Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Is It So Hard To Leave?

When you work with women who have been, are in or are close to someone in an abusive relationship, the question of why it is so hard to leave inevitably comes up.  I thought I would share with you a little bit of technical information that might help answer that question.  The question is not an easy one to answer and to fully understand some of the considerations that go into these decisions you need to understand the concepts of conditioning, addiction and our basic need for love.

Let's start with the relatively easy one....our basic need for love.  In many places throughout scripture we learn that as human beings, we are created for relationship and for love.  Back as far as the story of Adam and Eve we find God saying that it is not good for man to be alone, that he should have a companion.  In more recent times a study was done by a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School that basically showed human beings being happier and healthier if they have love in their life as well as approval from others.   In short, love is crucial to the existence of human beings. It is as necessary to a good quality of life as the air we breathe.

We also know that the withdrawal of love is torturous to the human being.  You can see that very well when you look at children who are disciplined by a parent who ignores them as a form of punishment.  According to Kelly Coutee,

"In early childhood, a parent can provide negative mirroring by being contemptuous of the child or by withdrawing love as punishment. During this developmental phase, fear that the parent will leave if the child is not good enough (abandonment fear) can later cause shame to be experienced in perceived abandonment. "

When we withdraw love from a child they will do almost anything to restore it, which is why uninformed parents find it an effective punishment.

As adults, we are affected the same way, especially if we have grown up with a lack of love and/or acceptance in our lives.  That lack eventually forms a deep seated belief system that effects the way we look at things, people and life until that belief is changed.  If our self esteem is challenged, if we believe that we aren't good enough, if we believe that only this person will love us or we have been made to feel responsible for the good feeling and well being of another person, we will cling to that which we know rather than embrace that which we don't know.  There is a colleague of mine who practices Emotionally Focused Couples therapy and his comment is "women don't leave abusive relationships because the negative attachment that they have is better than the perceived isolation they believe they will have if they leave."  That makes a lot of sense.

The next part of this equation is the idea of conditioning.  Operant conditioning is a type of conditioning where the use of consequences has the effect of modifying behavior.  Abusive relationships use operant conditioning by the abuser to keep the victim controlled.  Resistance is soon worn down as the victim is conditioned to respond to tone of voice, facial looks, physical positions or other things that the abuser might use to control behavior.  In the beginning, those indicators would be followed by action, but after the conditioning has been accomplished, only the threat is necessary.

The last piece of the puzzle comes under the heading of addiction.....gambling addiction to be specific.  Addiction to gambling is not an addiction that is predicated on a substance such as drugs or alcohol.  In substance addiction there is a physiological dependence that the body develops in relation to the substance which then creates symptoms of physical withdrawal when the substance is removed.  Gambling has no such physiological quality.  So why is it one of the most difficult addictions to break?  Because it employs Intermittent Reinforcement.  B.F. Skinner discovered a very interesting concept with intermittent reinforcement in that  behavior that is reinforced intermittently is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously.

Intermittent reinforcement is best described by the example of a slot machine.  Slot machines pay off at intermittent times and in variable amounts.  If you have ever had the experience of interacting with one of these machines, can you remember feeling that you got?  Just pull the handle and 13 coins fall into the tray.  You are excited!  The next three or four pulls of the handle don't result in anything, however the next one results in 5 coins.  You aren't as excited, but you begin to anticipate that within the next few pulls of the handle, you could get a return that is as exciting or better than the first one.  Wow!  The anticipation is exhilarating and you continue to play.  With each pull of the handle your hope increases that the big payoff is just a few pulls of the handle away!  Many individuals can sit at a slot machine for hours and hours with the anticipation of "the big payoff"!

