Empathizing With a Wife Beater?

Jim was a thirty-something man who was involved in a violent relationship. He was not proud of his part in the violence and had been attending an anger management group.

He felt to blame for what had happened and was clearly confused and ashamed that he had behaved this way toward the woman he loves. And worst of all, he had done it in front of his children.

He went on to tell of how he had completely lost his cool with his new wife and attempted to strangle her. She had called the police and now he is facing charges for domestic battery.

Understanding Domestic Violence

Most of us hear this story and feel aghast that someone could behave this way.  How could someone react so violently toward someone they love?

A while back I remember seeing Oprah struggle to fathom how a wife batterer could take a frying pan to his wife’s head.  She was understandably horrified at such a behavior.  Most of us are.  But what if we could understand it?

As I talked to Jim I listened to his story.  He told of being verbally battered by his wife for everything from house cleaning to not having enough education to suit her.  She couldn’t accept his not having a college degree and she couldn’t accept his relationship with his son.  The night of the strangling event, she had squeezed his family jewels with her fingernails digging into his skin.  Because he reacted in a self-defense measure to her intimate violence, he was arrested and will, no doubt have a record that follows him for the rest of his life.

When we feel that we are being attacked we will respond with whatever self-defensive measure we have at our disposal.  When our communication skills are limited, as they are for many men, the only resource we have is to resort to some kind of self-protective measure.  Now, he could and should have just left the scene.  But honestly, how many of us can think that clearly when we are under attack?

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Our brains are wired to respond to threat in certain ways.  We have all heard of the “fight, flight, freeze” pattern because it is true of all mammals (yes, we humans are mammals).  Our primitive brains are wired for our survival and chemicals are released in our brains that tell us to respond in a automatic pre-programmed ways when faced with threat.

Not all threat as is obvious as what occurred to Jim.  Sometimes it’s “merely” verbal attacks.  Funny, I heard a heavy metal song yesterday “You hurt me with your mouth”.  How many times have we seen the public service commercial spot about words hurting as much as a fist?

Yet we expect men to react to the violence of language calmly and without anger.  I am not justifying violence.  What I am saying is that verbal violence is just as damaging to our loved ones as physical violence.

We forget that in the middle of a fight, don’t we?  We are so bent on our own need for a sense of power and control that we will say and do almost anything to regain control.  We have to feel on top, we have to feel that we are “winning” the argument.

Then we get angry and tell our friends how mistreated we are when our partners respond with angry, hurtful words or actions.  We can always justify our own behaviors but rarely look at our partners’ reactions with empathy.

Understanding Our Partner’s Reactions

What if we understood that our partner is fighting for their life (or sense of well being) with the same intensity that we are in the midst of a conflict? What if we stepped aside our own defenses just long enough to see the pain the other person feels when they are behaving badly? How would that change how we interpret their behavior?

On the day of the Oprah show when she was listening to the men talk about their violent behavior, I saw her suddenly “get it”.   She heard the pain in the man’s voice as he spoke of how desperate he was to get relief from the pain he was in at the moment he hit his wife over the head with a frying pan.  At that moment it was the only tool he had to stop the pain.  She related to it as she knew that for her, food was the only thing that, at times, could stop her pain.  She began to have empathy for the unthinkable behavior of hitting your wife over the head with a frying pan.

When we can take the risk of checking out how our partner is feeling in the midst of a fight, we might just find that we can understand their “crazy” behavior. If we stop and view what they are doing as an attempt to survive what, to them, feels like a threat, then we can perhaps begin to have empathy for them.  We can then stop whatever it is we are doing to cause them to feel afraid.

Sometimes it’s a simple thing that we don’t realize is happening.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as they are afraid that our behavior means we don’t love them.  Maybe we forgot to call when we said we would and they go off on us in a rage.  We feel attacked and their behavior seems irrational.  But what if we could recognize that, perhaps they are afraid that our not calling means that we don’t love them?  Wouldn’t that change how we respond?

Threat takes many forms and it isn’t always obvious.  But if someone is behaving in a defensive, irrational manner, you can rest assured they feel afraid and hurt.  Responding empathetically to their hurt can transform our relationship with them, in the moment, and forever.


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