For the past decade I have led the three-day Love without Hurt Boot Camp for couples afflicted with chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse. In addition to causing untold misery in its own right, chronic resentment, untreated, inevitably leads to some form of verbal or emotional abuse, and most of our participants have lived for a long time in those painful states.
We frequently receive distraught emails, mostly from women, wanting to know what we do to “break through” their partners’ denial of abusive behavior. These hurt and exhausted women want their partners confronted with detailed descriptions of what constitutes abusive behaviors. That’s perfectly understandable, given that most have spent years of endless arguments with their partners about the definition of abuse and whether the hurtful behavior they endure is “abusive” or just “angry” or “defensive” or “insensitive” or “a misunderstanding,” and so on.
Sadly lost in this pointless struggle over a label for troubling behavior is the more important fact that the complaining partner is hurt. It doesn’t really matter what you call it or how you describe it; all that matters is that it hurts.
What hurts the most is that the pain comes from someone they love, who had promised to care about their well being but are now failing at simple compassion. At the end of the day, the only measure of behavior that matters in a love relationship is whether it is compassionate, kind, and respectful. Anything that hurts - abusive or not - is intolerable.
Abandon useless debates about labels; focus on the hurt and the need for healing.
The self-defeating notion of "breaking through denial" originated in the addictions movement and was readily co-opted by victim advocates, understandably exasperated by abusers’ obsession with “blaming the victim.” They misconstrue denial as an intentional decision to inflict further harm by inducing shame through blame. Some abusers do this, but, by definition, they are not “in denial.” Describing abusive behaviors for them runs the risk of teaching new ways to exert power over their partners.
Denial is a primitive, unconscious defense to protect an immature or fragile ego. It emerges in toddlerhood, as part of the toddler’s defensive strategies of blame, denial, and avoidance. These are activated in adults only when stuck in their toddler brains, i.e., the part that sounds the threat-alarm, which puts the entire organism on defensive alert. In the toddler brain, reasoning – to the extent that it’s possible at all - is less important than safety. Confronting a toddler - or adults stuck in their toddler brains – quickly degenerates into a power struggle where one of you shouts “No!” and the other replies with, “Mine!” and vice versa. Each accuses the other of blame and denial.
True denial – the unconscious defense mechanism - manifests in adults when they don’t know a more realistic and beneficial way to perceive themselves and their loved ones. They invariably feel like victims, like no one understands where they’re coming from or how they suffer. Confronting abusers with pejorative labels makes them feel more misunderstood and more like victims, and more likely to abuse. I ask clients to consider which is more likely to change their partners’ behavior for the better, identifying with their abuse or striving to be compassionate and kind. It’s not possible to do both at once.
In devising interventions that effectively improve relationships while eliminating abuse, it’s helpful to remember that, while most of us don’t abuse loved ones, we’re all toddlers sometimes. We all go through bouts of denial in those difficult periods of life when we can’t find more realistic and beneficial ways to perceive ourselves and our loved ones. For instance, it’s unlikely that any adult reading this is still in denial of all their foolish thoughts and behaviors as a teenager. While it was impossible to give up denial then, it’s easy now because now we know more accurate and beneficial ways to perceive ourselves and our loved ones. Denial of adolescent folly is no longer necessary to maintain a tolerable sense of self.
The Love without Hurt Boot Camp teaches participants to regulate their toddler impulses by behaving according to their deepest, most humane values. (This requires higher, prefrontal cortex operations, which automatically regulate the toddler brain.) They learn to look more deeply within themselves than their egos can reach. They learn that when they fail to be compassionate and kind to those they love, they lose self value. In the past they have mistaken their loss of value for lack of power. In the boot camp they practice ways to feel more valuable at those vulnerable times, in part by resisting the habituated impulse to feel temporarily more powerful (like toddlers in temper tantrums). The motivation to abuse is, after all, a tragic substitution of power for value.
No one falls in love with fantasies of power, of forcing their will on their loved ones. We fall in love with fantasies of value – of loving and being loved. When we substitute power for value, love can never be satisfying, and we can never realistically feel like responsible, caring, valuable adults.
With practice of this important skill – doing what makes them feel more valuable (compassion and kindness) when they feel powerless, boot camp participants realize that they like themselves better when they’re compassionate, kind, and respectful to loved ones. Once they are able to empower themselves by acting in accordance with their deepest values, they perceive themselves and their families more accurately and beneficially. No longer in need of denial, they give it up on their own, with minimal confrontation. They replace their victim identity (the cause of most of the human-inflicted suffering in the world) with a healing and compassionate identity.
The last of their many written assignments - to be completed after six weeks of daily practice of the boot camp skills - is to detail all the hurtful behavior they've committed against loved ones, including the effects of the behavior on them and their loved ones. Next to each hurtful behavior on their list, they describe what they would do now, armed with their new self-regulation skills, should similar circumstances occur. There is therapeutic benefit to admitting that you were abusive, when you no longer are and can feel the difference within you. That principle is why we have hymns about being found, after having been lost. There are no hymns about being lost, only funeral dirges, which is what “breaking through denial” inspires, in the form of endlessness defensiveness or, in the unlikely event that it’s successful, shame and depression.
Most approaches to modifying abusive behavior fail because they focus on the abusive behavior. That wrong-headed focus inadvertently keeps victims stuck on a treadmill, whereby they futilely try to change their partner’s behavior. As they inevitably fail, they suffer chronic feelings of powerlessness and erosion of self value.
The more successful approach is based on a truism: You cannot abuse as long as you’re compassionate, kind, and respectful. Abusers learn that the reward for compassion, kindness, and respect is genuine self value.
Just as important, the self-regulation approach of our boot camps keeps victims focused on their own deeper values and desires rather than changing their partners. Only then can they make a more realistic assessment of the likelihood of getting what they most want and deserve in their current relationship. And if they can’t get what they want and deserve, their enhanced core value empowers them to leave compassionately, without guilt or shame, for the best interests of everyone in the family, including the unreformed abuser.