Only a generation ago, the home was considered a sacred space, and outsiders, whether extended family, neighbors, or police, were averse to interfering in its clandestine secrets. Whatever happened within the hallowed spaces of the private realm stayed neatly hidden from the outside world, and whatever horrible secrets might lurk there, everyone, even the victims, wanted buried away from the prying eyes of others. Violence in families was something to be hidden and endured, a private shame for both victims and perpetrators.
The private zone of intimate and familial interaction, which grants the strong markers of identity crucial to a healthy sense of self, often harbors many dark and violent truths. The realities of the private realm frequently fly in the face of the idealized vision of mutual nurture and support we attribute to intimate relations. Intimates can make each other miserable, and the home's strict ethos of privacy can not only suffocate, isolate, and alienate people, but can cut them off from the larger moral community and the societal protections that might guarantee their safety.
In Violent Partners, Linda Mills traces the history of the battered women's movement in militating for protections for women against partner abuse. Feminist activists have brought the matter of female victimhood (bullying, striking, and sexual abuse) out of the family closet and into the spotlight of the criminal justice system. Their efforts stimulated many laudable responses in the public sphere: thousands of women's shelters were created across the country, and laws were fashioned to mandate the arrest of violent partners without necessitating the victim's putting herself at further risk by laying charges against her abuser or testifying against him in court. Couples counseling was taken off the table and declared illegal in some states, to undermine the idea that the woman was somehow complicit in her own abuse.
These successes have empowered women in abusive situations to escape their oppression and start their lives afresh in safety. However, according to Mills, these commendable responses have, over the past thirty years, begun to show their weaknesses. A repeated victim of partner abuse herself, Mills has arrived at a far more nuanced appreciation of the problem of intimate violence, and she argues in Violent Partners for a new approach to intimate abuse grounded in a broader understanding of the problem.
For one thing, Mills argues, the many shelters that dot the map of the United States are necessarily hidden away. But this concealment further reinforces the sense of shame that stands at the heart of the problem. The only response that is declared to be acceptable is for the woman to leave her abuser and have him roundly punished. Mandatory arrests, mandatory treatments for abusers alone, and refusal of couples counseling all confirmed the prejudice that the relationship must end for the violence to be stopped. This persistent theoretical position on the part of therapists and public authorities often had the counterproductive effect of driving abused women, who were not yet ready to destroy their families, back into their dangerous situations, without giving them the tools to improve their lot.
In short, women have gone from being the silent property of their abusers to being the silenced property of the system, where their rights to make free decisions about the future of their intimate relations are seriously curtailed. If they choose to take back their decision-making rights and stay in the abusive relationship, they are left to find their own way through the violence and the chaos. Often this culminates in lethal violence down the road.
Mills has discovered in her own life as well as through her work in couples' therapy, that intimate abuse is not as simple as the "hardened ideology" that the women's movement has publicized—helpless, blameless women victims mistreated by brutish, controlling, misogynistic men (p. 25). Often accused of "blaming the victim," Mills insists that intimate violence is the product of a broader dynamic, where the boundaries between the discrete identities of blameless victim and brutalizing perpetrator become blurred. Mills' decades of therapy with intimates has revealed that there exists a very slippery slope between abused and abuser. Scrape the surface of a perpetrator, she explains, and you will invariable find yesterday's childhood victim.
The perpetrator is far more complex than feminist definitions allow. But the victim too is far more ambiguous than accepted definitions appreciate. Often, during therapy, Mills reports, it becomes clear that many "victims" are merciless psychological batterers of their husbands, driving them in the direction of their physical response. The victim, Mills also recognizes, is also complicit in her abuse in that she often seeks out violent relationships in order to re-enact and resolve, to more successful endings, earlier situations of abuse she has suffered, often as a child.
Mills sees violence as situational. So she steps out on the shaky ledge of couples counseling to help intimates in violent relationships to address their situations and learn new strategies for recognizing and defusing trigger moments, and new non-violent modes of "communicating" their frustrations. Her Healing and Peacemaking Circle method, modeled after the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of post-apartheid South Africa, represent an orderly, peaceful, step-by-step process which draws on the broader familial community to resituate the couple in a healthier, more supportive social environment and undermine the isolation and secret shame that fuels the violence. Violence is still forbidden, promises made and contracts signed to affirm the inappropriateness of this as a response to frustrating circumstances. But the conversation about violence is broadened: everyone is held responsible for their inappropriate behaviors, everyone is held accountable to a broader ethical community, and everyone is encouraged to own their part in the situation that culminates in the violence.
Mills' approach to intimate violence has been found highly controversial by the community of psychologists whom she has labored long to convince. I admit to sharing the skepticism of the critics, from the earliest revelations of this book, as Mills explores her part in an episode of sexual violence she suffered from a male friend. Her concern that she had somehow failed her abuser, in seeing him as a friend and not a sexual being, were for me, a scandalous and clear example of "blaming the victim." I found myself outraged that a therapist would publish these thoughts where young women might read them and accept them as reasonable responses to victimization.
On the other hand, I trust that Mills' overwhelming success with her healing circle evidences a crucial gap in current responses to intimate violence. Victims are deeply entangled psychologically and passionately with their abusers. Many women do abuse their husbands and cause them enormous degrees of pain and frustration, before the knock-down-drag-out of physical violence ensues. Violence takes many forms and travels in vicious cycles that, if not healed, continue to rebound long after this or that episode. If the shame is not lifted from victim and perpetrator, if their past violences are not resolved successfully, and if their responses to frustration are not retooled, separating this couple will not solve the problem; it will only postpone the violence until it can be visited upon some new victim. Violent Partners has lessons for each of us in rethinking violence contexts and admitting our individual contributions to the aggressions that befall us in our daily lives. An excellent read for any audience!
© 2009 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip.), North Carolina A&T State University