Now with that in mind, remembering how important love is to us and understanding that an abuse victim lives in a very controlled environment, what would happen if the "payoff" was love?  How addicting would it be if that "payoff" came at intermittent times...perhaps one day the abuser does something nice and then it happens again in three days.  Then it happens again in a week.  There's an incident a few days later but then s/he does something nice the next day, then again in ten days and then again in four days.  Imagine too that there are variable amounts of  love/kindness/happiness that range from just a ceasing from abuse to going out to dinner or a bouquet of flowers.  The victim's anticipation for the next "payoff" rises and falls, but s/he is still looking for the next time......s/he lives for the next time.  For all intents and purposes, staying in an abusive relationship is a form of gambling addiction.  The victim is gambling for the big payoff that seldom if ever comes.

Dog trainers understand this kind of reinforcement very well as it is a planned training schedule that works effectively to increase positive behavior in the animals.  Trainers make sure that although there are treats that are given for good behavior or positive reaction, but these treats are given at specific intervals, not each time and not at equal intervals.

Conditioning is a part of how we learn as human beings, but it can either have positive or negative results depending on the scenario.   Intermittent reinforcement  when combined with the giving and withdrawal of love is traumatizing and destructive when combined with an interpersonal relationship.  It results in a skewed connectedness that is on one hand painful, yet on the other hand provides a false hope for change.  In this state, individuals find it very difficult to leave a relationship.  They believe there is hope, yet that hope is built on an addictive pattern of behavior that will only continue to cycle until someone breaks the pattern.  It is not until hope is gone that an individuals feel free of guilt or responsibility to the relationship and often makes the decision to break free.  Add other conditions such as Stockholm Syndrome and/or PTSD and the confusion escalates and the decisions become more difficult and more complicated to make.

Hopefully this has helped to answer the question of why it is so hard to leave a relationship that is abusive.  Hope is a powerful thing, as it should be.  Proverbs 13:12 says "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life."  Successful interpersonal relationships are life giving and that is the hope that every couple has when they enter in to one.  It is often difficult to discern when that hope turns from true hope into false hope.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome

On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.

After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.

While the psychological condition in hostage situations became known as “Stockholm Syndrome” due to the publicity, the emotional “bonding” with captors was a familiar story in psychology. It had been recognized many years before and was found in studies of other hostage, prisoner, or abusive situations such as:

• Abused Children
• Battered/Abused Women
• Prisoners of War
• Cult Members
• Incest Victims
• Criminal Hostage Situations
• Concentration Camp Prisoners
• Controlling/Intimidating Relationships

In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation.
-----Dr. Joseph M Carver, PhD

When one looks at domestic violence and asks the question, "Why doesn't she just leave?", if you look at the question through the eyes of Stockholm Syndrome the reason seems to make a little more sense. At least there is a reason to explain what seems to be an illogical if not unsafe choice. When an abuse victims seems unable to assist in their own defense, or assist in helping others who are trying to help them, it may be that the individual has bonded in this way to their abuser.

As scripture says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. In my studies of physical/natural health it became so clear to me that the way we were made included the primary will to live and to survive. That instinct is a priority in human beings as God created our bodies with that ability and we are not even in control of it. Our bodies will do what is best for us to survive and to live even if we don't understand why it is doing the things it does. As an extension of that, since our bodies are not separated from our mind, our soul and our spirit, our mental and emotional life does what it needs to do in order to survive whatever situation we find ourselves in. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a perfect example of that. Individuals develop DID as a defense mechanism to be able to survive prolonged and severe trauma. If that is the case, why would we question our abilities to be able to survive in other ways as well?

Although domestic violence and trauma situations have a very clear pattern to them, Stockholm Syndrome does not seem to occur in every traumatic situation. If we look at the initial event outlined at the beginning of this article, it is important to know that what ended the hostage situation was that a police officer shot and wounded the bank robber. After he went down, there were two hostages who held him up in the window so the policeman could shoot him again. In the end, although there were a certain number of the hostages who ended up defending the robber, it is clear that these two individuals did not hold the same opinion. Considering this event as well as other abuse situations that can be studied, it is clear that the length of time a person is exposed to the trauma is a significant factor. Another factor that can be considered is how emotionally strong an individual is. Someone who is healthy emotionally has more resistance to abuse than someone who isn't, however even an emotionally strong individual can be worn down over time.

