(917) 710-7578

Howard Z. Lorber, csw

                    Psychotherapist & Anthropologist




© by Howard Z. Lorber, CSW


The family, according to popular perception, is supposed to be a "haven in a heartless world" (cf. Lasch's book of the same title: 1977); a haven of tranquility, gentility and nurturance from chaotic, harsh and depriving world outside its bounds; a private world and a place its members could find privacy for themselves, freed from the demands and exigencies of the public world. It has been discovered during the course of the past 20 or so years, however, that the family is also a site of disorder, violence and cruelty; a locus of the heretofore secret crimes of incest and marital rape, of physical and emotional abuse. The very private world of the family - and not just those families under the tutelage of the social welfare system - has been opened to public scrutiny as never before. And it has been found wanting. As Richard Gelles states in his study, The Violent Home:

The veneer of the family as a harmonious, gentle, and supportive institution is cracking from increasing evidence that the family is also the scene of varying degrees of violent acts, ranging from the punishment of children to slapping, hitting, throwing ob­jects, and sometimes a homicidal assault by one member of the family on another. (Gelles, 1974: 19-20)

This breakdown of the family is extremely troubling. When I worked as a counselor in a family conflict program based in a branch of the New York City Family Court Probation Department I was in constant contact with the men, women and children of conflict-laden families. I saw men and women who have become violent with each other and with their children; I saw children who have been sexually abused by caretakers; I saw children whose 'home' is that in name only, or who have begun to repeat the distorted, violent patterns in their own relationships that they have observed in their parent's relationships. How it is possible to help them untangle themselves from the toils of their present condition? These reasons provide the impetus for this essay.

In this work I will focus on the construction of violent conflict between husbands and wives, though I should add that this phrase 'husbands and wives' is a shorthand for any intimate, sexual, more-or-less domestic relationship between persons of one generation. (l) I focus on this relationship specifically because in our society the "long term collaborative [sexual] relationship" (Jackson, 1965: 589), potentially productive of children, and putatively interlinking two (or more, in this age of "compound families") previously formed "long term collaborative [sexual] relationship[s]", is regard­ed in our culture, as the nodal point and fundamental building block of society. And it is so regarded both in much of the literature and, more importantly, in the conscious cultural models (Ward, 1965:123) of the coup­les themselves. (2) As such, the neolocal, monogamous marriage-like relationship is the primary field within which intense, intimate social relations are constitut­ed. Within it there is a reproduction of the partners' characteristic modes of relating generated in their own families of origin and the site of the production and shaping of new life in child rearing. Thus understanding the psychosocial processes of the (violently) conflictual marriage will go far in understanding, and intervening in, the reproduction of such pairings. 

In this essay I will first develop an overview on the constitution of the violent marriage. This will include its prevalence and some characteristics of its structure. I will then develop a theoretical perspect­ive, synthesizing an Object Relations view of the partners' psychodynamics with a family systems perspective of its structure and function. In the course of this theoretical development I will critique some of the prevailing notions of the "batterer's syndrome" focusing especially on the importance of going beyond the view that there is a victim and a perpetrator in these marriages. In so doing I will show that a deeper level of analysis is necessary in order that our understanding of the phenomenon not be disabled. Finally, I will present case as an example of the kind of analysis developed in the theoretical sections.


There are varying statistics on the extent and level of spousal violence in the United States. Equal­ly, it is not known either if there has been an increase in spouse - or any other sort of family - abuse, if the level has been constant, or if it has fluctuated over time with other on-going social processes. That this is so is not entirely surprising since the behaviors associated with family violence have for so long been hidden "behind [the] closed doors" of the family home. (Cf. Gelles', 1971, book of the same title)

Estimates of current rates of spousal violence vary from Lenore Walker's 50% of all women experiencing it (1977: ix), to Murray Strauss, et. al.'s 28% of all marriages. (1980: 42-43) In either case, whether one takes the higher or lower estimates, the incidence of spousal violence is very large, both in respect to absolute numbers and as a percentage of population.   As Strauss, et al., point out:

 When the incidence rate reaches this level, we are dealing not with a problem of individual psychology but with a serious social disorder.  (Ibid.)

                 There are many explanations for both this lack of knowledge and for the recent emergence of this subject as a social, and therefore a research, issue. Whether or not, as Gelles (Op. Cit.), among others, states that there has been an avoidance of the issue by society and by researchers, it is clear that family violence, especially spousal violence, has become an important topic with the re-emergence of the feminist movement. And it is also clear that our understanding of the issue has been shaped by the universe of discourse that the fem­inist movement has developed. Thus the focus of under­standing had been skewed by the concerns of that movement and universe of discourse. As such, there have been left some rather important gaps in our knowledge of these phenomena. As Gondolf (1985a: 49) points out, there has been "little conclusive research on men who batter". Further, the bulk of the knowledge we do have has come from studies of women who have come forward with the charge that they were subject to violence from their mates. (Gondolf: 50; Giles-Sims, 1983: 60) "Indeed," as Gondolf states, "the portrait of the batterer is generally through the battered's eyes".

This skewing has had the effect of obscuring the individual and familial dynamics of the violent family. Indeed, even the focus on violence, per se, with its underlying assumption of perpetrator and victim, militates against our understanding of the issue, and thus out capacity to design programs to help these families. This is not to say that violence between spouses is not an important issue; nor is it to say that the violent behavior need not be the crucial focus of the primary stage of a treatment program. It is to say, however, that there is a distinction to be made between the violent act, as such, and the dynamic processes that family life entails leading to the violence. From the perspective of the act there is victim and perpetrator; from the perspective of the process there are actors, both of whom may be characterized as victim and perpetrator. As Walker states:

Perhaps when more is known about batterers, we still need to view them also as victims. Cer­tainly those whom I have known did not commit their crimes without severe psychological distress. They, too, are caught in a bind placed upon them by their socialized need to maintain dominance. (Op. Cit.: xvii)

