There are so many ways that violence contaminates our intimate relating.
And often we may not be aware of it.
Or perhaps we justify it.
Lillian has lost interest in making love with her husband, Alex because she doesn’t feel safe. He has an undercurrent of chronic anger and frequently throws it at her when she behaves in ways he considers un-centered and chaotic.
Diane complains that her partner, Peter, does not spend enough time with her and explodes if he comes ten minutes late from work.
Maria is at the point of wanting to separate from her partner, Julian, because he often criticizes her and controls everything in the house.
Angela shares with us in a workshop that her husband beat her and now she is constantly afraid of him.
Roberta criticizes and compares her partner Samuel to past lovers when he does not satisfy her sexually because of his fears and insecurities.
These are just a few examples of how we knowingly or unknowingly are aggressive in our relating.
We may believe that violence in relating is limited to being physically, sexually, or verbally aggressive.
It is actually much more than that.
When we demand, expect, force our will on another person, dominate the communication, not listen or feel the other person, cut off without communicating, play the victim, control, criticize, blame and complain, rage, shout, analyze, therapize, or rescue the other person, we violate the other person and detroy the relationship.
These behaviors may be chronic but they most commonly come out when we are provoked in some way; either by not getting what we want from our partner, or by having our boundaries invaded.
And when we are triggered, our reactions are powerfully compulsive.
We may not recognize that these behaviors are violent; particularly if our behavior is withdrawal, control or judgment.
But they seriously undermine the trust and safety of any relationship so it is important for us to bring loving awareness to any and all of them.
By understanding what we do, why we do it, the impact that it has on the love between us, and learning tools for how to stop this automatic behavior, we can change the way we relate and the future of the relationship.
The behaviors that we have mentioned arise from fear – fear of invasion, criticism, rejection, closeness, or losing or exposing ourselves. These fears have their origin from painful experiences in our childhood and they are intended to protect us from further pain.
But most often, these protecting behaviors are so old, deep, automatic, reactive, and habitual that we may not be aware of the fears underneath, and we don’t know how else to relate when we are triggered.
And also we may firmly believe that they are justified.
For instance, Alan, a wealthy banker, had been in a relationship with Alicia who was impressed by his charisma, intelligence and wealth and she enjoyed being taken care of. He remained in control by intimidating her, analyzing her faults and feelings, buying her gifts and taking interesting trips together. When we questioned him about his need for control, he said that he needed to keep the upper hand otherwise he would be taken advantage of. That has always been his experience with his girlfriends, so he has to stay in control to keep a certain distance and not be too vulnerable.
Most of our defensive strategies are violent.
However, sometimes our need to protect ourselves from more pain may be so deep and compelling that we cannot imagine behaving in any other way and we don’t recognize the price we pay for behaving like this.
The tragic result is that this automatic protection damages the delicate trust we need to allow love to grow and flourish, it creates resentments, and eventually often destroys the relationship.
Alan’s girlfriend ended up resenting him and leaving. But it took a long time for her to come out of her shock and recognize the price she was paying for her longing to be taken care of by a man before she found the courage to leave.
We outline a three-step process of learning to stop our violent behavior in relating:
Step 1: Recognize, Refrain, and Contain
In the first step, we begin by recognizing when we are being aggressive toward the other person in one of the ways we mentioned above. Then we need to apply some discipline to begin refraining from behaving in this way by containing the frustration and the compulsion to react in our old ways.
Step 2: Breathe, Feel, and Go Inside
In this next step, we need to take time to breathe into the frustration, feel the quality of aggression, feel the pain that it causes, and ask ourselves: “what is my fear underneath that is fueling this behavior and where does it come from?” The way to feel if a behavior is aggressive is to take time to feel the body experience when or after we are doing it. There is generally contraction in our solar plexus, belly, and chest area, a feeling of separation with the other person, and eventually, pain that we have hurt the one we love. Another symptom is that we are focused on the other person.
Step 3: Repair and Reconnect
This last step is crucial. It involves making amends by sharing with the other person that we recognize how the behavior damages the trust, exposing our fears underneath, and apologizing from the heart.
However we can only take this last step, if we don’t justify our behavior, and if we begin to work deeply with the pain and anger we may still be carrying from the past for all the times we were mistreated or neglected when we were vulnerable and small.
Sometimes we may need help from a skilled therapist to recognize and own our aggressive behavior and learn tools for how to communicate from a vulnerable space in order to re-establish a loving connection.
But taking this step may be the difference between a failed or a thriving relationship.