Violence in the conjugal sphere is a reality that has been lived with normality for centuries and has only come to be questioned in recent decades. This means that psychology in general and psychotherapy in particular have included this type of problem in one of their priority areas of intervention.

To find out an expert’s perspective on violence within the couple , we spoke to psychologist Santiago Luque Dalmau , from the Barnapsico psychology centre, located in Barcelona.

Interview with Santiago Luque: violence in the conjugal environment

Santiago Luque is Director of the Barnapsico centre, psychologist at the Fundació Assistència i Gestió Integral and specialist in the reintegration of men who use aggression in their family or couple relationships. In this interview he talks about the way in which violence develops in the couple, and about how social and cultural aspects affect this phenomenon.

What can psychologists do about partner violence?

The first thing is to consider what causes this phenomenon. One of the key elements to consider is that when violent strategies are used, ranging from the physical to the psychological, all of them pursue a common goal: to manage to control, change, annul the will or ideology of the other party.

This is due to several factors, but the most important is the inability to accept the other party’s discrepancy, the fact that the other party has other ways of doing, and/or thinking, and that on many occasions these divergences are experienced as a provocation (without necessarily being so). Whoever attacks usually justifies his actions from the reasoning of “I am forced to correct or punish the other party for his mistake”.

To this can be added other factors of personal skills, such as the lack of communication and negotiation strategies, distorted ideas about the world of affection and the couple, or learned gender roles, among the most common.

There are many resources that psychology offers to people who suffer from these problems, but in each individual case, the professional who intervenes must direct their efforts to explore what values or beliefs move the subject and from what learning, the frustration that the discrepancy or difference of action or opinion entails is activated.

The dependence of victims of partner violence on their abuser is often referred to as a kind of “brainwashing”. Do you agree with this view of the problem? Isn’t there often a material dependence caused by the lack of resources of many of the women who are abused?

Many relationships try to be maintained at all costs. When expectations and illusions clash with the reality they show, it is when it is usually a matter of changing the other or trying to influence the other to transform him or her into what the “I” expected him or her to be.

When this is delayed in time and there are no cessions, as both parties may think that their views are the only possible ones, it is when a conflictive relationship is created, either by both parties (mutual reproaches, discussions), or through a power relationship, if it is more unilateral. If no decisions are made in any aspect and the relationship is persevered in, it is when a relationship of dependence can be generated.

In the case of the aggressor, his inability to relax his postures generally maintains his dissatisfaction, and this in turn increases further. From there, violence towards the couple arises, because he feels legitimated by considering it guilty of his discomfort and suffering, because he understands that it does not satisfy his expectations. The irrational fantasy is, in this case, to endure until the other changes according to his ideal.

What are the ways in which abusers downplay their attacks and make it seem like everything is normal?

In the human being it is habitual that when a behavior is exercised that is socially unaccepted or goes against the own values of the one who exercises them, it is tended to develop the so-called mechanisms of defense, introduced and developed by different referents of psychology. In this way, one avoids being the target of criticism or creating a discordance with one’s own values,

The usual mechanisms are as follows. On the one hand there is denial: you directly deny that anything bad has happened. “But how can I do that”, “I didn’t do anything”, “I’m accused of something that’s not true”, “That was done by someone else”…

Secondly, we have the alibi, which consists of looking for coverage that demonstrates that the action could not be executed by the subject. “I was working all day”, “I was sick and couldn’t even move”, “If I had really hit her, I would have killed her”, etc.

Then there’s the guilt. With this mechanism, responsibility is shifted to the other, to the one who is considered truly guilty of what happened. “Let them ask her, who is to blame.” “She’s constantly provoking me.” “She asks for it”, etc.

There is also minimization: the aim is to reduce the importance, transcendence or seriousness of the facts. “It’s no big deal, they exaggerate”, “I just insulted her, I never laid a hand on her”, “It’s just fights like any marriage”.

On the other hand we have the justification. The fact is acknowledged, but we believe we have a reasonable explanation for it. “I didn’t mean to”, “He was overdoing it”, “It’s the only way he’ll listen to me”.

Through contempt, the victim is discredited, the subject believes himself more justified in his negative action. “Without me, she’d be nothing”, “She’s careless and doesn’t attend to the house”, “she goes crazy”.

Dehumanization is something like the above. Contempt goes to the extreme of forgetting human qualities. “They’re like animals,” “They live like dogs,” “They can take anything they can get,” “She’s crazy as a loon.”

We also found the “Yes, but I had no choice”. It refers to the impossibility of the subject to act otherwise, to the conditioning to which he was subjected and to the lack of freedom of choice. “He couldn’t do anything else”, “He had put himself into a plan… that was impossible”, “Words are not enough for him”.

Finally there’s the “Yes, but I didn’t want to do it.” The subject disassociates himself from his action in terms of his will “I had an outburst”, “I didn’t mean to hurt her”, “I just wanted to scare her into it”.

The same is true of violence in the domestic sphere, of course. The individual who exercises violence on his partner, uses most of these mechanisms, motivated mainly to avoid guilt and to avoid having to face a reality that the subject, in most cases, does not know how to manage.

