Scene: A woman walks into a hospital emergency room, bloody and bruised. Her husband, teeth clenched, assists her. X-rays reveal several broken bones as well. As the staff tries to determine what happened, the husband bursts into tears, admitting he beat up his wife. Clearly, she’s the victim here.
Luckily, the anger management class that the Court uses as a diversionary program for first-time offenders includes intensive one-on-one counseling. Gently, the therapist tries to piece together the acts of violence. “So how did it start?” she asks. “You wanna know the truth?” Ricky, the husband, replies, “It started last Thursday. I come home from work. I work hard, man. I come home and, I can’t believe it, my wife and her sister are in MY living room painting it baby blue. I was shocked. I felt like as if she had punched me in the gut. Painting not the baby’s room, not a little study, but our living room. Without any discussion whatsoever! Baby blue! That’s not right. Would you say that’s right?” he challenges the counselor.
“No,” the therapist answers, “that doesn’t seem right, to just go ahead without discussion.”
“And that’s how it always is. I’m nobody in my own home. Just a nothing.” He spits the words out and smacks one hand into the palm of the other. “That wasn’t the first time, either. My wife, Jean, she had people over for dinner last week and I came home all tired and ready to flop on the couch and there they were, for Pete’s sake.”
How Come Ricky Thinks He’s A Victim?
So let’s hit the “Pause” button here for a minute and take a look at this. Now, who’s the victim? Here’s reality: You know and I know and that husband, Ricky knows in his heart of hearts that nothing his wife has done deserves for him to beat her up. But he thinks he is a victim. He feels like a victim, like the outsider in his own marriage.
Does this sound familiar? Whether it is true or not, in his perception, he is the victim. She started. She left him out. And the reason he did what he did is not because he wanted to overpower her but because he felt powerless. He is clueless on how to be noticed, how to be a part of the family, how to get basic respect. Clueless. When, from his perspective, he has taken enough guff, he lashes out.
However, the steam had not yet built up to that point. The painting project occurred on a Thursday. The battery took place in the wee hours of the morning Saturday–weekends are the worst days for domestic violence, by the way. “So what happened next?” the therapist wants to know. “I just went to my room,” Ricky replied. “And sulked?” the therapist gently challenges. “Yeah,” he admits, “What else was there to do? The paint was paid for; the women were working; I was left out. I didn’t talk to her pretty much that night. She didn’t talk to me either. The next day, I got up early for work and got out of the house before we had a chance to get into an argument.
Sulking May Precede Violence
Let’s hit “Pause” again. This part of the story proves what I said above: This man is clueless how to proceed. All he knows how to do is sulk, lick his wounds. His thought is: “It is pointless to discuss anything with her because we’ll only argue.” But look how far away they have drifted apart as a couple. This is a key point because the farther away they are, the harder to come back–and the more likely to take a wrong turn. Returning to the story…
Ricky goes on, “So when I got home Friday evening, we had dinner plans with her sister and her husband Neil. Now Neil and I get along. He’s a good guy. So, with the four of us out, I started to unwind. One thing led to another and we started to kid around with our waitress. You know how it is,” he said. “No” the therapist, who knows never to make assumptions, said, “What do you mean?” Ricky became uncomfortable here, but with persistence, the therapist got out of him that he remarked to Neil, regarding the waitress, “Look at her a–, nice and tight, not like Jean’s.” And, of course, he laughed with all his heart.
When Men Are Nasty, It’s Because They Feel Like Losers
“Pause” here again so you and I can discuss this. It’s important. Ricky’s behavior is awful. And typical of the male who doesn’t know how to get even for the hurt he felt he got dished out. He feels a sense of release, the stress leaving him as he dishes it back. He’s not thinking of her feelings, only his own. Friends, I will take on any comers. Every time you see this kind of scene, mark my words, that man was feeling on the losing end of the battle of the sexes; he was feeling like he’d been dumped on, and all he’s trying to do is create a fair playing field.
Needless to say, Jean was wounded beyond words. She rushed out of the dining area to the Ladies Room, crying. Ricky felt that hollow pit form in his stomach. Now he’d really get it, he thought. She composed herself and returned to the table, eating the rest of her meal in stony silence. The men tried to kid around to lighten the mood, but it didn’t work. Eventually they all left–and the fireworks started when they got home. Jean’s dignity had been so badly wounded that she had the energy to level a verbal attack on Ricky. Ricky felt justified because of his own hurt, so he countered verbally. And then, as is the case only too frequently, it escalted to violence late, late into the night.
The program that Ricky is in is clever enough to not take everything a perpetrator says for granted. Good systemic-thinking therapists know that there is always the other side. So Jean is called in for an interview. It doesn’t matter whether she wants to continue in the relationship or not; the case is now in the legal system and some history is needed in order to prevent future violence.
The counselor wants to know, from Jean’s perspective, what happened. Jean’s ribcage is bandaged and she takes shallow breaths for fear of hurting her two broken ribs. With the history from Ricky already taken, the counselor’s first question is, “Can you think back as far as necessary to how this whole mess started?” Jean looks tired, worn. “Yes,” she replies softly, “We’ve had problems since the beginning. Well, not the very beginning. But after the baby came, I was tired and he always wanted sex. Meanwhile, I didn’t feel like I had anyone to lean on, except my sister. I was so tired. You know I work full time too. And I had to do all the housework and take care of our baby. He didn’t lift a finger.”
“Why do you suppose?” the therapist interjected. “I don’t know; selfish I guess” Jean answered.
