Printed in The Healing Breath: A Journal of Breathwork Practice, Psychology and Spirituality, Vol.1, No. 3.
Between 18% and 25% of relationships are abusive1 and the vast majority of this abuse is perpetrated by men against women. This does not mean that women are incapable of this kind of behavior. Women do abuse men and the rate of abuse is the same in lesbian relationships as it is in heterosexual relationships. Women also abuse children. But the way society is structured today, the fact remains that the majority of domestic abuse is by men against women. This is why, throughout this paper, I will be referring to women as the recipients and men as the perpetrators.
All my domestic abuse clients have been women. I’ve worked extensively in various settings with those women. I’ve also worked in rebirthing with the adult children of abusive relationships. But because the subject of adult children is so large and because I’ve never worked with abusers, this paper will be confined to suggestions for rebirthing the female recipients of domestic abuse.
Introduction: Elizabeth’s Story
The first time I encountered domestic abuse I was totally ignorant of the subject. I was a teacher in a Catholic school in a large American city. The school backed onto an office building that had once been used by the diocese as its centre of administration. There was still a locked passage between the two buildings.
One day a sixteen year old girl called Elizabeth, a student in my history class, asked me to sneak her out of the school through the back way. She told me that her boyfriend insisted on walking her to school every morning and bringing her home every afternoon. That morning when she woke up she just felt like being on her own for a while. So she left home before he arrived to pick her up and came to school by herself. But now it was the second last class of the day. She knew he’d be waiting outside and she knew she’d pay for her independence as soon as he got her alone. I thought she was making it up, pulling some scam on the gullible teacher. To convince me she pulled up her skirt and showed me the bruises on her legs. I found another teacher who had access to the keys and together we sneaked her out through the office. But in our ignorance neither of us followed up on the case.
A couple of months later Elizabeth became pregnant and dropped out of school. After she left some of the other girls in the class told me that in Elizabeth’s family, her father and two brothers regularly beat her mother. I didn’t know it at the time but Elizabeth’s story contained all the classic features of a domestic abuse relationship.
A few years later I went to work for Women’s Aid in Dublin. Women’s Aid is an international organization founded in England in the early ‘70’s. It offers information, support and refuge to women and children involved in domestic abuse At first I worked on the telephone into one to one work with abused women. This involved going to court with women who were helpline and then I moved working their way through the legal system. It was during the hours I spent in family court that I got a full view of the horrible mess of emotional, psychological, legal, financial and social problems that makes up domestic abuse. About a year before I left Women’s Aid I qualified as a rebirther, and I began to get domestic abuse clients. I lost almost all of them after one or two sessions.
I spent a long time analyzing and blaming myself for ‘creating’ this problem. But over a period of time I came to realize that the real problem lay in the rigidity of the model of rebirthing I was using. Rebirthing is a fast therapy that gets to the heart of the matter quicker than any other technique I have encountered. I was using traditional upper chest, connected breathing focused on what rebirthers call ‘thought is creative’: the ownership of our own actions. It was far too much too soon. It was also doctrine rather than client centered and failed to take into account the many other, less personal, aspects of the issue that loom ominously over every woman and man involved in an abusive relationship.
Domestic abuse is a deeply personal issue, rooted in problems of self-esteem and co-dependence that go back to childhood, birth and earlier. This is the stuff of rebirthing. But domestic abuse is also a social problem. It is fostered, often condoned and its characteristics are at least partly shaped by society. And the way out of an abusive relationship can often be a very long journey through the legal systems, the social welfare systems and the cultural norms of society. Through trial and error I developed a way of working with domestic abuse recipients that integrates the deep and intense personal therapy rebirthing offers with techniques used to raise awareness of the broader social aspects of domestic abuse. In other words I let what I learned while working in society inform my practice and my practice changed quite noticeably.
Domestic abuse is a very complex issue with a multiplicity of possible causes. For example, certain branches of feminism approach it exclusively from the perspective of a patriarchal society and the ultimate solution lies in dismantling the social, political and economic patriarchy. On the other hand, some rebirthers see only the influence of individual psychopathology and the solution lies in the individual embracing the concept of ‘thought is creative.’ Theories about the causes of domestic abuse fall into five broad categories1 and I have found an integrative approach paying attention to the broad range of causal factors by far the best way to inform my practice as a rebirther.
This approach links domestic abuse to psychological disorders on the part of both the abuser and the victim. These disorders include immaturity, poor impulse/anger control, dependency, depression, developmental traumas, fear of intimacy, abandonment, jealousy and co-dependence. Both men and women suffer from these difficulties and attract intimate partners accordingly. Treatment lies in individual or group therapy focusing on resolving the deeply personal issues that lead people into abusive relationships. Rebirthing is one such therapy.