 Walker makes the point that the males, too, may be victims of the social role they are taught in their families of origin which they reproduce in their marital family; that men are victims of the social reproduction of that which 'maleness' is supposed to be. However, as Gelles indicates, "victim" is not a passive role in most of these families and that the "victim role" is, at the same time, a "tormentor role". (Ibid.156) Saying this, however, is not to "blame the victim", either female or male, since I do not assert that there is any warrant for violence (3), nor do I assert that whatever the recipient does is a sufficient reason for the viol­ent act. Rather, it is to say, as Walker does who surely argues that there is a victim who is wronged and a perpetrator who does wrong that these couples exhibit "disturb[ed] family functioning" (Op. Cit.: 145) This disturbance of family function is such that the members "reciprocally carry part of each others' psychology and form a feedback system which in turn regulates and patterns their individual behaviors." (Framo, 1971: 125) Indeed, I would ascribe to Walker's view that the concept of family violence needs to be expanded to include physical and psychological abuse. (Loc. Cit.: xv)

 Such a system is a field within which the indi­vidual psychological processes of the members are enact­ed as a social process such that the field is consti­tuted from the on-going, long-term relations of its members. Further, this constituted field of interaction is developed within a larger social context, both in respect to the members' families of origin and the broader society of which they are a part. Understanding this complex interaction between individual and social process is "crucial" in understanding the needs and psychological processes of people in families. (Kenniston, 1977: xiii) (4)

In respect to violent marriages, there is a tenden­cy to argue that the socio-cultural factors predominate. Representative of this view is a statement by Giles-Sims that: 

The level of wife beating in the United States is associated with four structural characteristics in the family: (1) the high level of violence in society which can carry over into the family, (2) the socialization in violence which occurs when parents use physical punish­ment on children and when parents use physical force on each other, (3) the cultural norms that legitimate the use of physical force and condone a man hitting his wife, and (4) the sexual inequality of society that is one of the most fundamental factors in all male-female relationships. (Giles-Sims, Op. Cit.: 128) 

However, such an association does not really "explain" sources of the problem. If these "structural" factors were explanatory, how is the contrary explained, viz. that, even if the high figure of 50% were taken as actual, how does one account for the other 50% of women who experience violent 'marriages'? In fact, the same author gives reason to believe that the above structural factors are neither necessary nor sufficient factors in determining the development of violent marriages. She states that there is no overall relationship between, e.g., prior abuse as a child &/or seeing spousal abuse amongst parents, and subsequent incidents of abuse. There may have been no prior familial history of abuse for an abusive relationship to develop. (Op. Cit.: 18-19) 

Further, Walker, in her study of spousal violence indicates that, though there may be some common characteristics for members of such marriages, there is no unequivocal, nor unique psychopathology evidenced by either the men or the women. (Walker, 1979: 26). Thus, neither intrapsychic nor socio-cultural factors can be regarded as, in themselves, fully adequate to understand the kind of persons and kind of relationship that generates violence as one of its symptomatic acts. How then are we to understand this psychosocial field? 


There are several indications of the direction to be taken in the literature of family treatment. An excellent article by James Framo (Op. Cit.), while not specifically concerned with the issue of spousal violen­ce, delineates the processes whereby family disturbance expresses, for its members, an "interpersonal resolution of inner conflict." (Idem: 128) This notion is directly paralleled by many writers on spousal violence who often describe these relationships as "symbiotic" (cf. Gondolf, 1985a & 1985b; Walker, 1983). 

In his paper, Framo seeks to synthesize W. R. D. Fairbairn's Object Relations theory of psychodynamics (cf. Fairbairn, 1952) and a family systems approach. Of key import for Framo's analysis is Fairbairn's guiding insight that "libido is essentially object seeking". (Idem: 162). By this Fairbairn means that, from the start, the individual not only grows and develops in the context of others, but that imagos of these others are internalized as "subidentities in the structure of the personality". (Framo, Op. Cit.: 129) These inner objects are, according to Fairbairn, the means by which the child attempts to gain some control of the difficult and painful aspects of its (human) environment. As such, they are "split off" from the child's developing self-representation (the "central ego") as "libidinal object" and "internal saboteur". (Fairbairn, Loc. Cit.) The former is the "dependent, unrequited love need" and the latter is the "dangerous, rejecting object". (Ibid.) Both of these split off objects are subject to repression, and thereby are kept from the conscious sense of self. However, these split off objects do not lie dormant beneath the surface. Rather, they subsist in the unconscious as "internal persecutors whereby they present themselves (a) as exciting objects or (b) as frustrating objects". (Ibid.) As such, they provide the habitual framework for the individual's relations with the world, on the one hand, and active loci of internal defensive maneuvers, on the other. In the intrapsychic field there is a continuously experienced threat (made conscious as anxiety) that the repression will break down and the feared and hated objects will re-emerge into consciousness. (Ibid.) 

. . .reactions of children with unsatisfac­tory homes support[s] the view that the internalized bad objects represents an attempt on the part of the child to make the objects in his environment 'good' by taking upon him­self the burden of their apparent 'badness', and thus to make his environment more toler­able. The defensive attempt to establish outer security is purchased at the price of internal insecurity, since it leaves the ego at the mercy of internal persecutors; and it is as a defense against such inner insecurity that the repression of internalized bad objects arises. (Fairbairn, Op. Cit.: 162) 

These feared, hated and desired inner objects are "at war" with each other. (Ibid.) This 'war' is a re-experiencing of the aggressive reaction on the part of the infant to deprivation and frustration in relation­ships with its caretakers. The experience, by the infant, of such deprivation and frustration entrains ag­gression directed toward its "libidinal object". This in turn gives rise to ambivalence in the infant because the self-same object that is desired is also hated. (Ibid: 172) Through ambivalence, the infant splits the caretaker into a satisfying good object and an unsatisfying bad object. It defensively internalizes the bad object since the object remains uncontrollable to it in outside reality. However, as Fairbairn indicates,  

[t]he trouble about such an internal object is that, after internalization, it continues not only to be unsatisfying, but also to be desired. (Ibid.) 

