The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Help for Physical Abusers: Why You Keep Beating the People You Love

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AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Joe is walking alone down a dark alley at night.  Suddenly a masked man with a bat leaps out of the shadows and demands that Joe hand over his wallet.  Terrified, Joe rushes to obey.  He tosses his wallet at his attacker’s feet and fearfully backs away, pleading for mercy.  Score one for the mugger.

A short while later, another man named Todd heads down the same alley.  Once again, our mugger leaps out of the shadows wielding his weapon and demands that Todd hand over his wallet.  Todd lunges forward, tears the bat away, and beats our mugger into a bloody pulp.  Thus ends the career of our mugger.

So what happened here?  How do we explain the drastically different reactions between Joe and Todd?  It’s a simple difference in temperaments.  When humans feel threatened, they will respond in one of two ways: they will either respond passively as Joe did, or they will respond aggressively like Todd.  This isn’t a case of stupid versus smart or coward versus hero.  Both styles are actually quite strategic and logical.  Passives and aggressives are going for the same end goal of self-preservation, they’re just using two different approaches.

Passives are more conservative by nature.  They are very aware that their resources are limited, and they don’t want to waste them.  They are cautious, preferring to wait for the odds to flip in their favor before they try to engage.  Meanwhile, they focus on conserving resources by using submissive responses to reduce injury.  Passives aren’t compliant because they’re spineless wimps—they’re actually trying to calm their attackers in order to reduce the degree of injury to themselves.  They figure that the more they cooperate, the sooner the conflict will end.  This is the prisoner who tells every secret he knows the moment his captors threaten to torture him.  This is the woman who goes into a silent freeze when she’s being sexually assaulted.  This is the underdog at school who doesn’t even try to fight back when the bully starts pummeling him. This is Joe, instantly raising his hands in surrender, giving up his wallet, and backing away slowly.

While passives often get mocked for being cowards, they are actually demonstrating an intrinsic understanding of human nature as well as a strong awareness of their own limitations.  Passives don’t try to exaggerate their own abilities in their minds: when they feel hopelessly outmatched, they view it as a foolish waste of resources to antagonize their attackers.  When pinned into a corner, they instantly assess their options, and they choose the one that they judge to be the least injurious.  It’s better to grovel than to be killed.  It’s better to be molested than to be beaten.  It’s better to injure yourself a little than to have someone else injure you a lot.  This is the logic passives use, and it’s really quite sound.

But then there are the aggressives.  Aggressives are just as strategic, insightful, and rational as passives, they just employ a different strategy. Aggressives are risk takers.  Like passives, they are acutely aware that their resources are limited.  Like passives, they recognize when they are dangerously out-powered, and they are also very concerned with minimizing damage.  But rather than try to calm their attackers through submissive responses, aggressives throw everything they’ve got into trying to immediately reverse the balance of power.  This is the prisoner who rushes his armed captors and tries to get his hands on a weapon.  This is the woman who screams her lungs out, claws, kicks, and bites her rapist.  This is the kid at school who goes ballistic when the bully tries to mess with him.  This is Todd, who beats his mugger’s brains in with the mugger’s own weapon.

The way an aggressive sees it, stalling is a dangerous idea, because it only gives the attacker time to start depleting important defensive resources.  Since resources are much higher prior to being physically injured, aggressives will do anything they can to avoid getting bound into a helpless position.  Threatening aggressives always triggers a violent response.  Trapping aggressives in a threatening position greatly intensifies their hatred towards their attackers and their determination to get free.  It is precisely because they feel the odds are so stacked against them that aggressives feel it is critical to get in the dominant position as soon as possible.  They will gladly take risks and put on dramatic bluffs of power and confidence in order to avoid submission.  While a passive will want to avoid antagonizing his enemy by wielding a gun in his face, an aggressive will seize the chance to put on a bluff of power with a gun that he knows isn’t loaded.  While passives lay low and wait for a chance to quietly escape, aggressives don’t like this kind of stalling.  To aggressives, stalling only gives their attackers more time to secure their positions of power.  It’s better to immediately attack and try to make the most of the element of surprise.  If the first attack doesn’t work, then aggressives work hard to undermine their attacker’s sense of dominion in any way that they can.  This is the prisoner who constantly lips off at his captors and refuses to show fear.  When an aggressive manages to break out of his restraints only to get caught again, he’ll flaunt the fact that he escaped the first time in order to make his captors feel psychologically threatened by him.  Because of their excellent bluffing skills, aggressives are fabulous group morale boosters in dire situations.  They aren’t going to just admit defeat or accept that they have no options left.  They’ll keep digging, searching, and calculating, determined that if they’re going to down, they’re going to go down swinging.  In captive situations, they’ll rally passives around them, cook up a daring escape plan, and persuade everyone to go along with them.