This approach sees domestic abuse as a part of a family dynamic which strives towards equilibrium and the maintenance of the status quo even if the status quo is dysfunctional. Abusive behavior is maintained by all family members and is the result of the structure of relationships within the family. In more recent years family therapy has expanded to take into account that fact that the family cannot be separated from the society in which it exists. Society can and does influence the family. It contributes to and helps to shape the family dynamic. Treatment is through some form of systemic/family therapy.
Abuse is the result of stresses created by the social structure, e.g. unemployment, or by the socialization process, e.g., the belief that violence is acceptable when directed at particular classes of people such as women, children, Jews, etc.
Social Learning & Cognitive-Behavioral Perspectives:
Aggression is a learned behavior which works. It is culturally supported, modeled and rewarded and provides immediate release of tension. It is supported by often irrational justifications that frequently blame the victim for causing the violence (She shouldn’t have made me angry, for example, or He’s gay, he deserves it.). These justifications are ingrained in society and absorbed by the individual from childhood on.
Domestic abuse is a method men use to subjugate women within society as a whole. The political and economic structure of society sanctions, maintains and rewards the dominance of women by men and this is reflected in the dynamic of intimate relationships. In the latter three approaches treatment has a wider scope than simply individual or family therapy. In addition to stress management, the developing of coping strategies and cognitive and behavioral re-education, these approaches involve broader, long-term social and political action.
There is truth in all five approaches. As a rebirther, I work primarily within the framework of individual psychopathology. We behave abusively or we attract abusive relationships out of our individual belief systems which in turn are the product of our experiences of womb time, birth, childhood and life since childhood. Changing society may help, but until each person involved in an abusive relationship recognizes and resolves the deeply personal issues which got them into the relationship in the first place, they will continue to attract abuse. But focusing exclusively on this approach is limiting for three reasons.
- The recipients of domestic violence are often difficult to reach on this level and any form of therapeutic work needs to employ a wide variety of techniques that ease the client into an examination of her life and personal issues. Focusing directly and immediately on the psychological causes excludes the valuable and less threatening avenues of approach that the other perspectives offer.
- Domestic abuse is fostered to varying degrees by the societies in which it takes place. While individual therapy may be the solution for each individual, unless social change takes place, future generations will continue to form relationships in the matrix of a society that condones relationship abuse.
- Elements of all five schools of opinion can be found in the thinking of domestic abuse recipient. There are the personal issues of self-esteem and codependence that relate to the earliest days of life. But there is also learned behavior, the acceptance of stereotyped roles for men and women, the dynamics of family relationships, and the acceptance and justification of abuse as a legitimate response in certain circumstances. Working effectively with domestic abuse recipients means working with issues that fall into all five causational categories.
An analysis of the characteristics of an abusive relationship will illustrate more clearly the need to underpin rebirthing work in this field with an integrative approach to the causes of domestic abuse.
Characteristics of an Abusive Relationship
Before going any further I think there is a need to define the word abuse in this context. There are many shades of grey between a bad relationship and an abusive one. Some people see abuse as a question of severity; an open handed slap on an odd occasion is not abuse, regular closed fist punching is. But this is a superficial distinction. At the heart of domestic abuse is one person’s need to control and dominate another as well as the recipient’s acceptance of that dominance. It is a dynamic that may never manifest as physical violence and so it can be difficult for an outsider, including a rebirther, to see and comprehend it. In my opinion there are three features that characterize an abusive relationship and they all have implications for rebirthers.
Firstly, abuse is not just the product of uncontrollable anger or alcohol or drugs. Both perpetrator and recipient might like to believe it is and there is also a statistical correlation between substance abuse and domestic violence.1 But while alcohol or drugs may exacerbate the situation, the fact remains that domestic abuse is often, although not always, deliberate, systematic and planned. Elizabeth’s bruises began just above her knees. They could be hidden by her school uniform or trousers. This level of planned, strategic abuse is very common and no rebirther working with domestic abuse clients should dismiss the issue of their client’s safety. If the client is still in or recently out of an abusive relationship, safety needs to be discussed because every action the client takes has safety implications.
Secondly, the abuse is justified by belief systems that are at least partially condoned by society. It is easier to abuse someone who is inferior in some way or who is not quite human. Race and religious hatred is made possible by dehumanizing the object of hatred. This in turn justifies the abuse. Sexual stereotyping with the woman as the inferior is a common feature of domestic abuse. Re-education around gender equity is a major component of treatment programs for abusers and may also form a substantial part of early rebirthing sessions for the recipients of abuse. Gender stereotyping may be part of the client’s world view and, if this is present, it can run counter to any work on self-esteem. It may need to be addressed by the rebirther before proceeding to deeper work. Again Elizabeth illustrates the point. Because she was a woman and he ‘loved’ her, her boyfriend believed that she was his to command. So did she. I had many futile arguments with her and her classmates about letting their boyfriends tell them how to dress. The boyfriends also insisted that the girls stay at home every night and would call during the evening to make sure they were being obeyed. The girls insisted that this was the sign of a loving, healthy relationship. They could never see that by going along with it they were letting themselves be isolated and controlled. They had been socialized into accepting the stereotype.
