3. Assessing Assertion-Violence Continuum - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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3. Assessing Assertion-Violence Continuum

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > How Dangerous

 How Dangerous is this Person? Assessing Danger & Violence Potential Before Tragedy Strikes

"How dangerous is this person?"  The therapist, professional, or concerned person must continually assess and work on the distinctions in the continuum among anger, assertive anger, aggressive anger, and spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and psychological aggression. And, stay alert to boundary lines crossed from assertion to aggression to abuse or violence.  All abuse: emotional and psychological, mental, physical, or sexual is emotional and psychological abuse.  “Psychological abuse (verbal and nonverbal) has been shown to coexist with physical abuse among married couples, during courtship, and during pregnancy. Psychological aggression is an antecedent to physical aggression and known to be associated longitudinally. Husbands’ physical assault and SA (sexual abuse), including rape, are consistently related, especially among battered women. More women experience both physical and SA whereas a much smaller proportion experience sexual violence in the absence of physical violence. Information on female SA towards their husbands is sparse” (Ramisetty-Mikler et al., 2007, page 32).  An individual may request or have been referred to work on anger issues, including being appropriately assertive or aggressive.  One or another member of the couple or family may have trouble asserting him or herself or doing so appropriately.

The therapist or professional in such cases needs to keep assessing the individual.  How angry is he or she?  How is the anger expressed?  How is it expressed in his or her important relationships?  With the intimate partner?  With family members?  At school?  On the playground?  At work?  In sports? Socially? How does he or she assert him or herself?  How does the individual aggress?  Does he or she step across the boundary of abuse?  When there is emotional or psychological abuse, does… why… and how does it become abuse or violence?  If the aggression is “mostly verbal” and “never really got physical,” what did that mean about when the aggression was more than verbal?  And if the aggression “never really got physical,” what was as is implied did occur when it “sorta got physical?” What are the group, social, or cultural standards or expectations about assertiveness, aggression, and violence in the system: couple, family, school, team, and so forth?  How forthright is the individual about his or her behavior?  Therapy, treatment, or life may go on for a few weeks, a few months, and even years if the therapist or professional does not follow up on denials, minimizing, or diversions.  And fail to protect the individual and potential victims, if the therapist or professional does not identify the scope and depth of aggression, especially abuse.

Whether or not domestic violence, child or elder abuse, or other violent behavior is acknowledged, comments at the beginning of therapy, treatment, or interaction are often about problems about communication, conflict, frequent arguments, stress, parenting issues, depression, anxiety, work or relationship problems, and so forth.  The individual might mention considering coming to therapy before but had never gotten around to it.  Perhaps as a couple, they identify a gradual decline of intimacy as why they have finally tried to seek help.  Perhaps, instead there was a provocative incident at home, school, sports, or work that finally brought the urgency to a high enough level.  It may or may not have been an aggressive or violent act.  The therapist, professional, or concerned person may be fairly familiar with these presentations, but sometimes there seems to be more about the individual, especially in a couple or family than what is being said.  “There may be unexplained tension in the room; certain topics appear to be off limits. There may be a marked difference in the way and the degree to which each partner participates in the session” (Dytch, 2012). The partner who a therapist later learns is abusive may always begin or always make the other partner start the session.  “One partner may be highly critical and judgmental, or exercise control through silence, intimidation, and manipulation. The other may speak hesitantly and haltingly--or, alternatively, may be hostile, resentful, and angry, seemingly out of proportion to the subject under discussion.  They may disagree on basic facts and have widely divergent views of the same events. Frequently both partners are highly defensive and misconstrue what the other says, as though looking for an opportunity to act angry or hurt. They report or exhibit destructive communication patterns, such as escalation, invalidation, or a demanding/withdrawing dynamic. Impulse control may be poor. Problem-solving and conflict resolution skills are lacking.”  Suspicion may arise that there is some sort of intimidation or emotional abuse and possibly, physical abuse.  On the other hand, what initially appears to be a relatively normal couple or family that has had some intense arguments on occasion turns out to be an abusive relationship.  The individual, couple, or family otherwise seems to be fairly stable and intimate in conjunction with their passionate confrontations.  

The therapist or professional may initially believe that the arguments while heated and hurtful are not indicative of child abuse, domestic violence, or other violent behavior until further information is gained.  The therapist or professional may experience subtle to overt upset or anger from the client when unanticipated or identified sensitive areas are brought up.  The therapist or professional's counter-transference may be picking up aggression or attempts at intimidation- an indication of violent feelings if not violent behavioral tendencies.  A person may be unaware of cues of violence, especially if he or she is unconsciously avoidant about uncomfortable issues.  Uncovering domestic violence in couples therapy or violent tendencies in an individual is very much like finding reasonable suspicion of child abuse.  It is often disturbing.  The therapist, professional, or other person often wants to work on facilitating individual growth, healing couples relationships, promoting healthy development in children, or building positive family dynamics.  Coming across the ugly and nasty of abuse or violence is intrusive and disturbing.  Normal human reaction is to avoid or deny what is painful or disgusting, while embracing the wonderful and idyllic.  This reaction is completely human in this and other areas.  Uncovering abuse or violence means becoming the cop to enforce difficult boundaries and ironically, being the bad guy that seems to judge or condemn the perpetrator.  The therapist, for example with a strong desire to work on affirmative therapeutic processes may resist taking on such roles to deal uncomfortable issues.  Everyone should remember that someone who has been abused often carries with him or herself two self-condemning conclusions.  The first is that important people such as parents and authoritative professionals should have noticed the abuse or his or her emotional and psychological devastation and therefore intervened.  The second conclusion, is since they did not intervene they must not have noticed or noticed and did not act because the abused was not important enough.  Any new person's lack of action can re-traumatize previously abused individual as not important enough again.  

“Regardless of the reason for the assessment failure, the tragic result can be months or years of continued abuse. ‘Suffering’ is a pallid word to describe the soul-damaging, spirit-deadening impact of ongoing abuse on the abused partner and the children who live with it. The corrosive nature of some abuse leads to an erosion of the self that can be extremely difficult to reverse. The effects are cumulative and must stop before healing can begin. Additionally, abuse generally grows worse without intervention” (Dytch, 2012).  In the process of therapy or in communication with a sympathetic person, the individual may describe experiences in childhood or in earlier years that he or she has absorbed as incidental parts of personal history.  However, when some such as the therapist, professional, or caring person points out with authoritative emphasis accompanied with compassionate support that the individual had endured a psychic atrocity, the individual often feels his or her inner feelings and core validated for the first time.  It was a big deal.  It was abuse.  It was wrong.  "You did not deserve it.  And of course, it affected you.  You had to survive the best you could with the limited maturity and resources you had."  Violence may be from the past, be ongoing, or be imminent.   Therapy, treatment, or sharing with caring people often helps the individual deal with abuse or violence from the past.  In the present and imminent future, the therapist or professional has another responsibility to protect the client and others from abuse or violence as well.  For non-professionals there is a moral and social responsibility.

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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