When Context Is the Enemy of Change
Why Frank is so angry with me.
Posted Mar 16, 2016
Frank is furious with me. He and I are wrestling in group about whether or not he should have to classify as an abuse an incident that occurred with his wife Laura .
Before he started coming to our treatment program for abusive partners, Frank would scream red-faced at her before storming from room to room, slamming doors, throwing things, and terrorizing the entire house. In this incident that we’re tussling about, he glared silently at her and then stalked off.
It’s a tense moment in the group and he’s escalated quickly, his face reddening and his voice becoming sharp. We give him a moment to calm down before we ask him to talk about what is happening to him in this moment in group.
He tells us he resents that we are trying to call his behavior abusive. His wife knows what he is capable of, he tells us, and this incident was nothing. This was him holding it together.
The group engages him gingerly, asking him questions about what happened for him in the incident with his wife. Finally, Bob, another man in the group confesses that he’d been a little scared when Frank escalated a few minutes prior. And then one by one, the men in the room tell Frank that they’d also felt nervous. They didn’t know what he was going to do. And then one of the men says, “I wonder if your wife feels scared when you get this intense?”
Frank starts to cry.
The truth is that his wife is terrified of him even though he’s never once put his hands on her.
In his household growing up, Frank’s mother was terribly depressed. His father, who he thinks of as a nice man, worked long hours as an accountant. Frank’s father came home every night for dinner before retiring in front of the television with a beer and a willingness to avoid noticing his wife’s psychological deterioration. Finally one day while Frank was at school, his mother made a suicide attempt, then changed her mind, called for help and was hospitalized. Frank, who’d been sullen and argumentative that morning, felt responsible.
When she was released from the hospital, she was better, no longer suicidal but still depressed.
Frank worried constantly that she would try to kill herself again. He’d follow her from room to room, watching her, badgering her with questions, trying to draw her attention and interest. She was still so raw that eventually she could no longer tolerate his demands and she’d lock herself away in her bedroom where she could lie quietly and undisturbed. He would pace the house with the sickening feeling that she was dead in her room. Daily, he would pick fights with her and scream at her, manufacturing crises to avoid losing her to her room. But her retreat was inevitable and after she fled he would be left alone once again with his helplessness, fear and shame.
Frank’s behavior with his wife has created a marriage that parallels his relationship with his mother. He rages and screams and bullies because he is terrified that she will not be able to tolerate his desperate need and leave him. The dance that he learned with his mother, his desperate grasping and pursuing to avoid being left, is killing his wife. Frank is a bully at home and his wife and kids can’t afford to wait for him to heal. They need him to stop.
Frank, like many of the clients who come to our program, has been in therapy previously and has failed to change. His family is desperate for relief. In the beginning, our work with Frank is going to be quite hard for him to tolerate and different than what he’s experienced in treatment before.
1. We deliberately decontextualize abusive behavior.
Frank is furious that we won’t let him tell us about what his wife did to him in his abusive incident - he wants to tell us about how she hurt his feelings before he tells us about his poor treatment of her. Frank, like many of the people who come here, is smart enough to successfully defend his position that what he did with his wife wasn’t as bad as we’re making it out to be. If we let him, he could contextualize it so that the group could perhaps be persuaded that what he did wasn’t so very wrong. Frank wants to tell us that his wife knows that he gets upset when she shuts down, he’s been telling her for years so this is partly her fault, right? The problem is that presenting the problem as a dynamic between the two of them means Frank won’t be as likely to take responsibility for the part that he can change.
Anyone can be decent when things are going well. To get better, we must not convince ourselves that unpleasant circumstances justify our punishing behavior. The truer measure of a person is how decent they can be when they are hurt, disappointed, or scared.
2. We know that abusive behavior is a state specific set of habits
Frank is a perfectly nice guy ... when he’s not flooded with shame, anxiety, hurt, and disappointment. He’s also quite capable of being a perfectly nice therapy client, which is why when he’s been in therapy before with therapists who didn’t do much to challenge him, his insights never translated into any sort of real change in his behavior at home.
When Frank gets wounded in group, he is flooded with anxiety and shame in a way similar to the state he enters in moments of heightened emotional arousal with his wife. This experience in group gives Frank a chance to practice being decent and connected when he feels hurt.
Over and over again, we are going to push Frank, warmly but firmly. We’re going to hold him accountable to be decent and to take feedback and that’s going to be painful for him. We’re going to stay connected to him while he’s feeling hurt and help him to stay connected with us because we know that’s how people change.
3. We won’t wait for a person to heal before they have to change
Frank is a good man who came by his maladaptive behaviors honestly. He didn’t get what he needed as a kid and that was traumatic for him. While we hold that part of Frank’s truth gently and with kindness, we won’t wait for him to heal those injuries. Right now, his family lives in fear. So while we want Frank to find relief from his unhappiness, we won’t allow the safety or well-being of his family to be put on hold.
Frank is furious and hurt and that's hard for him to tolerate but it doesn't have to mean that he hurts the people around him. Over time and with work, Frank will be able to feel all of these uncomfortable emotions without punishing himself or others.