                The child, thus, experiences anxiety not only over aggressive feelings toward the mother but libidinal feelings as well "in her role of rejecting object.” The risk involved in his expressing aggressive feelings towards her is that it will make her reject him more and love him less, i.e., will make her seem more real for him as a bad object and less real as a good object. This is the risk (loss of the good object) which tends to provoke the affect of depression. On the other hand, the risk in­volved for the child in expressing libidinal feelings towards his mother as a rejecting object is that his is equivalent in his mind to discharging libido into an emotional vacuum and gives rise to a sense of inferiority and worthlessness. (Ibid.) 

This is exactly the conundrum of the partners in the violent couple; that is to say, both transferentially and projectively, the mate is seen as, on the one hand, the exciting, desired object who is forever (internally) in the act of rejecting him the very minute they attempt to possess the other, and on the other hand, as the abandoning object toward which powerful feelings of rage are (internally) directed. When the woman, for example, is the 'satisfying (good) object', that is the ideal object, (the 'real' object of the courting, for example), he feels that he himself is under control since she provides, as did the mother, the external source of unity of personality. However, the ideal object, being reminiscent of mother, and as such, an object of transference and projection, brings along with it anxiety lest she become the rejecting object, the 'unsatisfying bad object.' This leads to an evocation of a rage reaction (in its full extension, though this often builds up over time). The woman is 'the unsatisfying (bad) object' and provokes, as such, his rageful aggression. This aggression reminds him that he will lose the object, giving rise to the depressive feelings of "inferiority and worthlessness" requiring him to court her once more to revive the ideal object. 

Projective transferences, externalizations, vindictive fantasies, vicious participations, all serve the function of recapturing the symbolically retained old love objects who have their representation in current real family members, thus delaying the pain of loss and mourning, Object possessions, perhaps the chief motive underlying irrational role as­signment, helps prevent individuation which can result in the catastrophe of separation, the old dread of abandonment, and facing of the fact that one has irretrievably lost one's mother and father. (Framo, Op. Cit.: 135) 

This is, of course, from the male side. On the other side of the pair is the woman's object relations which have similar processes, but are expressed with a female point of view in that she is not simply the recipient of this, but plays an active part via the techniques and defenses that she has learned to deal with the same split-off structures. Here we have that which is known as a complimentarity (cf. Hoffman, 1976: Bateson, 1939) which mutually interacts in such a way as to form a homeostatic or self-regulating relational system. The internal dynamics of such systems are geared continually toward finding an equilibrium in order that the system itself is maintained. The defensive techniques used by the members of such systems to ward off the press of their own repressed internal objects act continually to draw-in or repel the other(s), depending on the confluence of their own internal states and the perceived and received states of the other(s). As I will discuss below, such systems give rise to cyclical processes that, in the case of violence prone families give the appearance of being a function of strategies for the maintenance of an unequal distribution of power, and which use expressive acts such as violence and sexuality instrumentally in the service of the conflict over that distribution. From the point of view being developed here, however, underlying the appearance of 'power politics' within the family is a struggle over intimacy and the capacity by the partners to combine and sustain ambivalent object relations. Thus the "batterer's cycle", while seeming to be centered around violence, has violence as but one of the symptomatic acts of a deeper set of issues.

As Framo points out, the partners in such marriages use a panoply of techniques, such as scapegoating, pro­jection and representation by the opposite "in their unconscious attempts to force the spouse to fit or repudiate the split-off internal objects, even when the partner's real personality drastically contradicts the projections." (Op. Cit.: 131-132) In this process each partner alternately attempts to attribute to the other those aspects of the self that are split off and repudi­ated, on the one hand, and makes the other a paragon of all good, on the other. Both Frame and Hoffman note that the partners in such families evince a "relentless stickiness" (Frame, Op. Cit.: 153) and a capacity to stay together no matter how painful the relationship (Hoffman, 1976: 506). These partners are thus "likely to develop the symbiotic relationship dilemma". (Frame, Op. Cit.: 130) In this sort of relationship there is a yearning on the part of each member for merger and fusion with the other such that they are severally and together a part of each other. As this happens, or they sense this happening, one of several patterns can emerge. One or the other can feel possessed, tied, trapped, and in danger of losing their personality. They then have to attempt to break away from dependency, resulting in their both feeling lost, isolated, lonely, and depressed. Or, as is usually the case, one partner feels this, the other reacts to the anxiety of loss by attemp­ting to control &/or change the other. This then cycles back into the sense of danger and anxiety felt by the distancing partner and provokes further distancing &/or a rage reaction. This then feeds back into the pattern and builds the cycle further. As Hoffman (Loc. Cit.) points out  

. . . a strongly complementary (in Bateson's sense)'arrangement might act as a distancing device where degree of closeness is a vital issue. If a married couple were to adopt such an arrangement, this would allow maximum closeness, while at the same time the status differential would create enough of a barrier to give the parties breathing space. If this status differential were to surpass its given limits in either direction, the marriage tie or the well-being of one of the partners would probably be threatened.

Thus when there is a complementary struggle in a marriage it is, in effect, a struggle over individual and marital boundaries from the point of view of the relationship. From the point of view of the intrapsychic domain of the partners, however, it is a struggle to maintain and manage their inner objects. In such a two-leveled struggle there ensues a cyclical alternation of aggression and 'making-up' as both a way of attaining and controlling intimacy. Part of process is a touching off of abandonment fears and concomitant rage. The specific expression of these fears and rage are often gender based in the form in which aggression is acted-out (though from my clinical experience the specificity of these forms of aggression is not so certainly gender based as the literature leads us to believe). At the same time, there is a concomitant touching off of aband­onment fears, which also tend to have gender specificity in their expression. By this I mean that the socially learned roles and relations amongst roles, i.e., expectancies of behavioral sets, of men and women have as their intrapsychic correlate, similar (though not the same) object relational base, while, at the same time, having distinct behavioral manifestations. Amongst these differential manifestations is a greater tendency by men to use physical activity, of which violence is one sort of activity, to control both the emergence of inner states and outer conditions. Concomitantly, there is a greater tendency to use manipulation and physical withdrawal, of which sexual withdrawal is one sort of withdrawal, to control the same sorts of inner states and outer conditions. These tendencies, however, are not unequivocal since, as Hoffman points out, these sorts of trends can "flip-flop". (Op. Cit.: 506) The confluence of the trends toward differential acting-out of intra-psychic correlates of behavior and the alternation of these trends in the homeostatic regulation of the mar­riage lead to the emergence of a formal pattern of tensional build-up, outburst and 'making-up'. This is, in fact, the very sort of structure that Walker depicts in her study of domestic violence. 


