Two-way abuse is rare, ends quickly

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 28, 2007

What about mutually abusive relationships? Do they exist?

Of course there are relationships in which both partners exhibit violent behavior, but according to those who have studied all types of domestic violence, they are rare. In a relationship based on power and control, only one partner can dominate.

It appears that when two abusive people get together, the relationship ends quickly.

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Some couples occasionally brawl, but the dynamics of their relationship do not match those of what experts traditionally call domestic violence, in which one partner clearly dominates. Battering is not a “fight” that involves two people. It doesn’t arise from a rational disagreement between people. Often, violence will be triggered by something utterly insignificant, such as knocking a paper cup to the floor, forgetting to turn off a light or nothing at all.

Often, the abuser will wake a sleeping woman up to beat her.

In some abusive relationships, the woman will try to defend herself by fighting back. However, this is not a form of mutual combat but rather a fear-induced reaction to being attacked. The mutually combative relationship, involving “fair fights” between parties, is both very unusual and distinct from the typical abusive home.

One of the most perplexing questions about domestic violence is “why?” Most people today agree that men to do not have the right to beat up their wives and that those who do are committing a heinous act. We realize that it is dangerous and emotionally destructive for children to grow up in a violent home.

We condemn family violence and praise the shelters, hotlines and volunteers that try to help the victims. We recognize it as a social problem.

We want the problem to go away and wonder why it doesn’t.

In about two-thirds of violent homes there are three phases the couple goes through over and over, in a circular pattern. The aspects of the violence may vary from home to home, but the cycle almost always has these ongoing components.

First, tension builds. The man becomes edgy, critical, irritable.

The woman may go out of her way to try and keep the peace during this period, “walking on eggshells” to try and pacify him.

She avoids anything she fears may set him off on a tirade.

Meanwhile, he becomes gradually more abusive with “minor” incidents such as slapping, verbal abuse and increased control techniques. The woman allows this behavior in a desperate attempt to keep the abuse from escalating. Yet docile behavior tends to legitimize his belief that he is all-powerful and has a right to be abusive. She continues to try and control the environment and the people around him, and her isolation increases as she tries to keep things on an even keel.

This uncomfortable stage may last from a few days to a period of years. Usually both can sense the impending loss of control and become more desperate, which only fuels the tension.

Carolene Britt is a counselor at Southwest Mississippi’s Mental Health Center. She can be reached at 601-446-6634.