5. Abuse: Bully-Victim Dynamics - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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5. Abuse: Bully-Victim Dynamics

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

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

The therapist and other professionals struggle with "our inability to predict when batterers would cross over into violence.  While emotional abuse often preceded physical abuse, it was such a common occurrence in the relationship that it did not serve as an accurate warning sign.  Further, there is no way for the battered woman to control when emotional abuse would turn into physical abuse." (Jacobson and Gottman, 1998, page 63).  When Dirk became verbally abusive, it was up to him if turned next to physical aggression and abuse.  Madeline could shut up or try to leave the room, but Dirk was often relentless and come after her.  He chased after her verbally and there was nothing she could do to stop if he became more aggressive, including violent.  Dirk was bigger and stronger… angrier, more aggressive, and more violent.  The therapist needs to uncover the extent of his psychological aggression.  The therapist needs to find out if Dirk has any limits.

Dirk and Madeline present as a classic bully and victim pair.  The therapist needs to be wary that the couple's therapy does not become an extension of the ongoing abuse in the home.  Dirk may block or distort Madeline's concerns about the relationship.  Dirk defining the couple therapy goals according to his perspective can in itself be emblematic of his bullying behavior.  How profound is Dirk's psychological aggression?  How much of a bully is Dirk?  "Of the research focusing upon characteristics, there is a tendency for four distinct categories of offenders to be examined: 'pure bullies,' those who solely report behaviours indicative of bullying others, 'pure victims,' those who solely report behaviours indicative of being bullied, 'bully/victims,' those who report behaviours indicative of bullying others and being bullied, and finally those 'not involved' [Ireland, 1999a].  In terms of intrinsic characteristics, only a small number have been examined within the research literature.  These have included empathy, provictim attitudes [Ireland, 1999b], social problem-solving abilities [Ireland and Archer, 2002], assertiveness [Ireland, 2002c], social self-esteem, depression, distress, hopelessness, anger-hostility and tension-anxiety [Biggam and Power, 1998].  Intrinsic characteristics are important to explore in depth since they may represent markers for predispositions or vulnerabilities towards becoming a bully and/or a victim.  They also may help to understand how victims are likely to respond to being bullied and what determines the different victim reactions displayed." (Ireland and Power, 2004, page 299-300).  The therapist can learn from the initial session or sessions by noting key markers that Dirk bullies Madeline.  Bully and victim principles are quite relevant and should shape assessment and treatment.

It may be useful to make a distinction between a "real" bully and cultural roles that mimic the bully dynamic.  Such a cultural role asserts (usually for a male) that he can be highly assertive, demanding, and be unquestioned.  Many men assert this role culturally but do so with relative kindness and sensitivity to the needs and feelings of their partners and children.  While still chauvinistic with clear gender inequality in heterosexual relationships, it is not necessarily a bully-victim relationship.  In such a sexist but "benevolent" relationship, often the key issue is not about abuse but whether or not there is mutual respect for the roles of each of the partners.  The therapist may encounter heterosexual couples with traditional patriarchal dominance that is accepted by both the male and female partners.  The male partner presumes authority and leadership and the female partner accepts a more passive and deferential role.  The power inequity may be founded on traditional female deference freely given.  With such a couple, the therapist should probe whether the traditional gender roles are mutually accepted and compatible.  If the dynamics satisfactorily serve both partners, then the therapist should not attempt to challenge their system of power and control.  At the same time, however very strong traditional sexist roles where the man is dominant more readily leads to the activation of a true bully-victim relationship.  Less industrialized societies, societies with little or no old democratic traditions, poor countries or communities, subsistence survival communities, more fundamentalist societies, or societies under intense stress... or families with comparable models are more likely to have true bully-victim dynamics and relationships.

The therapist can easily become angry at the bully, and/or get intimidated by him/her.  Ironically, the therapist also intimidates the bully (and, is also intimidated perhaps by the partner).  The bully fears being exposed or frustrated.  The bully however usually abhors letting anyone know that he or she is intimidated.  The bully can have a hostile attributional bias.  It is a form of paranoia where he or she perceives provocation where it doesn't exist.  Dirk may challenge Madeline, "Who are you looking at!?"  Or, in response to the therapist's feedback, snap "Stop trying to play psychological games with my head!"  Paranoia distorts the bully's perception and interpretation of innocent comments and behavior.  He or she just knows that the other person is going to "do" him or her wrong.  This may be more or less covert or overt… more or less hidden, including through socially acceptable behaviors.  The therapist needs to determine the depth and rigidity of the paranoia and experiences of injustice within the individual.

