Lessons Learned: Intimate Partner Violence Training

This is what I learned in a 40-hour training on how to combat domestic violence (DW) delivered by the community organization Apna Ghar. “Apna Ghar” is Hindu / Urdu meaning “Our Home”. (See http://www.ApnaGhar.org.) I should issue all the necessary disclaimers up front and that the following is my own work and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Apna Ghar. Obviously I believe the work Apna Ghar is doing is significant, important, and deserves all the support it can get.

There is never a valid excuse for domestic violence (DV). None. I will not rehearse in details all the lessons emphasized in the content of the class on DV that occasions this post. DV is not caused by alcohol, drugs, testosterone, religion, bad up bringing, mental illness, lack of civil rights, education or lack thereof, or criminality, though it can be correlated with all these. Yes, DV is about power and control. Domestic violence is a problem in the community – my community, your community. Abuse is not limited to physical battering and is often accompanied by verbal, emotional, and financial exploitation. Abusers are innovative, calculating, and predictably self-deceived (unfortunately), and new forms of cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking are emerging, but these are out of scope in this post. In any case, a key approach of the abuser is to isolate the victim – and make her (or him) feel “less than”. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in four women will experience intimate partner violence during their lives. I am not making this up. This is unacceptable. Here is selection from what I learned in my 40 hour training on Handling Domestic Violence.

Given that 90% of batterers are men, we may very well be up against biology. Male biology. This is a hypothesis. The male gender may be naturally predisposed to aggression. This may have advantages if one is living in an environment with large animal predictors such as lions or hostile humans. However, predisposition is no excuse or reason. Culture, society, and community transform biology and nature. That is the definition of civilization. People are not born civilized. Yet woman is not a mere womb; man is not mere testosterone. Parents and society create civilized behavior in the process of education, development, and the up bringing of children. For example, we no longer eat our food raw. In general, we cook our food. Civilization marches on. Likewise, parents and siblings have a contribution to make to civilizing aspects of the male gender’s behavior that are uncivilized. I do not know how else to express the matter: Some men seem not to have been civilized in respect to treatment of women. Some men are acting in an uncivilized way towards women and children. Some men batter because they can. And they will continue to do so as long as men (and women) leave the matter alone and do not stop them. The best solution is when a man takes responsibility for his behavior and transforms it. He stops of his own accord and as an exercise of his freedom and power. Alas, matters often do not happen that way. While deploying the criminal justice system to deal with the extreme offenders, there may be a population that can be rehabilitated through training in healthy relations between men and women.

What does a healthy relationship look like? This was presumed by the class. Yet some survivors may never have seen a healthy relationship or seen one in sufficient detail. A healthy relationship includes (1) keeping one’s word; (2) respect for boundaries; (3) contribution from both individuals to the relationship; (4) treating the other person as a possibility and an end in her- or himself and not a mere means; (5) community and sharing, not isolation. In a marriage, we probably also need to be able to say something about what healthy sex looks like too. I see lots of boundary issues. Women who are not able to set boundaries or do not succeed (in spite of all efforts) to maintain boundaries; men who do not respect boundaries.

As a rule, whenever there is a loss of power, then risk of violence goes up. Violence and [authentic] power are inversely related. The policeman says “Stand over there, please” and I stand over there because he has authentic power. If the police man has to pull out her gun or threaten deadly force to get compliance, then she has lost power and force is the method. This is from Hannah Arendt’s book, On Violence. For example, whenever any government loses power, it tries to impose its legitimacy [“power”] through violent means. We see this (arguably) in Syria today and the so called Arab Spring. The main issue here is how power relates to “legitimacy” and “authenticity.” When a person escalates to violence, it is often after the person has experienced a loss of power. They try to get their power back by means of force (violence). Tactically, an experience of authentic, legitimate power reduces the risk of violence. There are many issues in the relation between power and force that require inquiry.

I came away from the session by Dr. Priscila Freire thinking: We have not yet identified the definitive model or paradigm for handling DV. I shared that with the class. Many heads nodded in agreement. DV has a mental illness component; but it is not mental illness. It has an alcohol or drug abuse component; but it is not addition. Likewise, with civil rights, homelessness, criminality, or social justice. All of these are involved. Yet one size does not fit all.

If none of these are the paradigm, what is? I speculate that DV is a developmental aberration. It is an anomaly in child development. The batterer is [some batterers are] a two year child in the body of a twenty- or thirty- or forty year old man. Think temper tantrum. Very dangerous. Very scary. Of course, often the tantrum gets strategically planned, and that is even worse. In child development instead of autonomy, we get shame and doubt; instead of initiative, we get guilt; instead of productivity, we get impulsivity; instead of integrity, we get fragmentation. Once again, see above in that some men batter because they can. The survivor is not to blame, and the survivor has not succeeded in protecting her own space. We must always be cautious not to seem to blame for this. The batterer has not learned to respect proper boundaries. This is a psychological paradigm. Obviously this is a hypothesis and more work is required here.

Empathy belongs to the community. Empathy lives in the relatedness between individuals. Indeed as a form of data gathering, empathy samples the experience of the other without merger or over-identification. In that way it is actually a healthy defense against compassion fatigue, burn out, or fragmentation. If you experience these, then you are doing it wrong. Empathy provides a trace of the other’s experience, not the over-whelming presence of a totality of a tidal wave of affect. Yes, you have the unhappy experience of the other, but as a trace affect, not the whole bottomless pit of suffering. What the person then does with that experience, the action that is taken,  is a further challenge.

In conclusion, I completed this training on May 19, 2012, resulting in a certificate as a domestic violence advocate,  at Apna Ghar (“Our Home”) under the Illinois Domestic Violence Act legislation. Please mark the above reflections as further brain storming, definitely not the truth with a capital “T”. Please let me hear from you on this important issue.

(c) Lou Agosta, The Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: Altruism, Apna Ghar Our Home, criminal justice, domestic violence (DV), empathic understanding, Empathy, empathy consulting, empathy trends, Mental illness, Stigma

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