I will often use an "Empathy Letter" activity for those who are still in their relationship, and want to work to repair and make things better. That activity has places to give feedback on methods of owning up to hurtful behavior, describing motives, understanding impacts, and working on specific repairs. Identifying patterns alone may not help an individual who needs to consider ongoing shifts in how to have conflict and how to identify personal responsibilities to a partner.
For those participants with a very obvious pattern of harm, I use a "Cycle of Harm" that allows an individual to identify a build up of thoughts that promote abusive, violent, and hurtful behavior - and the thinking after that harm that keeps the cycle going. Even though I am not a fan of the Emerge "Role Play" activity, I still do that on occasion to address participants with a "here we go again" sort of conflict history.
However, over the past two weeks I have been working with a man, and for the purposes of this story let's call him Frank. Frank is in his 50s, and his longest relationship was in the early 90s which lasted approximately three and a half years. Most of his relationships last for a few months, and the relationship where he threatened his ex-partner was a total of two months of being together. I knew after hearing his brief description of his relationships that a relationship history wouldn't really work well. Same with an empathy letter as he was not in a relationship to repair. A cycle didn't work because he had different hurtful things he did in different relationships. With all that in mind, I decided to address a thicker topic with him that is hard to encapsulate, but is a powerful activity in its own right: an assignment on boundaries.
Boundaries are an under-addressed topic in battering intervention classes. Sure, we set boundaries as far as class rules, norms, and policies but we don't often take time to look at how participants set their own boundaries or notice them in others. Boundaries are these limits we have in our minds about a variety of things, a multitude of personal rules, thinking on how the world and life in general work. We often address boundaries in fractured ways - discussing masculinity, talking about motives for violence, methods of power and control. Sometimes, we even focus on respectful and healthy boundaries and how to manage conflict without violence or abuse. We just rarely bring it all together to discuss an individual's unique set of ideas that spur their actions in relationships.
I asked Frank to talk briefly about his relationship with his ex-partner where he threatened her. He talked about discovering her cheating on him, and the first time he gave her the benefit of the doubt because they had only been together two weeks, and her contact was with an ex-partner she had children with. The second time he found out, he left her threatening voicemails that he couldn't remember details of but did remember saying something to the effect of "I hope you lose everything you have in life." He also stopped by her house, noticing another man's motorcycle in her driveway. He was charged with stalking and cyberstalking alongside making threats.
His description was a bit vague, but also succinct and with a two month relationship there were more details than I might have thought. In moving the activity forward, I had a brief discussion with the class about what boundaries were. They joined in and provided different angles to the idea of personal rules and limits, which got the ball rolling in the direction I had hoped.
Frank was pretty easy to talk with, and came up with physical boundaries relatively quickly. He knew that he didn't like close talking unless it was something "important" and talked about how one woman he was with would come up and whisper to him and it would irritate him quite a bit. He had some definite dinner rules about not chewing with your mouth open, no smoking or playing with a cell phone at the table. He was fine with chores, and enjoys keeping his house neat, clean, and smelling good, and overall he wants a partner who is independent, works full time, and still is able to keep up with chores. He talked about a woman he never met in person who asked him "would you prefer a woman who worked part-time and kept the house spotless, or a woman who worked full-time but wasn't able to keep up with cleaning." His immediate response was to not consider her as relationship material, but also to shake his head and say that if you can't do both (like he does) then there's something wrong with you.
In the group, this led to some head nodding and agreement with some of the other participants. I don't think this is much more than a declaration of personal preferences. Those sort of boundaries can become problematic if an individual isn't able to notice incompatibility soon into developing a relationship, or holds on to an idea of "training" someone to do what they want. Frank was straightforward of his beliefs, and seemed quite able to keep a relationship from happening if he saw warning signs rising.
His emotional boundaries pointed out a few details that were important for him to know of himself, and know how to communicate in a relationship. He said when he became angry, his "filter turns off." Again, many of the participants nodded, seeing that experience as similar to their own. We discussed briefly how respectful and healthy communication involves the ability to filter negative self-talk, and choose methods of responding to anger without causing pain or fear in another person.
With emotion, however, we also discussed how he felt loved in a relationship. His methods involve giving gifts, helping someone out, and feeling loved when the other person expresses appreciation. Of course, this is a set-up for any number of negative self-talks, and direct as well as indirect harms when another person does not show appreciation just as he might want them to. He categorized his way of showing love as giving gifts, a playful "smack on the ass," giving compliments, and doing "gentlemanly" polite things. In the class we discussed the concept of "love languages" and how we all as human beings have ways we want to be loved, and ways we want to show love to others - and the complexities of interacting with someone who might have different ideas on that topic. How do you negotiate situations where your love language doesn't match?
This is where we got into brain mapping territory, and considerations of selfishness. I asked the group how many thought people, in general, were selfish. Most hands went up quickly. I asked them to identify how they saw selfishness in others. A truck driver said people drive without caring about others, and just being in their own worlds. Another participant said his wife just wanted to go out with her friends and didn't care what he thought about it. Another agreed and said his partner wouldn't do chores but expected him to. They all agreed with the idea of double standards and hypocrisy as selfish.
Then I asked them how they were selfish in their own lives.
They had a harder time with this. I gave some simple examples in my own life, how I ate the last two delicious smoked ribs in the fridge without asking my partner if she wanted them. How I procrastinate and the selfishness behind that. Eventually I got a few examples, but it was harder for some reason. Well, actually it was hard for a very specific reason.
