Is Your (Ex) Spouse Dangerous?

A bully's metamorphosis can be dangerous to you and your family.

Posted Nov 28, 2011

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Psychology Today has published a large corpus on bullying for good reason. In 2010, 2.7 million students believed that they were bullied in school and 25% of kids have been repeatedly bullied on the Internet or phone. Ditta Oliker's series of pieces on PT are a nice case in point. She tells us that bullies really are damaged people who have an urgency to turn the tables on the weaker among us.

But does understanding the bully help us deal better with domestic violence and a perpetrator who can beat up someone that he has loved, or in the worst case scenario, kill her, the children and then himself?  Is the domestic violence perpetrator a typical bully gone wild, or is something else going on?

People often say, why bother? Violent abusers do not deserve the ink spilt on their name. Maybe, but surely their victims and potential future victims do. And there is probably a percentage of future perpetrators who would let it go, if it was handled with a bit more intelligence.

The Bully: a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.

Your basic schoolyard bully has a deep flaw in their sense of self. Perhaps they feel like a failure in academics, athletics or at home. The flaw runs deep and they are reminded everyday of their perceived failings. After all, when a child is really loved and has the capacity to internalize this love, failings become challenges—and not a source of self contempt.

A study in School Psychology Review puts it well: "it might be that certain forms of victimization, such as family violence, create vulnerability for bullying perpetration or victimization. For instance, some youth who are maltreated by their families might learn that violence is the way to deal with interpersonal difficulties, and therefore physically bully their peers at school."

The school yard bully has a core injury to his vanity. He senses his inadequacy may be seen by others and asserts his power over a weaker kid in front of an audience, in order to fix his desperate problem. He wants the other kids to see him as dangerous and seeks popularity through fear. His vanity is soothed, but he continues to carry the wound.

Now let's look at the other extreme: domestic violence. Many of you can relate to having a spouse who is a bully in the classic sense. He likes to show everyone how smart he is at your expense. You know what it is to be humiliated in public, whether he does this systematically, or when under the influence of a drug or alcohol.

This hurts, and will damage your self esteem over time.

Whether he or she has narcissistic features or controlling features, these bullying spouses feel justified in showing everyone just how inadequate you really are. Many women, in my experience, initiate divorce citing too many of instances of verbal humiliation. They tell me, "he just doesn't get it, but he hurts me all the time."

The dynamic here is similar to that found with playground bullies. A helpful approach to so much anguish would be to safely change the psychological dynamic of this behavior. A good therapist can be invaluable here, because many victims come from abusive homes themselves and may not know how to stand up for themselves.

In good therapeutic hands, a number of cases can turn around. For some perpetrators, the bully's habituation to humiliating others (like members of his family) can be trumped by his fear of losing his wife or kids. Taking an honest look at himself in front of a counselor can be healing—he learns that even if provoked, he is always in the wrong when responding with humiliation or aggression. People do grow, even bullies, but they must confront the pain of possible loss and the equally hard pain of facing their own demons. To quote Shakespeare, "sweet are the uses of adversity."

Sadly, not all bullies can be dealt with constructively. For some, the underlying dynamic is more sinister than a wounded sense of vanity or identification with a disturbed parent.

Incidents of serious domestic violence are found around the country. In October, Sam Friedlander of Westchester, NY, murdered his estranged wife and two children before committing suicide. In November and not far away, in Mahopac, NY, there was another murder suicide; this time Michael Boccardi murdered his estranged wife's male friend and then killed himself. Another case received national attention last month, when Mary Ann Holder of North Carolina allegedly shot her ex-boyfriend, her children, her niece, nephew and her son's girlfriend, all because she "was wronged" by her former lover. These stories are sobering because when you read the bone-chilling details you realize how a perceived loss of control can turn into disaster.

Are these tragedies examples of simple bullying turned deadly?   

We have written about Character Traps in malignant divorce situations. These are men or women who have regressed to a place of utter selfishness and carry a desperate (and often unconscious) need to control. The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Yourself lays out 10 basic dangers, of which four are interesting with regard to abuse: The Victim, The Control Freak, The Narcissist and The Avenger. These personalities are likely to want to win at all costs, but have different ways of doing it.

A Victim type can bully using the courts as a weapon, or when segueing into an Avenger type, can even resort to violence. The Control Freak and The Narcissist need to win at all costs (for different reasons) and when sensing a loss of control, there is a risk of violence. As a culture we must know how to get these men and women the help they need before they strike and, in addition, do a much better job at prevention. When you feel like everything you had is being taken away and you've lost control, the response is to reassert control. The consequences can be deadly.

So, what makes cases like these more severe than that found with the average bully?

Here we need to refer to a masterful psychoanalytic thinker named Melanie Klein (1882-1960). Klein made a distinction between jealousy and envy. This is best described by example. In a case of jealousy, you are upset that your neighbor has a car, so you work your tail off to earn a car that's as good, or better, than your neighbor's car. You make things right by one-upping them.

Envy is more sinister. It constitutes a desperation that is wildly destructive.

In envy, you can't handle that your neighbor has that car, so you simply destroy it. You cannot stand his pleasure and it seems the only way to solve your unhappiness is to destroy his. Sometimes envy can be so powerful that you don't care that you can be taken down by your actions, because denying him the good is the only thing that will give peace of mind.

Whether it's a case of divorce or marital abuse, when envy mixes with depression and suicidal thinking, the toxicity can be frightening. The loss of control makes him believe that all is lost. The underlying depression or mood disturbance (sometimes worsened by chemicals) makes him suicidal. Envy gives him a reason to destroy to "make things right.”

Conclusion: On the healthier extreme, the goal of a bully is to humiliate his victim. He wants to destroy the pride and confidence of his prey because he finds it empowering. Bullying puffs up his vanity. On the other end of the spectrum, a deranged bully becomes a dangerous perpetrator whose envy fuels a wish to destroy with little care about any audience. He wants to set the record straight, even if it means that it will be his undoing as well.

In cases serious domestic violence, the perpetrator is not looking to simply ridicule their enemy, but to damage and sometimes, even, eliminate them entirely. These cases are extreme, but also eye-opening because they warn us about the craziness that divorce and/or estrangement can bring out.

A study by the Harvard University School of Public Health found that of the 241 male subjects who reported being violent toward their lover in the previous year, 64.3% identified themselves as childhood bullies. Not surprisingly, the study found that the childhood bullies were 3.8 times more likely than non-bullies to physically abuse their adult partner.

It's not always obvious in the early years of a marriage that your partner had issues that drove them to bully others during childhood. The warning signs may not come until years later.

Denial is not helpful to anyone. So it's important to notice bullying behaviors when they start, particularly during a difficult marriage or divorce, when stress can cause regression, envy, and sometimes, the need for revenge. In these situations, seeking help through therapy is a win-win.

© Mark R Banschick, MD

For More: http://theintelligentdivorce.com/