An important personality type professes to be a victim but behaves like a bully.  The bully-victim both takes and is humiliated by a victim identity.  In contrast to an alpha bully, the bully-victim's aggression is often functionally ineffective.  It neither gains instrumental benefit or social status.  As a result, the bully-victim has the worse of both experiences: the negative emotional consequences of the victim, including low-self esteem along with the negative social consequences of the bully, including social dysfunction.  The bully-victim is left socially to associate with other bullies, where the alpha bullies victimize him or her.  Ineffective aggressing against more powerful intimidating bullies, the bully-victim is often the most bitter and potentially abusive partner.  Left with no one else to dominate or intimidate, the intimate partner of the ineffective bully gets the major brunt of a lifetime of accrued hostilities.  While a secure bully may try to control therapy and the therapist, the insecure bully-victim will tend to be more overtly sensitive and defiant.  He or she will consider the therapist as another humiliating threat in his or her life.  Acceptance of the therapist lead role by the bullying individual becomes critical to the success of therapy.  Getting or forcing the "bully" to accept the authoritative role of the therapist is the important first step.  While Dirk may appear to be invested in therapy and ostensively defer to the therapist's role, he may be carefully scrutinizing the therapist for competence and credibility.  In some individuals, this may be part of significant pervasive narcissistic issues that manifest in many areas of functioning and in other relationships.  Moreover, Dirk may be alert for any indication of the therapist judging or criticizing him.  The degree of Dirk's intensity and vigilance about the therapist and therefore, the difficulty to build rapport with him are indicative of his relative insecurity underlying his bullying habits.

Cognitive, logical, and rational interpretations- that is, insight work often is wasted upon this type of person.  The bully does not or cannot see him or herself negatively.  This denial may be more pronounced in the couple.  Self-criticism may be too great a threat to his or her fragile self-esteem to admit.  If the therapist encourages understanding the partner and having empathy for the partner's experiences, the bully may automatically resist.  Understanding and compassion for another is experienced as giving up his or her righteousness.  They constitute being forced to admitting being wrong.  That is experienced as an act of aggression upon the individual.  As a result, the bully feels justified to retaliate by being aggressive and hurtful against the other person.  Hostility and aggression becomes a primary way to relate to others.  This response intensifies when under stress, and can become the only response strategy.  When confronted with some hurtful words or behavior against Madeline, Dirk asks rhetorically, "What else am I supposed to do?"  Such self-righteous behavior makes him/her feel powerful.  Over time and life, the bully often experiences aggression as working in relationships.  A family or society of origin or a community of peers may culturally support this orientation.  Like-minded aggressive males for example, may play out mutual aggression for dominance in their social hierarchy.  Transferred to an intimate romantic relationship, aggression an dominance may create problems.  Some potential partners may refuse victimization or domination.  The relationship terminates rather than endures.  On the other hand, the bully may find a partner such as Madeline who may feel compelled to give up, acquiesce, or back off.  To the bully, his or her approach works… seemingly.

The bully tends to focus only one outcome- the short-term outcome.  In the midst of threat or stress, the bully fails to see long-term damages to the self-esteem of his or her partner and to the relationship.  Families, communities, and societies under a great deal of stress- imminent crisis or danger also tend to focus on the short-term.  Long-term issues seem irrelevant because survival in the short-term is already so tenuous.  Bullying behavior can become his or her only way to have any semblance of self-esteem.  The bully gradually gets locked into patterns of aggressive and hostile responses.  With the male bully, his becomes acceptable only to those like him.  Peers who have more balanced skills to manage social power and control in life and relationships would tend to avoid him.  He tends to associate only with other bullies, the only people who find his behavior acceptable.  For some individuals, this is a transitory or developmental stage that they are able to work through.  Others become more steeped in bullying mentality and behavior.  They are easily recognizable bullies, while others learn social graces sufficiently to get along.  Despite appearing to be decent reasonable citizens at work and to the general public, individuals like Dirk show their bully instincts and behaviors at home.  True bullies do not come often, readily, or willingly come to therapy in the first place.  It is too foreign and too threatening.

