The battering cycle begins with a dissociative condition in the batterer. The spouse abuse process is a ‘‘dance’’ in which the cyclical batterer switches into different ego states, and his partner follows him in the dance by developing corresponding ego states of her own. The two most prominent states of the batterer are anger and normalcy. Each state has its characteristic emotions and behavior. Heightened emotional states are the key to the batterer’s dissociative switches (Sutker 1994, p. 101).
I. The Dissociative Batterer
II. The Psychological Contract between the Batterer and Victim
III. Why Doesn’t She Leave?
IV. The Phases of the Abuse Cycle from the Perspective of Dissociation Theory
A. The Buildup Phase
B. The Discharge Phase
C. The Postdischarge Phase
V. Helping an Abused Spouse to Leave or to Stay Away
VI. Children in the Abusive Home
VII. Summary: The Dissociative Dance
The Dissociative Batterer
Walker (1979) traces the buildup, discharge, and contrition phases in the cycle of spousal abuse. During the buildup phase, the batterer’s criticism of his partner gradually escalates. In the discharge phase, he acts out his uncontrolled rage by battering his partner. After the discharge phase comes the contrition phase, during which the batterer may express remorse for his actions and promise it will never happen again and/or he may justify his behavior as a result of stress or his partner’s alleged provocations. Once the rage is fully discharged, the abuser may be relatively pleasant until the buildup begins once more. The three phases are explored more fully below. For the purposes of simplicity in writing, the batterer is referred to throughout this entry as ‘‘he’’ and the victim/spouse as ‘‘she,’’ but it is important to be aware that both victims and batterers can be of either sex.
The batterer is often an upstanding member of the community. This is his conscious self-image, the only part of his behavior which he experiences as ego-syntonic. The feedback he receives from sources other than his spouse (i.e., colleagues, neighbors, others in the community) indicates that he is indeed a respectable and admirable person. He may appear helpful, somewhat unassertive, and deferential to authority. Dutton and Golant (1995), experts on domestic violence, note that even researchers and scholars in the field may have a difficult time understanding how men who seem to ‘‘have it all together’’ on the outside can be so abusive at home. Not until they interviewed the wives of abusers who presented as ‘‘normal’’ to the outside world did they realize how physically and emotionally abusive such men could be.
Dutton (1995, pp. 82–84) found that batterers’ childhoods were characterized by humiliation, embarrassment, and shame. Factors related to battering, in order of importance, were paternal rejection, the father’s inability to express warmth toward the child, physical and verbal abuse by the father, and rejection by the mother. Dutton argues that being shamed by one’s father is prime among the parental actions that may generate abusiveness in men. Batterers’ relationships with their mothers are high on both warmth and rejection, from which Dutton concludes that they were ‘‘angrily attached.’’ Dutton (1995) notes that the original motive for anger is to reestablish soothing contact; thus anger follows unmet attachment needs. Fearfully attached children often develop a lifelong style of reacting to their fear of the loss of intimacy with anger. Spouses’ accounts of their batterers suggest that the angry side of their partners’ personality is distinctly different from their normal personality. The batterer appears to have an angry ego state which emerges in response to an attachment threat but is not his usual deportment.
With regard to partners of domestic batterers, research indicates that they do not all fit one psychological profile. Some studies suggest that those who stay for some time in abusive relationships have only one thing in common: They believe in the importance of maintaining the family unit.
The Psychological Contract between the Batterer and Victim
The batterer’s assaults on his partner usually begin during the first year of their relationship, when the positive feelings are strongest. To both parties, the violence appears to be an anomaly, something that is completely out of character for the one who committed it. Since the batterer does not see himself as the kind of person who would act violently toward someone he loves, he considers his violent behavior to be the result of external influences. Initially, both partners believe that the violence will never happen again, since it contradicts the positive aspects of their relationship. When it recurs, both partners look to the present rather than the past for the cause of their problems. The batterer attributes his switch into this angry, violent mode to his wife’s behavior, which he believes to be the trigger for his violence toward her.
At this point, the battered woman becomes aware that there is a discrepancy between the seemingly wonderful man she believed her partner to be and the angry, violent side of his personality that appears only behind closed doors. The relationship continues to appear normal outside the home, while an entirely new and terrifying reality presents itself within the home. Since no one else may be exposed to the abusive side of her partner, the battered woman may begin to doubt her perceptions of him. The victim of domestic violence often accepts a major portion of the blame because she has been taught to do so. She stops believing that the violence will simply stop happening and starts believing that the end of her abuse is contingent upon her altering her behavior. She still sees the violence as inconsistent with her partner’s character and, therefore, avoidable. She has accepted her partner’s core belief that future outbreaks of violence depend upon her behavior, not his.