Since personal confidence is critical for taking risks, and since risk taking is an essential part of an aggressive’s defense strategy, an aggressive won’t engage in self-debasing activities.  While a passive will cooperate with his attacker’s demands for him to repeatedly injure or insult himself, an aggressive will violently retaliate against any assault on his personal confidence.  While this difference in reactions makes passives appear easier to “break”, the truth is that passives are less crippled by self-abasing exercises because they view their core strength as being less dependent on their external self-image.

If both a passive and an aggressive are forced to submit to a kind of abuse which involves them having to help their attacker injure themselves, the passive will likely emerge with far more external functionality than the aggressive, because passives have more tolerance with being publicly degraded than aggressives do.  While both will be very injured by the abuse, they will respond in different ways.  The passive will cope by trying to embrace the identity of a powerless doormat.  Already inclined to shy away from fighting, the passive will feel very hopeless about defending himself in the future.  Once he accepts that being assaulted is an inevitable part of his future, he’ll try to find ways to increase his stamina for such experiences (see The Mindset of Trauma Rehearsal: Trying to Acclimate to the Unbearable).  But as depressing as all of this is, passives don’t expect to be in dominant positions.  They primarily defend themselves by distancing themselves from tyrants, not by dethroning them.  Because their passive strategy often requires enduring some measure of abuse while they are waiting for an opportunity to escape with as little engagement as possible, passives have a much higher tolerance for eating abuse. It’s not that it doesn’t damage them, because it does.  But they are often able to keep much of the damage hidden from view while they maintain calm, pleasant, and very agreeable external personas.  From a distance, heavily abused passives can appear far more functional, confident, and emotionally stable than they actually are while inwardly they are dealing with a tumult of self-abasing thoughts and intense emotional pain.

But then there are the aggressives.  Aggressives who have been forced to endure prolonged abuse without being able to score any victories over their attackers are going to come crawling out of those situations in a severe state of identity crisis.  Aggressives dethrone tyrants—they don’t have the psychological resources they need to endure domination like passives can.  Without the ability to pull off bluffs of strength and confidence, aggressives feel terrifyingly vulnerable.  They simply can’t function without a strong sense of power and a strong sense of personal confidence.  When their strong self-image is shattered, aggressives find their new, weak self-image impossible to live with, thus they must find ways to distance themselves from it.  One very popular option is to turn to drugs.  Excessive drinking feels like a useful way to try and numb overwhelming feelings of impotency.  But temporary numbing isn’t enough.  Because aggressives derive their strength from a strong self-image, as long as that image remains shattered, they feel like they are in a state of crisis.  Because repairing the core damage feels impossible to do, they end up trying to live on illusions of strength which they must construct for themselves.  Such illusions feel flimsy and short-lived—far less secure than the real deal.  So aggressives get trapped in a cycle of having to constantly create new illusions of strength by finding opportunities in which they can play the part of the tyrant.  This is the nitpicking father who tries to control his son’s every move.  This is the mother who demands perfection from her daughter.  This is the boss who verbally abuses his employees.

Now because all humans have a deep need for emotional affirmation, love, and acceptance, aggressives want positive human relationships in their lives just like everyone else.  They want to be loved and they fall in love.  The problem is that when we emotionally bond to people, we start caring about what those people think, and that gives those people power over us.  Aggressives who have been traumatized by certain kinds of abuse absolutely panic over the feeling that someone is gaining power over them.  This causes them to feel immensely threatened by feeling or expressing genuine affection for those who matter most to them.  Pairing up with a power hoarder, an alpha temperament, or another aggressive isn’t an option.  Traumatized aggressives feel the least threatened by traumatized passives who are stuck in groveling mode, so this is who they gravitate towards.  But as traumatized aggressives try to make their new relationships work, it doesn’t take long for things to start getting ugly.

In the kind of relationship dynamic we’re talking about, the physical abuse often begins in the dating stage. Whenever your girlfriend gets too assertive, it greatly threatens you, so you belt her one.  Because she’s a passive, her submissive response reduces your panic.  Because you really do care about her, it distresses you in a different way to see her crying and bruised.  You feel like a monster.  Once you are able to get a grip on your sanity again, you start trying to fix the damage you’ve done by heaping on the gifts and apologies.  She responds tentatively at first.  This passive response makes you feel even less threatened by her and even worse about what you did so you step up your efforts to comfort her until she seems to be convinced.  Then you tell yourself that you’re a fool to turn against her because she’s not really a threat.  She’s your woman.  What were you thinking?  You tell yourself that was just you having a really bad moment, and you try to go on and forget about what happened.  If only it were this simple.  But in real life, you’ve still got a shattered core, and because of this, your terror of losing power hasn’t gone anywhere.  It’s only a matter of time before your girlfriend makes some comment or does some action that flips a panic switch deep inside of you.  Once the terror overtakes you, the fact that your girlfriend is your girlfriend loses all significance to you.  In such moments, you see her as someone who is trying to maliciously hurt you.  Your mind essentially views her as a symbol of the people who abused you in the past. You must defend yourself from her at all costs.  What is the aggressive’s primary defense strategy when threatened?  Reverse the power structure.  Get in the dominant position.  Dethrone the tyrant.  So you let her have it again, and you’re not going to be able to stop hitting her until your frantic mind finally registers her submissive, groveling feedback.  Such feedback finally convinces you that the threat has been neutralized so you back off.  This is one way that the fight ends.  The other way is that you suddenly feel yourself about to display some kind of weakness.  Maybe you suddenly find yourself about to cry or you get injured in the ruckus. When you’re dealing with a shattered self-image, you can’t afford to show weakness, because it will increase your sense of vulnerability, thus intensifying your panic.  In these situations, you’ll have to make an abrupt exit: leaving the room and her in a mess as you flee to a place where no one will see you showing vulnerability.

