Thursday, March 22, 2012

Protecting the Heart

A young couple, Quinn and Sarah, were on the Dr. Phil show yesterday.  Their relationship has been plagued with insidious violence for years.  Imagine a world of rabid name-calling, kicks, infidelity, savage punches, sharp slices with broken glass and stitches to patch up gaping wounds.  Many of us cannot fathom living in such insufferable chaos.  The couple has two young girls who witness the abuse, and are victims themselves.  And believe it or not, the perpetrator is Sarah.

Also on the show were Quinn and Sarah's mothers, both equally concerned about the abuse to Quinn and their granddaughters.  As a way to explain her behavior, Sarah talked about how she was physically abused by her father growing up--brutally beaten with a belt many times.  In fact, Dr. Phil indicated Sarah's dad had been brought up on charges for the abuse.  And yet, Sarah's mother vehemently denied there was any abuse to Sarah when she lived at home.  How could this mother continue to refute the abuse to Sarah when there was ample evidence to substantiate it?  Is she just a liar?  And how could Quinn remain in such an violent relationship, putting his beautiful daughters at risk as well?  

When I worked in the area of family violence, I was asked these types of question many times.  Why do victims stay?  Why do they keep going back?  Why do they protect the abusers?  These are easy questions with complex answers--whole books are written on the topic.  The show today was a poignant example of one reason violent relationships are sustained: denial.

Over the years I have discovered that denial is like a blanket that covers the shame of domestic violence for victims and bystanders.  Once safe, I have had women sit in my office and recount horrific incidences of abuse.  One story would lead to another, and sometimes with gentle probing, a kind touch and an empathetic ear, the flood gates would open up.  I vividly remember one woman responding, "Wow!  I had completely forgotten about that until now...isn't that strange?"

It's really not all that strange, under the circumstances.  Victims tend to minimize the abuse as a way to cope, and sometimes the mind blocks it out completely.   It actually makes sense.  How much would you want to remember having a shotgun held to your head by the one person you loved and trusted?  What if that same loved one knocked your teeth out, or gave you an STD stemming from multiple infidelities?  And what if you stood by and did nothing while your husband beat the tar out of your daughter?

Denial and minimization of abuse can sometimes be diagnosed as Disassociation.  In addition, this type of psychological disconnection is a common symptom of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Dr. Marlene Steinberg, co-author of The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation--the Hidden Epidemic (2001) makes the argument that dissociation is more widespread than was originally thought as a response to trauma, affecting over 30 million worldwide (  She states it is often is misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sleep disorder or attention-deficit disorder, thus resulting in years of suffering.

Whether you call it denial, disconnection, dissociation, detachment or minimization--we cannot underestimate it as an important reason victims become desperately stuck.  Sometimes the mind takes over and protects what the heart cannot bear...and so the cycle continues.

“Hope is a higher heart frequency,
and as you begin to re-connect with your heart, 
hope is waiting to show you new possibilities 
and arrest the downward spiral of grief and loneliness. 
 Listening to your still, small voice in your heart
will make hope into a reality .” 

~Sarah Paddison, The Hidden Power of the Heart~