The psychological contract between the batterer and his spouse maintains that his emotional wellbeing depends on her. If he is distressed, he considers it her fault. She may reason that since he becomes violent only when he is home with her, she causes the violence; her partner reinforces this belief. Typically, the victim tries to change her behavior to ameliorate her abuser and to stop his violent behavior.
Why Doesn’t She Leave?
Those who have not experienced domestic violence firsthand often question why battered women do not leave abusive relationships and, when they do leave, why so many return to their spouses. There are data to suggest that battered women may stay with or return to their abusers because of the dissociation of memories into ‘‘chains’’ characterized by different extreme emotional states.
When the wife accepts that it is her responsibility to make her husband happy, the dissociative process is initiated. Most literature has focused on the battering phases within the home; however, a key to understanding the dissociative nature of the cycle may be in taking a closer look at the situation outside the home, where the battering spouse is consistently charming, pleasant, and thoughtful. The extreme contrast between the person the abused partner sees outside the home and the person who appears in the home is an important factor in encouraging the development of a dissociative process in the abused partner. Even if she may have initially been an emotionally integrated person, the repetitive nature of the phases causes her to split her memories into state-dependent chains. The abused spouse is intermittently in a terrifying environment in which she must comply with someone who exercises power over her in order to avoid further physical harm. She responds by developing different personae, each characterized by a different primary emotion and a different belief system. Like the batterer, she does not forget what happens during the violent episodes, but rather she tends to minimize his behavior and hope for the best between episodes.
The Phases of the Abuse Cycle from the Perspective of Dissociation Theory
The Buildup Phase
During the buildup phase, the batterer’s ego state marked by his negative emotions begins to rise to the surface. The batterer will often experience chronic depression and resentment. These emotions affect his wife and sometimes their children, especially when a ‘‘trigger’’ provides a reminder of the emotions of past trauma. For example, a husband who had been sexually abused as a child may develop a regular pattern of picking a fight with his spouse within a few hours after sexual intimacy, even if the sex itself was satisfactory.
The abused spouse’s primary emotions during the buildup phase are anxiety and pity. She tries to determine the likelihood that her partner will be triggered into the full emergence of his abusive personality. She patiently listens to her spouse as he blames her for things that are not her fault, and she takes responsibility for triggering his violent mood by her behaviors. She permits chronic personal boundary violations in the hope of avoiding a violent situation.
During the buildup phase, the battered spouse represses her own anger, but her hurt feelings caused by the verbal abuse build up, until she withdraws emotionally or physically. Jones (1994, pp. 95, 185) describes this dissociative process in the woman as follows: ‘‘From the first moment a man abuses her, a woman begins, in some sense, to leave—emotionally, spiritually, physically. Abused women describe this process of going underground within themselves, hiding out inside, lying low until they can emerge, like some moth shedding caterpillar skin, becoming themselves. Escapees say ‘Now I’m myself again.’ A general withdrawal goes on, and the batterer, who is exquisitely sensitive to abandonment, notices it.’’
The Discharge Phase
As the batterer’s internal discomfort builds to a peak, he becomes extremely verbally abusive toward his spouse. She begins to detach herself, partly because her hurt feelings are also trying to surface, and partly in order to be able to concentrate on complying with his demands so as to avoid a more serious situation. The batterers Dutton (1995) studied appeared to have outbursts of rage triggered by a sense that their partners were moving away from them, emotionally or physically. They frequently had ‘‘delusions of impending abandonment.’’ In experiments involving the videotapes of spousal discussion, batterers became angriest in response to videos in which the woman was in control and was moving away emotionally from her husband. These videos did not have this effect on non-battering men. Dutton concludes that emotional distance appeared to trigger the batterers’ violence.
The switch from the buildup phase into the discharge phase is quite visible, and most battered women can describe it. Something seems to snap, and the husband seems to become a different person. His demeanor and expression change. At this point, nothing will prevent him from attacking his wife. The only questions are how long the attack will last and how serious it will be.
In the early part of the discharge phase, when the victim’s partner is tormenting, threatening, and interrogating her, the victim experiences extreme fear. When the abuser’s anger reaches its peak, all of the victim’s emotions are suppressed and she moves into ‘‘survival mode.’’ Her energy becomes focused on calculating such things as where to fall and how to keep the children from overhearing the fight. She may dissociate and feel that she is leaving her body. Just after the violence stops, her extreme fear returns. This experience becomes chained together with all of her other memories of abuse at the hands of her husband; these memories are remembered vividly in the immediate aftermath of a violent episode. This is the time when she is most likely to leave, especially if there has been outside intervention (e.g., a witness to the incident tells her she is not crazy when she reports that her partner is violent). However, if threats have been made regarding what will happen if she leaves (e.g., he will kill her, he will kill himself, he will abduct the children), her awareness of danger is also very high. In addition, she is exhausted and unable to think clearly after enduring the violence. She may become paralyzed, ‘‘blanking out’’ in response to her internal conflict between fear of the consequences of staying and fear of the consequences of leaving.
