Blind Spot (Part 2)

So now we have this: NFL player Jovan Belcher murders his girlfriend, then drives to the Kansas City Chiefs’ football stadium and shoots himself in the head. All I had to read was the headline to know that this was the awful but predictable outcome of an abusive relationship. There may not be a paper trail of arrests or restraining orders to prove it, but it’s rare for incidents like this to be the first violent encounter. People are going on record saying that Belcher’s relationship with his girlfriend was “strained” and that they fought. But mostly what the couple’s friends are expressing is shock that Belcher was capable of such horror. Everyone agrees that he was a quiet guy, a family man. Probably the only people in America NOT surprised that a quiet family man would kill his girlfriend are domestic violence professionals like me. Why, given how common domestic violence is, are we still taken by surprise when it plays out to its ultimate conclusion?

I think it’s because of our blind spot. In Part 1 of this post I said that we have a gap in our knowledge about domestic violence, and the gap exists because we’ve defined it as a “women’s issue.” But if it’s not a women’s issue, considering how often women are victimized, then what is it? As much as anything, partner violence boils down to the psychological problems of people like Belcher; in other words, it’s really a men’s issue. If you look at battery stats across all groups—gay, straight, men, women—it’s uniformly the case that men are much more likely to be the aggressors. The only group that comes close to having a victimization rate as high as straight women’s is gay men. So even when the sex of the victim changes, the sex of the likely perpetrator stays the same. Still, despite the defining role men play in this problem we haven’t managed to gather much useful information on them or their motives, because we reserve our resources and attention, and most critically our understanding, for victims.

Most of what we know about batterers we learned while trying to protect their victims from them. So we know things like: when batterers are likely to increase their violence (e.g., during pregnancy); when they’re prone to start stalking; when they’re most likely to kill. But here’s what we don’t know: what is it about pregnancy that drives batterers to violence? What are they trying to accomplish when they stalk their estranged partners? How are they feeling, what are they thinking? Just what on earth do they think they’re doing with all this? Because batterers aren’t just violent, they’re not just criminals, they’re also human beings who are trying very hard to do something, to solve a problem, to alleviate some internal state that’s painful for them. But they’re doing it in a way that’s incredibly destructive to their families, and to their own lives.

In abusive relationships, victims aren’t the only ones suffering. Batterers persist in their violent behavior at tremendous cost to themselves. They’re arrested, imprisoned, they lose their jobs and their homes, their families leave them. They’ll pursue violence to the point of killing their partners and themselves. And as horrible as it is to imagine, it’s not unheard of for batterers to kill their own children. To all of which I say: what the fuck? I mean seriously, what is going on here? What’s happening in batterers’ heads that’s so terrifying, or so painful, that destroying the people closest to them seems like a reasonable alternative to feeling it for one minute more?

Asking that kind of question, which is a question about individual psychology, is very different from asking “At what point in the divorce proceedings is he likely to stalk her?” Batterer behavior is so deeply pathological that we will never be able to fix this mess without asking some pretty specific questions about what’s going on with them psychologically. And trying to understand their psychology means that we’ll need to find a way to have empathy for their pain, which is a pretty tall order given the nature of their crimes. But just as a practical matter, I don’t see how we can make more progress toward ending domestic violence until we gather more batterer-centered information, to fill in our knowledge gap and make the blind spot visible. This is the next task on the horizon for the anti-violence movement, and we need to get on it fast—the last thing anyone wants is more Jovan Belchers, shocking us all with their entirely predictable tragedies.

That’s my view—what do you think? Empathy for batterers, yes or no? Tell me in the comments.

Comments

  1. Yes, empathy and forgiveness in large doses

    • Thanks for your comment, Linda! I agree with the sentiment you’re expressing here. But I want to make clear to anyone reading that I don’t advocate empathy/understanding as a *substitute* for criminal justice intervention–I do think violent offenders should be held accountable in that way. But I also think that in order to intervene in a way that will get them to change their behavior long-term, we need to know a lot more about what’s going on with batterers psychologically.

  2. Empathy, YES… Thanks for your empathic concern…!

  3. First of all I want to congratulate you for the article.
    In my opinion, the empathy is the base to understand this situation and therefore to solve it. If we know why do they act the way they do it, we have half of the battle won. If we knew what leads them to do it, we could be able to help them.
    Also, after reading this question: “What’s happening in batterers’ heads that’s so terrifying, or so painful, that destroying the people closest to them seems like a reasonable alternative to feeling it for one minute more?”, I thought that maybe these behaviors are the only the batterers have in their repertoire, thereupon our job is to teach them a new way of behaving. This leads us to another problem, the batterers never seek for help. Nevertheless, beyond what I just said, the batterers might feel something terrifying or painful so that it is better to hurt their families than dealing with that feeling.
    To conclude, yes, I think that empathy is fundamental to help this situation.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Beatriz. I agree that teaching batterers alternative ways to manage distressing emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness will be the key to effective interventions. It’s true batterers often don’t seek help on their own, but their victims do, which can lead to their participation in therapy groups at domestic violence agencies, for example. Batterers are also often mandated to go into treatment as terms of their parole or plea deal. The problem is the types of therapies used are rarely standardized, and often don’t have data showing that they’re effective. I think if research psychologists took an interest in this treatment area, they could change that.

  4. I agree, and would extend this to sexual violence / coercion as well. I was aware during the Michael Jackson trial, that not once did I hear a news reporter or commentator say, “If you struggle with sexual thoughts toward children and don’t want to act on them, here is where you can get help.”

    • That’s a very interesting observation. I think the reason you don’t see that kind of help advertized widely is that we don’t have an organized network of service providers for sexual and violent offenders, in the same way that we do for victims. Other than suggesting they find an individual therapist, I don’t know how much there is to offer people struggling with unacceptable sexual and/or violent urges.

  5. To lay complete responsibility for violence on a single person, to me, is a crime against understanding and our ability to address these systemic societal issues in any meaningful way. Thank you Camille, for your courage in speaking to the pain, vulnerability and deep confusion exhibited by perpetrators of violence. Having worked with court ordered DV offenders, I heard life stories that were filled with pain, abuse, neglect, and loads of umet relational needs. To deny compassion, patience and willingness to hear and understand these men, we are simply condemning them to perpetuate a cycle of violence for at least another generation as they pass on their confused strategies to their partners and children. To effect the healing we need as a society, we must find the space of compassion within us to relate to these violent offenders as human beings endowed with hearts and minds that, too, yearn for the freedom to pursue their dreams and vision for a meaningful life.

    • Thank you for your comment, and for your work with batterers. It’s a group that’s sorely in need of more research and better interventions, so I appreciate your efforts!

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  1. […] from sociology to explain this phenomenon, and it brought to mind the themes I had touched on in earlier posts, about the very obvious but somehow unseen suffering of batterers.  What I called our “blind […]

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