[Note: This post is the draft of a chapter in the book I’ve just published on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner.]
The news channels are spending a lot of time on football star Ray Rice’s abuse of his then-fiancee Janay in a shocking video. If you watch the video, you may notice that Janay looks upset and approaches Ray saying something just before Ray punches her.
This domestic assault is indefensible, but part of a complex dynamic–not just “bad man, innocent woman,” but “couple in deep trouble.” Careful research is showing that domestic violence against men is almost as prevalent as against women, though men rarely report it and authorities tend to assume the man is the perpetrator when there is violence. Some forms of domestic violence are actually about control–with the abuser keeping the abused in terror and knocking the victim around to punish perceived transgressions against that control. Other domestic violence is more like violent versions of the fights many couples have–with aggression and counter-aggression escalating to assault, both parties assaulting each other. In those cases it is not especially helpful to call one party the “victim.”
Janay is now coming to Ray’s defense and telling us he’s a good man who had a bad moment. This may even be true. I’m guessing Janay’s anger flared and she said something ugly and lunged at Ray before he punched her, and she probably feels guilty for her part in setting up the situation–though of course the punch was beyond a reasonable response.
Over at the Just Four Guys blog, writer Obsidian points out some inconsistencies between how this incident–which for now seems to have ended Ray’s career in football–and a similar recent incident where a woman was the assailant:
Astute watchers of current events will have noticed however, that another event that took place on an elevator, the smoking gun footage of which was also released by TMZ and which also took place earlier this year, was treated in a completely different manner than the current Rice issue is being handled. In that instance, Ms. Solange Knowles, kid sister to pop icon Beyonce’ Knowles, viciously attacked Bey’s hubbie, rap mogul Jay-Z, barely restrained by a burly bodyguard. Right there on the tape, we see Solange trying to kick Jay-Z, throw punches and the like, while he remained cool and calm, and even tried to restrain Ms. Knowles, again, assisted by the aforementioned burly bodyguard.
While Mr. Rice’s career, for the time being at least, lay in tatters, Ms. Knowles not only didn’t get so much as a slap on the wrist for her clearly violent actions, there were people who openly speculated what Jigga “could have done” to PROVOKE such a visceral response on the part of Solange–the same people, in fact, who now ride high in their saddles, finger wagging at Mr. Rice. Clearly, suggesting that Women could provoke a beatdown is worthy of being censured, even fired; but suggesting that a Man could have provoked a Woman into going into full-on Mighty Joe Young mode, well, that’s perfectly A-OK.
For anyone out there who agrees with the punishment Mr. Rice has received for his actions on that fateful Winter night earlier this year, you are a stompdown hypocrite with a capital “H” if you do not also support the full-on blacklisting of Mr. Solange Knowles from the music and entertainment business – but, of course, like Ms. Mary J. Blige before her, Ms. Knowles will go on with her life as if nothing had ever happened, continuing to ply her trade as a singer/entertainer, making a nice bit of coin for herself. Because, only Women count when it comes to domestic violence or spousal abuse.
Because women are on average smaller and less strong, and lingering notions of chivalry have them as the gentler sex, many people (and the laws) still assume men are the perpetrators. Yet we know that this is not always so–while women’s assaults tend to be less forceful, screaming, slapping, punching, and clawing at your husband’s face is not gentle, feminine behavior. And large numbers of men are, in fact, assaulted and controlled by their wives in this manner, but get almost no sympathy or help from law enforcement when they (foolishly, as it turns out) try to report it.
What we can say about these kinds of fights is that it is difficult for outsiders to tell from one incident exactly how the dynamics of the couple evolved to that point. In some cases the aggressor (often a malignant narcissist) is simply lashing out to control his/her partner; in some cases both partners have been assaulting each other regularly, verbally if not physically, for some time, building up anger. And in some cases, an Anxious-Preoccupied woman has been escalating her demands for response, building up anger in a Dismissive-Avoidant or Fearful-Avoidant mate who just wants it to stop.
Secure couples generally communicate well and never get to this endpoint of conflict and tit-for-tat, which is one reason why their relationships tend to be happier and last longer.
There have been some studies of attachment type’s relationship to domestic violence; these tend to show the Anxious-Preoccupied as the more likely instigators:
In light of this theoretical analysis, it is easy to understand why anxious adults, who are chronically afraid of rejection and separation, and are often pessimistic about the future of their relationships, are inclined to perpetrate acts of violence against a romantic partner. These destructive acts of protest can be further intensified by anxious individuals’ difficulties in managing anger and their ineffective communication of strong needs for love and attention. As a result, they are more likely than secure individuals to strike out aggressively as a means of gaining or regaining proximity to their partner during couple disagreements and conflicts. — Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change
Typical Dismissive-Avoidants tend to minimize emotional conflict and avoid arguments and scenes by using deactivating strategies: withdrawal, avoiding intimacy or discussion of problems. But when an Anxious-Preoccupied partner is using escalating protest behaviors, the Dismissive may be driven beyond his ability to distance, and lose the control they usually strive for; a shocking explosion of anger may be the result.
