The Dynamics of Abuse Within Families and Relationships

Sisters Comforting Each OtherIt is the nature of abuse within families to be as behaviorally nuanced and emotionally complex as the individuals involved. Relationship abuses nearly inevitably reveal a life-draining and self-perpetuating dynamic of power and control. It is within this dynamic that abuse is perpetuated.

Abuse may manifest as physical (throwing, shoving, grabbing, blocking pathways, slapping, hitting, scratches, bruises, burns, cuts, wounds, broken bones, fractures, damage to organs, permanent injury, even murder), sexual (suggestive flirtatiousness, propositioning, undesired or inappropriate holding, kissing, fondling of sexual parts, masturbation, oral sex, or any kind of forceful sexual activity), or emotional (neglect, harassment, shaming, threatening, malicious tricks, blackmail, unfair punishments, cruel or degrading tasks, confinement, abandonment).

Abuse may also involve what I call strategic accusation in an attempt to maintain perceived leverage in the context of families and social circles—for instance, communicating to family and friends that the victim has engaged in affairs that have not occurred, or even using the mere threat of spreading such a rumor. There may also be implicit threats, such as, for instance, the open display of weapons. Perpetrators may drive recklessly in order to generate fear and emphasize a position of control.

Financial or what you might call economic abuses may also exist. For instance, many perpetrators maintain individual, or even secret, bank accounts as a way to withhold money. They may also ensure that bills and credit cards be placed under the name of the victim as a measure of self-protection.

In all of these, the dynamic of abuse commonly takes shape in varying modes of manipulation, intimidation, aggression, and terrorism.

And though we often think of abuse as being inflicted by a perpetrator on a victim, or else between two perpetrators, we must be careful to recognize another disposition, an often secretly performed dynamic of abuse, that is inflicted by an emotionally troubled person onto himself or herself.

Recognizing that those trapped in such dynamics embody varying forms of what psychology has long referred to as sadism and masochism, psychologist David Shapiro (1981) instructed:

Each disposition involves, in its own way, a defensive, usually angry assertion of will; each is driven by a sense of inferiority, shame, or humiliation; each is deeply and self-consciously concerned with relative position, rank, and measure, with superiority and inferiority—but the sadistic person from the superior position, and the masochistic person from the inferior one.

The sadistic impulse occurs when a person dominates others as a way of attempting to gain in a surrogate what they lack within themselves and in life: control. The masochistic impulse occurs when a person grasps for such control through harmful forms of self-soothing.

Eating disorders, cutting, and substance abuse are indicative of a masochistic coping style and often of entrenched emotional dominance or avoidance within a family system.

Child abuse occurs far more commonly than most people realize. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a study in the 1990s that has tracked child abuse and reported that there are more than three million reports made each year involving more than six million children, and that between four and seven children die each day due to abuse or neglect in the United States.

And then there is violence between lovers. Michael Johnson (2006) identified four major types of intimate partner violence—situational couple violence, intimate terrorism, violent resistance, and mutual violent control—and defined them “in terms of the control motives of the violent member[s] of the couple, motives that are identified operationally by patterns of controlling behavior that indicate an attempt to exercise general control over one’s partner.”

Intimate terrorism, which most frequently involves men abusing women, is the most extreme form of domestic violence. Another form of chronic domestic violence is a pattern in which both husband and wife are controlling and physically violent, two intimate terrorists battling for control, what Johnson labeled “mutual violent control.” These types of chronic abuse are products of two quite different evolutionary histories and psychological profiles: “one type broadly sociopathic and violent, the other deeply emotionally dependent on their relationship with their partner” (Skolnick and Skolnick, 2003).

Lipman-Blumen (1984) defined power in relationships as “the process by which individuals gain the ability to impose their will on others.” Abuse is often preceded by a more subtle power dynamic. Newman (1999) noted that early stages of abuse may be primarily emotional and difficult to detect:

For instance, when a husband anticipates his wife’s angry response to his desire for her to do more around the house, he may decide not to voice his concerns in order to avoid conflict. Thus, she has successfully exerted power over him [by preventing him from speaking his mind] without any direct confrontation. Such invisible power is important since it can maintain inequality even in those marriages that appear harmonious and conflict free.

