By Hara Estroff Marano, published on February 18, 2003 - last reviewed on December 28, 2011
Domestic violence is a huge problem behind closed doors. Nothing pushes our buttons like our most intimate relationships. Everyone would agree that battering is bad for those on the receiving end.
Further, one of the great tragedies of domestic violence is that children who grow up in homes where it occurs are far more likely than others to resort to the behavior themselves, continuing the cycle of violence into the next generation. Nearly 90% of batterers saw violence in the household as kids, and many were victims of it themselves.
Psychologist Steven Stosny, Ph.D., based in Germantown, Maryland, argues that battering also does terrible things to batterers themselves. "You can't hurt someone you love and feel good about yourself," says Stosny. "The brain's not designed that way."
And that gives him powerful leverage to get batterers to stop. It's not that batterers want to harm the people they love, he says. And they don't do it because they're angry. Or because they have bad attitudes towards women. At bottom they do it because they have too little compassion, Stosny insists. He has developed a novel program called CompassionPower (http://www.compassionpower.com/) that helps batterers recognize that violence is a violation of their own deepest values.
"Attachment means that you have an unconscious, automatic instinct to protect someone you're attached to. So what happens to that aggression, loathing and anger when you're harming the person you love? Where does it go? Abuse of loved ones is about the most self-destructive thing a person can do."
There is part of the abuser that doesn't want to be abusive, says Stosny. "That's the part we tap so that they have something to draw on to create change." And that part of them is most easily invoked by compassion. "We ask them to imagine themselves rescuing children from danger, and ask them whether they like that better than being aggressive. And they're surprised that they do."
One problem with abusers, regardless of how successful they are in life, is that they have a real fragile sense of self. They need lots of feedback from others to feel decent about themselves. "If your only form of self-regulation has to come from other people, then you are going to get pretty manipulative of them to get it," says Stosny.
Aggression eliminates self-doubt, and batterers resort to it whenever their sense of self feels threatened--unless someone teaches them a better way, like compassion.
The things that make batterers turn to aggression are what Stosny calls "core hurts." They boil down to a few--feeling disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, devalued or disrespected, rejected, powerless, inadequate or unlovable. Batterers' sense of self is so fragile they are hyperattuned to slights that no one else notices. "Batterers don't deny that," Stosny reports. "They say, 'yeah, when she wouldn't make my dinner I felt unlovable.'"
"In the history of humankind has anyone ever felt more loveable by hurting someone they love?" Stosny asks. When he throws that question at batterers, he gets them to see that the only way they're going to make themselves feel loveable is to be compassionate to their partners. "You can't feel loveable if you don't feel loving," he says.
What comes next is the hard work of breaking the pattern of aggression, learning new conditioned responses to one's deepest values. And Stosny has batterers practice over and over again--750 times, to be exact, over four to six weeks--exercises that allow them to see things from a wider perspective than anger. Anger gives people a narrow and rigid perspective; techniques of compassion build ways of looking for the other person's perspective.
Stosny says that people believe they have an entitlement to feel good. He argues that it's not an entitlement--you feel good onlyby doinggood. "But if you don't feel good and you think you're entitled to it, then you think it must be someone else's fault, and you look for someone to blame." So batterers are walking tinder kegs of resentment and wind up saying things like "she had it coming."
We focus on bringing someone else down when we're angry. The only problem is, that never brings us up.