Discussion and Intervention
Using case study methodology with women in a private practice setting, this study applied object relations theory to explain the psychological factors that keep women in abusive relationships. Women in these cases ranged between 30 to 45 years, were employed and able to maintain themselves financially. All were married and had experienced abuse by a partner within one year of seeking treatment. Two had young children and all had family support and a place to go.
Women in these cases experienced abuse from an intimate partner ranging from minor to major. They were pushed, shoved, slapped, kicked, ridiculed, called names and even had their movements and earnings controlled or taken away. None of the women abused alcohol or other drugs.
All women experienced variations and combinations of childhood abuse and neglect ranging from severe physical abuse, emotional abuse, insensitivity to their needs and neglect. One described horrendous physical abuse as a child, with her mother flying into a rage and beating her until her skin broke. This woman described deep shame that continues even today. Although she eventually moved away from home, the memory lingers, as do other memories of childhood neglect, insults and lack of nurturing. The two other women described more neglect and lack of emotional nurturing coupled with criticism and insults. Nonetheless, these experiences shamed them as children, which they carry into adulthood.
Women also questioned their part in their partners’ abuse. After describing several major abusive episodes, ranging from being drop-kicked and sent flying against a wall, to silent treatment for weeks to being threatened with removal of her children, this woman wondered whether she was so bad to warrant this treatment. The more I remarked that this was not her fault, the more she was convinced of her badness, splitting off, excusing and even defending her abuser. This was the same with the other two women who recalled minor abusive episodes. Both wondered what they could have done differently to avoid the abuse, that perhaps they could have used a different tone of voice or not said anything at all and that their partners were good men. In their hopeful states, the abuse was wiped from their minds and allowed them to return to dangerous situations without fear.
Women in these three cases exhibited the moral defence, often blaming themselves for both intimate partner abuse and childhood abuse by their mothers. Even in the face of what can only be termed extreme childhood cruelty, one woman questioned her own “badness” and excused her mother. What could a five-year-old do to propel a caregiver, a mother no less, to whip her child until her skin broke and not feel some remorse? Yet, when I remarked that this should not have happened, this woman turned against me, defended her mother, saying that she (child) should have known better, behave better, do better and that her mother was exhausted and had a hard life. The other two women, who were told to do better in school or stop being so difficult, defended their mothers, citing their own “badness,” that perhaps their mothers were right and worse that their mothers were wonderful.
The role of the therapist in working with women in abusive relationships is critical, as I learned from these experiences. As Celani (2010) explained, the therapist who attempts to separate women “tightly bound” to the bad object (abuser) or identifies him as the focus of the woman’s problem too soon in the therapeutic relationship, risks the woman ending therapy. Any attempt to separate the woman from the abuser or child (adult) from the mother triggers an abandonment panic and leaving treatment might be logical and the only avenue for the woman. Fairbairn “truly understood the power of attachment (both of love and hate) as a source of resistance” (Celani, 2010, p63).
A skilled therapist who understands the dynamics at play here would manage the therapeutic relationship differently. The therapist must be willing to tolerate the woman turning against him or her, engage in the dance as it were and hold firm in the hope that it would facilitate the woman’s development. Therapists who are aware of the twists and turns of the woman’s stories, who remain steadfast in holding these stories without moving her to leave the relationship, could facilitate her growth. Awareness is key here. It smoothens the transition from the woman’s sometimes angry and often sad recall of severe abuse to a calmer place, where she feels heard without being pushed to act. A skilled therapist who understands the nuances the woman brings to the therapeutic relationship and not force her to leave the relationship could, over time, help break the trauma bond between her and the abuser. This is the aim of the intervention so women can make decisions on firmer ground.
While this article focuses on three women in a practice setting and are insufficient to be generalisable, it should be noted that many other women who come for help exhibit a similar phenomenon. Though it is important to note the limitations of this study, the information provides a springboard for additional research with a larger representative sample of Trinidad and Tobago women. The findings in this study suggest that there are measurable psychological factors that keep the relationship between victim and abuser alive.
Additional research is needed to build and further refine these findings and to utilise them in developing a quantitative assessment instrument for use with a large random sample. Since several authors (Celani, 1996; 2010; Hadeed, 2006, Shainess, 1997) have stressed the importance of childhood experiences in shaping the personality of both victim and abuser, and since those observations were supported by the data in this study, well-conducted research will provide new paths for the prevention and treatment of intimate partner abuse and the revision of current policies to protect abused women. Unless these steps are taken, the numbers will continue to rise.