Walker develops in her work on spousal violence, a three-phase process which she has termed "the batterer's cycle". (Op. Cit.: 56ff) As she describes it 

The battering cycle appears to have throe distinct phases, which vary in both time and intensity for the same couple and between different couples. These are: the tension-building phase, the explosion or acute batter­ing incident; and the calm, loving respite. (Idem: 56) 

            As can be seen from the above quotation, the notion of the cycle is developed to center around the issue of violence. "Violence," the philosopher Hanna Arendt tells us "is distinguished by its instrumental charac­ter” (1969: 46); and, as such, is the means by which one gains dominion over others in the absence of author­ity. (Idem.: 42) By locating the fulcrum of the cycle in the act(s) of violence, rather than in the relational system within which the violent act(s) are a symptomatic piece, one therefore must locate the fulcrum of the social processes enacted in that system in a dynamic of power. Two representative quotations will clearly indicate this: 

Spousal violence is most often a question of power and its familial distribution [such that an] inequality [in this area can] initiate a chain reaction of power confrontations running throughout the family. (Strauss, et al., Op. Cit.: 192-193)  

Misuse of power is at the heart of sexual abuse. In our culture many families are iso­lated from the outside world, and are caught in a pressure cooker of power relationships. This applies to both violence and sex, and it makes the link between adolescent abuse and spouse abuse apparent. In both cases there is likely to be a sexual element; in both cases outside observers may have some question about the complicity of the victim with the perpetrator; in both cases the victim tends to be psychologically dependent on the perpetrator. (Garbarino & Garbarino, 1982: 5) 

This last quotation is of special importance here. In it is indicated that sexual abuse and violence are interlinked not by the specific behaviors, since the one and the other are manifestly not the same act but rather by the relational interlinkage that devolves from conditions of psychological dependency. Indeed, it is often noted in the 'lists' of characteristics given in the literature attempting to define both batterer and battered, that they are both subsisting in a state of extreme psychological dependency on each other, and, concomitantly, both evince low levels of individual self-esteem. (Cf. e.g.. Walker, Op. Cit.: 36; Gondolf, 1985a: 50) This is part of the "relentless stickiness" of these relationships that was noted above.

In the "batterer's cycle", as depicted by Walker, the first phase is characterized as a build-up of ten­sions through a series of "minor battering incidents". In this phase, the woman feels more and more angry and that "any control she may have over the situation diminishes''. (Op. Cit.: 57) The man, at the same time, 

spurred on by her apparent passive acceptance of his abusive behavior, does not try to con­trol himself. [but] knowing his behav­ior is wrong creates the further fear in him that she may become so disgusted with him that she will leave. He thus becomes more oppres­sive, Jealous, and possessive in the hope that his brutality will keep her captive. (Ibid.) 

There is a key set of questions here: why? why does the man want to be so possessive? what does it mean? And this is an important question in regard to this phenomenon whether one takes a purely sociological, psychological or psychosocial position. What is it that the man is trying to protect? Why does he strive so hard to 'keep' her? The notion that she is somehow involved in maintaining his self-esteem merely points this series of questions out in a different way, thus begs the question. Asserting that he 'needs to control' the situation also begs the question in the same way. To say that this is a 'learned male role' also begs the question why, especially since not all men are violent with their mates, though all have learned the male role. Perhaps one way to answer this is to understand the romantic myth of mating -- the other as a fulfillment of the self. This points in the right direction since it would move toward understanding some of the cognitive basis for 'jealousy'. Also the notion of the woman as 'property' would also answer that (but his also goes both ways, as does jealousy). The direction of the answer somehow seems to lie in the constitution of object relations, of how the inner world is constructed and manifested in (married) behavior.

In the romantic myth the other and the self are mutually subsumed. The mate and oneself are extensions of the selves of each but not as property. Rather, the self is the property of the other. This is the dominant cultural mode of capitalist (if not all class) society (making it seem as if this were the dominant mode of patriarchal society): the other is regarded as the property of the self, that is each has proprietary rights in the other, and as such, is granted control over the other. These two modes are in direct contra­diction to each other. As the locus of action shifts from one side to the other, there is an alternation of 'who's in charge', of a sense of control and of dominion of each over the other. Each, then alternates as an alien presence to the other, and, transferentially, as an alien presence to the self. The zone of conflict then extends from the most important matters to the most trifling of matters. From this grows the tendency for the partners to continually criticize each other, to, in effect, batter each other verbally. Indeed, from the point of view of the partners it is often the verbal assaults that are the most devastating and most scarring. (Gelles, 0p. Cit.: 157; Walker, 0p. Cit.: xv) 

The alienness of each to the other, the alienation that is continually experienced by the partners in re­spect to each other, comes out in two important areas of the relationship: the control of access to money and the control of sexual access of the one to the other. It is often described in the literature (e.g.. Walker, Op. Cit.: 33-34) how the economic dependence of women, due to child care, low pay for women, desire to maintain a certain standard of living (regardless of emotional cost), keeps them in violent relationships. However, in my clinical experience, and in the experience of the program in which I work, men have similar concerns, especially as it relates to the economic difficulty of maintaining a separate household. Moreover, there is the constant, and most salient issue here, that, in many of these marriages, there is a resentment felt by the men because their spouses often keep their pay separate from theirs and do not contribute to the maintenance of the household, or because the women have secreted away common funds so as to leave them without resources if there is a split-up of the marriage. In the area of sexuality there are often deep conflicts based on incommensurable attitudes held by the partners. In her book on the working class marriage, L. Rubin (1976: 145) indicates that in this domain, the attitude is common with the middle class, for the male sexual readiness is the expression of a constriction in other affective areas and a compensation for that constriction; for the female, alternatively, the desire for non-sexual respon­ses is grounded in the development of her affectivity in all areas other than sex. 

