by Veronica Monet
Most couples argue from time to time. But did you know that depending upon the form your arguments take, they can also take a toll on your sex life?
It’s true. And to help illustrate how that works, let’s look at some ways that couples deal with their conflicts.
Many couples would never consider physical violence in the heat of a contentious verbal exchange to be an appropriate way of resolving differences. Yet many seem to think yelling, slamming doors, and threatening divorce or full custody of the children is a legitimate way to express their frustrations. Some couples even think it’s acceptable to slap or push. Those couples don’t consider slapping or pushing to be violent.
It’s very difficult for people who feel angry and frustrated to see the damage they are inflicting on the people they love. It’s hard for them to conceptualize the ways they express their anger and frustration as a form of violence. They may have witnessed their parents engaging in the very same behaviors and they may believe it’s a “normal” way to “let off steam.”
“It’s just the way we fight,” many couples say. “It’s normal. It’s no big deal. It’s not that bad.”
They, like most of us, tend to believe that domestic violence, is something that happens to “other people.” And that mindset makes it nearly impossible to see the signs of intimate partner violence in our own relationships.
I used to think domestic violence referred only to physical abuse.. And in fact, many, laws pertaining to domestic violence define it solely by the degree of physical assault. However, increasingly a form of domestic violence called “coercive control” is being recognized by the legal system.
Coercive control refers to domestic violence that does not involve any physical abuse. It is estimated to exist in at least 20 percent of relationships.
In reality, domestic violence exists on a continuum. And it’s crucial that we all familiarize ourselves with the constellation of behaviors that are in fact forms of domestic violence, lest we too, slip into denial about the ways we might be harming ourselves and each other.
While the words “domestic violence” often conjure images of bruises or broken bones, contemporary definitions are actually much broader.
The US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, for example, defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain control over another intimate partner.”
When you look at domestic violence as an issue of control – often the result of a feeling of being entitled to control another person – that highlights the true nature of domestic violence. It’s not really about the violence although that is what gets our attention and makes the headlines.
Domestic violence is entirely about control.
“We learn to recognize the gender-specific training that supports us to believe we are superior to our partners, and that a man’s or woman’s value depends on how s/he controls their intimate partner, environment, and themselves.”
-ManAlive BIP program in Sacramento
Being in control is a huge value in western culture. We tend to associate it with mastery and strength. While male-identified people often feel more entitled to exert control over their partners, people of all genders do attempt to control their significant others from time to time. Some efforts to control may seem rather benign while others are deeply damaging. But all attempts to control another person reduce trust and intimacy.
While it’s never a good idea to try to control your partner, it’s crucial to know when efforts to control an intimate partner have actually tipped over into a domestic violence dynamic.
For instance, a domestic violence dynamic can take the form of threats of harm. It can also show up as financial control so that one partner lives in fear of losing access to the things they need to survive, like a place to live. Constant verbal assaults on a person’s worth are a form of emotional and psychological abuse. And yes, some people use sexual abuse to maintain control over their partner.
While physical abuse is the most graphic form of domestic violence, it is only one element in a full spectrum of ways we can perpetrate domestic violence.
Of course, we want to be aware of forms of abusive control that can lead to physical injury and even death. But even when domestic violence doesn’t lead to visible bruises, the injury to the victim’s mental and emotional health is still devastating.
Additionally, because domestic violence exists on a continuum, if you tolerate or turn a blind eye to one form of abuse if you dismiss it as “no big deal,” it can and often does escalate to something far more serious over time.
Here are some of the ways we might seek to maintain control without ever raising a hand to physically harm our partner:
1. Fear: Threatening your partner with dire consequences in order to control their behavior might begin with the intention of setting a boundary but it can quickly turn into a form of domestic violence. If your partner lives in fear because of your threats, you are holding them hostage. There are healthy ways to assert boundaries but threatening another person is NOT healthy and it’s not even a boundary. In fact, it is a violation of the other person’s boundaries and autonomy.
2. Brainwashing/Destroying Sense of Self-Worth: Frequent put-downs and name-calling are very common in contentious relationships. And yet, few couples understand how destructive it is. It’s also an addictive behavior because it is fueled by low self-esteem and fear. For a moment, the person engaging in these harmful tactics actually feels better. They may think they “won” the argument. But like all addictive behaviors, the good feelings don’t persist, so the verbal abuse becomes routine in an effort to feel superior and to avoid feelings of self-hatred.
