Occasionally one can hear criticisms and judgments about people that appear reluctant to leave relationships where they are dominated and sometimes abused. Mental health counselors and therapists also feel frustrated very often when dealing with those that they deem as victims in intimate relationships. In a recent training, one such counselor expressed concern and her perplexity over the fact that one of her clients had been in three intimate relationships in the last seven years, and each was as abusive as the one prior. This counselor asked “why can’t my client see how bad this is for her children and herself?” This of course is a question with many layers and unique individual colorings; however there are some broad-brush generalities that can be illustrative as way of explaining this perplexing situation.
In a fairly typical traumagenic family dynamic it is not uncommon for one spouse or the other (though predominately the adult female fills this role) to manifest an excessive focus on the desires, feelings, and responses of the dominate spouse, frequently at the expense of the child’s emotional and psychological needs. For the dominated partner the relationship is a social barter – in other words, in order to gain love and approval, maintain one’s sense of connection, or avoid retaliation one must be what others require of them. In order to act consistently in this manner in requires a psychological adaption usually linking suppression of the dominated individual’s awareness regarding emotions, psychological and even physical needs and natural inclinations.
This tendency toward creating a blinded or suppressed self does not mean that the individuals in these dominated relationships find them pleasant or pleasing. Many times the people that find themselves in these dominated relationships grew to maturity in a traumagenic environment that required that they actively develop adaptive strategies to cope with and survive that early developmental environment. Some of the adaption strategies required historically by children in a household where there was an aggressively dominating individual may include:
- Actions and activities that are overly nurturing in nature. This can be seen in children that learn to be not just compassionate but solicitous of the dominator’s desires and interests. This is a reasonable adaption strategy to reduce the level of emotional and psychological distress in the developmental environment. Many times initially this solicitous behavior requires that the individual suppress or ignore what might be normally predictive responses to stressful situations, such as anger or sadness.
- Often the children being raised in this dominated environment struggle with being able to able to protect themselves or to be adequately assertive in regards to the unreasonable demands and expectations of the dominator. This leads to an adaption strategy of being overly compliant, giving away or masking one’s own preferences and desires to reduce distress and avoid strife.
- As children mature they may learn that they should avoid relationships with people who stress individuality, or have strong personal identities and expect others in relationships to do the same. Having an outsider apply subtle or direct pressure to stand up for one’s self and be assertive can provoke stress and anxiety, therefore one adaption is to avoid those that might encourage independence or assertiveness.
- There are many negative emotions generated in this environment; however they do not get directed initially at the dominator, but are more likely to be targeted toward the safer and compliant caregiver. As an example, it is not unusual for a child to foster angry feelings toward the mother if the father figure is strongly dominating. Those negative child emotions can run the range from feeling betrayed because the weaker parent isn’t standing up for the child. Additionally, if the child identifies with the dominated parent, it validates the actions and beliefs of the dominator as being correct and right, and can put the child on the path relationally to search out dominating relationships in their own relational future.
- Children learn to engage in a insidious practice of self denial, where distress and anxiety are activated when even considering seeking to meet their own preferences or interests. This frequently leads the child to over identify with the dominator, and use less overt styles of pursuing their preferences. This can habitually be thought of passive aggressive behavior.
In this traumagenic family dynamic, dominated individuals will often choose relationships where others will dominate and control them. This is not based on the comfort or ease of being in this type of relationship, but it is reassuring to have the predictability of the familiar. Which can lead a child as they mature to gravitate toward repeatedly engaging in overly compliant behavior, “go along to get along” which can include forfeiture of reasonable and logical demands to avoid the negative feelings, attitude or to seek peace by meeting the wishes of the dominating partner. It is not exceptional that the dominated spouse will experience extraordinary guilty for desiring to have their own needs, requests or demands met. One particular variant of a childhood adaption can be identified as a reaction formation to such a family environment. This variant creates reactions and responses that can include:
- Some children will adapt by demonstrating extreme self-reliance even in those times it would be reasonable to seek the comfort and support of others.
- Children can look for external activities to prop up separateness and independence from needing to rely on others, which can increase the possibility of being drawn toward addictions and compulsive behaviors.
- Some children adapt by demonstrating excessive autonomy as a pattern to escape the demands of those that would want them to join or be like themselves. These children may learn to resist the normal society process of encouraging belonging, and may struggle with team activities, perceiving that being asked to join as an invitation to give up one ‘s self.
- May adapt by learning to react with an almost phobic avoidance of real or perceived attempts to become attached to others, and see those attempts as being threats and dangers to the self.
The dominated spouse will often minimizes positive aspects of them self, exaggerate negatives character attributes. Additionally the dominated spouse will habitually ruminate, fantasize and worry about the worst possible outcomes that can be imagined, which in turn leads to a pervasive set of low expectations, and will expect to be disappointed or let down.
The Dominating spouse in the above family dynamic generally manifests poor relational internal limits, responsibility to others or be tolerant of external accountability. Anything that can be perceived by the dominator as having the capacity to limit or restrain the immediate and complete compliance of others to the subjugator’s wishes and desires will likely be seen as a threat. Threats may activate extreme strategies to gain compliance, such as using humiliation, anger or physical aggression to reduce the threat.
The subjugating spouse has difficulty respecting the rights of others regardless of the relationship they might have with individuals. The less powerful or egalitarian the relationship the more likely to be interpreted by the subjugating spouse as being only correct and proper that those with less power “should” be compliant and dutiful to their wishes and desires. The dominating spouse often possesses a sense of superiority and struggles with normal relational reciprocity even in their most intimate relationships.
Dominating spouse engages in and prefers unequal relationships and will commonly be seen as beings selfish and self absorbed in regards to the emotional, psychological, physical needs of others. Actively disregards the emotional, psychological, physical needs of others that do not directly add to power and control of the dominating spouse.
Children that live in this particular traumagenic environment often externalize their adaption strategies into the world at large, which means that if one works with them in a clinical setting or perhaps a school it is likely that the following will be manifested:
- Minor Avoidance (emotional numbing, dissociative disengagement, thought suppression.
- Major Avoidance (visible dissociative symptoms, self-reported dissociation, intoxication, repeated and effortful avoidance)
- Affect dysregulation
- Relational disturbances
- Abandonment issues
- Need for self-protection through interpersonal control (“control freaks” or “perfectionism”)
- Dysfunctional behavior been seen as an attempt to deal with overwhelming feelings even if they are paying a high cost for this strategy
To answer the counselor’s question of (“why can’t my client see how bad this is for her children and herself?”) the answer could be that they (the counselor) haven’t understood the impact of the developmental environment on the strategies and adaptations of the individual. Perhaps they are unaware that this is the pattern they are operating within. That doesn’t make a client stupid, dumb or in denial; it may simply mean that they construct their world based on their experiences and that those experiences have predisposed them to keep and use patterns that at one time helped them survive and adapt, but today extract a heavy if not unpleasant cost.
Robert Rhoton Psy D., LPC, D.A.A.E.T.S.
Dr. Rhoton has been involved with mental health treatment since 1989. He is a Diplomate of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Dr. Rhoton has collaborated with numerous agencies nationally in fine-tuning their understanding of trauma and the impact of developmental trauma on the individual and family. Dr. Rhoton is a board member of the Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium and serves on the Arizona Department of Health Services Trauma Informed Care (TIC) task force as a community member.