7. Cple Compositions w/Aggression - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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7. Cple Compositions w/Aggression

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

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

There are some identifiable compositions among couples that include abuse in the relationship.  Some couples present in therapy as two victims in a "who's the most victimized/oppressed" contest.  Dirk and Madeline both assert that he or she is the one with the most grievances.  They blame one another as the aggressor in the relationship.  A two-victim couple may actually be relatively easy to work with depending on how invested each may be in being the victim.  Neither partner may be used to having control and power in affirmative ways.  Both partners engage in self-righteous and often passive-aggressive revenge upon the other.  Their aggressive behaviors are largely reactive to self-identifiable vulnerabilities.  Although, the partners may become abusive when hurt, they tend to regret having done so.  They can see the positive aspects of each other and often have genuine affection and respect for reach other.  Hypothetically, they were mutually attracted to each other because of their similar observable vulnerability.  Each sees the other as someone to nurture, and as the one to nurture him or her.  As a result, they are less out of control emotionally and may be more amenable to adjusting their behaviors.  Unfortunately, prior experiences of victimization interfere with their mutual care, resulting in the blaming hurtful behaviors.

Despite identifying and blaming the other for triggering him or her, each partner does not have the same sense of entitlement characteristics of bullies.  Both partners overtly seek validation from the other.  They are more likely to admit personal loss of control emotionally and behaviorally in ways that have caused harm.  Working simultaneously with both "victims" to see their power and learn how to have appropriate control would be easier than working with a bully and victim pair.  The principles discuss earlier for working with one "victim" can be applied to both members of the couple.  Since dominance is not either partner's goal in the relationship, negotiating for mutual benefit is acceptable to both.  The partners share the experience of surviving by expecting to be victimized and trying to preempt it through aggressive tactics.  Their common negative developmental experiences may have led to ineffective shared relationship mechanisms, and fortunately also can lead to a shared therapeutic strategy.  If the therapist can help them risk trusting that the other will not attempt to victimize him or her, it would prompt an important cultural shift towards healthier processes.

"Clinical observations and research suggests, however, that battering couples often experience one or more associated factors.  These associated factors are: alcohol/drug abuse (Miller, Downs, & Condole, 1989: Kantor & Straus, 1987; Neff, Holamon, & Schluter, 1995; Gelles, 1993), financial stress (Pagan, Barnett, & Patton, 1983; Gelles & Straus, 1988), marital stress (Gelles, 1974: Rounsaville, 1978, Steinmetz, 1978; Leonard & Blane, 1992), low sex-role egalitarianism (Yllo, 1993; Grossman, Stith, & Bender, 1990), beliefs that violence in relationships are acceptable (Crossman, Stith, & Bender, 1990; Stith, 1990), and observed domestic violence as a child/adolescent (Arias, 1984; Rosenbaum & O'Leary, 1981; Rouse, 1984; Telch & Lindquist, 1984).  At-risk couples often present with one or more of these associated factors" (Perez and Rasmussen, 1997, page 231).  The therapist knows from early sessions that Dirk and Madeline that they have the following associated factors for battering: financial stress, marital stress, and low sex-role egalitarianism.  The therapist should examine further if they experience the other associated factors as part of his or her assessment for domestic violence: alcohol/drug abuse and beliefs that violence is acceptable.

There are other factors that may be relevant to explore.  "…aggressive men may be more sensitive to themes of abandonment (Dutton, 1988) and rejection (Holtzworth-Munroe and Anglin, 1991) than nonaggressive men.  They may evaluate the caring gestures they give and receive in this context and expect their wives to provide more gestures of support and concern than nonaggressive men.  Furthermore, wives in H-to-W aggressive relationships may be engaged in a vicious cycle where they continue to give gestures of caring in an effort to eliminate the marital violence" (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 1998, page 210).  The need and expectation for support may be unrealistic and cannot be fulfilled.  This is characteristic of men with insecure attachment histories.  The "male's perception of relationship support is a key predictor of male intimate violence.  Such findings would imply that female intimates may be in a vulnerable position with men who have insecure attachments.  Consciously or unconsciously, the adult male may be predisposed to believe that the new primary attachment figure will not be available to assist him in times of stress and thus react with extreme aggressive behaviors" (Kesner et al., 1997, page 225).  Dirk appears to be aggressive with his anxiety about Madeline.  The therapist should assess his feelings about potential abandonment by Madeline.  Dirk has anticipatory anger for Madeline's inadequate appreciation for him, which comes from his insecurity demanding more validation.  "Tweed and Dutton (1998) identified characteristics of impulsive and instrumental subtypes of domestic violence offender.  Impulsive offenders scored high on anger and were insecure and fearful in relationships, and their violence may be driven by anger in the context of their attachment style. Instrumental offenders were dominant in their attachment style and violence was controlling and not anger-driven" (McMurran and Gilchrist, 2006, page 111).

