless female. I also know about situations in which parents have been abused by their children (verbally and physically), as well as situations in which men feel abused by their wives. Also, there exist a variety of violent behaviours, not just physical. Apart from physical abuse, violence involves sexual abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, social abuse, financial abuse, property damage and stalking.
My working definition of family violence is: Family violence involves a rigid pattern of relationships in a family in which there is a power imbalance with one person aggressively asserting their right to control another in the family. The aggressor/perpetrator can be of any age or any gender.
Also, discussion of the violence is usually not allowed, which adds to the difficulty for the victim.
Q. What happens internally within the members of a family experiencing violence?
In a family experiencing a consistent pattern of violence, all members of the family often experience a lot of internal conflict. As well as being in conflict with an other member of the family, each person struggles with themselves.
On the one hand each family member can experience a need for closeness and intimacy. Often people from such families can remember times of great closeness and sharing in the family, and stay in the relationship hoping to experience those times again. Even if the violence began early in the relationship, the need and hope keeps the relationship going long after others would say it has reached its use-by-date. Often, the recipients of the anger blame themselves for causing the anger and see it as their responsibility to try to make the relationship work and to re-establish closeness.
The other part of the internal struggle consists of strong feelings of anger and anxiety in the family members. The anger results from feelings of loss – loss of control, closeness, hope, the idealised family, self-respect and trust. The increased anxiety is produced by those losses as well as by a fear of closeness, a fear of a final loss of the relationship, as well as a fear of the feelings of abandonment that may result from the end of the relationship.
Q. What influences the ways in which these internal struggles reveal themselves?
The way these struggles between hope and fear; need, anger and anxiety display themselves depend on many issues. Three important issues are:
The way individuals within the family express their feelings. People often have difficulties with their feelings. Feelings that are kept inside can build like a pressure-cooker until there is an explosion. The main unexpressed feelings that are the root of family violence are anxiety and anger.
When a child feels abandoned, she or he feels huge psychic pain. Physical or emotional abandonment makes us feel so bad and it also makes us feel bad about ourselves. We have an innate need for emotional connection with others, and if we do not get it as a child, we can blame ourselves, and hate ourselves. It has to be our fault! Those feelings are so awful, we will do anything to protect ourselves from them.
While feeling alone, lonely and abandoned, many adults surround themselves with strangers, money, loud music, acquisitions, and status – anything to hide the painful empty black hole. Or we try to fill the black hole with food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex or work. Any situation in which we could feel abandoned may lead us to protect ourselves from the anxiety of feeling abandoned. One important emotional defence is anger – many people start off feeling anxious, and then become angry while trying to emotionally protect themselves.
For some, emotional closeness creates anxiety because the greater the closeness, the greater the potential abandonment. The perpetrator of family violence often has abandoned issues, and so do the other family members. They often stay in the relationship because they do not want to abandon the perpetrator, and do not want to cause their own abandonment.
3. Another issue that compounds the whole situation is denial. Denial is currently considered to be a bad thing. However, we all choose to practice some form of denial in our everyday lives. Denial helps defend us against the overwhelming. We have to have a way of protecting ourselves from the overwhelming emotions that could flood us in response to the daily news about death, injury, murder, destruction and the pain of our planet, our friends, our loved ones or ourselves. So, when in a situation of family violence, the natural tendency of everyone is to protect themselves by denying that it is as serious as it really is. As the situation escalates, there is still hope in the family that what is happening is only temporary. This denial can unfortunately allow the situation to escalate.
The family influences that facilitate denial are many, including:
– “You shouldn’t be feeling angry or worried. What you are feeling is wrong!”
– “You can’t talk about this with anybody, this is private family business”
– “I will just wait for things to change and improve”.
– “It won’t happen again, trust me, I mean it this time”
– “Don’t take things so seriously, I was only joking”
– “You say you’re upset! What about my feelings?”
One important aspect of this denial is the use of alcohol or other drugs to mask the conflict and tension. We all choose activities each day to make us feel better, and some use alcohol or other drugs. Past a certain point, their effectiveness reaches its use-by-date and this begins to cause extra problems for the person and for their relationships.
There are also many social or cultural influences that facilitate denial, including:
– To be a good wife and mother and make a happy home,
– The perpetrator is well respected in the community,
– The fear of not being believed,
– Threats of suicide by the perpetrator,
– Fear of the unknown eg where to go, how to support the kids, social stigma.
Q. What is an important first step to stop family violence?
The difficulty with all this is that there is usually a gradual slide into a violent relationship. Over a period of time, things gradually get worse. This gradual change becomes hard to notice by those inside the family. That’s why another perspective is useful.
The single most effective way of stopping this disintegration of self, relationships and family is to get another perspective and talk about what is going on to someone outside of the nuclear family.
Get a reality check. If something starts to feel wrong find somebody to confirm the validity of your thoughts and feelings. Talk to a trusted relative or friend. If you are the one confided in, believe the person’s story.
Silence only perpetuates the situation. Reduce your powerlessness by making a call.Leave a reply