13. Acceptance Peers & Education - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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13. Acceptance Peers & Education

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

Conflict, Control, and Out of Control in Couples and Couple Therapy

"Attitudes condoning violence may be an important variable in understanding the association between exposure to violence and later aggression.  Attitudes toward violence have proved to be a risk factor for men's aggression in their own right, although the evidence is somewhat inconsistent.  A number of empirical studies have found that men's approval of marital and dating violence is associated with inflicting physical aggression against their spouses or girlfriends (Dibble & Straus, 1980; Kaufman Kantor & Straus, 1987; Margolin, John, & Foo, 1998; O'Keefe, 1998; Russell & Hulson, 1992; Smith, 1990; Stith, 1990; Stith & Farley, 1993; Tontodonato & Crew, 1992)… In a study with undergraduates, Riggs and O'Leary (1996) reported that family of origin aggression, although correlated with attitudes, was only a weak predictor of dating violence in the overall structural equation model.  Attitudes accepting aggression, in contrast, was a significant predictor of aggression in dating relationships.  In Stith and Farley's (1993) sample of male batterers and alcoholics, observation of parental marital aggression predicted approval of marital violence but did not directly predict violence directed toward the spouse within the previous year.  Attitudes approving marital violence, however, did predict severe violence in marriage.  In addition, Silverman and Williamson (1997) reported that the relationship between witnessing paternal battering and a man's violence against his current partner was weakened when attitudinal and peer influences were considered.  These studies indicate that attitudes reflecting approval of violence may be an important link between violent experiences in the family of origin and aggressive behaviors in adult relationships" (O'Hearn and Margolin, 2000, page 160-61).

Acceptance of an individual's right to commit violence a partner varies among different groups.  It has been proposed that observing parental domestic violence is associated with being a perpetrator or a victim of domestic violence as an adult.  A further hypothesis is that observing domestic violence as a child also would cause males in particular to believe that domestic violence is reasonable- at least in some cases.  However, "Silverman and Williamson's (1997) study of college students… found no association between witnessing family of origin violence and believing that battering is justified.  Instead, they found that witnessing domestic violence was associated with being with abusive peers and receiving information supporting abuse, which in turn were positively related to attitudes that battering is justified and to behaving in a physically abusive manner.  These data illustrate that attitudes are shaped by many sources of input, not just by the family of origin.  Experiences in childhood may, in fact, become less salient over time, as a man accumulates a range of experiences outside of his family of origin" (O'Hearn and Margolin, 2000, page 170).  This finding offers hope for changing initial family-of-origin models of partner abuse through new experiences.  Therapy or domestic violence groups become new communities of authoritative voices or colleagues that assert against any justification for domestic violence.  The therapist's exploration of Dirk's family-of-origin models about psychological aggression and abuse, including domestic violence needs to go farther into other formative and sustaining influences over the years.  Did or does he associate with family, friends, common-interest groups, work, or other communities that condone intimate partner abuse?  Did he associate with people who frequently disrespect, denigrate, and objectify women, who resent women, or who are misogynists?  Does he continue to associate with such people subsequent to abusive incidents or the commencement of couple therapy?