Split off, as he is, from the rest of the expressive-emotional side of himself, sex may be one place where he can allow himself the expression of deep feelings, the one place where he can experience the depth of that affective side. His wife, on the other hand, closely connected with her feeling side in all areas but the sexual, finds it difficult to be comfortable with her feelings in the very area in which he has the greatest sometimes the only ease. (Ibid.) 

            Thus for both partners, the control of money and sexuality becomes an arena of symbolic conflict and opposition. In both cases the struggle is not simply a matter of 'who's in charge', but rather over the capacity to give and receive affective messages. As symbolic, conflicts over sex and money become the surface appearance of underlying antagonisms in the relationship and become the repository of resentment and anger.

With this in mind the phrase cited by Walker that some men say when confronted with their violence, "I wanted to teach her a lesson", takes on a new meaning. On the surface of it, it is an infantalizing statement, a statement of revenge. However, it also, on the one hand carries a transferential loading. This is revenge a­gainst those feelings of helplessness and hopeless en­trapment that are engendered in children by situations within which they have internalized 'bad objects'; re­venge against one's own ‘impulses’ (i.e., impulses arising from split-off internal objects that are at war with themselves. The phrase, "I wanted to teach her a lesson", is another way of saying, "I wanted to control her", which also can mean, "I want to control (split-off aspects of) myself". On the other hand, it carries the message that there is some felt need to impart something, to get across something, a something that is, in its expression, bound up in rage; a something that arises within the intrapsychic world, but which, at the same time, is a message about the partners relations in the context of the relationship. It is a message, almost invariably, about the sense that the partners are, in many respects, alien presences to each other, but are also profoundly dependent upon one another. As Walker states: 

Both [my emph.] the batterer and the battered women fear they cannot survive alone, and so continue to maintain a bizarre symbiotic relationship from which they cannot extricate themselves. (Op. Cit.: 43) 

This is both significant and telling because it includes the male in the orbit of the incapacity to leave the relationship. This means that the male is as tied into it as the female. It is not surprising, then, that the mental health of both partners has been noted to deteriorate in e significant percentage of cases when the relationship has been broken. Each, then, and not only the woman, as Walker adverts, is "the bridge to the [other's] emotional well being." (Ibid: 72)

With the surface manifestations of conflict located in the dynamics of power in the relationship, there is a continuous jockeying for position vis-à-vis each other. The underlying dependency and the suffocating closeness of the pull toward merger in 'symbiosis' is, at the same time, drives the couple apart as the repressed inner antagonism between libidinal object and internal sabo­teur comes to consciousness. These antagonisms are pro­jected outward into each other and a more or less violent eruption ensues. This eruption destabilizes the system since, once the aggression is carried outward, the split-off desire for the libidinal, though unrequitable object comes to the fore in the guise of the now radically distant mate. The third phase of Walker's three-phase cycle is thus entrained: the "contrite and loving phase". 

He is usually sorry for his actions in the previous phases, and he conveys his contrite­ness to the battered woman. He begs her for­giveness and promises her that he will never do it again. His behavior is described as typical of a little boy who has done something wrong, the child with his hand in the cookie jar. He confesses when caught in the act and then cries for forgiveness. (Walker, Op. Cit.: 65-66) 

The notion that the man is "a little boy" or "like a little boy" is an important theme in our culture. One sees it ad nauseum in television advertisements and elsewhere. It is a culturally compelling image because it mistakes a transferential state for an existential state. It is the same sort of error that Walker exhib­its in the above quotation. That which she does not mention is the status of the woman's response to this transferential state. Why does the woman become "hap­py, confident, and loving"? (Ibid.) Could this be some­thing that is looked for in the relationship? This, of course does not mean that the woman is in any sense a "masochist". Rather, it means that the symptomatic act of the violent eruption - whether physically violent or not restores and regulates the mutual capacity for intimacy in the couple. It re-engages the couple in the activity of striving for intimacy and merger.

From an intrapsychic perspective both partners, having split-off and projected outward unacceptable portions of themselves, find that the 'making-up' phase allows them to experience and internalize the other as a good object in order to ameliorate the unconditional badness of the internalized bad objects (and the sense of self as unconditionally bad). This position, the "moral defense" described by Fairbairn (Op. Cit.: 165fl), allows the partners to have a sense that it can be "conditionally" or "morally" good (or bad). The partners, then, take on a 'super ego' function for each other. 

The resulting position is one in which conditional goodness depends upon a preponderating identification with good internalized objects, and conditional badness upon a preponderating identification with bad internalized objects; and either of these alternatives presents itself as preferable to unconditional badness, since even conditional badness leaves room for hope owing to the possibilities of repentance and forgiveness. (Ibid.) 

In the "contrite, loving phase" the aggressor senses the emergence of the repressed sense of being "unconditionally bad", i.e., the emergence of internalized bad objects. These have been externalized by projection and re-internalized through the underlying fantasies of merger with the spouse as repository of the split-off aspects of the self. In order that the self not be regarded as "unconditionally bad", the other is sought for forgiveness so that the self can be proved to be merely "conditionally bad". The mate then can act as the external super ego, on the one hand, and as the desired libidinal object, on the other. On the part of the mate who has been subject to the projective identification and aggression, they receive the charge as external super ego with their own internal need to sense themselves as good. That is, the identification of them with the possessor of the good, the idealized good object, is the external realization of themselves as "conditionally good" and thus (internally) forgiven for the aggression they bear toward their own repressed bad objects. This process in turn entrains on both parts their fantasies of merger and their sense of dependency and leads to a growing fear in each of the opposite, i.e., the loss of self and concomitant need to guard their 'self-esteem' This, of course will lead them right back into the cyclical process again that entrain­ed the eruption, since it was that self-same inner and mutual conflict between them and their repressed inner objects that began the cycle. Thus it can be seen that the dynamic processes arising from the mutual object distortions of the partners leads directly into the cycle of conflict that Walker calls "the batterer's cycle." In fact, however, this cyclical process is much more general and the violent acts, far from being the province of specifically male attitude, are much more symptomatic of a mutual structure for the regulation of intimacy. 


