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The Evolution and Elimination of Abuse in Intimate Relationships

Inequality is the spark, blame is the fuel, and abuse is the flame.

Key points

  • All love relationships can be susceptible to abuse.
  • Abuse of loved ones has structural, emotional, and autopilot coping dimensions.
  • Abusers automatically cope with discomfort and stress via blame.
  • The autopilot brain can be reconditioned to cope better with stress and discomfort.

Structural inequality of power—where one partner controls key decisions, finances, parenting, and division of labor—was long ago identified as the predominant characteristic of abuse in intimate relationships. The consensus opinion still argues that emotional abuse and violence are the fangs that enforce power and control.

But the structural imbalance of power alone does not predict abuse and doesn’t degrade intimate connection in many cases. Some partners find a happy relief in not having to make household decisions. (I’m one of them.) My experience with the more than 3,000 abusers I’ve treated suggests that the evolution of abuse—and the keys to stopping it—are more complicated than a perceived need for power and control.

Why All Love Relationships Can Be Susceptible to Abuse

We fall in love with high levels of interest, affection, appreciation, and compassion. But the intensity of these wonderful emotional states, though integral to the formation of emotional bonds, is unsustainable. They consume enormous emotional energy, most of which must be applied to other areas of life, such as parenting, work, and personal development.

When the decline of attachment emotions is equal, partners remain connected while they invest in other areas of life. When the decline is unequal, partners are likely to misinterpret the natural diminishment of interest, affection, appreciation, and compassion. The partner who perceives less from the other feels rejected and ashamed. The partner who is losing interest, affection, appreciation, and compassion feels guilty. Most guilt and shame in relationships devolve into resentment.

The Mirror of Love

Love is a mirror that reflects the inner self and shows us how lovable we are. In the beginning, the mirror reflects flattering images. We never dreamed we could be so interested, affectionate, appreciative, kind, and compassionate. But as we live together, the mirror begins to reflect the whole self. Who knew we could be so selfish, petty, and childish?

The mirror of love in good relationships helps us grow and improve. Abusers confound growth and improvement by trying to manipulate the reflection. That’s like smearing makeup on the face in the mirror.

Inequality of Emotional Investment

Many relationships begin with unequal investment in attachment emotions. Even when love is equal in both partners, interest, appreciation, and compassion are typically less so. In functional relationships, interest, appreciation, affection, and compassion become more balanced over time, due in part to the force of emotional reciprocity.

Abusers steadfastly resist the natural reversion to equality of emotional investment. Most whom I’ve treated perceive themselves as incapable of maintaining the attachment emotions. They can experience them for a little while, but not for long and certainly not continually. Their partners desire more interest, affection, appreciation, and compassion than they can provide. They blame the mirror for the reflection in describing their partners as needy, nagging, selfish, too sensitive, and exhausting.

Inequality of Confidence

Typically, one partner is underconfident, and the other is overconfident. Unequal confidence may be a rule of attraction. Attracting an overconfident partner can raise confidence, while the admiration of the underconfident partner validates those suffering from overconfidence.

Sustaining overconfidence requires denial or avoidance of certain facts, along with continual impression management—manipulating others to have favorable impressions. As the couple lives together, the veil of impression management wears thin and transparent. To maintain the illusion, the overconfident are likely to erode the confidence of their partners in a perverse kind of downward comparison.

Autopilot Coping Habits

While each of the above contributes to the evolution of abusive relationships, the catalyst is the autopilot coping habit of blame.

Autopilot coping habits are what the brain does automatically when faced with discomfort or waning physical or mental resources. They bypass consciousness and drive behavior but are distinct from behavior like fuel is distinct from fire. When abusers experience discomfort or stress, they automatically blame others. Some of it they suppress, some of it comes out in anger or resentment, and some of it finds expression in abusive behavior. They may use blame to justify drinking, affairs, or other self-defeating behavior.

Changing Autopilot Coping Habits

Elimination of abuse requires replacing the autopilot habit of blame with an incompatible coping habit: for example, improve, appreciate, connect, and protect.

Consciously knowing which behaviors to enact in the future is not enough, due to what psychologists call “crossing domains.” Information learned in a calm emotional state is nearly inaccessible in an aroused, stressful, or mentally/physically diminished state. Mr. Hyde won’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in therapy or anger management class.

To overcome the restraint of crossing domains, practice sessions must recall the internal conditions that activate blame: stressed, tired, hungry, or impaired. A practice session looks like this:

  1. I recall an incident when I blamed others, along with my physical and mental states at the time.
  2. I imagine improving the situation (trying to make things a little better), appreciating (the issue is complex; I love my partner), connecting (realizing that the well-being of my partner is important to me), or protecting (I never want her to feel hurt). I recognize that I like myself better when improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting.

In my clinical experience, it takes about 500 two-minute practice sessions, spread over six weeks, to replace autopilot blame with the ability to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.

Warning: We cannot recondition the autopilot brain with insight about possible causes, explanations, or justifications. Such rationalizations interfere with the formation of a new conditioned response; discomfort must automatically motivate ameliorating behavior. Attempts to explain or justify blame guarantee recurrence and provide fuel for more abuse.

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