A large portion or majority of men believes that slapping a wife is acceptable under certain circumstances.  Man to woman aggression is considered most appropriate for self-defense or defending a child- if she attacks with a knife, physically abuses a child, or she hits first in an argument.  The next area most stated as appropriate is when there is some sexual transgression such as catching her sexually with another man or learning that she is having an affair.  In addition about 10-20% if men feel that physical male to female aggression is somewhat justifiable when the wife rejects or embarrasses the husband such as flirting with another man in his presence or repeatedly calling him "stupid."  "Research comparing violent vs. nonviolent men's social skills and cognitive biases in a variety of circumstances similarly identifies situations of abandonment, embarrassment, and jealousy as difficult for violent men (Eckhardt, Barbour, & Davison, 1998; Holtzworth-Munroe & Anglin, 1991).  Such circumstances might be particularly problematic for men who lack appropriate cognitive and social responses and who also endorse attitudes condoning violence in these same situations" (O'Hearn and Margolin, 2000, page 169).  The permission or entitlement to physical vengeance when humiliated or emotionally attacked is paralleled in a very common ethic of a verbal "eye for an eye."  It is not unusual at all for an individual who otherwise values restraint and respectful bi-directional mutual discourse without insult, claim the right to discard such values if the other person has "disrespected" him or her first.  Vicious intentionally hurtful words- "low blows" and "fighting dirty" become acceptable and even compulsory.  Such an exception to civil discourse may be a non-physical version of domestic violence, or a precursor to domestic violence.  As such, the therapist should assertively identify and challenge a partner's sense of entitlement to become emotionally and psychologically abusive.

Attitudes that condone intimate partner verbal abuse may permit subsequent domestic violence and forestall the development of improved cognitive, emotional, or social responses.  On the other hand, it may be a relevant hypothesis that having inadequate cognitive, emotional, and social responses to emotionally distressing experiences in an intimate relationship cause some individuals to need to find ways to justify intimate partner violence.  Since the individual is otherwise unable to manage the feelings, aggressive and abusive behavior can result.  To maintain some positive self-image, values justifying the domestic violence become essential.  Attitudes, violence, and justification can reinforce the distressed perpetrator in an endless self-confirming cycle.  The therapist may need to identify and break this cycle.  Asserting that domestic violence is abuse and thus, is not acceptable is one tack.  If the individual continues to hold that domestic violence is justifiable or is justified, the therapist can assert a functional strategy.  Whether the individual continues to believe physical violence is justifiable or justified, the therapist can assert with (when and if) the partner's agreement, that the relationship cannot sustain itself with violence.  The perpetrator can feel or hold that he or she is "right," but despite being in the right further violence will break up the relationship.  This is an appropriate strategy or intervention for a variety of behaviors.  "You may be right, but you won't be married," or "You can believe or think what you want, but if you continue (or do again) that, the two of you won't be together,"  "You can contemplate how you were and are right… and that you are alone."  "Or, you can continue to be right when you are arrested and jailed for domestic violence."  Sometimes, it is only in facing such boundaries and consequences will the individual begin to consider developing improved cognitive, emotional, and social responses to personal distress and interpersonal conflict.

Attitudes condoning violence show a link between exposure to aggression during childhood and subsequent aggressive behavior directed at a partner.  Changing that attitude may become a primary goal of therapy.  "…violence in the family of origin contributes to greater acceptance of aggression as a response to conflict, which then contributes to aggressive behavior.  In contrast, a moderator effect would be demonstrated if the association between childhood exposure and aggression toward a partner changes as a function of attitudes condoning male to female aggression.  In other words, for men high on condoning attitudes, there may be an association between exposure in childhood and subsequent aggression (O'Hearn and Margolin, 2000, page 161).  For men who did not condone intimate partner abuse as justifiable, there was no relationship between childhood exposure to violence and subsequent adult aggressive behavior (page 169).  In other words, without the violence validating attitudes exposure to childhood violence, attitudes condoning aggression may not lead to later domestic violence.  Blocking violent behavior by any means available may be a first step to changing attitudes condoning violence.  Along with developing more positive conflict resolution skills and self-nurturing mechanisms, the individual may be able to experience a more positive productive relationship more free of bitter anger, violence, resentment, and fear.  Different findings or findings from diverse orientations do not offer the therapist a simple consistent cause and effect dynamic to target.  Whether attitudes condoning partner abuse or exposure to domestic violence in childhood or other contributory experiences or characteristic, the therapist usually needs to address all potential issues in therapy.  And in all probability, the therapist will need to address their interactive dynamics collectively.