The following record will describe the cyclical, homeostatic process of conflict found in this client's marriage. Of key import in understanding and working with this process is a determination of how and why the communications between the partners moves away from verbal forms into violent forms.

            In this record of a client with whom I have worked for six months, I will show how this cyclical process operates and how I was able to work with him around the issue of communications and intimacy.


The client, T, is a 33 year old African-American male residing in a middle working class neighborhood in Queens. He has been married 10 years to a 30-year-old African-American female. They have three female children, ages 9, 7, and 5, all of whom are in school. This is the first marriage for each both my client and his spouse. At the time of the intake, 9/26/85, a cousin (his mother's mother's hus­band's son) of my client was expected to live in the household (as of this writing this has not taken place and it was in some doubt at the time of the intake). 

Mr. T. has had a stable job history, working for the past 6 years at the same place of employment. His wife has had an unstable Job history, leaving work after each pregnancy and returning to work one year after the birth of each child, on each occasion to a different type of work. After the birth of their last child the client's wife worked for two years and then quit osten­sibly because she couldn't work and keep house at the same time. At present she is unemployed.

T. is not a high school graduate. His wife attended one year of college.

T. suffers from asthma but is not under a doctor's care for this.

T. is the oldest child of 4; following him is another male and two females. His parents were divorced when he was a child, the mother having a child by her then lover, later second husband. This child is the youngest female sibling of the client's sib group. He claims to have had a "close family" but later reported that he has always felt that it was impossible to com­municate with his mother.

T. was brought to our agency after his wife made an allegation of physical abuse to the family court. They were both mandated into our program. He was assigned to me as an individual client after it was ascertained that his work hours precluded his attending our standing groups. 

His initial complaint was that his wife "expects too much" and is "too demanding" He complains of being too compliant with is wife and feels that she lacks respect for him. He claims he has tried to work things out with his wife but that his efforts were unavailing. He said that he even went so far as to change neighborhoods to "change the atmosphere" but that that didn't work either. It came out later (9th scheduled inter­view, 7th attended) that his wife had been having an affair that he found out about by finding a hidden letter from her lover. He said that he kept this in, just becoming more withdrawn from her, until February of last year (7 months after he found letter), and left home for 3 months. He didn't like living alone, and "playing at being a teenager again" so he returned home. In September of 1985, after a party, they had a physical fight & his wife took him to court to get an order of protection. They have both been attending counseling (she attends one of our women's groups). 


In the case of this client it was determined that, though violence, per se, was not frequent - there was less than one such act per year in the 10 year duration of their marriage (the number shifted from time to time; however, by comparing the reports of both parties it was clear that admitted acts, probably 'major acts of viol­ence', were small in number) - there was a very strong tendency toward that which T. F. Fogarty called distanc­ing and pursuit. ("The Distancer and the Pursuer", in The Family, 7(1): 11-16). By this is meant that alter­natively the one partner withdraws from the other and, thereby requires the other partner to pursue in order that relations can be maintained. This sets off for each a combination of abandonment and engulfment (or merger) fears. To mediate this distance/closeness process that which Lynn Hoffman calls the "periodic bicker" ensues. As the rocking back and forth of the bickering continues, the tension builds to the point of violence.

In questioning the client about this process I noted that there was a build-up of resentment concerning their capacity to give and receive care from each other. He complained that his wife "takes advantage of him" and that he "has always been to nice to her". He told me that she is always demanding of his time, resources and energy but "gives nothing in return". He stated that she is "quick tempered. He also stated that she is a "poor mother" in that she is impatient with the children and cannot "communicate with them".  

He told me that his mother was both inconsistent and demanding and that she was not able to communicate with him. Spontaneously, at one point early on in the treatment, he told me of an incident where his mother, being over protective", stood with him on line for some school function when he was 11 years of age. He stated that this was very embarrassing. He stated that he left home when he was 18.

T. stated that he is prone to be "moody" and to feel that he is "guilty" all the time, though he does not know why. He indicated that he has found solace in his (Protestant, Holiness) religion but that, for a time he had "fallen away". He recently decided to return to his former religious practices, but this too became a source of conflict with his wife. She said, when they had a "discussion" one night (to 3:00 AM), that her preacher would have to get up in the middle of the night to help the sick and dying and that she didn't know if she could go along with that (though she is a staunch believer herself). When asked if he had intentions of becoming a minister he said: "not in the near future, but I don't know God's plan for me." (This refrain about "God's plan" was a constant theme in the sessions covering the first three months of treatment. It was usually brought out in response to any sort of confusion that he felt about his life, his feelings, his reactions, etc.  

            After three months, however, he refers much more to himself and his own reactions, capacities, and responsibility). In respect to his "moodiness", the client stated that he has a tendency to "brood" and to "keep his feelings inside". When questioned about this he gave as an example how he kept to himself the knowledge that his wife was having an affair, not mentioning it to her for nearly a year, whereupon he moved out of the household for 6 months. He told me that his wife would ask him what was wrong, but he would always tell her that he was fine" or that he was "thinking about work".

T. stated that he "gave up all his friends" when he got married and complained that his wife kept "bad company". He said that his wife balked when, early on in their relationship, he tried to tell her a friend of hers was approaching him seductively. She became angry and told him that he was trying to interfere in her friendships. He related a more recent incident in which he came home from work to find his mother-in-law and a few of his wife's friends at home. He said that he went into another room "just to look out the window and be by myself" whereupon his wife came in "demanding" that he join in and became angry when he said he wanted to be by himself.

            After the violent incident which brought them to the court, both he and his wife remained in our program. He became "suspicious" of his wife's "turn around" and her attempts to be "more giving" to him. "I'm not doing anything different." "I keep trying to please her, to be useful."

Neither my client nor his wife had any sense, nor does he give any sense in the record of knowing that they had been locked into a cycle. For him the cycle is founded on his defensive processes of withdrawal that activate his wife's anger at the abandonment (that she concomitantly fears). His withdrawal was so profound that he cannot bring himself to speak, to connect with her even at the clear evidence of a crisis in their marriage: her affair. He is mystified by her response to his attempts to have her be like him and withdraw from her friendships (and her kin ties: they conflict, as well, over her constant contact with her mother). On his side he neither recognized her affair as a response to his withdrawal, nor did he recognize that his "trying to please her, to be useful" was an attempt to have her connect with him (rather than him connect with her). He also did not recognize his attempt to connect with his wife was not the kind of connectedness she asks for.

