Q & A

(917) 710-7578                          hzl@allbluescounseling.com

Howard Z. Lorber, csw

                   Psychotherapist & Anthropologist


 It is often noted that upwards of 5O% of all reported cases of domestic abuse are coincident with substance abuse. While it is generally understood that substance abuse does not cause domestic abuse, the literature never really comes to grips with what this 50% plus statistic might mean. If, however, domestic violence and substance abuse are so commonly coincident, though the latter does not cause the former, one could plausibly suggest that they have the same root. That is, some of the same things that bring about the one in a relationship may very well bring about the other; substance abuse and domestic violence are coincident in such a large proportion of cases because they both express similar underlying dynamics, individually and for the relationship. 

These common roots can be located in two distinct sorts of processes: on the one hand something that can be called “affect hunger,” and, on the other, the defense against a loss of self, or the boundaries to the self that are required to be a distinct and separate individual. 

Henry Krystal’s paper “Aspects of Affect Theory” [Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 1977, 41(1): 1—23] presents the point of view that, for substance abusers, the main underlying clinical issues are a fear of affects and an inability to tolerate af­fects. In other words, there is both a fear and an intolerance of the constellation of physical sensations, feelings, meanings, and memories that make up an individual’s emotional experience. Among substance abusers there is a disturbance of emotional experience: affective states remain unverbalized, mostly locked up in physical sensations, and, at base, consist of an undif­ferentiated mixture of primitive feeling states and defenses against them. They have a chronic fear of having/experiencing affect, an impairment in the capacity to tolerate affective states when experienced, and a tendency to defend against this experience by the processes of suppression and isolation of these affects.

At the same time there is an experience of loss and a defense against it. Those affective experiences which are found to be so intolerable, and which are so bound with defensive process, are sensed as parts of the self that are lost. This sense of loss generates anxiety around the experience of individual annihila­tion. The physical effects of the substance abuse provides the external means of reducing the anxiety states brought about by the experiences both of having affects and the loss of self, and the defenses against them. Substance abuse, then, provides a major means of defense against the physical experience of affect hunger that arises from prior defenses against the loss of self.

It is almost a commonplace in the literature on domestic violence to say that the men involved are ‘emotionally constrict­ed’, ‘inarticulate’ about emotional experience, and rigid’. It is equally commonplace to read that the relationships are ‘sticky’, ‘isolated’, and bound up in ‘rigid role defini­tions’. If these are accurate depictions, and my clinical ex­perience confirms that they are, what sense can be made of it?

Abusive men, as with substance abusers, experience most af­fective states as a frightening assault. Affective states such as moods and anxieties remain inarticulate and somatic. The men sense something is going on, but reject it. They must then maintain an ever-vigilant defensive process against them. Their experience of affects, although unarticulated, are channeled and expressed in two key culturally acceptable venues: sex and violently expressed rage, all too often mistaken for love and anger. Virtually all other affective states shame, guilt, longing, euphoria, awe, dread, excitement, loneliness, depression, nostalgia, glee, anxiety, fear, irritability, satisfaction, etc. must be controlled, suppressed, isolated, and otherwise defended against, as are those aspects of sexual desire and rage that are unconsciously unacceptable.

 The processes of defense most often utilized is to split-off unacceptable affective states from the self and locate them in the partner. That is to say, the affective experience in need of control becomes a ‘not me’ experience, projected outward and seen in the other. To control that split-off ‘not me’ piece that is also unconsciously recognized as a part of the self, the partner must be controlled and isolated, a process quite familiar to those of us who work with abusers. Yet, since the partner is the bearer of those split-off affective states, they are experienced as a mortal danger because they represent a draining loss of self. At the same time, since the partner is the bearer of those split-off pieces of self, they represent wished-for nurturance and reduction of affect hunger because they, in effect, ‘complete’ the self.

 On the side of the relationship, its members see in each other a complex set of subtle cues, meanings, and wish-fulfill­ments. The members act as external bearers of affects each finds intolerable in themselves. These rejected affect experiences, that is, these rejected parts of the self, located in the other, become the object of loathing, scorn, hatred and rage. At the same time, the partner, as bearer of these split-off parts of the self, becomes, in the relationship, the wished-for fulfillment and completion of the self: without the relationship each partner is left with a sense of lack, of emptiness. 

The hated and scorned other is also loved and needed; each lives in terror that their acts will injure and in some sense destroyed loved one; each, in their own way, finds forgiveness in the other. This forgiveness is at two levels: first one for­gives oneself, in effect, insofar as the split-off parts of the self returned and ‘tamed’; second, insofar as the partner is forgiving, one is enabled to see oneself as having merit and not as absolutely bad. As soon as this happens however, as soon that is, as there is a reduction in the anxiety that one has lost the partner, there arises a sense that one has lost oneself. Insofar as the partner is empowered to forgive, the loathed and hated split-off parts of the self that are given over to and born by that partner re-emerge. The partner then becomes unconsciously experienced as a loss of self and the anxiety on that end builds once more.

 The abusive relationship, then, oscillates between providing for each partner a sense of completion for the self and affective nurturance, and a sense of emptiness and loss. This is why these relationship becomes relentlessly sticky: they fulfill, on the one hand, some of the deepest, most unconscious fantasy wishes of the partners, and on the other, turn upon the underlying fear that, if the relationship is lost, the self will be lost in its own emptiness. This is also why it is quite inappropriate to speak of ‘masochism’ when discussing these relationships. There is no love of pain, or desire for it; quite to the contrary, the processes involved are defenses against painful affects and the loss of the self. 

The men in these relationships are, like the substance abus­er, trying to cope with affective experiences for which they are ill equipped. Their affective experiences, outside the realms of sex and rage most commonly misunderstood as love and anger remain constricted and rigid because they have no language for discriminating and articulating them. What then, in their prog­nosis? Can there be effective treatment? 

In most cases, yes. But here the answer becomes rather complex and too involved for this short space. I have worked with abusive men both in the long and short term. They are, indeed, a most resistant population since their defenses lead them to deny and project outward the affective experiences they cannot control. So they are difficult to get into treatment. Legal sanction is an important goad, but so is the fear of the loss of the relationship. In fact, the most successful treatments I have encountered were those of the latter category. A successful treat­ment is one that stops not only the violence but the abusive processes that lead to that violence. This is best done by facilitating the development of a greater capacity for affect tolerance and articulation and, thereby, a more coherent sense of self.

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