In some of my other articles I mentioned that often abuse victims will bond to their abusers because they perceive kindness in their abuser. In a physically violent relationship perceived kindness could come from the abuser taking care of the victim after s/he has physically assaulted them. As I have often said, the spectrum from abuse on one hand to a viable and life giving relationship on the other is wide and when the abuser stops being abusive, that only brings the relationship to ground zero on the spectrum. From there, the relationship needs to be built through re-establishing trust, restitution, respect and honor. Stockholm Syndrome at its foundation has the mis-perception that if the abuse ceases, the abuser is being kind. The victim will seize that hope and cling to it in order to survive an obviously dangerous situation. Abusers who are seen as having a compassionate or sensitive side by the victim can play into this scenario.

Another part of the development of this syndrome is perpetuated by the belief that there is a threat to survival, whether physical, emotional or both. Anyone who has worked in the domestic violence field for very long will see a progression in relationships that is unmistakable. An abusive relationship may start out with acts of violence, yelling, screaming or even violent acts done to things that are important to or loved by the victim, such as their pets, their belongings or their children. As the relationship progresses, the need for the abuser to actually do these things become less and less as the victim has been conditioned to understand that the abuser is able and capable of such things. Over time, just the threat of violence whether physical or emotional is enough to subdue the victim. Once this belief is perpetuated, it only takes a look, a gesture or even a tone of voice to control the victim.

The other two conditions which foster Stockholm Syndrome can also be found in almost every domestic violence situation. They are isolation and the victim's belief that they will never be able to escape from the abuser. More and more, I am getting questions from young women in dating relationships describing situations where their boyfriends are isolating them from their friends or family and creating dependent relationships. Disassembling the victim's support network and creating dependence on the abuser is a traumatic situation to be in for anyone. Independence, self esteem and identity are eroded away and a learned helplessness begins to take over in the victim. It is important for young women to see these behaviors as huge red flags and to steer clear of allowing that kind of restriction to be put upon them.

Although much more could be said on the subject and has been, this will give you a good start in understanding what is happening to you or to someone you care about when they continue to stay in situations that are obviously unhealthy or dangerous to themselves and their children. Stockholm Syndrome is a form of denial that is based on an unhealthy emotional bond with an abusive individual and it is often extremely hard to combat until the victim has been removed from the trauma for an extensive period of time. Over and over I have heard women look back on these situations after they have been away from the abuse for several years and wonder why they stayed, why they put up with what was obviously a tragic and destructive way of life.

In closing, I find it interesting that some of the very things that are foundational for the development of Stockholm Syndrome are also conditions that must be present in order for a person to legally use deadly force against a perpetrator. These conditions are:

1) The immediate and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to the innocent
2) Ability - power to kill or cripple the innocent
3) Opportunity - being capable of employing that power
4) Jeopardy - person acting in such a manner that a reasonable and prudent person believes they intend to kill or cripple

This is why a woman can be convicted of murder for killing her abuser, even if he has severely beaten and abused her over many years. Deadly force must only be used in those moments when there is an immediate and unavoidable threat of danger. When the beating is over, so is the threat. However the intimidation goes on forever.

Stockholm Syndrome, in my opinion, results from a "perceived" deadly force situation going on over an extended period of time. For each person, perception can be different which may be why those two individuals who stood the wounded bank robber back up in the window did not succumb to the syndrome. It is clear that they did not perceive themselves as being powerless in the situation...they fought back when there was an opportunity. However, in those situations where perceptions are not as positive, our mental and emotional powers create for us a life that is sustainable. Fascinating......

