Trauma & Dissociation in the News

The Role of Shame within Domestic Violence Relationships

Christine Forner, BA, BSW, MSW, RSW

October is Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month in the USA. Many other countries have similar months at different times of the year. During this time it is very important to bring these situations and circumstances to the forefront of our minds.

We know that interpersonally violent situations are very damaging for everyone involved, and children especially. Brain images show us that the brains of children look very similar to the brains of war vets who have PTSD (McCrory, et al., 2011).

We also know that dissociation is one of the main defensive strategies that many use to cope with these relationships, as depersonalization and derealisation (Simeon, et al., 2001) are needed to live with the constant stress these homes get filled with. Last year Alison Miller wrote an article for ISSTD News which summarised the way this dissociative process plays out in DV relationships.

Similarly, we know that DV is dangerous; yet, we might also hold information, assumptions, and perspectives that make it harder for all to leave violent relationships and heal with dignity.

Domestic Violence is a common experience, yet if you have lived this experience of domestic violence, it is hard not to speak from a place of shame. It is hard to talk about what it is like to be in this situation, to have been a survivor of these events. It is hard to fathom what is, or was, actually happening and it’s even harder to constantly try to educate others that DV is about a lot more than being hit.

Shame is likely one of the most powerful forces in these relationships, perhaps even more powerful than fear (Platt & Freyd, 2015). The emotion of shame is likely playing a key role in perpetuating these relationships. If we look at shame from a mechanical or strictly a physiological perspective, it is a strong emotion whose main purpose seems to be very connected to our defence of staying and being part of a human tribe. When we are not part of the tribe, or feel like we are not part of the tribe, this is when shame kicks in. Why? Why do any of our defences kick in – simply to force us to do what we need to do to be safe, optimally function and stay alive.

Shame is a powerful force, as is hunger. When we are starving, hunger increases, when we are dangerously alone shame increases. Hunger drives us to get food, shame drives us to be with people. It is sensical that the more shame someone has, the more the body is trying, all be it unsuccessfully, to get its needs met. When a person is experiencing toxic shame, which is indicative of the domestic violence relationship, the toxicity of that shame can be evidence that there has been relational starvation. The solution to hunger is food, the solution to shame is connection. Shame seeks out connection and if there is no connection, where neurobiologically there should be one, our bodies and minds will ramp up shame. If we view shame as evidence of someone being dangerously alone, or not bonded enough, we can make the inference that the person is needing to feel safety and security in relationship rather than the common understanding that the person is feeling bad or disgusted with themselves.

The end result of shame, the firm belief that one is not a good enough human and all of the words and language that goes along with these beliefs, is painful emotions. Humans will seek out ways to manage the shame, and this can lead to pandemonium. This can now lead to a perpetual unsolvable problem. The dance of “I need people – people are not here or people are hurting me – I feel awful – I am awful – I need people – people are not there”. In an attempt to meet the need of human connection and then being betrayed or hurt by this connection, one can see the relational cyclical cluster of “come here”, “go away”, “I’m bad”, “you’re bad” which really is a defining hall mark of many interpersonal violent relationships.

Kaufman, in his book The Psychology of Shame states that shame is always an affront to human dignity (1996). Dignity can be viewed as our inborn “basic standard of care” that we all require for optimal growth and health. Dignity and pride suggests that inside of us all is a natural knowledge of how we should be cared for. If that standard is not met, shame is the result.

When you take the perspective that shame is a drive and examine the impact that this drive has on us, it can be seen that shame would be a prevailing force of movement towards other, not to run away. The words in the mind might be ‘I am horrible’, but the emotions and energy of those emotions force us to connect. In this case shame will drive us to be with people, even if those people are not safe. From a biological perspective shame is not the best at discernment, as could be said for all of our other defenses. In the instance of domestic violence, from a logical perspective, you might ask ‘why don’t they leave?’ One answer is that there are mighty neurological influences that are trying to connect to the closest human they love – the dangerous partner.

When you have someone in a partnership that is riddled with dissatisfied shame, one member may become violent as a way to preserve the bond, and the other may over-compensate and soothe to also preserve the bond. In these circumstances you will have a breeding ground for a DV relationship. Shame is searching for care and dignity and in its absence, it will still keep seeking predictability or what is familiar.

Dissociation is one of the few ways humans can endure years of shame-filled chaos and fear. Dissociation is what we do when we have nothing else to do. Dissociation is part of what keeps these dynamics continuing. When you have some of the worst relational pain that can be imagined, the human body will numb out the pain. Inside of the survivour is a human who desperately is seeking comfort and safety from others, but never seems to receive this comfort. As the cycle of goodness, connection and care gets thwarted with pain, anger, fear, control, hitting, rape and degradation, dissociation can become stronger and stronger. As a result, this person or persons will feel further and further away from the human tribe, triggering shame to be used more and more.

These powerful human neurobiological forces of shame and dissociation are often not spoken about in normalizing terms. Shame and dissociation are not behavioural. They are basic human traits and are as behavioural as the need for water. Talking about safety plans are good, but if the conversation about the normal human reaction to being alone and having violent broken bonds is not discussed, little insight and change can occur, especially if there is no therapeutic relationship that can help establish a safe bond. Bonding and attachment is a stronger force than food (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). In these instances, bonding to others is our largest driving force and with a DV relationship the bonding process is perhaps substituted with shame cycles.

What you may hear in your office are the words, or the story of what happened, or the justifications of why there is violence or why there is a need to stay tougher. Or the words of “I hate myself” or “I hate the other person when they do a, b or c”, people get lost in the A. B. or C. We need to have discussions on the power and wisdom of shame, and of the power and wisdom of dissociation. It is in these discussions solutions can be found and dignity can be restored.

Dignity and care is what these toxic situations are seeking. In working with people who are in these relationships it is important to help them gain awareness that it is not about being ‘strong enough to leave’; it is often more about finding an alternative bond to support the internal instructions of shame to be close to other humans. This bond can take many forms, such as the therapeutic relationship, group situations where dissociation and shame are normalized, friendship groups and most importantly inner bonding to oneself where survivors can appease the command of shame to bond and be safe in this world. In essence, the main goal is helping our clients find a home within themselves. When they have this inner agency they tend to leave with dignity instead of shame.

Ainsworth M., & Bowlby, J., (1991). An Ethological Approach to Personality Development. Journal of American Psychologist, 46, (4), pp. 333-341.

Kaufman, G. (1996). The psychology of shame: Theory and treatment of shame-based syndromes (2nd edn). New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Co.

McCrory, E., De Brito, S., Sebastian, C., Mechelli, A., Bird, G., Kelly, P., Viding, E., (2011). Heightened neural reacting to threat in child victims of family violence. Current Biology, 21 (23), 947-948.

Miller, A. (2017). Intimate Partner Violence: A Dissociative Family Dance. ISSTD News, October 2017. http://news.isst-d.org/intimate-partner-violence-a-dissociative-family-dance

Platt, M. G., & Freyd, J. J. (2015, January 19). Betray My Trust, Shame on Me: Shame, Dissociation, Fear, and Betrayal Trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000022

Simeon, D., Guralnik, O., Schmeidler, J., Sirof B., Knutelska, M (2001). The Role of Childhood Interpersonal Trauma in Depersonalization Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry; 158, 1027-1033

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