As far as is known, is it true that there are differences between women and men in when they take the role of aggressor in partner violence?

This issue has always generated a great deal of debate and controversy. Aggressiveness, whether we like it or not, is common to the human species, as a model of conflict management, to defend or impose in extreme cases, and when all other resources fail. What the statistics do make clear is that the most serious, extreme and frequent violence is mainly exercised by men. Studies on the subject show this in their research.

A simple fact, who occupies most of the prisons? More and more studies attribute this and similar facts to so-called machismo. Machismo itself also affects women, because from this model they are told how to behave. Both men and women who do not assume traditional roles will be criminalized by the machista system itself. Machismo, on the other hand, is not a static concept, it is also prey to fashions and the social moments it passes through, but in essence it reserves the same basic roles for each sex and what changes are only the forms.

The ostentation of masculinity is often perceived as something admirable from the male world, which does not need to be revised. But if a deep analysis is made of what it really implies, we can find real surprises, and discover that it is a dogma that enslaves the subject in an unreachable and unrealistic ideal for most men and that does not connect with the real essence of the subject.

It is from this phenomenon and from these roles that violence is admitted as proper and natural in the male role. And until not so long ago, it was legitimised by society (which has traditionally had a masculinised view as a whole), as a ultimately acceptable method of resolving conflicts (wars themselves are an example of this).

From this social reality it is reasonable that a context such as the home was managed in a similar way, and with the power that was granted to man, he used the resource that he has seen reproduced with excessive naturalness since childhood and that few dared to question, as a model of resolution to maintain order and authority.

In this sense, there has been a change of perspective in recent decades, although the male world is dragged along by historical inertia. How can I maintain “order” without using force? What do I use then, how do I act?

There are also those who have internalised violence as a style of conflict management because they have not learned other more prosocial resources in their experiential baggage. It is man who has internalised and legitimised this violence as justifiable. As children, men absorb the patriarchal model as their own, which legitimises violence as the ultimate strategy for achieving objectives. In women it has traditionally been frowned upon. Even so, there are women who can use other strategies with more psychological nuances. Less frequently than women, they use physical violence.

Is it common for a person who has been the victim of partner violence to recover quickly and almost without help once the abuser is no longer part of their life?

Normally this factor depends both on the degree of violence experienced, and the time to which it has been subjected, including what experiences have been had prior to the episodes of violence. Many times it is not so much the physical violence (although it also weighs heavily), but the psychological violence exerted on the victim, or the psychological consequences that the physical violence itself has on the victim.

In many cases, in the most extreme cases within these variables, the person can be affected for life at the emotional and self-esteem level. Let’s not forget that the main consequence on the victim is the alteration of his mood and self-concept (self-esteem), coming to feel annulled as a person.

The victim is blurred in relation to the assailant. He loses “the north”, he does not know how to defend his criteria because he comes to believe that they are wrong, to the point that his own will or capacity to react, as well as his capacity to differentiate between what is right and what is adequate, are nullified, or that his criteria can be as valid as those of another person. Often this state of mind is used by the aggressor himself to legitimise his actions, without being aware that he has probably generated it himself over the years.
Of course, or to a greater extent, these extremes are not reached, but the truth is that if this process is not stopped, it can reach them.

In general, and fortunately, in most cases treated with appropriate psychotherapeutic treatment the victim usually recovers. However, this can be a slow process and requires perseverance and involvement on the part of the victim, as in most psychological afflictions.

Do you think that the visibility of partner violence as a serious problem has helped to combat this phenomenon?

Without a doubt, any aspect that becomes visible, allows a debate and possible solutions. What is not evident, is simply lived as something that does not exist. Society tends to ignore what is not evident that exists, that is important, that is understood and that really has some impact on the victims, and there is a tendency to create myths and urban legends due to lack of sufficient information. Another issue is that, even if there is information, the solution is quick or effective enough.

With regard to programmes for the reintegration of abusers, is there anything in particular about the functioning of the prison system that you think is acting as an obstacle, making it difficult for these people to stop attacking their partners?

It is difficult to influence the human mind, and even more so when the aspects of personality depend on so many factors, personal, social, circumstantial and above all by the set of beliefs that move the individual and that interrelate to determine his actions. The real change (or rather, “evolution”) of the person depends on his commitment to himself. Throughout my professional career, I have seen very interesting changes in people, but fundamentally because they have realized that they suffer themselves and make others suffer, and from that reality they have had the courage and constancy to rediscover themselves.

Rehabilitation programs will always be conditioned by the involvement of the subjects who participate. What is certain is that the more time and dedication, the greater the achievement.

And what are the most powerful tools we can give victims to see that getting out of that situation is a realistic option?

There are many, although one that comes to mind at this time, is seeing similar testimonies that the victim can identify with, and seeing that these people were at some point in their lives going through a similar process. Seeing also that other people feel similar things helps them not to feel so “unfit”, because the victim is even a victim of their guilt for the problem, even if they are not. The fact that these people came “out of the hole” gives them hope.