The distinction between impulsive offenders and instrumental offenders is replicated using different terminology and from various perspectives in discussion about psychological assertion, aggression, abuse, and domestic violence.  Impulsive or reactive abusers do not plan their aggression, but get triggered often by unpredictable words or behaviors.  The underlying vulnerability of the individual becomes more sensitive in the intimate romantic relationship.  The partner cannot predict what will trigger the impulsive anger because of fluctuating sensitivity within the individual such as Dirk.  That may mean that there is no such thing as "enough" positive messages from Madeline if Dirk has fundamental insecurities.  This would shift therapy from helping Madeline give more positive messages and messages that qualitatively resonate with Dirk, to working with Dirk and his psychological anxieties.  On the other hand, the therapeutic approach shifts if Dirk's aggressive and abusive behavior is purposeful to gain control or power over Madeline.  Helping Madeline be more validating remains ineffective, and Dirk would be unavailable to address the psychological trauma or emptiness that create the need for control or power.  Further complicating therapy, the aggression may combine both impulsive and instrumental qualities.  The therapist must assess for these issues throughout the process of therapy.

McMurran and Gilchrist (2006) discussed other classifications or distinctions among domestic violence couples.  "Holtzworth-Munroe (2000) identified a four group typology: Family only, low-level violent, generally violent and borderline/dysphoric, with the offending of the first three groups linked to instrumental motivations and the offending of the borderline/dysphoric group linked to emotional lability.  Gilchrist et al. (2003a) identified two broad subtypes in their survey of 336 offenders on probation for domestic violence offences: Antisocial/narcissistic, who were hostile and controlling to women, and borderline/emotionally dependent, who had high levels of anger and distress.  In this sample, domestic violence offenders generally had higher levels of anger than men in a clinical service referred for anger management, and this difference was largely accounted for by the borderline group (Gilchrist et al., 2003b).  Recent work has suggested that classification of sub-groups of aggression based on ethological models could be useful.  Drawing on the work of Weinshenker and Siegel (2002), who classified acts of aggression as either affective defence or predatory attack, Mitchell and Gilchrist (2006) suggested that there may be benefit in the study of domestic violence in distinguishing predatory attack with low autonomic arousal, little anger, which is also purposeful and goal directed, from affective defence, where arousal is high and there is a perception of threat" (page 111).

These differences imply there are various processes that lead to domestic violence.  In particular, attachment issues- that is, rage from real or anticipated attachment fears or loss can cause intimate partner abuse.  When the domestic violence is based on affective defence, then interventions based on dealing with emotions and anger may be effective.  Determining if Dirk and Madeline or another couple fit under this category becomes important to direct therapy to help them "understand affective defence within a relationship context and to manage anger.  Attention to affective defence is attention to a stable dynamic risk factor and change is likely to have an enduring effect on violence risk reduction" (McMurran and Gilchrist, 2006, page 111).  That is, attention to managing intense emotions would be useful in reducing relationship aggression, if it is not primarily predatory aggression.  Predatory attack with low autonomic arousal suggests the sociopath- also known as the psychopath or antisocial personality disorder.

