We haven’t come very far since 1895. Back then it was against the law to beat your wife between the hours of 10PM and 7AM in the City of London. And not because abusing others was against the law in general – it was fine to beat her after 7 in the morning. It was because her wailing violated London’s noise curfew. It kept the neighbors up at night.
Across the pond in America those noise curfews are seldom enforced. As a result, women find themselves being beaten in large numbers, day and night. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 6614 American troops were killed. Compare that during this same period here at home domestic violence took the lives of 11,766 women. But nobody gets a Medal of Honor for stemming spousal abuse in the United States. And if you’re Ray Rice, you only get a 2 game suspension in the NFL for knocking your wife out on a viral video that all the world could see. That, and the fans give you a standing ovation the first time you show up for practice. What’s wrong with this picture? Years from now, when Janay Palmer feels depressed and comes down with all kinds of physical ailments similar to those associated with ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), it will not be surprising if she’s unable to connect the dots to this and similar incidents.
33% Too Many
1 in 3 women in the world will experience partner violence. Through some early conditioning (growing up in a family of all women) and hard work (finding minimally damaging ways to regulate my own hyperarousal), I can say that as an adult I have never struck a woman (or a man, for that matter). That doesn’t mean that anger has never risen to the point of being challenging to control. It just means that I didn’t direct it at the women in my life through physical abuse. Most often, historically, the primary tool available to me has been to leave the scene and go for a walk or a drive. Changing the environment helps down-regulate the stress hormones driving the displaced expression of anger (even though this response has problems of its own, particularly when one or both partners have a history of abandonment. Being abandoned can actually feel worse than being beaten. Although a beating can often be rationalized as “the abuser really cares”).
Aftermaths are Additive
Each individual incident of abuse is problematic in its own right. But it’s what happens in the brain and body in the aftermath of abuse that takes an even greater, mostly invisible toll. And not only on the person abused – 10,000 children are reported to witness domestic abuse every day in America. As more and more of the world is learning from the Center for Disease Control’s ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) research, witnessing domestic violence can adversely impact health and well-being for a lifetime (one that is often a considerably shortened, painful one). In effect, abuse changes the neural composition and connectivity of the brain. It makes the brains of victims less able to optimally process energy and information. What appears to get most compromised is the prefrontal cortex, the Central Command Post of the brain, which is implicated in general intelligence and the ability to control our emotions.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that the dots between direct or indirect abuse are often difficult to connect. There’s no Brain Signal that announces, “Your fear network centers have grown to dangerously large proportions. They are stealing resources from your intelligence centers and your immune response centers. Time to dial it back.”
Unhelping Makes It Worse
In the wake of abuse, there are few social or personal response protocols that don’t end up adding to the stress already suffered by the victim. If, as I wholeheartedly believe, many incidents of abuse are the result of an unconscious compulsion to repair and heal earlier traumatic neurological disorganization, simply being beaten all over again rarely accomplishes that (for a recent tragic account of this unconscious process, check out this Dateline program – “A Gathering Storm” detailing of one of the few murders ever here on Whidbey Island). So, if being beaten doesn’t accomplish healing, what might? I can’t really say. It’s a mistake to generalize, I think. Abuse dynamics are complicated and unique to the people involved. As a general rule, being able to act in ways we weren’t able to at the time of the original trauma – a time when we very likely froze in fear – has anecdotal reports of providing healing. Might taking up a non-violent martial art help? Or becoming skilled and practiced in Non-Violent Communication? Again, I don’t know. In the heat of an escalating abusive situation, our brains don’t work very well. We can actually develop skills to learn to down-regulate one another’s hyper-aroused, hijacked states, but not without usually first down-regulating our own.
People who physically abuse other people have brains that are different from yours and mine (usually temporarily). One bright light is that we’re getting closer and closer to being able to identify those differences early on in children, as this study documents. With that documenting, creative early interventions increase the likelihood of being developed. A successful intervention may turn out to be as simple as stimulating neural growth in other regulatory areas, or finding ways to inhibit the action potentials in impulse control areas of the brain. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Big Pharma developing an effective “Chill Pill” in the not too distant future as well. It will be undoubtedly prove better than the alternative.