A very productive attitude or principle in couple's conflict resolution to promote is that both partners must win or both will lose.  If one partner wins, then the other partner loses and resents the winner.  While winning the contested issue of the moment, the winner also loses out because of the partner's long-term resentment and possible vengeance to come.  Accompanying the victory is the unhappiness of the intimate partner, which is counter to so-called winner's best interests.  The contested issue is gained but the relationship suffers a loss.  Dominance and the collection of all or most rewards create permanent inequality in the relationship or regular and disturbing fluctuations in individual satisfaction.  Regular fluctuations disrupt the harmony of the relationship and threaten its continuity.  The battles for control and dominance predict bitter anger, violence, resentment, and fear.  Thus, ironically they send them out of control.  At best, permanent inequality leaves one partner disgruntled unless there is some other comparable equity gained in the relationship that is satisfactory to him or her.  This can happen if an otherwise unequal relationship allows for sufficient fulfillment and mutual respect as each partner holds a satisfactory role distinct from the other's role.  This could be a traditional patriarchy with male dominance and traditional leadership roles economically that exists along with a compatible matriarchal sub-domain with traditional female childcare and household authority and responsibility.

In lieu of a mutually satisfactory unequal partnership, an egalitarian model appears to have benefits in many ways.  Mature cognitive, emotional, and social for self-care, relationship intimacy, and conflict resolution skills would be both help create such an egalitarian model and be likely results of the model.   Kim and Sung (2000) attributed that a lower tendency of domestic violence among recent Korean immigrants to the couple becoming more egalitarian along with less male dominant relationships and increased education.  The amount of education in the United States was associated with the level of stress.  With more education, "the more easily they adjusted their lives to the new setting by overcoming the language barrier and cultural difficulties.  Impressively, these couples had less socioeconomic stress" (page 340).  Kim and Sung are "convinced that the primary factors that enabled the couples to initiate and maintain a new style of marital life were higher education and longer residence in the United States, which allow for a greater degree of influence of egalitarian western culture via mass media and contacts with other Americans.  This further contributes to the gradual movement toward the adoption of a new life style that reflects American egalitarian culture and thought (Yoo and Sung, 1997).  The findings from our study reject the traditional belief that the male dominant family has marital harmony and a happy family life.  Around 80% of the each marital power type, except for the male-dominant couples, felt positively about their marriages.  Violence was high among male dominant couples who experienced a high level of stress. Male abusers tend to adhere to a traditional patriarchal system" (page 343).

When the therapist considers the cultural background of the partners, he or she needs to also consider qualifying or mitigating factors, including education and assimilation towards mainstream egalitarian values as Kim and Sung have identified.  The therapist should look for academic, work, or community experiences that have challenged and caused adaptation to Madeline or Dirk's traditional patriarchal family models.  Since educational achievement has become more common for females, individuals of either gender who advance academically would have more frequent interactions with competent female peers.  In addition, one or both partners may also have worked in gender-egalitarian situations where there were regular interactions with women in important responsible roles.  On the other hand, if one or both partners have primarily or only functioned in traditional gender segregated situations, especially those with overt male gender dominant values or limited female roles, male dominant family or cultural models may be intensified.

A significant part of the therapeutic process should include psychoeducation about all aspects of individual, couple, and family-of-origin development and their interrelationships.  The therapist should educate the partners about attachment insecurity and its affects on tolerating abandonment, anxiety, and adult intimacy.  The partners need to learn about the cycle of domestic violence and whatever its pertinence to their dynamics.  They need to learn about gender roles and expectations.  Each partner needs to learn about his or her conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious values and perceptions relative to gender roles, respective partner roles, and his or her sense of self and sense of the partner.  As the partners are educated in these and other relevant areas, they can better come to understand and accept themselves and each other.  The partners may have been limited in their prior formal and informal education about emotional and psychological needs, assertiveness, aggression, and abuse.  In couple therapy, they would be further limited to the degree that their therapist limited in knowledge and theory about the relationships among assertion, aggression, and abuse, domestic violence, and other pertinent concepts and perspectives.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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