Recent spotlight on domestic violence brings up questions

By Joel Lazar, Ph.D. and Richard Levak, Ph.D.

The news regularly reminds us that we live in a violent world. Ever since Europeans colonized America, violence has been glorified and its consequences minimized. From movies about the Wild West to “Roadrunner” cartoons to NFL and ESPN highlight videos of “best hits” to violent video games and rap music lyrics, we have become numb to the results of physical aggression. Until the past few months!

Disturbing videos of partner violence and violence towards a child by a professional athlete have understandably horrified people. Although most of us suspected that domestic violence occurred in some homes, seeing the evidence has created a groundswell of disgust.

As our collective numbness to violence has temporarily been dislodged, perhaps the tipping point for a serious dialogue about violence has arrived. Why does it happen and what can be done to minimize it? The science of psychology has researched some of the questions raised by these violent incidents and we hope to inspire a dialogue about violence in general.

A common question is “How could an athletic, well-compensated, muscular man resort to punching his wife in the face, knocking her out, regardless of the provocation?” Professional football players are rewarded for their physical prowess, and have often been treated as special, even above the law, since their teen years. If gifted athletes also experienced physical abuse or were exposed to domestic violence as a child, they are more likely to abuse others as an adult. Of course, not all abused children become abusers, but the risk is increased.

As local psychologist David Wexler suggested in “When Good Men Behave Badly,” some men react with violence when their self-esteem is threatened because their partner is unsatisfied with their efforts. Of course, not all men who act violently are “good men,” but Adrian Peterson’s abuse of his son is an example of a father who was trying to be a responsible parent, yet injured his child in the process. He was initially surprised by the public outcry regarding his actions, because he was repeating the parenting techniques used by his parents on him.

However, the laws have changed since he was a child. Although parents are still allowed to spank their children, they are no longer allowed to bruise them. Research now also suggests that physical punishment is not an effective teaching method.

Another question that often asked is, “Why would someone stay with an abuser?” Research shows that many abused people continue to live with their partners, and even protect them against legal prosecution. Some stay with abusive partners because they feel dependent upon them financially, for social support, or want to maintain an intact family “for the sake of the children.”

An interesting dynamic of abuse was exemplified years ago when heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped but eventually identified with her captors and assisted them in subsequent bank robberies. A domestic partner who feels dependent, insecure, and lacking in self-confidence over time may begin to identify with the abuser, just as Hearst did.

When abused early in life, victims may conclude that they deserve abuse, that they caused the abuser to hit them, or that being hit is how someone shows love. Also, since violence is often followed by an apology and promises that it will never happen again, some victims stay, with the optimistic hope that it won’t happen again.

The videos also raised the question, “Is physical punishment of children effective?” Although some believe that the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach to parenting works well, parents can be consistent enforcers of rules without physical aggression and the risk of injuring a child.

Research shows that while physical punishment is sometimes effective in changing behavior for a brief period, it risks negative side effects. Adults who are hit as children are more likely to hit their children and their romantic partners. And research has demonstrated that children who are physically punished often repeat the punished behavior within hours of being hit.

Some children come to believe that they deserve being hit because of their “bad” behavior or because they are “bad” kids, and are more likely to tolerate abuse as adults. They also tend to be more passive and lower in self-esteem. Parents can now go online to seek out parenting classes for more effective alternatives to physical punishment, or consult books such as Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) or Positive Discipline.

We hope that the understandable present public outrage becomes the impetus for action. Although a home needs to be a sanctuary for all members, it can be the most dangerous environment that some partners and children experience. If you are in a violent relationship, you need to get support from a mental health professional and/or support group. If your safety is in jeopardy, consider calling a domestic violence hotline for guidance at 619-234-3164 or 800-799-7233.

In a civilized society, no one deserves to fear their home and those they love.

Joel Lazar, Ph.D., and Richard Levak, Ph.D., are members of the San Diego Psychological Association.