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Recovering a Marriage After Abuse

When people write to me about abusive relationships, usually they are seeking advice regarding how to save the relationship. As long as there is hope for a better future, individuals are willing to put up with a lot of difficulty in the present. This is especially prevalent in faith based relationships because there is an underlying faith in God to make the situation better. Hope is what keeps us going, it offers possibilities and it is the main ingredient to having faith. So with that in mind, how do we apply faith and hope in an abusive situation?
As with any relationship, it is essential that both parties be committed to doing whatever it takes to make things right, to build trust and to heal the hearts of those involved. In abusive relationships that is just as much an ingredient, if not more so. Usually what we find in these kinds of relationships are abusers who refuse to change, don't see the need to change or aren't taking responsibility for their actions and on the other side we find the victim who is excusing or denying the abuse for reasons of self preservation or self image/identity issues.
In faith based relationships it is important to understand that it is never God's will for abuse to be taking place, however because man has free will, as long as an individual is willing to be abusive, the abuse will go on. That is why it is important to incorporate the practical into these situations as well as having faith. For healing to occur, there must be a true heart change in the abuser as well as in the victim. I say true heart change because all too often when the victim has had enough and is able to leave the relationship, the abuser will resort to manipulation in order to convince the victim to stay. That is not a true heart change. A true heart change results in a behavior that is called "restitution". Restitution is a scriptural principle as well as a legal one and it is one that requires the offending party to do whatever is necessary to restore the victim to wholeness. When restitution is the result of a heart change, you see it as a willingness which springs out of empathy in the heart of the offender. When the offender is able to understand from a heart level what they have done to their victim, they will offer whatever they can do for as long as it takes to make it right and it is often their own idea. That and nothing less is what restores the heart of an abused spouse.
The following question came to me which illustrates this principle quite well:
"I married an impulsive angry abuser. He was only abusive during arguments, not on a daily basis...however, I experienced physical, emotional and verbal abuse for 3 years of our marriage. I asked for divorce, but he promised he would change....and has. For the last year, he has been a different person. Our marriage is better than ever...except one area: I'm still healing. He thinks I should just get over it and becomes very defensive anytime the past is brought up. There are occasions where I am reminded of an abusive event. If I bring it up, he gets angry. He says that I'm throwing it in his face. Am I wrong to think that in order for me to completely heal, I need to talk about what happened? And am I wrong to think that he should take responsibility for what happened, apologize again, and reassure me that it will never happen again? When he reacts this way, it hurts just as much as it did when it happened the first time. It feels like it's never going to go away."
Do you see how the absence of restitution has affected this woman? Although the man seems to have worked very hard to change his behavior, the heart hasn't kept pace and she can feel it. As human beings we are body, soul and spirit, therefore we can't just change one part of us, (in this instance behavior) and not change in other parts of our humanity. Check out my answer:
"It is disappointing when people who are abusive do not take responsibility for their actions. No, you are not wrong in thinking he should take responsibility and do whatever it takes to restore your heart. That is called restitution and it is a very important part of the healing process. It rebuilds trust and lets the abuse victim know that there has been a true heart change.

My suggestion to you would be to seek out an abuse counselor and work out your healing process with that person. If you have a local women's center, they would be a good resource for you as often there are abuse counselors who volunteer their time for people such as yourself. Women are verbal and we process out loud. Men do not process that way, they process internally. In order to meet your need to talk, a counselor may be your best option. You are not going to be able to just "get over it". That is an irrational stance to take and shows a lack of understanding with regard to what his behavior has done to you.

Your husband still has some issues and counseling might be an option for him as well, if he is open to that. He seems to be responding out of shame and/or guilt and that needs to be healed as well."

I often refer abused women to their local women's centers because it is hard to tell what kind of financial resources they have and these centers usually provide assistance for little to no cost.
The bottom line when looking at domestic violence is the safety of the individuals involved as well as whether one or both of the participants are willing to change in order to save the relationship. If only one is willing to change, the odds of recovery are often slim to none.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4th

I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to say on a day like this. Usually, I limit the postings on this blog to topics that deal with counseling genre and abuse, so in keeping with that topic, I'll just post the following song that Martina McBride did quite a few years ago, called "Independence Day". Listen to the words carefully because it speaks to the feelings of those who live with domestic violence every day, the desperation and the tone of our society. I don't think I could say this any better.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July everyone! May the Lord truly bless you all!