Victims of relationship abuses often enter into therapy in the midst of a dualistic emotional experience—an affectionate emotional bond interlaced with anger, resentment, and fear.

Those who find themselves in therapy are obviously often experiencing painful and isolating feelings and possibly ambiguity of emotions, such as love and anger, which may be felt simultaneously. Unless a therapist is highly empathic, victims may be unwilling to expose themselves. The first tasks in therapy should always be to empathize with the person amid the emotions brought into the therapy room and to ensure an immediate plan for safety should a disclosure of abuse be made.

References:

  1. Centers for Disease Control. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html.
  2. Johnson, M.P. (2006). Conflict and control: Gender symmetry and asymmetry in domestic violence. In Violence Against Women (12) 11, 1003-1018. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  3. Lipman-Blumen, J. (1984). Gender roles and power. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  4. Newman, D.M. (1999). Sociology of families. Pine Forge Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.
  5. Shapiro, D. (1981). Autonomy and rigid character. United States: Basic Books.
  6. Skolnick, A. S., and Skolnick, J. H. (2003). Family in transition (12th ed.). Boston: A&B.

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  • Lizzie

    Lizzie

    January 30th, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    I was not abused as a child and i am so thankful that I had such warm and loving parents but I had many friends who experienced things so crazy and so deep in their house that they are totally messed up for life now. I am not sure that many of them even know how deeply this probably effected them and probably won’t know until they have families of their own and the whole dynamic comes into play once again.

  • Kristen

    Kristen

    September 18th, 2016 at 5:56 PM

    Awareness is key in these situations. The person has a choice – to be blindly following what they were modelled as children or to see it for what it is (after much searching) and to choose to not abuse. It is that simple and yet that hard.

  • cat

    cat

    January 31st, 2015 at 8:18 AM

    Everything that we see and learn as a child are the things that inevitably we then carry with us into adulthood.
    There are then many of us who think that this is normal, so why not continue with this behavior?
    Even though we instinctively know that this is probably not right, that there is something so off about the entire family dynamic, but you have seen it so much then it is hard to differentiate what is actually healthy and normal from the just the everyday reality of our own lives.

  • Jeff D.

    Jeff D.

    January 31st, 2015 at 2:01 PM

    Never really thought of abuse as an act of terrorism but I guess in many ways it is

  • Destinee

    Destinee

    February 2nd, 2015 at 3:43 AM

    I wonder how there are those who can escape the evil grip of abuse and then there are those who are destined to have it follow them for years.

  • Cely

    Cely

    February 2nd, 2015 at 3:55 PM

    So someone has to break that chain
    why not me?

  • hazel

    hazel

    February 4th, 2015 at 2:14 PM

    When you grow up in an abusive family there becomes this instinct to take on many different roles- sometimes the abuser, sometimes the mediator. I think that you very much fluctuate between what you want to become for the reason that you really don’t know because of the terrible role models that you had growing up. You know the difference between right and wrong but there is still this pull inside of you that perhaps keeps you from growing and fully involving into a responsible and sensitive human being.

  • Reece

    Reece

    February 5th, 2015 at 1:20 PM

    Fear was my motivation for seeking help, but at the same time I was still very conflicted because of the love that I still felt for this person. It is terrible hard to feel like you love someone who can hurt you so easily all of the time.

  • Knotted

    Knotted

    February 15th, 2015 at 3:35 PM

    Why can’t it be easy to just tell my therapist about my deep feeling from the sexual encounters in my life. Wish I could start on a fresh page with her. I can’t unnumb the emotions from the past. I can fe but I need to try and let the tears flow at some point. I think in my head what to tell her then I get there and freeze. Yes she knows a lot of incidents but she believes there is a sadness I need to feel and work through.

    Stuck

  • Jane

    Jane

    April 4th, 2015 at 7:29 PM

    Have you thought about
    Writing your thoughts down and reading them outloud during a therapy session. This could help you not freeze up and get out the issues you really want to address.

