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Individual and Couples Counselling in Calgary

  • Writer's pictureRovena Magidin

Intimate Partner Violence

a person holding sign that says "Love shouldn't hurt"
Love shouldn't hurt

This is a very serious conversation.

Here is really good information from the Government of Canada on Family Violence and the different types of family violence such as physical, emotional, sexual, financial abuse, and neglect.

In this post I want to focus on Intimate Partner Violence (more common between pre-marital couples) and talk about the difference between Situational vs Characterological violence. I also want to mention that even though Couples Counselling is my passion, in cases of domestic violence, counselling could often do more harm than good, and in some cases it's counter-indicative. You need specialized help (see resources below)

Situational Violence happens when an argument gets out of control, things get heated, and one or both partners get progressively more aggressive. It might get physical. It can be yelling, name calling, threatening, throwing things, pushing, or hitting. One partner might lock the door and not allow the other partner to leave. Alcohol is often involved. Police might be called.

But here's the difference; after things cool off, people generally feel remorse and can take at least partial accountability for their actions. If they come to counselling they'd want to work on it. Maybe they have trouble controlling their anger, lacking communication skills, but genuinely want for their relationship to get better.

Approximately 67% of all couples coming for counselling would have at least 1 episode of what would be considered situational violence. It might be a final straw that make them decide to look for help.

For some it's a chronic pattern they are stuck in. Sometimes it gets worse when there are additional stresses - financial challenges, pregnancy, or separation. Or Covid. But it's not about trying to control their partner, it's not pre-calculated, and the person (or both people) who loses their cool knows that it's wrong.

And that brings us to Characterological Violence. It accounts for about 11-20 percent of all couples dealing with violence.

It's all about power, control and manipulation. Physical violence might not even be a part of it. It's often about emotional abuse, financial control, isolation - which is much easier to hide. People who behave like this feel justified in their behaviour. They might say "She made me hit her" or "She deserves it". They do not feel remorse, they do not wish to change or stop it. It's working for them.

They are often very charming.

If remorse is shown - it's an act. It's strategic. Maybe it's for the justice system, other people, or some other benefits.

Drs. Gottman and Jacobson speak about two types of characterological abusers - Cobras and Pit Bulls. Both are dangerous, but each in their own way.

Cobras stay calm. Their heart rate slows down during conflict. They actually get visibly calmer - and then they strike, often with little or no warning. It's calculated and intentional. It's scary. They do not feel empathy. They do not actually feel jealousy, and they are not even strongly attached to their partner, but there might be a pathological need to be in control and in charge. If things don't go their way, they punish. Coldly.

About 90% of people who exhibit this behaviour would qualify for an Antisocial Personality Disorder (sometimes called sociopathy)

If the police is called they might find a "cobra" partner being calm and rational, and the abused partner in distress and hysterical. If the police officers are not specifically trained to recognize the signs, it's the victim who might get arrested, as they appear to be the one causing problems.

Pit Bulls are the opposite, very jealous and insecure, they have a strong fear of abandonment. There's an intense emotional dependency on their partner. Their anger quickly explodes, and once they attack they don't let go. Their heart rate escalates during conflict. They have impulse control problem - so their anger eventually will turn into violence. They also might be charming - to everyone except their partner.

They are scared to lose their partner, and abuse will increase if the partner tries to leave. They will try to control their partner's life and their activities, often making them isolate.

Situational violence, while is definitely problematic and can lead to severe and lasting health and mental health problems, does not grow into a characterological violence, even when it's been chronic. If both people want to find help, they can often learn to take responsibility, make amends, learn new skills, learn to manage their anger, learn to resolve conflict effectively, heal the past hurts and traumas and move forward. It depends on the situation of course, and not every couple can recover or change. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to find a safe escape from an abusive situation or a relationship.

(It's outside the scope of this post to look at the possible causes of domestic violence - such as systemic social, cultural and historical factors, poverty, multigenerational trauma, racialized trauma, mental health factors, childhood trauma and abuse and sadly, so much more)

Family violence and intimate partner violence of people of all genders is grossly underreported.

If you realize you are in a relationship that's characterologically violent, couples counselling is NOT the help you need. In fact, it can put you in an even more dangerous situation. Please know that there's nothing you can do to stop the abuse (it's not your fault), and once it starts, it usually only get worse. Help is available, safety is crucial, and I hope you'll find both.

Additional Resources:

"When Men Batter Women" by Drs. Jacobson and Gottman

Calgary Women Emergency Shelter:

Calgary Distress Center: 403-266-HELP (4357)

Government of Canada, Get Help with Family Violence


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