Women who are assertive or aggressive do not have the same social acceptance for such aggressive behavior that men may have.  What would be normative male assertiveness would get women derisively labeled as "bitches."  Women as much as men however, can cross from assertiveness to aggression to abuse, and become bullies.  Female bullying styles reflect social standards as well.  Male bullying tends to reflect male socialization, which is hierarchically based.  Male cultural models emphasize attaining power and control through domination and intimidation to ascend the hierarchy or resist being "put down" the hierarchy.  Assertiveness and aggression are valued.  Male bullying can be seen as an extreme arguably dysfunctional form of socially sanctioned assertion and aggression.  Female cultural models emphasize inclusion and being a part of the community or group with cooperation and group cohesion.  Assertiveness and aggression are ostensibly discouraged.  Overtly seeking power and control or ascending the implicit hierarchy is considered not feminine.  Women who have absorbed such traditional female models are challenged in modern competitive supposedly meritocracies or egalitarian academic, vocational, political, and social circumstances.  As a result, women often have to function in parallel duplicitous lives presenting the "nice" feminine role to most people.  This applies as well to presenting sweetly while acting abusively to those close to them.  The therapist needs to be aware of gender stereotypes and expectations around assertiveness, aggression, and abuse as they may manifest in the partners and the couple.  

Madeline may be very aggressive but cover her actions in a veil of niceness.  While Dirk shows relatively classic male bullying behaviors, the therapist should also examine if Madeline is also bullying him.  A female version of aggression that can become bullying might use inclusion and exclusion.  Madeline can constitute the wife-mother and children as the in-group and Dirk subtly but purposely excluded.  The woman can bully by building an intimate relationship with the children, while blocking their intimacy with their father.  She can punish him with disconnection from the children.  She can use this culturally accepted female model, while pleading cultural compliance in the mother-children relationship.  Male role expectations and behavior would make Dirk vulnerable to this strategy.  A key assumption underlying the therapist looking for this dynamic is that Madeline or other victims do not always and totally acquiesce to the individual's abuse.  One way or another, Madeline may be fighting back.  She somehow asserts herself, aggresses, and seeks power and control despite abuse.  Uncovering and validating such behaviors and intent serves therapy in two ways.  On one hand, it validates that Dirk may have some case that Madeline contributes to their problems.  This serves a systemic evaluation of the couple.  While Dirk is culpable in their dysfunction and clearly needs to change, Madeline is also involved and change is required of her as well.  On the other hand, although her behavior may be dysfunctional, it is from Madeline's attempt to assert herself in the relationship.  Therapy can take her problematic attempts and help her develop them in healthier processes.

In some cases there are important subtleties of power and control being held by the identified "victim".  In such cases, the therapist can easily be drawn into become the defender of the "victim."  It is important to distinguish this from a domestic violence situation where there are clear legal and ethical requirements for the therapist.  In the absence of domestic violence, the defender response is frequently not beneficial for the health of the individuals or the couple's dynamics.  The male therapist for example, may see in his role as a helper or as an American within the cultural framework to save another person.  The female therapist on the other hand, may identify with victims- especially women from personal cultural experiences of marginalization or abuse and become a rescuer/advocate.  The therapist must do his or her personal work to uncover potential counter-transference issues such as these or others that may affect the therapy.  Victim personalities seem to be highly incompetent in life and relationships.  However, victim personalities can also be extremely competent.  They can be competent in being victims!  Being victims for some individuals may have become a fairly effective way for them to gain power and control in their lives, and ironically, in their couple's relationships.  This may be relevant even when the individual has endured repeated psychological aggression, emotional, abuse or domestic violence.  Being competent as a victim and gaining power and control by being one also has significant negative consequences.

In the process of therapy, Madeline presented her many truly horrific experiences from childhood through adulthood.  She had been depressed for many years even though she got by day-to-day.  A very strong and pervasive sense of helplessness emanated from her.  She mentioned old and current family issues, the current relationship problems with Dirk, who she characterized being emotionally abusive at times.  While there were definite deficiencies in his interactions with her, he was also caring and considerate at times.  Madeline, however, had been victimized in her life, and insisted that Dirk was victimizing her as well.  She had power and control taken away from her.  When she had been in individual therapy, her therapist was drawn to her… to try to help her -- to nurture her; and to immediately see her boyfriend at the time as a brutish monster.  Friends she confided in, felt the same.  In fact, her entire aura was drew the current therapist to help her.  Consciously, sub-consciously, or unconsciously she was asking the therapist to save her.  As a helping professional, the therapist was tempted to make a quick change into a "Gallant Knight" costume and ride to the rescue!