  • hope is not lost

    hope is not lost

    January 11th, 2016 at 9:43 PM

    You have any layers of emotion to peel away and to deal with. You’ve taught yourself to stuff your feelings as a way to protect yourself. I hope in the year since you’ve written this that you’ve gained some progress. Dealing with the truth and the feelings is hard, but with time and the more you can talk about it in a safe place, the more healing that will come.

  • Vita

    Vita

    February 22nd, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    Hi I’m a victim of sexual and physical abuse. It started when I was four and ended when I was 18 I’m now 30 and it still bothers me. December 2014 my daughter was sexually abused by my boyfriend that I trusted with my life and my children lives. He knew what I have been through and he turns around and abuse me physically and abuse my daughter sexually. It’s like I’m reliving my past all over again. It was hard for me to trust men and now I don’t think I can ever trust a man again. Seeing my daughter in pain knowing how she feels because I can relate. I’m hurting for her didn’t want her to never experience that pain. Please pray for us.

  • hope is not lost

    hope is not lost

    January 11th, 2016 at 9:36 PM

    I recommend the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It’s a book to give you information and tools on how to spot a potentially abusive person. I facilitate a support group for those who are in or have left an abusive intimate partner relationship and I’m an advocate for sexual assault survivors and I use the information in this book to empower others. I hope you and your daughter have sought help for healing.

  • Keeney

    Keeney

    February 27th, 2015 at 2:55 AM

    I’m being abused by my own mother and father who were loving for the first 30 years of my life and I don’t believe they realize they are doing it but they refused to discuss it and have insisted that they will not change. I’ve never imagined anything so awful or painful in my life. My sister is a drug addict and she emotionally abuses her children and she abuses the rest of us with threats and manipulation and all kinds of control techniques they cause distraction but still managed to find the adults around her you should know better falling into place where she wants them. Being the strong one who is not afraid to stand in the face of her crazy I have found myself the family outcast and not just outcast but blamed and accused and slandered and lied about and crucified and criticized all by rational adults that for some reason did not have the strength of will to see that they were being pulled into my sisters crazy manipulative game and are happy to follow her and do her bidding at my expense.

  • NyLady

    NyLady

    April 5th, 2015 at 9:43 AM

    Stay strong and make your little corner of the world peaceful and true. I am in a similar situation, minus the drug addiction. My circle is much smaller these days and many family members chose to believe lies about me. Now they are so angry that I chose to not take their disrespect anymore and walked away But, my days are peaceful these days and that is everything.

  • Keeney

    Keeney

    January 12th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    I finally reached the point where I felt I had tried and failed all possible options as far as making things better with my old life and the people I love all which I described above and finally told them all that I was going to disconnect now and if and when they want to make things right I am open to that, but it is 100% up to them to initiate and put the work in which I will match (if that actually happens). Since then I’ve heard from them more than I ever have before and have sent very clear boundaries not just with them but with other people in my life and I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and happy finally after nine years. I spent my first holidays all by myself and I was completely OK with it and rejected the offer to be with them which sends a very strong message and made me feel so good about myself at the same time and it might’ve been my best holiday yet. There really is hope. At the end of the day I’d rather be alone for the rest of my life, like literally, than be in the company of people that mistreat me and that is a wonderful powerful feeling that I wish for everyone.

  • Julie

    Julie

    April 5th, 2015 at 11:10 AM

    Hello all, I’m in Colorado where we just launched a program to aid individuals and families experiencing a mental health crisis. Mental health issues are often created by adverse experiences, most often experienced in childhood (see the ACE study). To victims and survivors, you are not alone. Unfortunately there are many, many caught up in this cycle. Colorado’s program is the perfect place to spread awareness of the national health crisis created by traumatic experiences. But sadly this is not the primary reason Colorado launched this program. I believe it was created in an effort to stop deranged individuals from snapping and engaging in killing sprees. As a nation we need to confront this epidemic just as we would any medical health epidemic – because it is a medical health epidemic. But always remember, “Where there is breath there is hope.” ~ Tonier “Neen” Caine
    facebook.com/HealingNeen
    cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

  • martins

    martins

    October 4th, 2016 at 2:49 PM

    My mother and father were wonderful parents we had everything we ever needed except for the emotional loving connection..I married a wonderful man but he is emotionally void….I find I am a people pleaser always looking for recognition…but now I realise it has been the lack of love throughout my life that has put me in a situation where I sometimes think I’m loosing my mind….Please please tell me I’m not crazy please tell me I deserve to b shown love because these are the questions I ask myself every day of my life…The pain is excruciating.