What little research there is on this relationship pattern suggests it may explain many of the domestic violence incidents between the Anxious-Preoccupied and the Avoidant:
Some attachment researchers have suggested that avoidant individuals are also more likely than their secure counterparts to engage in acts of violence during couple conflicts because of their hostility, narcissism, and dysfunctional approach to conflict management. However, Bartholomew and Allison (2006) reasoned that avoidant people’s tendency to withdraw from interpersonal conflicts and suppress overt expressions of anger and hostility might actually discourage outright aggression toward a relationship partner. Even Bartholomew and Allison mention, however, that avoidant people can become violent when involved in negative reciprocity and a demand– withdrawal behavioral dynamic with a partner (who is likely to be anxiously attached). They give a harrowing example from one of their studies in which a man refused to keep arguing with his wife after they had been up most of the night fighting (he was trying to relax with a newspaper before leaving for work). His anxious partner stabbed him in the back with a kitchen knife, which definitely got his attention and caused him to become enraged in return. Bartholomew and Allison point out that the correlation between one partner being violent and the other partner also being violent is above .60 in most studies of couple violence, which suggests that people with violent tendencies either choose one another as mates, or that one partner’s violence provokes the other partner’s violence in turn. Probably both causal pathways exist; that is, if there is reciprocity of negative affect in a couple and/ or a demand–withdrawal pattern in their interactions, the partners may mutually goad each other to become more abusive. We also suspect that avoidant individuals display aggression indirectly, even if they are not prone to violence. They are likely to engage in “passive aggression,” which includes expressions of indifference, disrespect, and contempt, and to use violence as a means of distancing themselves from a partner who will not leave them alone. These reactions, which fit comfortably with attachment-system deactivation, can easily be perceived by a partner as psychologically abusive, which might cause the partner to react aggressively. Thus, even if not directly aggressive themselves, avoidant partners may be involved in mutually violent and abusive acts within a couple. — Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change
Now with the public attitudes we have and the law enforcement tilt toward assuming the male is the aggressor, it may well be that many of the men accused of domestic violence are Avoidant (of either type) who have simply been unable to defuse a bad situation by responding soothingly to escalating demands from an Anxious-Preoccupied partner, and lashed out as only the last step in a long conflict.
Is there any evidence that might show this? Some:
With regard to avoidant attachment, most of the studies… did not turn up significant associations with relationship violence. However, Holtzworth-Munroe et al. found that avoidance was significantly higher among battering men than among nondistressed men, and Rankin, Saunders, and Williams found that higher avoidance in a sample of African American men who had been arrested for partner abuse was associated with perpetration of more frequent and severe acts of abuse toward romantic partners. In addition, more than one-third of the studies that assessed the link between attachment style and violence in unrestricted samples of adolescents and young adults found that men and women who scored higher on avoidance reported higher levels of violence against romantic partners. This kind of association has been found even prospectively, when avoidance was assessed during adolescence and perpetration of violence was assessed 6 years later (Collins et al., 2002)…. we conclude that when fearful and dismissing forms of avoidance were distinguished, only fearful avoidance was related to violence. Thus, the few associations with avoidance might actually be due to fearful avoidance, which is a combination of anxiety and avoidance. If this is correct, it suggests that anxiety is the major culprit in facilitating violence. — Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change
And the Anxious-Preoccupied partner will have trouble ending a relationship even after abuse; their tendency to put up with bad marriages out of fear of never finding another is one of the reasons the Anxious-Preoccipied/Avoidant marriages last a surprisingly long time despite mutual unhappiness. So Janay’s desire to forgive, forget, and move on is not uncommon, and may be based on more than a desire to continue to enjoy the benefits of marriage to a football star.
Mikulincer and Shaver have something to say about the research on this:
[G]iven the previously mentioned mutuality of violence, most of the victims are also perpetrators. Therefore, logically, the same variables have to predict both perpetration and victimization. Longitudinal studies indicate that abused women who previously scored higher on attachment anxiety had more problems in resolving their feelings of separation 6 months after leaving their romantic partner. For example, they engaged in more frequent sexual contact and emotional involvement with their old partner after separation (Henderson, Bartholomew, & Dutton, 1997; see also D . Davis et al., 2003). This finding fits with Davila and Bradbury’s (2001) conclusion that anxious people are unable or unwilling to leave unhappy relationships. More important, it suggests that such people may form a “traumatic bond” with an abusive partner that puts them at risk for further abuse.
More on Attachment and Personality Types:
What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
nxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
Sale! Sale! Sale! – “Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic: Subpersonalities
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Porn Addiction and NoFAP
Introverts in Management
Wow, Jeb, didn’t read all of your piece, but looks like you’re one of few with the cojones to deal with what actually happened on the tape, which was much less simple than is being portrayed, even if Ray is still wrong as hell. Big up…
Good article. Very little has been said about Janay’s potential role or that women can be abusive during all the hoopla over the RR video. I did hear one woman who called into a radio show, she had been in an abusive relationship for ten years before leaving, and she said from her experience, it looks like Janay had done this before -lunged at Ray, and that likely she hadn’t been hit before because women who have been abused wouldn’t lunge at a guy like that. I dont know whether that is true, but what is likely true is that she has her own anger issues to (hopefully) work through.