Domestic Violence and Psychology

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this year I’m spending my internship at a community mental health clinic in a rural setting. I have the opportunity to work with individuals who have been diagnosed with various disorders such as: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, depression, etc. Part of my work has also been conducting psychotherapy with individuals who are in abusive situations. On the weekend I work part-time at a local domestic violence shelter, which has been a real joy. Back in college I had the opportunity to work for two years at a domestic violence crisis center but I did not continue this work during graduate school. I am very excited to get back working in the field of domestic violence because it always been something that I’ve cared about both politically and personally. However, mental health and domestic violence sometimes have an antagonistic relationship. Many activists in domestic violence are skeptical of mental health because they fear that survivors of domestic violence are going to be pathologized and  that the reactionaries will use this to dismiss domestic violence. Some of this anxiety is understandable considering all of the idiots out there who have claimed that battered women (although not all survivors of domestic violence are women) want to be abused. Domestic violence workers counter that everybody is at risk for domestic violence (which is true) and that mental health professionals should recognize that the psychological and emotional issues of battered women are simply a product of the abusive situation.

This leads me to this weekend where I had the chance to read and reflect on David Celani’s text The Illusion of Love: Why the Battered Women Returns to Her Abuser (1994). Celani is a clinical psychologist who has been influenced by the Scottish psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn. Whereas Klein attempted to reconcile drive theory with object relations, Fairbairn rejected drive theory (and the notion of death drive & innate aggression), believing that aggression is a reaction to deprivation. Moreover, Fairbairn prioritized attachment over the pleasure principle and famously suggested that the libido is object-seeking. Fairbairn began his career in a Scottish orphanage and worked with many children who had been abused and/or neglected. Fairbairn observed many things that were troubling that made him question classical psychoanalytic theory. Celani writes, “these children preferred to face the threat of being beaten to death in their own homes by their own parents rather than the physical safety of staying in the foundling home without their parents.” (p. 24). Second, Fairbairn recognized that these deprived children were more attached and dependent upon their mothers than are children in non-abusive situations. Celani states, “The more they are deprived, the more they are fixated” (p. 26). For Faibairn, these observations make sense if one understands that the child’s greatest fear is not being loved by the primary caretaker. Their desperate clinging to bad objects is based on the hopeless fantasy that one day their caretaker will give them the love for which they yearn. Fairbairn described typical defenses used by these children to cope with their painful, traumatic situations. First, they might use “the moral defense against bad objects”, which are complex rationalizations that the child uses to justify parental neglect and/or abuse. For instance, “my father did not beat me because he’s an alcoholic sadist who might injure me at any moment” but “if I had cleaned my room better I bet father wouldn’t have been so mad. I’m so lazy sometimes, and I probably deserved to learn that lesson the hard way.” Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morality, “Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering” (p. 136). These children cannot acknowledge the fact that they randomly suffer because this reality is absolutely terrifying. Instead, they find ways to maintain a sense of control by citing trivial personal and moral flaws (any attempt to create meaning) that explain parental mistreatment. Second, these children often regularly engage in splitting (a psychological mechanism that separates good experiences from bad experiences). Celani suggests that the splitting of the ego leads to two separate selves: the hopeful self (created by experiences when the parent was gratifying) and the abused self (created by experiences when the parent was rejecting). Splitting is necessary when the child’s primary objects were abusive and/or neglectful and allows the child to keep the parent (and the resulting self-states) into separate parts of their mind. If the child were to integrate these self- and object-representations then the child would be forced to confront the fact that their parent was much more abusive than gratifying. Children avoid integration because it might permit  “the small moments of past goodness from being washed away by the larger tide of rejection” (p. 134).

So what does all this psychoanalytic theorizing have to do with domestic violence? Celani argues that these early experiences of abuse and/or neglect contribute to the developmental of borderline personality disorder (which he claims is an appropriate diagnosis for battered women and he stipulates that she must be in at least two exploitative relationships to qualify as “battered”). He claims that the majority of women who are in abusive relationships have depriving childhood experiences which lead to an enfeebled sense of self and difficulty with interpersonal relationships (usually part-objects). Celani understands that many advocates for the survivors of domestic violence attempt to portray survivors of domestic violence as innocent victims who are hopelessly trapped in a terrible situation because they believe “that sympathy can be gained for the plight of abused women if they are portrayed as innocent victims who have no role in their victimization” (p. 139). This strategy makes sense, especially given the dominant sway that patriarchy has on society and the misogynistic attitudes it creates in both men and women. Celani also recognizes that some individuals have trivialized the seriousness of domestic violence by claiming that women enjoy these experiences sexually because they naturally crave pain, abuse, etc. The idiots believe that these women want to be abused which means that the batterer is simply giving her what she wants and thus he should be not held responsible for his sadistic behavior. All of these are disgusting notions. Celani writes, “the victim of abuse is innocent, but her innocence is based on her psychological immaturity and the malformation of her ego structure, which does not allow her to protect herself from the abuser. There is little question that many, if not most, battered women unconsciously seek out batterers. The fact that they do does not make them guilty of anything or deserve the abuse they receive” (p. 139). Celani continually re-emphasizes this point so that nobody gets the wrong impression (and, it should be said, he’s dedicated the majority of his career working with these individuals in long-term therapy). Recall that Fairbairn recognized that children are utterly dependent on abusive parents and that deprivation makes the child more (rather than less) fixated on this rejecting object. He claims that Fairbairn’s understanding of the defenses of childhood deprivation explain the battered women’s attachment to their abuser. Celani connects the moral defense against bad objects to explain the survivor of domestic violence’s denial of the batterer’s abusive behavior. Celani also recognizes that the primary model to explain domestic violence eschews the value of childhood experiences, exonerating the battered women’s caretakers who were often terribly neglectful and/or abusive.