3. Shame: We all make mistakes. But using those missteps as fodder for emotional abuse has a devastating effect on the person who is targeted. Remorse quickly turns into guilt that can morph into shame. The person who is weighed down by shame is less likely to resist their partner’s control. They simply don’t believe they deserve to be treated well anymore.
4. Gaslighting: Making another believe that their feelings are unjustified—so that they begin to question their own beliefs and feelings and sanity.
5. Cycle of Abuse: The person who is perpetrating may sometimes offer a small kindness or apology after an abusive incident, only to repeat the cycle of abuse over and over again.
6. Isolation: If isolation from family and friends, has become part of your relationship landscape, it could be due to a recent move or perhaps an illness. But if you or your partner are enforcing that isolation, it’s a huge red flag for domestic violence. While it may feel like an issue of “loyalty” or “privacy,” the end result is that the isolated partner has no support system.
While I could write an entire article on each one of these, for the purposes of this article, I want to delve a little deeper into number four: Gaslighting.
It’s quite possible that you have heard of gaslighting. In fact, the word gaslighting was voted one of the most popular terms of 2018. But what does it actually look like and how can you spot it in your own connections?
First, it’s important to know that each of us sees reality a little differently. So, just because someone you love doesn’t remember events the way you do, doesn’t mean they are gaslighting you. Instead, they are probably just disagreeing with you. And they are entitled to do so. But they are NOT entitled to convince you that you are wrong or crazy. They are not entitled to convince you that you should see things the way they do.
When any of us go beyond expressing our perceptions and attempt to undermine another person’s trust in their own perceptions, we are most definitely attempting to control them. Respecting boundaries and inviting diverse perspectives is key to any healthy relationship.
Gaslighting can be clueless or downright cruel. It really depends upon how aware the gaslighter is of their motives. For the vast majority of people who gaslight, they are clueless. But that doesn’t make the behavior any less destructive.
Gaslighting is incredibly damaging, not only to the relationship but to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of both the person being gaslighted and the person doing the gaslighting.
What’s the solution?
Detachment. Detaching from the impulse to control another, can go a long way toward creating mutual respect in a relationship. When you detach from those you love, you are not closing your heart to them. You are letting go of trying to control them. And that is a beautiful gift to them, to you and to your relationship, because love thrives where there is emotional safety. Letting go of a desire to control another person creates emotional safety in your connection with them.
It’s entirely possible that you will spot behaviors in the list above that are features of your relationship. It isn’t helpful to feel shame about this. Shame actually perpetuates the very behaviors we are ashamed of.
Loving yourself into better behaviors is an important first step. And getting help to change is also key.
Regardless of whether you see yourself as a victim or a perpetrator or neither, healing these dysfunctional dynamics requires that we examine our patterns of relating as well as how we handle powerful emotions like fear and anger.
And our emotional landscape informs and shapes our sexual reality. The many well-meaning couples who come to me for help with their lagging libidos, sexual dysfunctions, and romantic disconnects, rarely understand how the way they “argue” impacts the way they make love.
But it does.
When they learn to take the aggression and the control out of the way they relate to each other, their sex life almost always improves.
While the words “intimate partner violence” and “domestic violence” are charged with shame and stereotypes, it is my hope that you, dear reader, can see how very human these behaviors are and how susceptible we all can be to crossing lines that don’t serve us or the relationships that matter most to us.
Rather than use these terms as labels, I use them to call to attention the serious implications of how we “fight” and “argue” with the hope that together we can create a more peaceful world predicated upon mutual pleasure and joy.
Domestic Violence is a serious issue. In the USA, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. Additionally, 16 percent of homicides are perpetrated by a partner. If you want or need help call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.787.3224 or visit the website at www.TheHotline.org
Veronica Monet, ACS is a trained domestic violence counselor, certified sexologist, and anger management specialist who works with couples who want to argue less and enjoy better sex! Her Exquisite Partnership Formula™ provides concrete tools for creating curiosity, connection, communication, and empathy in the face of those inevitable conflicts. Learn more on her website and, of course, follow her Channel on PleazeMe!
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