We are all self-oriented. We see the world, hear the world, experience the world through our own minds. We can put ourselves in other's perspectives, sure, but in reality - such empathy is fantasy. I can never inhabit someone else's life, I cannot fully understand other's experiences. I read something recently that discussed how our personal concept of self is unique to us. Every single person we interact with has a concept of us as individuals. Some of those concepts overlap, but by in large, our own self-concept is unique to us and no one outside of yourself will ever fully know what that is. This makes it easy to come up with reasons, excuses, explanations for personal behavior while readily jumping to judge others.
As human beings, we disconnect ourselves from others at the drop of a hat. When our concept of someone conflicts with how another person is acting, we can easily deny their experience, their reasoning, their opinion. We can discount their emotions. We can remove any regard we have for that person in favor of judging what we absolutely know is true because we see it through our perspective.
In relationships, these disconnects can add up. It takes a lot of work to maintain a connection with someone, to actively seek to see and care about their point of view. And when you don't? Controlling behavior, abuse, violence, general harm are easy territories to jump into.
Moving into mental boundaries, Frank talked about how he would get quiet when he was stressed, how he hated it when people assumed he spoke Spanish or thought they knew his heritage. He hated "stupidity," "liars," and "saggy pants." We also discussed boundaries of exciting things, how we express passion for things we love - and for Frank he loves motorcycles, engines and mechanics, and his mom's chocolate pie. How does someone take a subject like "stupidity" and apply it to people and situations? How does someone categorize a "lie" from another person? How does someone communicate how they express stress in their life? We had a discussion about how people responded when hungry. I get loopy, and have a hard time making decisions or engaging in conversation. Others get "hangry" and yet others feel sick. How do you communicate your responses to something as simple as hunger in a relationship, and how do you talk about the PROCESS of your life to explain the CONTENT more accurately? The answer is many people do not, and that is an easy place to again create disconnect and harm.
The real point of this article, however, is on spiritual space and boundaries. But before I get there, a small aside on the other two categories. Discussing sexual boundaries is important - ideas on family planning and children, sexual frequency desires, even overall methods of showing affection beyond sex. All are important to navigate in a relationship in direct and respectful manners. Relational space and boundaries are also very important - how do you see the idea of "partnership" in a relationship? What do you expect of yourself in a relationship, and what do you expect of the person you are with? How could expectations of self and partner lead to that hypocrisy we discussed before? More excellent questions to bring up and have conversations about in battering intervention.
The thing that shocked me the most, but maybe it shouldn't have, is that Frank had no idea what his meaning in life was. Yes, we have as a culture had several things we have popular media over that contemplate the "meaning of life." Monty Python had an entire movie about "The Meaning of Life." Douglas Adams made some hilarious commentary about the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" is 42, but we don't know the proper question. But it's not that much of a mystery, really.
Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of value. What do I hold dear? Why is my life better because my partner is in it? How do I add value to my partner's life? What are my morals, my ethics? Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of purpose, of meaning. What am I working towards? What is my contribution to others close to me, to the world as a whole? What purpose keeps me going and feeds my values?
In some people's lives, that answer can be tied to their religious beliefs. Religions have a multitude of tomes on values to ascribe to, rules to follow, rituals to practice. That is of great importance to many, and they structure their lives to constantly work toward specific goals in their relationships with others and community. For some people, their religion is a ritual, but not a value or a purpose. Going to church, synagogue, temple, whatever it might be - that is just a thing you do, not a thing you care about beyond the ritual itself. Others pick specific messages that support their world view and use those messages to convince or browbeat others into philosophical submission or fear. Others frame their lives through personal focus and try to influence others through their behavior.
But to not be able to identify a purpose? It wasn't just Frank. No one in my group of nine participants had an answer to their meaning in life. No one even mentioned their children or families as their purpose, and I was sure there would be at least one person to do that. In the silence following the question, I talked about where meeting a potential partner at a place you volunteer could be a great way to connect to someone with similar values and meaning in life. I got some scoffing at that - who has time to volunteer? I discussed how we always give time for things that have value. We discussed Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and the control over society through entertainment and I asked them if they were controlled by entertainment. Many of them agreed. Their excitement in life was over "stuff" and over doing things. Frank said he always knew what he was doing each night because of what television show was on. That was important to him.
It struck me as a bit of an epiphany. Are we, perhaps, not going deep enough in working to address domestic violence? Is there more to hurtful behavior than simply discussing violence? Where is self-respect in our discussions? How do we make health, compromise, caring, regard a part of participant's value systems, or even a part of what gives them purpose in their lives?
I'm not sure I have much in the way of answers here, but I certainly know that if you do not care about anything, if you have no purpose in life, there really aren't many barriers to hurting others, or hurting yourself. If your purpose has been compromised by "value slipping*" then what holds true for you? How do you build up family and relationship in a world dominated by personal perspective and justification at all costs? Where your reasoning is all about whether someone agrees with your world view or not.
I say in classes all the time, this work is never about giving answers - they are more individual to the person, and my answers won't fit others' situations. These classes are about asking the right questions. And with that - are we truly asking all the best questions during battering intervention classes?
|Write up of the activity with Frank in class. Pardon my messy handwriting!|
*"Value slipping" is a concept of violating a small part of your values and beliefs and after doing so, feeling guilty but moving on and then more easily devaluing other rules in your life. I give examples in group about someone who has a religious belief about not having sex before marriage, yet has sex multiple times before marrying someone. How does such an experience sour other religious messages or rules, and what does that slippery slope look like?