Trauma & Dissociation in the News

Intimate Partner Violence: A Dissociative Family Dance

As part of Acknowledging Domestic Violence Awareness Month Alison Miller writes about dissociative processes in Intimate partner violence.

During the years when I worked primarily with families, I frequently encountered intimate partner violence (IPV). I remember a man who told me he had watched himself chase his wife around a tree with an axe, just as he had watched his father do to his mother; and a woman from a traditional oriental family in which displays of emotions were strictly forbidden, who came to therapy because she was abusing her husband in uncontrollable rage outbursts. These were spouse abusers who wanted help and did not understand their own behavior when they were in altered states.

My understanding was helped by Lenore Walker’s The Battered Woman (1979), which traces a repetitive cycle of buildup/criticism of the partner, discharge of rage, and then contrition or self-justification on the part of abusive men.

The abuser:
I recently researched developments in the field for my paper, “Dissociation in families experiencing intimate partner violence,” in the special issue of JTD on victim-perpetrator relationships. There are positive developments: Stark (2007) coined the term “coercive control” and aptly identified control and coercion rather than physical abuse as the central feature of IPV. Other researchers distinguish between types of spouse abusers. Jacobson & Gottman (1998) describe “pit bulls” (who are physiologically aroused as they verbally lash out) versus “cobras” (who are physiologically calm as they appear to lose control, and violent outside the home as well as inside it.) However, I was shocked to see that several recent writers in the field, including Stark, have come primarily from the perspective that male violence towards their female partners is simply an attempt to reinstate threatened male privilege. These writers do not address the question of whether or not some abusers have a cycle, or behave very differently at different times.

However, in Rethinking Domestic Violence (2006) Dutton states that “neither social learning theory, nor feminist theory, nor the psychiatric labels we have seen so far, can account for these syndromes of rising and falling tensions and shifting phases of emotion, perspective, and attitude. A deeper, more pervasive form of personality disturbance seems to be at work.” (p. 68)

In The Abusive Personality (2007), Dutton states that “The splitting off of unacceptable rage leads to dissociative splits of the everyday self from this rageful, bad, or shadow self. This splitting of the original object into unintegrated parts may constitute the later split of the Dr. Jekyll (good, unaggressive, socialized self) from the Mr. Hyde (bad, aggressive, abusive, uncontrolled self). The two parts of the self are not integrated, and, to the extent that they appear in different situations, leave the person (and his or her partner) with the confusing task of reconciling two different selves. As battered women frequently say of their partner, “He’s like two different people.” (p. 128)… “When in their ‘normal’ phase, most assaultive men are unable to assert intimacy needs or dissatisfactions. As tension and feelings of being unloved and unappreciated build, the man’s ‘rageful self’ (held in abeyance and outside of consciousness) begins to emerge, and his view of his wife becomes increasingly negative.” (p. 139)

I believe that dissociation, for the most part, is primarily engendered in close family relationships, particularly in early childhood, rather than being simply a result of trauma. It results from difficulties in the attachment process, complicated by trauma. This is true even in victims of organized abuse, as the parents and extended family are frequently the primary perpetrators, and victims grow up with a disorganized attachment. Dissociation is key to the attachment disturbance in the perpetrator of IPV. Needy child parts of the abuser demand the kind of constant attention and attunement an infant needs, while protector parts are constantly alert for signs of rejection from the partner, and interpret any failure of complete attention by that partner as rejection and abandonment.

The abused partner:
Stark (2007) insightfully points out that the theory of “battered woman’s syndrome” attributes post-traumatic stress disorder to victims of domestic violence, whereas their reactions to ongoing coercion and control and intermittent violence could better be seen as adaptive or intratraumatic. Dissociation is a very effective intra-traumatic response: it enables a person to live within a traumatizing situation without being overwhelmed.
My recent article in JTD looks at the dissociation in all family members described in the personal journal of a female victim of IPV. This woman initially consciously recognized and described her husband’s switches and his cycle, even though she did not know the term “dissociation,” but as time went on, she increasingly developed ego states complementary to his, so that her conscious awareness of the abuse was reduced in the safer parts of her husband’s cycle. Dissociation helped her manage to live in this intermittently frightening situation, but prevented her from seeing the danger when her husband was in a positive phase. However, she eventually became suspicious about her own dissociation, and developed a method of reducing it so she could see the whole picture rather than only one piece of it at a time. This enabled her to choose to leave.

The children:
Children have to live with the different versions of their violent parent, who may also be capable of being kind, playful, entertaining, or nurturing. However, there is always the implied threat that if they don’t behave, feel, or think exactly as he wants, the abuse, shaming and rejection will become focused on them. The children of the spouse abuser may feel safest when being comforted by him—but the price of this safety is rejecting the evidence of their own eyes and ears. Furthermore, the children lack a calm, secure and attuned parent to attend to their distress as the victim-parent is also wounded and distressed.

This kind of home life breeds dissociation in children through creating disorganized attachment. Siegel (1999) suggests that “the parents of children with disorganized attachments have provided frightened, frightening, or disorienting shifts in their own behavior, which create conflictual experiences leading to incoherent mental models. Such a child may develop an internal mental model for each aspect of the parent’s behavior. Abrupt shifts in parental state force the child to adapt with suddenly shifting states of his own…. When such shifts are early, severe, and repeated, these states can become engrained in the child as self-states” (p. 317).

In IPV, as in familial child abuse, the abuser behaves very differently in the outside world than in the family, and the abuser has a rule (spoken or unspoken) not to tell what is going on in the home. The children therefore cannot articulate their experiences, and it is easiest for them, when out in the world, to simply not know the things they are supposed not to know at that time. They are also likely not to remember these experiences in adulthood. What we don’t remember, we may be likely to repeat.

Dutton, D.G. (2006). Rethinking domestic violence. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Dutton, D. G. (2007). The abusive personality: Violence and control in intimate relationships, 2nd edition. New York: Guilford.
Miller, A. (2017). Dissociation in families experiencing intimate partner violence. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 18 (3), The Abused and the Abuser: Victim-Perpetrator Dynamics, 427-440.
Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford.
Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control: the entrapment of women in personal life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Walker, L. (1979). The battered woman. New York: Harper & Row.