The Postdischarge Phase
After his negative emotions have been discharged, the batterer’s state changes. His violent side recedes and the batterer is faced with explaining his violent behavior. Because he feels shame, he rationalizes his ego-dystonic behavior—sometimes blaming it on ‘‘stress,’’ sometimes blaming his spouse for provoking him. As the violent side of his personality recedes further inside, the details of the abuse are gradually forgotten by the abuser. He is once more able to see himself as a nice person who experienced a temporary aberration.
Walker describes the postdischarge phase as a ‘‘honeymoon phase’’ in which the batterer behaves in a kind and nurturing manner. He seduces his partner into believing that he is still loving and that he will change his behavior. The batterer is even more likely to appear remorseful if his spouse has actually left. Many scholars assume that the batterer’s behavior at this point is a conscious manipulation. However, if the batterer is viewed as dissociative, a different interpretation is possible: The violent side of his dual personality has receded, allowing the charming side to come to the fore. The good side has no understanding of the bad side. When faced with interventions from the outside world, he is in the venue where he has always functioned as a pleasant (nonviolent) man.
During the postdischarge phase, the abused wife experiences relief and gratitude. Her husband becomes remorseful, solicitous, tender, and nurturing at the very moment when she most needs it. The needs he does not meet at other times are finally being met. Because all of his negative emotion has been discharged, she is able to feel secure—he is not currently vulnerable to another episode of violence. Her emotional experience of security becomes chained with all her previous memories of being secure with him. She remembers how he treated her in the early stages of their relationship, how he behaves toward her in public, and all the previous honeymoon phases of their relationship.
The remorseful period does not occur in all batterers, especially if the abused wife does not leave. Some batterers just go into a period of postviolence during which they blame their victims for their behavior in order to remove their own sense of shame, while others withdraw into themselves to ‘‘cool off.’’ Yet even without a remorseful phase, the batterer’s character in the outside world provides sufficient contrast with his violent self to produce dissociative memory chains in both himself and his partner.
Helping an Abused Spouse to Leave or to Stay Away
Most people who provide assistance to victims of spousal abuse try to give them logical reasons for leaving the relationship or for not returning to an abusive partner; they are sometimes bemused by how easily the victims are seduced back into the relationship. However, if the dissociative nature of the victim’s experiences is taken into account, her behavior becomes more comprehensible. When she is in the outside world and her partner is acting like a model husband, the victim of spousal abuse is unable to clearly recall what his abusive personality is like. Because of this dissociation, treatment should focus on blending the victim’s memories from the buildup, discharge, and postdischarge phases of the cycle.
A major task in treatment is getting the battered woman to learn how to remember the abuse when her spouse is being supportive, and the supportiveness when he is being abusive. To accomplish this, the following interventions have proven helpful:
- Have the abuse victim keep a journal, instructing her to divide it into different sections that correspond with the different phases of the abuse cycle. She should keep her journal each day in the appropriate section throughout the phases of the relationship. Then have her read material daily from the sections which contain material from phases which are different from the one she is currently experiencing. The journal will also help the patient access material for use in therapy, as it is much easier for her to access images from the present phase of the cycle than from other phases.
- After the abused spouse is able to access images from phases other than the one she is currently in, hypnotically interweave images from each phase of the relationship. Use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or a similar technique with images from the different phases, then overlay the images and have the spouse attempt to see both at once.
- Use Emotionally Focused Therapy or Gestalt therapy techniques with the abused spouse, placing the imagined abusive partner in two or more different chairs, one for his abusive self, one for his public self, and others as needed. The purpose is for her to recognize that all aspects of her partner always exist.
Children in the Abusive Home
The batterer as a parent often intentionally interferes with the bond between his wife and their children. If he in his abandonment panic cannot have comfort from his spouse, he will not allow her to be a source of comfort to their children, because that would make him see that his spouse can be a source of comfort.
When his spouse fails to meet the batterer’s needs for comfort, the batterer may turn to his children, trying with them, as he did with his wife, to get the nurturing he missed as a child. If the batterer has chosen his children as objects of attachment and comfort, he is likely to abuse them as well, and to interfere with his partner’s ability to comfort them, abusing her even more for attempting to protect them from his abuse or tending to them afterward. He may escalate his abuse of the children if she questions his behavior or his authority. Hurting the children is a way to hurt their mother, and if she does not intervene, knowing that the outcome could be worse if she does, the children may see her as being complicit in their abuse.
