The day Tim’s wife told him she was separating from him and filing for a divorce, he blew a gasket. The argument that ensued quickly escalated. Tim first blocked the door to try to prevent her from leaving. Then, he pushed her away when she tried to get by him. He grabbed the cell phone out of her hand when she tried to call the police and slapped her as she screamed at him to let her go. The neighbors in the apartment next door called the cops, and Tim was arrested for domestic battery.
When Tim was released from jail the next day, he came home to a half empty apartment. His wife and daughter were gone. He felt devastated by the idea of his marriage ending and worried about what connection, if any, he would be able to maintain with his daughter. In addition to the crushing feelings he had from his lost relationships, he now faced criminal charges for how he handled his wife’s decision to leave.
The attempt to desperately hang on to a relationship is a common issue for those of us who have been violent with our partners.
The attempt to desperately hang on to a relationship is a common issue for those of us who have been violent with our partners. I heard several stories like Tim’s from guys in my batterers’ intervention program (BIP). Studies show that attempting to leave the relationship is one of the most common triggers for domestic violence, often produces the most violent reactions, and therefore is one of the most dangerous for the exiting partner.
Clues into the cause of domestic violence and how to stop domestic violence
Why is this? Why do some of us fight so hard to hang on to a relationship, even when the other person wants to go? While experiences like Tim’s are painful for everyone involved, they offer important clues into the cause of domestic violence, and therefore how to stop domestic violence.
We interpret our partner’s leaving as indicating something very bad about us.
Whether we are aware of it or not, what’s happening inside Tim and others who react similarly is we interpret our partner’s leaving as indicating something very bad about us. We think it’s confirmation that we’re a failure at relationships or we’re not very desirable. Peeling our emotions back further, we discover that one of our greatest fears—that we’re not worthy of love—has been triggered. The person who was supposed to love us does not. Note these are our thoughts, not necessarily the truth about us.
Our response is to try to stop the pain by trying to control the other person. We attempt to prevent them from leaving by belittling them so they fear they’ll be alone (“no one will ever want you”), threatening them if they leave, or physically restricting their movement (grabbing them or blocking a door).
Controlling behavior might work in the short term, but none of these strategies are ever effective in the long term.
While controlling behavior might work in the short term, none of these strategies are ever effective in the long term. Control never leads to happiness because, deep down, we will always question whether that person is with us because we are controlling them, or if it is a genuine desire to be with us. Worse is that our behavior does severe damage to the relationship, which makes reconciling even less of a possibility. Respect, equality, trust, and safety—pillars of a good relationship—are lost. Our actions truly fit the definition of abuse, and the result is predictable.
Learning alternatives from non-violent people
It’s important to note that most people don’t react to the threat of a relationship ending with controlling behavior. I don’t say that to shame anyone (remember, I was in that camp too). I bring this up because it can teach us an alternative way to respond. What do non-violent people think and do when their partner wants to leave them? I asked a couple of friends who have been “dumped” by their spouses how they handled the experience.
One of my friends said she only wants to be with someone who wants to be with her. She knows she deserves to feel welcomed, loved, appreciated, respected, and understood. If those aren’t there, then that relationship is not what she wants, either. Did it hurt to have the marriage end against her wishes? Of course. Very badly. She sees this kind of pain as part of life. We don’t want it, but then again, we don’t always get to choose. The best thing we can do is to feel the pain, accept it, and look forward to the time when this too will pass.
Another friend told me about the debate raging in his head when he discovered his wife’s affair. Part of him wanted to put an end to it and stop her from leaving—a course that probably would have involved violence. But then another internal voice said her actions really didn’t reflect on him as badly as they did her. It didn’t mean he was a failure at relationships or not desirable—it just meant that his wife was a cheater. He said this internal discussion probably slowed him down long enough to not act on his first thoughts. He realized that trying to stop her from leaving would have caused a whole lot more hurt for himself and others.
What are your first thoughts and reactions if someone you love wants out? How can you think about it differently that will lead you to a better and non-violent response? One that will demonstrate your good character and produce the best possible outcome, although maybe not the one you really wanted (to live happily ever after)?
The threat to end a relationship is one of the most difficult situations for our emotions to manage.
The threat to end a relationship is one of the most difficult situations for our emotions to manage. Imagining this worst-case scenario and simulating your thoughts and actions ahead of time is more likely to lead to a better result. It also demonstrates that you are someone who is both in control of yourself and worthy of being in a great relationship, even if it is no longer possible in this one.
I didn’t want my marriage to Michelle to end. I worked for six years trying to save it, but she still wanted out. All that time, all that effort was just going to be for nothing, I thought. But I also had been experiencing a relationship with God for those six years. In that time of getting to know him, I learned about his character and promises. I knew that while he doesn’t remove all our painful life experiences, he promises to be with us through them. He promises a future and a hope. And, I knew that I could trust him to make good on his promises. It made letting go of my marriage much easier than it would have been without God in my life.
Another six years later, I can look back and see how God used the time I was trying to salvage my marriage to heal my wounds and build my character. I can now also see the better plans he had for me. Four years after my divorce, he brought a wonderful woman into my life. Because of the work I allowed him to do on me, I can now enjoy the blessings of a close, respectful, and of course safe relationship with Lynn.