Sex After Pregnancy
Let’s “Pause” again. When one person feels victimized, it is nearly always impossible for that person to see the other person’s point of view. This is a case in point. Jean was not really a victim (yet) but she felt like it. Her husband was definitly clueless (again) about women. He did not understand the basic biology accompanying motherhood. He did not understand that after a baby, it is nearly impossible for a woman to want sex. Her body just isn’t ready. Although having a baby is a natural thing, it is akin to doing an incredible workout, a marathon in the Olympics. And then there is the actual child care: the night feedings, the nursing, the constant burping and changing. And on top of that, there is the regular house care, and this lady had to go back to work. There is no way humanly possible to do that without feeling plenty tired. Sex is the last thing on someone’s mind.
The Logic — Or Illogic — Of Victim Thinking
If Jean felt taken advantage of, Ricky also felt like the victim. Here’s this tiny little baby intruding into his life and he can’t get any attention. There is a part of him that knows he is being silly; after all, his wife did just go through labor, delivery and weeks of night feedings. But when will it end? “Maybe,” he thinks, “she’s using all this as an excuse to avoid me.” This, of course, is classic victim thinking. It can be defined as turning an innocent situation into one in which you decide that your partner purposely is trying to hurt you when that is not at all the case. People get into this mode because–drumbeat, please–they were, indeed, hurt (victimized) as children. It’s just familiar to think this way because at one time it was true.
So he feels like she’s chilling him on purpose and, naturally, doesn’t want to help or be nice. He’s too busy licking his wounds. She, too, feels like a victim because he isn’t being nice at all. Here, she just had a baby and he’s not helping. After all, it is his baby too. Who is the victim here? Ricky feels like one although he’s not. Jean is one although he is clueless (again) that he’s doing that to her by his attitude. And–here is the fascinating part–in situations like that, where something triggers old, painful memories, Ricky is actually reliving his own and very real victimhood. The current situation feels just like the time his father walked out for good and his mother stopped talking to him. Then, as a little boy, he really was the victim. Can you see how similar these situations are? His mother/wife’s not talking to him. And dad is gone. He is alone. Who will he talk to? Nobody.(Yes, dad, before you leave, consider how it feels to your children.)
Why It Is Important To Understand The “Other Side”
Returning to our scenario, the counselor asks Jean what, exactly, was the reason she decided to paint the living room without consulting Ricky. Jean breaks down in tears. “Don’t you think I tried?” she wails. “When he gets into one of his moods, I can’t talk to him. I can’t think of how many times I tried to bring up the subject over the last few weeks. But he was watching the game or he had to go out, or he was home late, or our daughter needed someone’s attention. And I couldn’t stand it. I was depressed enough with everthing, and I just absolutely needed a lift. I thought a nice, bright, cheerful color on the wall, maybe that would pick everyone’s spirit up.”
There, you have it. Friends, it always goes this way. The terrible thing that the other party did is 99 times out of a hundred, pretty innocent. Yeah, she should have tried harder, but remember, she felt like a victim because he didn’t help with housework and only wanted sex. Yeah, he should have tried to talk to her all those times, but he felt like a victim because she was ignoring him.
Explore Your Options!
How could this couple have resolved things all by themselves?
1. After the baby came, Jean could have lovingly told him that she is not rejecting him because she is not up for sex. She could have told him that when she says she is tired, it’s true.
2. When Jean told him she was tired, Ricky should not have mixed up his past (a really, really difficult thing to do) with the present–and believed her. She was just tired. No more, no less.
3. Then he should have pitched in to help.
4. When he caught himself retreating into his lonely shell, he should have asked her point blank what was going on instead of just sulking.
5. Jean should have tried to be cheerful in spite of her tiredness. Maybe that would have clued him that she is not mad at him, just tired, as she said.
And if all else failed, they should have gone to counseling pronto before this escalated. So who is the REAL victim? Well, they all are. Rick’s mother should have told him, “Sweetie, it’s not you.” Rick’s father, ditto. By not doing that, they victimized him and left him open to interpreting innocent things the wrong way. Jean shouldn’t have painted the room without consulting him, even if she meant well. Just because baby blue would cheer her up is no reason to assume the world sees it that way. She was a victim too, big time. Innocently trying to be a good mother and wife, she gets slammed. And that poor baby. How will that baby grow up learning how to distinguish innocent things from nasty ones when feelings get hurt all too easily? How will she learn to take care of herself with a mother who sets the example of an abused spouse? How will she learn to relate to her dad when he is locked up in his shell? How will she learn to like men with an example like that? How will she come to like herself with everybody too busy licking their wounds to validate her as a person (just the way her paternal grandmother did)?
Sometimes Agreession Comes From Feeling Like The Weak One
I call the events above “The Weakness/Aggressiveness Syndrome” because the aggression comes from a feeling of perceived weakness in the relationship. Ricky acted aggressively to balance out his sense of being unable to somehow right the wrong that he felt was done to him. The solutions, therefore, readily become apparant:
1. If you feel weak in your relationship and use aggression to right a perceived wrong, chances are you are not interpreting the interaction accurately.
2. If you are being aggressed against from the clear blue sky, please get your partner into therapy immediately. It is a sign that s/he is hurt and only knows aggression to create balance.
3. If you feel violent, LEAVE before you do damage. If you do not feel physically like being violent but can say nasty things, leave before you do so. Then learn how to gain healthy and gentle control of situations.