He critiques learning theorists who claim that the only reason a survivor of domestic violence would stay in the relationship is to avoid more physical violence. This is unpersuasive given that, on average, a woman has to attempt to leave her abuser seven times before she finally breaks things off permanently.  Moreover, many friends, family members and therapists know that trying to convince a survivor of domestic violence to leave the situation prematurely usually gets you nowhere. It often causes the survivor to become defensive of her abuser and increases her growing alienation. Furthermore, many mental health professionals have grown increasingly frustrated and irate when the abuse victim returns to the exploitative relationship because it makes no sense (on a conscious level). If you’re understanding of the situation is that the person being abused is simply trapped and unable to get out then how can we explain this strange attachment? Celani also cites that battered women often experience not more but less anxiety when they are with the batterer. The battered women’s dependency and fixation on the abuser (due to early childhood deprivation) and their belief that the abuser can complete their enfeebled self (analogous to the ways in which abused children experience less anxiety in the presence of the abusive parent than upon separation) can explain this curious phenomenon. Celani also critiques a learning theorist who claims that one of the reasons battered women attack police members who come to intervene on behalf of the survivor is that this attack demonstrates her loyalty to her abuser and mitigates further violence. However, Celani points out that if the battered women’s primary motivation is to avoid violence: why does she not just leave with the police? Alternatively, Celani argues that when the police arrives the battered women’s abused self is predominant and she has trouble controlling her rage when in that self-state (and the policeman is a safer target than the abuser on whom she depends). Also, the police might actually take the abuser away, causing the battered woman to face the possibility that her self-structure might collapse considering she her dependence on the abuser for stability.

I found Celani’s book compelling and something that resonates with my experiences. He also recognizes that political activism and social changes are necessary to prevent child abuse and to combat patriarchy, which are the conditions that perpetuate abusive relationships. There are a couple of criticisms I had about the book. First, he seems to downplay the role that class and economics have on the reasons behind why some women stay in these relationships. If your abuser is the only person who brings in income and you have multiple children to take care of, then it might make sense why some women remain in these relationships. Second, one wonders about Celani’s sampling bias. He is only treating women who come to psychotherapy. Are these women in his private practice accurate representations of ALL women in abusive situations? Probably not. It is likely that his sample was more pathological on the whole, but I do think his application of object relations theory to domestic violence does help explain many paradoxical and confusing aspects of domestic violence. I also think this sort of theory can actually increase empathy and patience with individuals in abusive situations, considering how easy it for people who are attemping to help to get pissed off and start to blame the abused individual for their suffering. I also think the book makes a compelling case for the necessity that domestic violence and mental health workers come together and recognize that both the socio-political and the intra-psychic/individual aspects need to be addressed to work towards helping survivors of domestic violence achieve the kinds of lives they deserve. I’d really welcome feedback from feminists to hear what they’d have to say about Celani’s ideas. I realize they might be controversial and I’d like to hear your opinion.

4 thoughts on “Domestic Violence and Psychology

  1. My experience is limited to 25 years of parish ministry where I did a lot of personal counseling and an even longer time in which I periodically sought counseling for myself. Celani’s ideas as described here are the best analysis I have seen of domestic abuse issues. While I am a feminist, I am not female

    I also had a 25 year marriage that I finally left where I was verbally and personally, although not physically, abused. I have come to believe that I had a classic Oedipal relationship with my mother and, while I could see it, I still could not stop being attracted to domineering women. My behavior replicated that of abused children and women as described here.

    Finally leaving that relationship was the easy part. All was compounded by multiple life issues that eventuated in a life-style that mimicked the accusations against me and led to a several months period of confinement for rehab. I have learned to avoid abuse but not to overcome my attraction to domineering others.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences and having the courage to offer your opinions. I realize the topic is sticky and I don’t want to alienate survivors of domestic violence but I do think it has some explanatory power. Also I think it compliments Freuds theory of repetition compulsion and his notion that the repetition of traumatic experiences can be driven by a desire for mastery of the historical trauma.

  3. Jeremy, I found these theoretical underpinnings INCREDIBLY useful for conceptualizing one of my clients in particular. I’ve been having significant countertransference feelings, both to her dogged inability to leave her husband and to her borderline-y boundary issues, that I was worried were interfering with my ability to treat her. On Friday, I found myself being highly active in our session by (prematurely) urging her to consider why she refuses to name his behaviors as abusive. After reading your post, I was able to think about how to redirect future sessions based on a reconceptualization of her behaviors. In addition, I realized that I have been colluding with her to avoid discussing her relationships with her caregivers; given her current presentation, perhaps I was worried of further unraveling her. However, after reconceptualizing her relationship patterns through her early object experiences, I have been able to reconnect with my empathy for her and her need to protect these object relationships. Do you mind citing the references you refer to here?

  4. Sonia,

    I’m glad these ideas can help you out. I’ve found myself increasingly interested in Fairbairn and Winnicott over the last couple of months. Fairbairn’s ideas are very powerful and seem to really help make sense of all the dissociative/splitting tendencies you see in clients with PDs who have experienced trauma. Here are a couple of references:

    Celani’s text – (buy it, cheap on Amazon)
    Fairbairn’s paper – (I can send you all of his writing on pdf from PEPWeb, if you want)

    Here’s one more text you might like by J Davies ( She’s a relational analyst who has written extensively about how to treat adult patients who have experienced significant sexual abuse. It’s come in handy with the clientele I see and I suspect it would help you out with many of your patients as well. You should proud of how much relational/object relations literature I’m reading as of late.

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