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Ask Dr. V: Violence in a Relationship

Ask Dr. V: Violence in a Relationship

Venus Nicolino, Ph.D. of clinical psychology answers your questions in this section. This week: violence in a relationship
Hey Dr. V,

I’ve been feeling very ashamed about something and really don’t want to tell anyone I know about it, so I’m writing to you for help: I wouldn’t exactly call it abuse but whenever me and my husband seem to have too much to drink we get into an argument and start hitting each other. Sometimes even if we’re not drinking, we both will get angry and start hitting each other. One time he bruised my arm and I broke his finger. We just get so angry at each other we can’t contain ourselves. And no one would EVER think we were the kind of couple to do this sort of thing toward each other. Afterwards, I think we both have a tendency to play it down or dismiss what happened. I’m not quite sure how it all started but we both need to stop!
Breaking the secrecy, silence and shame
OK, so let’s not call it “abuse” let’s call it violence. One of the things supporting violence in a relationship is keeping it secret. Some people who are battered or “hit” think somehow there is something about them bringing out the violence; or, that it says something shameful about them. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
You and your husband have fallen into a pattern of poor impulse control, maladaptive communication skills and are in desperate need of anger management. If you can, let someone know.
Violence can often be handled more effectively when you admit it is happening and can get help and support from others to change it. If you both want to change this behavior, confide in a couples’ therapist or if you’re religious, a clergyman / woman. You can also confide in a trusted friend with whom you can be vulnerable. You’ve already begun this process by writing in.
Minimizing violence

Another thing keeping violence going is for either partner (or both of you) to dismiss it as trivial or to minimize it. It is a natural human tendency to play down the difficult or embarrassing things happening. One way to counteract this tendency is to record the incident of violence on tape or through writing just after it occurs. It is still fresh in your mind and harder to play down. Later, when you have dismissed it or remembered, “it wasn’t so bad,” you can check your sense of it with the record you have made.
Being accountable

We all have choices about our behavior, no matter what the circumstances. Often in situations of violence, the other person who strikes out denies this responsibility by blaming the violence on the other person or on things beyond their control (“She kept at me, so I hit her,” or “I have a temper, just like my mother. I can’t help hitting when I get angry.”) An important step in stopping violence is for each partner to take responsibility for his or her behavior and not to offer excuses claiming, “they have no choice about what they do.”
Look at times when violence was likely but you avoided it as a model

Most couples with a history of violence also have a history of preventing violence. Examine times when one or both of you felt there was a likelihood of violence, but one or both of you prevented it. Did you walk away for a time? Did you stop talking and just sit in silence for a time? Did you calm yourself down in some way? Was someone else in the house or nearby? Find the elements that helped prevent the eruption of violence and use those as a model for how to prevent or avoid it in the future.
Develop a prevention plan

Even if you can’t identify previous solutions, can you sit down together and plan for how to prevent violence in the future? Experiment with things you think would be helpful. Talk over the potential pitfalls or failures of such a plan so it is as realistic as possible. Write it down so you have it when you need it. Make an agreement you’ll both stick to the plan when the time comes.
Make a list of warning signs

Most couples can give a list of signs that violence is coming. Is it when one person’s voice volume gets loud? Is it when you get into an argument late at night? Is it when one person starts to call the other names? Is it right after taking a drink and then starting a discussion? Identify warning signs of violence and then put the prevention plan or things that worked previously to avoid violence into practice.
Don’t try to solve problems when under the influence

Drugs and alcohol are often a component of violence in relationships. Even if some issue is pressing, put off discussing it until both of you are sober.
Note: All information in the Ask Dr. V column is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment, please feel free to call or email Dr. V, or consult your doctor.
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