This mutual misappraisal led him to feel more and more confused and mystified. The sense is "the more I give the less I'm wanted" and that "nothing II do] is good enough". His response to their arguments had been to both withdraw, exacerbating the fight, or to do more and give more things to the point where he felt "being useful" was the same as being exploited.

From a clinical perspective one could quite well see that, for him, a crucial impediment to his relation­ship is his repetition of the patterns developed in his childhood in regard to his mother. His fantasy is that each act of giving is a mechanism for the retrieval of his mother's inattention (which, pari passu, he charges against his wife vis-à-vis their own children), each attempt to make himself "useful" is a means of regaining his mother's love. Yet, at the same time, those self­same acts, when they do bring that yearned for connec­tion become a (narcissistic) wound when they remind him of how psycho-socially dangerous those attentions have been (i.e., his mother's "overprotection"). Each con­nection with his wife, then, brings forth the anxiety of his initial connection with his mother and thereby his withdrawal, each argument then carries with it the rage that is entwined with his continual attempts at repara­tion for his ever present guilt for that abandonment ("I feel guilty all the time, but I don't know why.") In the cycle within which these people are locked, the attempt to bring about the cessation of the hostilities merely sets the stage for the continuation of the hostilities. The repetition of their habitualities, their transference, engenders what appears to be an alterna­tion between a need to disconnect and a need to recon­nect. The clients are locked into their own unconscious subjectivity such that the anxiety of disconnection is concomitantly the dread of connection.  


As described above, the baseline cycle of this couple can be taken as starting from the build-up of tension that led to the physical fight which brought them to court. In that build-up phase, the communications/transactional process between them had reached an impasse: my client's wife had had an affair which my client knew about but did not mention, leading to a temporary break-up of the marriage; after my client's return home, there was still no open communication about the affair, leading to a build-up of tension resulting in a physical fight set-off by a minor incident.

In working with my client I first and foremost needed to establish an empathic position in order that he might allow himself to trust me enough to communicate with me. To do this I relied on, basically, the Kohutian techniques (cf. Kohut, 1977: The Restoration of the Self) of mirroring and empathic listening and the family systems/short term treatment technique of locating the "precipitant" to the particular crisis (cf. L. Rapoport: "Crisis Intervention as a Mode of Brief Treatment").

In this beginning phase of treatment the specific tasks are, first and foremost, building a working alli­ance and the process of disclosing and clarifying the client's "problem(s) in living". (5) As per above, the empathic technique allows for the establishment of trust necessary to the working alliance. In this case this was established over the course of the first several interviews. Basically, I listened carefully to that which the client had to say and reflected back to him that which I heard, clarifying his communications by this activity. In this I attempted to understand the subjective experience of the client and helped him to have some conscious grasp of that experience. One example of this was when he told me that he had cut himself off from his friends after his marriage and wanted his wife to do the same thing. To this I responded that he sounded like he wanted his wife to be Just like him. This insight allowed him to begin to see that he was wishing for a sort of 'boundaryless' state between his wife and himself.

After the initial phase of building a working alli­ance the client disclosed (7th working session) the underlying impasse in the marriage. On the surface it seemed that the infidelity of his wife was a key feature. However, underlying this was the mutual use of withdrawal and bickering about other, relatively minor topics, to regulate closeness between them. In the course of the treatment this process was clarified for the client and he was assisted in opening-up communications via role-playing techniques.

In the use of this technique I asked the client to choose an issue that he considered sensitive. I told him that this technique was designed to help him learn the process of negotiating to get his needs met in his relationship. The issue he chose was having some time for himself after he came home from work. This had heretofore been a period of great tension between them. My client was able to explain to his wife that he needed to "unwind" for 20 - 30 minutes from the tensions of the day.

I first asked him to speak with me as if I were his wife and 'try out' how it felt to him to speak with her about this issue. Then I asked him to take his wife's part in order that he might begin to utilize his implicit and explicit knowledge of her to answer his request that a need of his be met. In this way he was enabled to begin to understand both sides of the issue and open up his side of the communications process. He was then requested to try discussing his issue with his wife before our next session. At the next session he indicated that he had done as we had discussed and this had been successful. This opening-up of communications drew the client and his wife together and Revealed to him that his fear of vulnerability vis-à-vis his wife was not fully justifi­ed. A period of calm ensued in the marriage that lasted for approximately two months during which they were able to begin negotiating other relatively minor, but symbolically great, adjustments in their mutual behavior.

            This period enabled him to adjust and regulate his capacity for closeness immediately upon return to his home and, as well, "proved" to him that his wife was "trying to understand" him. 

The next crisis developed when the women  with whom he had had an affair during his absence from the home told him that he had made her pregnant. He took it upon himself to tell his wife, before bringing this into the counseling session, that he may have made someone pregnant. This served as a distancing-attacking maneuver on his part vis-à-vis his wife. He had been angry at his wife in the preceding few weeks. It was determined that his youngest daughter had come down with an "incurable allergy'' and he blamed his wife for providing poor care for their children. We discussed this during the course of three sessions, the third one being the one after he had told his wife of his affair. In the third session he reported that his wife was contemplating leaving him. We discussed this and his desire to tell his wife of his affair in the context of his anger at his own mother for his perception of her poor child care in his youth. He realized that he was lashing out at his wife and trying to hurt her because he over-blew his anger transferentially. We then discussed how he was to speak with his wife about this anger and his trying to hurt her for his anger at his own mother.

This discussion was focused on the clarification and beginning of working through the client's object relations in respect to his mother and his wife. Of key import was the differentiation between his inner images of his mother and his wife. This took the form of re­minding him of some of the things that he had said about his own childhood experience, especially in regard to his feelings of lack of adequate nurturance by his mother. At first he responded to this in a defensive way, denying the lack of care. However, he did say that he wanted his mother around more. I pointed out that this is something he had said about his wife, as well. At this point he said, "Yes, I am angry at my wife; I think she hasn't been looking after the children well enough; I never thought she kept tabs on the baby sitters.” He then paused for about 30 seconds. "You mean," he said, "I'm trying to blame my wife for some things I felt my mother did to me?" 

