Sanctuary for the Abused
Monday, September 19, 2016
by: David Mandel
When it comes to domestic violence perpetrators everyone wants to know: how dangerous is he? Or more specifically, what kind of violence is he likely to do in the future? Domestic violence survivors and their children can think and worry about this on a daily basis as they attempt to avoid or minimize the impact of the abusers’ next attack. In the judicial system, agencies such as adult probation look for information which will help them allocate supervision resources towards the most serious and dangerous offenders. Child protection service agencies want to understand whether a domestic violence abuser can be successfully prevented from harming a victim and her children through restraining and protective orders.
While researchers strive to isolate profile factors of abusers who will kill or do serious damage, anecdotal information from survivors of domestic violence continues to be the best common sense source of information about dangerousness. For instance, men who threaten to kill their partners, who have physically assaulted them when they were pregnant or have forced their partners to engage in unwanted sexual behavior are perceived as some of the most dangerous. Men who stalk their victims, willfully violate court orders and assault them in front of others also fall into this category.
What do these men have in common? Is there an aspect or pattern in their behavior that would be useful in assessing the behavior and dangerousness of all abusers? All these behaviors share a distinct quality which can be described as a "boundary violation." A "boundary violation" is an action which by its very nature penetrates the physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries of another person. All types of violence share this characteristic to some degree. By examining the extent, severity and the frequency of the "boundary violations" in the behavior of an abuser, we can begin to see a pattern emerge that may be useful in assessing for future dangerousness as well as the path towards successful intervention approaches with an abuser.
First of all, evaluating an abusive man based on his history of violating his victims boundaries orients the assessment process towards an essential dynamic in domestic violence cases. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary uses the words, "break", "disregard", "interrupt" "disturb", "desecrate" and "rape" in association with the words violation or violate. All these words accurately describe the range of experience of battered women and their children at the hands of their abuser. By engaging in a pattern of abuse, a batterer "breaks, interrupts and disturbs" his victim's control over her own time, energy, physical space and even her thoughts. When we understand domestic violence as a boundary violation, we refocus the community dialogue on the serious impact of the behavior on the victim and her children. Our understanding of the abuser changes from seeing him as someone with a "temper problem" or someone who "lost control" to someone who is breaking the trust of his loved ones. And we are implicitly acknowledging the right and need for women and their children to have their own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual boundaries.
Second, by knowing how far a particular abuser has gone in his "boundary violations" we can begin to see his dangerousness more clearly. Was he physically violent to his partner when she was pregnant? If he was, he has demonstrated his willingness and ability to strike out against a very vulnerable form of life. Has he stalked his partner against her wishes and in disregard for court orders against him? If he has, he has demonstrated his unwillingness to respond to either his victim’s request for physical space or legal and social injunctions against his invasion of her space. Has he been violent to his partner in front of others including children, friends, family or in public? If the answer is yes, then he has displayed a willingness to humiliate and shame his partner in addition to assaulting her. Has he been sexually assaulting toward his partner? If the answer is yes, then has demonstrated his willingness to override and ignore her most basic and fundamental right: to control her own body. The questions can continue: Has he broken into her house? Has he spied on her? and so on.
Three useful perspectives emerge from examining the extent, severity and frequency of the boundary violations.
First, a profile develops of the offender centered on the most crucial aspects of his behavior. What social, ethical and moral norms is the abuser willing to violate in order to get his own way? What requests from the victim, her children and legal and social authorities is he willing to disregard in order to get what he wants? The more an abuser indicates his willingness to "break, interrupt, desecrate, and disturb" the normal human needs of his victim and accepted legal and social boundaries, the more dangerous he is.
Second, a picture forms of the abuser's level of disconnection from himself and others. To become abusive, a man must forget about everything except his goal of control. Focusing on revenge or proving oneself right takes all precedent over the impact of his behavior on his children or his partner's feelings for him. He disconnects from his other values, and he disconnects from the real long-term impact of his behavior. The more time a man spends disconnected from himself and others, the more dangerous he is. The greater the degree of disconnection the more dangerous he is.
Third, if you analyze the boundaries an abuser is willing to cross, you may also begin to see which boundaries he respects and won't cross. We know that many abusers, when they become aware of the impact of their behavior on their children, begin to make an effort to change. For instance, a study showed that a number of men who had been physically violent before their partner became pregnant stopped their physical violence during the pregnancy. This kind of information can help the court, social service workers and community agencies begin to develop individual and community strategies designed to leverage these pre-existing patterns.
A battered women intuitively understand many of these things. Her fear level can quickly rise when her partner becomes quiet. His disconnection from her and the family may be a precursor of a violent incident. The same may be true for a sarcastic or critical comment. A outside observer may fail to understand how a small, cutting comment telegraphs so much about his willingness to violate her emotional space. Battered women are constantly trying to discover the boundary the abuser will not cross to hurt her or her children. For instance, a victim might strategize "Let me invite our friends over. He's never violent when other people are around," or "I need to call the police because he always leaves me alone for a few months after the police get involved."
Professionals working with domestic violence may benefit from examining the patterns of abusers from the "boundary violations" perspective. This method of organizing our thinking about abusers can enhance our efforts to develop the most effective assessment and intervention strategies in our work to diminish and ultimately stop domestic violence in our society.