When this is the hellish cycle you’re caught in, marrying your woman isn’t going to fix anything.  You’re going to keep beating her.  When she has kids, you’ll beat them as well because they, too, will find ways to flip panic switches in you.  As an out-of-control aggressive, what you need to understand is that there’s only one real solution to your crisis: that shattered self-image needs to be repaired.  Your rage is just a cover for overwhelming pain and fear, and those are the things that need to be addressed.  Making a billion promises to yourself, punishing yourself, getting plastered, getting hauled in and out of jail cells—none of these things are going to get you the healing that you need.  You’re like a man who is trying to go through life with a knife in his gut.  Trying to stuff pain of this magnitude into some mental box doesn’t work because it won’t stay there.  It will keep springing out at you like some evil jack-in-the-box and pitching you into a frantic fight for your life.

In cases of trauma, the first step towards recovery is to recognize that we have a problem that we’re unable to deal with on our own.  God is the One you need to be making this admission to, because He is the only One with the power to give you the kind of healing that you need.  If you are willing to submit to His Authority and acknowledge your desperate dependence on Him, God will help you break out of the hell that you’re now in.  It will be a process which will take time, not an instant fix.  The kind of damage that you’re carrying around has many layers to it.  Think of a large onion, then imagine slowly getting to the center of the onion by pulling off one outer layer at a time.  This is how the healing process works: God lifts off one layer of pain at a time.  He doesn’t just get out a cleaver and violently chop the onion in half. But while healing takes time, it is a great relief to keep shedding off layers of the burden you’ve been carrying around for so long.  As God helps you process what was done to you, you will gain a lot of insights about both yourself and Him which you would never learn if He hadn’t put you through these experiences.

God makes us, then He breaks us, then He rebuilds us.  From the human perspective, the fact that God chooses to break us makes Him seem like a total Creep. But from the Divine perspective, this process of breaking, revising and rebuilding is a critical part of the human-God bonding process.  By breaking us, God creates a context for us to experience His comfort, mercy, kindness, grace, and compassion in a way that results in us feeling intensely bonded to Him.  At the same time, God uses trials to teach us critical insights about His sovereignty, power, control, and supremacy which we need to grasp if we’re going to settle into a correct dynamic with Him.

God is not a human, and relating to Him requires a very different approach.  Naturally we find ourselves intimidated by God’s awesome power, unpredictability, and choice of methods.  Because we disapprove of much of what He does, we are sorely tempted to try and avoid dealing with Him.  But God isn’t going anywhere.  While we have no say over who He is, we also have no choice but to deal with Him.  God demands that we submit to Him as the Supreme Authority over us.  Naturally we resist this idea, and many hurting souls are clinging to the absurd notion that spiting God will somehow land them in a better place than submitting to Him.  And yet this isn’t how it works.  It is only through sincere submission to God that we end up gaining the healing, peace, and completeness of soul that we were designed to crave.

As a soul who is caught in a cycle of destroying those who you care about the most, submission to God is the key which will unlock the prison of pain that you are currently caught in.  Ask Him to help you surrender yourself entirely into His hands so that you can experience the kind of relationship that He wants you to have with Him. You’re in a mess now, but you are certainly not beyond hope.  God already has immense compassion for your situation.  Unlike the humans who view you as a volatile monster, God embraces all that you are without hesitation or repulsion.  It is God who teaches us to see the great beauty in brokenness.  There are no hopeless cases to Him—no lost causes.  There is only the question of how you are going to respond to Him calling you to come to Him.  The brokenness is just the first chapter of your story, and God is the ultimate Master of plot twists, redemption, and surprise endings.

FURTHER READING:
The Mindset of Trauma Reversal: Pursuing the Unattainable
Emerging From Darkness: Guidance & Hope for Malicious Torturers
God & Monsters: Hope for Sex Offenders, Sadists & Other Hated Abusers
Help for Sex Addicts: Understanding Symbolic Sex
Broken to Thrive: Help & Hope for Pedophiles
Help For Murderers: Finding Peace With A God Who Loves You
Why We Help the People You Hate
Understanding the Love of God: The Five Versions of You

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