  • Lauren

    Lauren

    January 16th, 2017 at 10:15 AM

    This article has shed light on abusive relationship patterns perpetuated by my father. He was the perpetrator of household control, dominance, and emotional/physical violence in my immediate family. I see the effects of that on the adult lives of myself and two brothers. I see that this pattern has repeated with his second wife of 7 years, who he recently and quickly divorced. He came to see me this weekend and gave me a ‘confessional-style’ story of why the relationship failed, mostly blaming her for ‘giving him the silent treatment’, ‘having a drinking problem’ and ‘lacking a sense of humor.’ A story of how she ‘fell while drunk and undressing in the bedroom’ which resulted in seven stiches in her skull and two cracked ribs, sounds extraordinarily suspect, especially after being a victim of his infrequent but violent outbursts when he reached a tipping point.

    Apparently they went to a therapist and after a few sessions he decided to divorce after his therapist said ‘he was kicking the can down the road’. This is after just a few sessions in which they failed to discuss the biggest issues between them, her drinking and silent treatments, and his anger (and likely verbal and or physical abuse). As someone who lived through his patterns and was victim to both, its hard to watch as he lies to me, as if my believing in his revisionist history narrative that he is free from his past wrongs and okay to move on. He is now seeing a new woman and talking about moving in with her. I’m troubled by his behavior and inability to recognize or face his own abusive patterns and behavior. I’d like to still have a relationship with my father but cannot continue to enable this behavior by playing dumb and not calling it to his attention. I still fear his temper. Unfortunately I feel I’m the only person in the family with the will (and cajones) to do this. But, I don’t know the best way how. How does one safely confront an abuser, especially if you’ve been a victim of this abuse in the past?

  • Anue N.

    Anue N.

    January 28th, 2017 at 1:56 PM

    “You will never see your grandchildren!” “Force your wife to choose between her mother and her husband.” “Remember, I’ll go for shared custody!” “I’ll tear the roof off of any house my child is in.” And these are only a small sampling of the manipulative, intimidatingly aggressive acts of terrorism I witnessed the paternal side of my first grandchild’s family engaging in during the first year of her life. Grandparent estrangement/alienation is domestic abuse.” ~Anue N.

  • Kevin

    Kevin

    April 5th, 2018 at 12:02 AM

    I couldnt disagree more with grandparent alienation should/ be illegal. Alienation from the father is what always happens. Mom gets the kids grandparents get to have fun with the kids and a huge number of fathers rarely see their children if at all. Dads get the worst of it. I can’t even look at ny parents anymore because they have a Better relationship with my ex wife than me. They even got involved in the court proceedings and thanks to them I have no rights to my daughter that I love and miss more than anything. The courts are absolutely horrible and the phrase best interest of the child is such nonsense it shouldn’t even be allowed to be said because its the furthest thing from the truth. Sorry gma and gpa kids need both parents first, kids need daddy and mommy. No court seems to have a problem not letting the father near his own children. In fact dad will get taken away in cuffs just for trying to check on his child. It’s an absolute shame and atttorneys make me sick that they will completely destroy the father and smear his name to the judge. Grandparents…. please kids don’t grow up messed up because grandpa was gone. But I know a lot of kids with daddy issues and guess what to you moms who play games with your own kids. Your custody should be taken away for using your child to destroy your kids dad. The whole family court is an evil system and my ids life means nothing to them. They don’t care how bad they destroy families and are able to sleep at night. Everyone I know that is divorced is in the same situation with the kids mom using them as bait. It’s wrong and your not even giving your own child the chance for a somewhat normal life. It’s funny how many of you guys were so abusive to your wives and kids… its one big lie for power and you just ruined your kids life. Way to go!!

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