Instrumental offenders, predatory attacks, low anger or flat emotional affect, and the sociopath- also known as the psychopath, or individual with antisocial personality disorder have important distinctions for identifying and treating the chronic and most dangerous subset of psychological abusers and intimate partner violence perpetrators.  Antisocial personality disorder will be examined in greater depth in other sections of this book.  Of interest is who and how someone pairs up with an individual not just with dominating tendencies… not just with patriarchal expectations… not just with bullying instincts or behaviors, but with antisocial personality disorder.  The characteristics of someone with antisocial personality disorder would seem not to be attractive to a potential partner.  Even if sociopathic behavior were initially hidden, once the behavior become evident it would seem that the partner would terminate the relationship.  However, that presumes that sociopathic behavior is rejected rather than accepted by the partner.

One type of pairing would be of two individuals, both with sociopathic tendencies.  "…assortative mating for antisocial behavior may differ from assortative mating for personality, for at least three possible reasons.  First, in late adolescence—the segment of the life-course when pair-bonding begins—antisocial behaviors are often committed in groups (Moffitt, 1993; Reiss, 1988; Thornberry et al, 1994).  Because these groups constitute adolescents' most proximal social contacts, members may be more likely to select each other as mates, as opposed to searching for mates outside the group.  Second, 'marriage markets' may be limited by geography, and geographic distinctions are correlated with variations in rates of antisocial behavior (Rutter, 1978).  Thus, if people choose their mates from within their community, they will have an increased probability of selecting someone who is similar with regard to their involvement in antisocial behavior.  Similarly, if people choose their mates from within the institutions where they spend much of their time [e.g., schools, which, like communities, differ systematically in rates of antisocial behavior (Rutter et al., 1979)], they will have an increased probability of selecting someone who is similar with regard to their involvement in antisocial behavior (Mare, 1991).  Third, positive assortative mating for antisocial behavior could occur through direct phenotypic assortment.  Unlike personality—an inferred, latent potential for engaging in certain sorts of actions—antisocial behavior consists of specific actions, both conceptually and operationally.  These specific actions may be easier to observe than the inferred, latent thoughts and feelings that constitute personality dispositions.  Given a general tendency for 'like to marry like' (Ehrman and Parsons, 1981), people may find it easier to find their 'behavioral likeness' than their 'personological likeness.'" (Krueger, et al., 1998, page 174-75).

An outcome of individuals associating either with common sociopathic beliefs and behaviors or from families and communities with shared antisocial values is an increase of antisocial behavior.  As antisocial beliefs and behavior persist in families and are cross-generationally transmitted, either biological traits or beliefs can become concentrated within families.  "One could offer a social learning explanation for this phenomenon, which would appear to fit the observed data: if children have antisocial parents whose behavior they model, it is not surprising that they, too, might end up being antisocial" (Krueger, et al., 1998, page 183).  Even if someone does not absorb antisocial beliefs from the family, frequent antisocial family experiences can cause him or her to become desensitized to and even perhaps tolerant of abuse.  At the same time, the template of intimate relationships between parent partners and among family members (including adult-child) may make the child as an adult susceptible to being attracted to violent mates.

In "Scorpion in the Bed, The Narcissist in Couples and Couple Therapy" by the author (available for purchase at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/322342 or on this website), several specific common partner compositions for individuals with narcissistic personality disorder were identified and discussed.  Among the behaviors of the individual with narcissistic personality disorder is an extreme reaction to a narcissistic wound or insult.   As narcissistic rage is ignited, the individual can lash out in a cold sociopathic attack against the competitor-assailant.  Partners of narcissists are therefore, often vulnerable to psychological abuse and domestic violence.  Although, the narcissist can be otherwise charming, over time and with repeated attacks on the partner, one would expect the partner to end the relationship.  Individuals with four personality disorder types: borderline personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder have characterological vulnerabilities that cause them to continue to associate with them despite being abused.  If assessment of the partner indicates the possibility of one of these personality disorders, then the therapist should further explore the possibility of domestic violence.  These personality disorder types may create greater vulnerability and thus, likelihood of someone also partnering with a bully, an abuser, and/or individual with narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.  In addition, someone who has been denied his or her reality, feelings, thoughts, and memories as part of child abuse suffered as a child, is vulnerable to similar manipulations from a narcissistic partner.  Such a person is also a more potential victim of partner abuse or domestic violence.

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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