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  Abusive Relationships
By Dr. Jay Asher - Licensed Psychotherapist

Someone said to me the other day that emotional abuse was as psychologically damaging as physical abuse. What do you think? If two people you care about are sharing a life together and one is disrespectful to the other in public and, you assume, equally disrespectful at home, can you evaluate the emotional damage going on between them? If your neighbors in Wilton Manors go at each other on a regular basis; that is, they start off screaming and soon follow up with battering, can you evaluate the emotional damage going on between them? It is my opinion that there is a difference: adding physical threats to emotional abuse ups the ante. When a partner experiences an ongoing low level threat of physical violence, there is emotional abuse even when "things are going well".

Why do relationships turn abusive? How do they turn abusive? If I have always been in abusive relationships, am I condemned to a lifetime of abusive relationships?
Good questions. Most gay and lesbian couples, despite their mutual caring, end up taking out their work or family frustrations on each other at times. However, some couples get caught in frustrations on each other at times. However, some couples get caught in a vicious cycle of abusive retaliation, which escalates out of control, and feels like it cannot be stopped. Understanding the experiences and feelings that underlie violent relationships may be the first step toward recovery.

Profile of the Batterer: A gay man or lesbian may have learned to be violent from his or her own experience; that is, having witnessed violence around him as a child; having to defend herself in previous violent and dangerous situations. His family may have a history of alcohol and substance abuse, incest or other sexual abuse. She may have grown up feeling insecure, with low self-esteem. He may present as self-confident and in control, but underneath is a scared little boy afraid of ridicule. Her expectations are unrealistic: that the relationship will help her become all that she has pretended to be. In spite of his faŤade, underneath he is sensitive and passive and hates himself for these feelings.

Profile of the Battered: The men and women in our community who are battered may put up with violence because he or she was abused as a child or low self-esteem is interpreted as: I don't deserve better. A person who is socially isolated and without family support fits the profile. Financial dependence on a lover or fear of being alone will create a high level of tolerance for abuse.

Mutual Battering: Mutual battering also takes place; actually, it takes place more in same-sex couples than in heterosexual couples. Although the power dynamics are different in mutual battering, it can be just as destructive, perhaps more so. Understandably, the danger of escalation is even greater. This can be an extremely serious problem with life-threatening consequences. Seek help!

Understanding the Cycle of Violence

Tensions build over unnamed angers. One partner strikes out in frustration. And then, there are feelings of remorse. A predictable cycle continues. By learning how the cycle operates, you have a better chance of intervening with methods that will actually resolve the conflict.

Tensions build

  1. Not being in touch with your feelings (but thinking that you are).
  2. Letting irritations build without knowing how angry you are.
  3. Lashing out because you feel slighted or frustrated (things aren't going the way you think they should.

Violence occurs

  1. A rage comes over you.
  2. You depersonalize your lover (the no-good lousy bastard/bitch).
  3. You decide to go after him/her.
  4. You decide to hit him/her.

Understand that you decide to be violent. Understand that you have control over your violence. You do not have to be violent when you are frustrated. You can learn to respond differently, constructively.

Remorse

  1. You may feel sorry and shower your lover with attention.
  2. Oddly, you think you are closer as a couple.
  3. You make promises that it will never happen again.

However, something always happens to disappoint you. Unless you learn alternate responses, you are likely to repeat this cycle of violence.

Basic Facts

Fact #1: If you are the batterer, you are responsible for your violence; your partner did not make you do it.
Fact #2: If you are being battered, you do not have to stay in the relationship. Learn about the messages that tell you that you do not deserve better. You don't deserve to be humiliated and threatened.
Fact #3: You can't keep your partner from being violent by trying harder.
Fact #4: You can set limits, with consequences, to your partner's physical responses. You can decide to press charges.

Ending the Cycle of Violence

How to stop the use of violence as a way to express your pain? Confront your feelings. Not a simple thing to do when you have spent a lifetime running from your feelings. Here are ten ground rules for ending the cycle of violence:

Rule #1: If you are angry with your partner, figure out why by looking inside yourself. Identify why you are angry.
Rule #2: When you understand what is bothering you, communicate your feelings.
Rule #3: If you feel yourself losing control, STOP, leave the room, cool off.
Rule #4: When discussing a present hurt, don't bring up old wounds.
Rule #5: Make "I" statements. "I've been feeling unappreciated lately"is more effective than "You don't love me anymore."
Rule #6: "My friends say that I deserve better." Don't bring in third parties.
Rule #7: Don't try and talk your partner out of his or her feelings. Listen. Understand their point of view. Acknowledge their point of view.
Rule #8: Don't make threats. "I'm moving out" gets old.
Rule #9: If you respond negatively to threats, if you get in touch with feelings of abandonment, STOP talk it out - don't strike out.
Rule #10: If you falter from the couple's accepted guidelines for expressing anger, STOP, point out what is happening, and start over.

These rules may seem like a lot to remember, especially when old patterns tell you to get angry and strike out. The good news is that you don't have to do each one perfectly. We all have difficulty expressing anger. Most of us come from cultures in which we are taught to suppress anger. We are taught that expressing anger is a negative. You won't be liked if you express your anger. "And you want to be liked, don't you?" the parental voice admonishes. Talk to your partner. Establish a ritual for expressing anger or upsetments. Appreciate that you both will make mistakes from which you can learn. Be patient with yourself and each other. If you find that the rituals and exercises are not keeping you from striking out, seek professional help. If you find that you cannot extricate yourself from an abusive relationship, seek professional help. You both deserve a better quality of life.

Dr. Asher is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Fort Lauderdale. His office is located at 1040 bayview Dr., Suite 517, Plantation, (954) 565-1901. He facilitiates "Couples Together", the 2nd adn 4th Saturday of every month from 7-9pm at the Community Center



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