What does it do to a child to be placed in this kind of situation? The child is exposed to more than one father—the frightening one, the nurturing one, and the regular one shown outside the home. The child is also exposed to a terrified and helpless mother as well as a nurturing one, who appears only when the father is not around. Children need to be able to provide comfort for both parents as well as to keep themselves safe. They need to be ready to deal with whatever parental ego state they are confronted with. These children are also likely to develop different ego states to deal with the different states of the abusive parent. In that way, like their mothers, they can enjoy being with the nurturing father without memories of the frightening father causing a level of anxiety that might actually precipitate the frightening father’s appearance.
Baker and O’Neil (1996) discuss attachment failure triads that occur when a child lives with a ‘‘frightened-frightening’’ parent. If the father is intermittently abusive and the mother is unavailable for comfort, the child may use dissociation to develop (1) a secure ego state for dealing with the protecting father, (2) a traumatized ego state for dealing with the threatening father, and (3) an avoidant or resistant ego state for dealing with the unavailable mother.
A child who develops alternating attachments to his or her parents may become ‘‘stuck to’’ one parent, either father or mother, for a period of days while refusing the other parent. If a situation requires the child to spend time with the parent he or she is not ‘‘stuck to,’’ the parent who is the current object of attachment may physically have to force the child away and hand him or her over to the other parent. The child will then switch allegiance. The child is able to tolerate thinking that one parent is the ‘‘good guy’’ but is unable to grasp the complexity of the situation and therefore reduces it to simplicity by allowing an awareness of only one parent at a time.
In many cases, the batterer attempts to turn the children against the other parent. He may tell them that their mother deserved the abuse, giving them his side of the story. The children may be able to evade his abuse by listening supportively to him and even berating their abused parent themselves. They come to believe that if they take the abuser’s side, they could be protected from harm. Indeed, the abuser may make them take sides, calling them in as witnesses in some dispute and pointing out to them how bad their mother is. The only safe place for a child in a spouse-abusing household is in the arms of the abuser.
The abusive parent needs desperately to see himself as the ‘‘good guy’’ and as being justified in his behavior. Therefore, he has to convince the only witnesses, the children, of his view of the situation. They know that their safety is contingent upon their acceptance of the abuser’s viewpoint and their rejection of their other parent. If the love of the non-abusive parent is not conditional, but is frequently unavailable because of the abuse, the children need to dissociate their awareness of the actual situation in order to obtain whatever love he or she can. Keeping safe from the frightening parent (whether the father or the mother) involves accepting that parent’s verbal explanation that the other parent is the ‘‘bad guy,’’ even though the child’s own observations indicate otherwise. The child also has to keep the secret of what life is like at home. This is a prime breeding ground for dissociation, or at least of the development of fairly separate ego states, which can emerge later when, as adults, they enter into intimate relationships.
As a result, the children may adopt the abusive parent’s anger as their own, and genuinely believe the other parent to be the monster of the abusive parent’s imagination. Even at a very young age, they may begin to verbally abuse one parent the way the other parent does, or exhibit uncontrollable rages against her. In order for this behavior to stop, such children must come to realize that all the rage that they have been carrying against the abused parent belongs to the abusive parent rather than to themselves.
Summary: The Dissociative Dance
As the battering spouse goes through the phases of the abuse cycle, his partner develops parallel states which link together in separate chains of memory. The abuse victim feels anxiety and pity during the buildup phase, enters into a survival and coping mode marked by a lack of emotion and dissociation from the body during the discharge phase, experiences extreme fear just before and just after the battering, and feels a sense of relief and security during the postdischarge or ‘‘honeymoon’’ phase. During the ‘‘honeymoon’’ phase, as well as when she is with her partner in the outside world, the victim has only hazy recollections of the battering and buildup phases. Thus she is able to enjoy the relief periods without contamination from memories of violence, continue to love her spouse, and maintain the marriage. However, such dissociation prevents her from leaving when this might be the best course of action. When he becomes a parent, the abuser often interferes with his wife’s bond with their children, substituting himself as both abuser and comforter. He thus creates the dissociative splits which enable his children to repeat the dissociative dance of domestic violence when his children become adults.
- Baker, Su, and John O’Neil. ‘‘Transference and Countertransference Revisited: The Interplay of Trauma and Attachment in the Process of Therapy with Dissociative Disorders.’’ Workshop presented at the 13th International Fall Conference of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, 1996.
- Dutton, D. The Domestic Assault of Women. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1995.
- Dutton, D., and S. K. Golant. The Batterer: A Psychological Profile. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
- Jones, Ann. Next Time, She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
- Miller, Alison. ‘‘The Dissociative Dance of Spouse Abuse.’’ Treating Abuse Today 8, no. 3 (1998): 9–18.
- Sutker, L. W. ‘‘When Dissociation Is Called Denial: Differences in Treatment Approaches to Dissociative Phenomenon in Victims and Offenders.’’ Proceedings of 3rd Annual Victoria Child Sexual Abuse Symposium, 1994, 100–105.
- Walker, L. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
- Weldon, Michelle. I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1999.