However, the therapist does not want to support the client's helplessness... being a victim.  Instead after listening to her complaints while Dirk alternately glowered at her and looked hurt, the therapist can say (in a straightforward but gentle tone) "You're so good at being helpless."  Madeline would be quite shocked, "What!?... What do you mean?"  She was used to being nurtured with the classic "Oh, poor baby" pattern, which would have confirmed her helplessness.  The therapist may continue, "You get a lot out of being depressed."  The therapist then would ask Dirk, "She's a good victim, isn't she?"  Stunned, Madeline said, "What do you mean?"  The therapist would explain, "When you are depressed and helpless, people… especially your friends take care of you.  You get a lot of power and control that way.  By being hopeless, you avoid taking risks really asserting yourself with Dirk.  You make him feel like the bad guy and he pacifies you sometimes."  A quick check with Dirk would confirm his feeling manipulated by her meekness.  It would be difficult to take this approach if the therapist believes that the person (child or adult) is too frail to handle the truth (or, if he or she likes rescuing women, or, is a man-hating therapist!).  Giving someone the truth explicitly asserts that the therapist believes that he or she is strong enough to deal with harsh realities.

Another approach to a person's self-victimization is to give "permission" for the person to continue as is.  The individual normally gets people commiserate with him or her, validating his or her "victimhood," but without doing anything to change it.  The "victim" seems to seek help, but at the same time, resists any help.  Giving permission confronts this dysfunctional dynamic while seemingly agreeing with the client.  It can create a paradoxical effect on the individual or couple.  Madeline as the "victim," might insist over and over that the partner would not change, and there was nothing she could do.  As she whined to the therapist over and over, she was inviting the therapist to empathize with her.  In other words, enlisting the therapist against Dirk and confirming her victim status.  Instead, the therapist might tell her, "You have my permission to stay in this relationship.  You have my permission to stay miserable for as long as you want.  There's nothing you think you can do, so I guess you're stuck.  Perhaps, we should change the therapy to helping you deal with a marginal life instead of looking for health and fulfillment.  Or, maybe I should give you permission to leave the marriage.  That's ok too."  Immediately, Madeline said things weren't ok and they needed to change.  The therapist can remain "negative", asserting that he or she didn't see how, repeating back to Madeline all her prior negative comments and interpretations.  At this, she might begin asserting the growth that had happened, the positives that were experienced, and so forth.  The more the therapist remained "negative," the more positive Madeline might became!  This can happen also with the couple.  The couple might be insistent that they were doomed, denying any positives or hope the therapist had tried to present.  Finally, the therapist agreed that it was hopeless.  Sometimes, this is the true opinion of the therapist- not just a therapeutic ploy.  The therapist could then suggest that the couple move to separation therapy: logistics of separation, child custody, and so forth.  The couple might be so horrified with the "professional" confirmation of their incompatible relationship, that they both might start arguing with the therapist about why they should stay together!  Madeline and Dirk might find hope, care, and love they had been denying.  They may be able to re-commit themselves to building their relationship.

The therapist needs to be clear and confident in his or her own assessments and skills in order to make these kinds of interventions.  Moreover, if there is intense domestic violence or consistent psychological aggression or abuse, this approach may not be appropriate.  The therapist has to make a strategic decision for this intervention based on specific dynamics in the couple and the process of therapy.  Identifying and then, redirecting attempts to gain power functionally is an important theoretical strategy, but must be weighed against the danger of reinforcing the bully or abuser's self-righteous justifications for aggression.  Identifying and confronting someone like Madeline gaining power and control passive-aggressively must not inadvertently condone abusive behavior by someone such as Dirk.  A paradoxical intervention of giving permission requires sophisticated assessment of the partners and couple.  Someone such as Madeline may not be passive-aggressively or otherwise asserting him or herself, but stuck in hopelessness and helplessness.  Giving permission to be stuck in the relationship may cruelly extinguish the little hope he or she has.  Rather than ignite assertive action, it may crush whatever tentative belief he or she has in change happening.  In addition, the therapist needs to have sufficient clinical skills and confidence to effectively use such a paradoxical intervention.

The paradoxical intervention just described may not work, if the person has been culturally trained to assert the victim role their entire lives.  This training may be from not only by the family but also by the entire society.  Any other role other than being the victim may not be within the cultural repertoire of the individual.  Being a victim and being depressed... and being without power may be part of the permanent experience of an individual.  The therapist may find Madeline has lived the victim role most of her life and have little sense of or feel a right to have personal power.  Evoking and encouraging a cross-cultural change may be the only way to move such a person into an assertion of power... into a battle for a more egalitarian relationship.  The proposed egalitarian relationship may be unfamiliar to both partners.  For Dirk, it may have always been to be on top, resist being topped, or to be topped.  For Madeline, it may have always been about how far down she was.  It would be important to clearly designate this as a cross-cultural change that would serve both the individual and the couple.  Getting the partner such as Dirk to agree to this change... to agree that it would be beneficial to both of them would be a tremendous step forward in the therapy.  It may be very challenging for the habituated submissive partner to agree as well.

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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