I asked him to tell me what things he was talking about. 

He began to discuss how he felt that his wife was treating him "like a boy", telling him, for example, not to use certain towels to dry his hands after working on his car. He said that his mother would do the same thing, but that this time he had paid for the towels. A discussion then ensued in which he was able to discern how he had been feeling that his wife was treating him like a child, but that this feeling was based, partly on how he remembered how his mother treated him and partly on a lack of understanding of what his wife's requests, in fact, meant. He then said that he saw how he had tried to hurt his wife by telling her about the affair he had had. He also said that he, perhaps was trying to "mess himself up" by not talking with me about the situation before he spoke with his wife. Though I wanted to follow up this insight, the session ended. 

The next week the client came in to tell me that they had dropped the children off at her mother's for the weekend and had spent a weekend away at a resort. During the time they were away he told her that the child could not have been his because his affair had ended long before the women became pregnant. He was also able to disclose to her that he had, in telling    her about the pregnancy, been trying to hurt her because he was seeing her like his own mother. This disclosure relieved a good deal of the tension between them and enabled them to discuss how and in what way each of them reminded the other of their parents. This resulted in another period of closeness.

Of key import in this outcome was that the maneuv­ers that were used to adjust closeness were strictly verbal and that there was no recourse to violence. Fur­ther, the outcome of the process was to not simply regain intimacy without clear communication, but had generated the beginning of a discourse of mutual vulner­ability and interdependence. In this section I have shown that an intervention process that focuses on the development of clearer communications can help defuse the cyclical processes leading to physical abuse within a marriage. The hypothesis that therapeutic intervention geared toward developing communicative competence, mutual vulnerability and interdependence within a couple damps the cycle of tension building – violence - making-up noted by Walker in her work (Op. Cit.)(6)  For this client, though he has a long way to go in his capacity to have clear communications, his beginning to open-up to his wife has helped them both to do so such that the chance of a violent outcome of the building of tension is greatly reduced. This has enabled the treatment team to envision, and begin discussing with the couple, joint meetings between them in a therapeutic context. It is hoped that these meetings will further the process of enabling them to have open communications and a reduc­tion of their periodic conflict. 



           In this essay I have begun with an attempt to synthesize a psychosocial understanding of the con­struction of family conflict, especially conflict be­tween spouses. I, perforce, was required to be critical of several of the most common, and commonly accepted, notions in the literature concerning this issue. Among these is the notion that the issues can adequately be understood by reference to intrapsychic, sociological or cultural issues alone. Especially salient in this regard is the theory that spousal violence is a direct outgrowth of the "patriarchal" form of the family. Rather, it was shown, that the universe of discourse that focuses on such an explanation, an explanation that, at its heart contains an ideology of power and its social distribution, tends to take the appearance (the relations of power) for the dynamic inner reality (the relations of meaning and desire). I do not advert that the answer I have developed is in any sense even near a complete understanding. All I claim is that I have tried to look in a new direction.




(1) It is well known, and often remarked in the literature, that there in violent conflict between members of unmarried couples, whether they live together or not. It has also been suggested by D. Jackson (1965: 589 - 590),      a well known family therapist and writer on family issues, that, though a marriage-like relationship has a Sexual component, that is, is involves a sexual relationship, the construction of that 'marriage' is a function not of the sexual differences of the partners, but      of the kind of interaction patterns generated in a "long term collaborative relationship regardless of the sex of the partners". (Ibid.) At [he same time, though there may be rather large age differences between the partners of the 'marriage', for the purposes of the relationship, the partners are of the same generation, since, according to the model ascribed in Western society, the relationship potentially bears offspring, thus another generation. That there may be individual psychosocial understandings that the partners are not of the same cultural generation is not of moment in the general model. Of course such circumstances will have bearing on the individual relationships in view.

 (2) This notion of the neolocal, monogamous family as nodal, fundamental, and a discrete structure unto itself is the cultural model for family life. As such it is the benchmark used by mates to understand and judge the quality of their marriage, though this model may be in contradiction to other models - conscious and unconscious - held at the same time by them about their marriage. (Ward, 1965: 123) That there may be conflict­ing models is of no little import to our understanding of the strains that lead to violent conflict in a marriage. 

(3) I insist on this because my discussion could be construed as condoning violence since I seek to disloc­ate our understanding away from violence, per se, to intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics of which violen­ce is a symptom. Again, this is not to diffuse program­matic action, or to claim that violence must not be attended immediately in social programs. My point is rather like the distinction between understanding and treating the alcoholic: one must treat the symptom (al­cohol abuse) before treating the issue underlying the symptom. 

(4) It is important to add that, just as it is errone­ous to consider that specific class characteristics are in some sense explanatory of family conflict and famili­al violence, it is erroneous to suppose that there are specific cultural or ethnic characteristics that tend toward such conflict and violence. Any such claim would require that there be a rather large differential bet­ween one group and another, a difference which does not obtain, in fact. Further, ethnic or cultural character­istics, just as class or gender-based theories, do not explain the large number of instances where no violence obtains between mates. 

(5) This very apt phrase is by H. S. Sullivan. Cf. The Psychiatric Interview. 

(6) Since this is the study of one single client (or, to be more exact, the transactional/ communicative processes of one couple) it is difficult to make generalizations as the applicability of the procedure herein de­scribed to a broader population. Indeed, there is good reason to believe, from my clinical experience, that the communicative competence approach will not be applicable given different sorts of underlying pathology and dif­ferent intellectual capacities of other sorts of clients. Other approaches, for example, a behavioral approach, may be more valuable for some, and, sad to say, for others, no known approach could break through the marital and individual impasse(s) to reduce marital conflict. 



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First of a series of articles working toward the integration of anthropology and psychoanalysis focusing on domestic violence. Individual, Couple and Group Psychotherapy for adults; professional supervision & training

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