Cycle of Abuse:
The third characteristic is that abusive relationships follow a cycle. There is a period when the relationship is wonderful. But very slowly this dissolves into tension, moodiness and bad temper. The tension builds until something snaps. There is an episode of violence or humiliation or verbal abuse. For most this is followed by remorse. In the beginning this remorse is genuine and heartfelt and the abuser is often very shocked by what he has done. There follows a honeymoon period of apologies, affection, gifts. The couple put the episode behind them, make a new start and life is wonderful. Then the cycle begins all over again. At first the honeymoon period forms the longest part of the cycle but it gets shorter and shorter until eventually it ceases to exist. This cycle has direct bearing on the work done with clients who are still in abusive relationships. No matter how well they’re doing in therapy the honeymoon period can draw them back into the relationship. It holds out the promise that maybe this time things will be OK. It also offers warmth, affection and the appearance of love to people who have been starved of these essentials because they have never been able to love or appreciate themselves. The rebirther may have to patiently support the client through many of these cycles before the issues are resolved.
The Nature of Abuse
What is the nature of the abuse itself? Abuse perpetrated within a relationship can be physical, sexual, emotional or mental. Physical and sexual abuse speak for themselves. They are everything from a slap to rape and murder. But among the survivors of domestic abuse there is unanimous agreement that mental/emotional abuse leaves the deepest scars. Mental and emotional abuse is the stuff rebirthers work with. It is also the most difficult to see and understand. It is varied, devious and often ingenious. It is domination by fear, hidden threats, looks that other people can’t see. It can involve everything from prolonged silence to self-mutilation and suicide attempts by the abuser, sometimes carried out in front of the children. It is isolation and humiliation, blame and the destruction of self-esteem. It is mental/emotional abuse that binds one person to another in a confusing, often inexplicable way. At a certain stage the woman may have become so isolated and stripped of self-esteem that her abuser is the central focus of her life and this creates the strange bond that is seen in the recipients of torture and in long term hostages. This plus fear of reprisal can cause the woman to defend her abuser from others even while he is beating her.
Abuse can begin with a little bad mood because they are late for the theatre – it wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t spend so much time deciding what to wear. More anger and hurt when she talks to or happens to glance at someone else. If she really loved him she wouldn’t want to look at anyone else. This view is often supported by the unrealistic notions of romance and true love that we grow up with on TV and in books. Then comes the pressure to stay at home and wait for his call when they’re not out together, to give up friends, to dress the way he prescribes. After they move in together this intensifies. Stories and lies are spread to family and friends. Gradually she is isolated from support, information, money – three of the most important currencies of power in our society. The isolation often involves being locked into the house for long periods. When Ronnie Spector, wife of famous music producer Phil Spector, toured with the Ronnettes she had to keep a phone line open to her husband all night so that he could hear what was going on in her hotel room.1 There is often, in middle class families particularly, total financial control and the control of information. For example, a woman can be so isolated from real information about social structures that she often believes it when she’s told she’s a bad mother and social services will take the children away from her. Children are often used by both parents. Put downs, disparagement and blame undermine the self-esteem needed to take back control of her life.
Living in fear, being constantly watched and monitored, the recipient of the abuse often becomes her own censor. Even when they are away from their abusive partner, they control who they look at, what they say, how they arrange things in the house. They have bought into the dynamics of an abusive relationship playing out the role of victim, adapting their behavior and way of thinking to fit the dynamic. Many have so forgotten what being free and autonomous is like, they accept the abusive behavior as normal. For rebirthers who aren’t familiar with the dynamics of domestic abuse this can be hard to understand and easily missed.
Working With Abuse Clients
Several issues are important when working with domestic abuse clients through rebirthing. The first is the question of pacing.
Rebirthing is a fast therapy. Domestic abuse clients need time to recognize and get used to the idea that the way things have been for the last five or ten or thirty years is not the way they have to be, is not the way things are for everyone. They also need time to experience this practically, to be able to choose what to eat, what to wear, who to talk to, what to spend money on. This is sometimes a slow process and the rebirther needs to be conscious of moving slowly, discussing every day realities, focusing on practicalities and helping the woman orient herself to her new freedom. This is not the time to leap feet first into issues of co-dependence and co-creation. Let the client lead the way on these issues.
If the client is still in the relationship, her greatest need, aside from safety, is to help her grasp the reality of her situation. Rebirthers are all familiar with the concept of ‘splitting off”. When a situation is too difficult to deal with, we can detach ourselves from it even while it is happening. We can use our breath to help us split off. At its most dramatic splitting off involves a complete blotting out of memories. In adult domestic abuse this often involves holding two polar opposite versions of reality in juxtaposition. “My husband beats me viciously. My husband loves me.” I eventually got used to women telling me about how their husbands fractured their skull, burned them with hot pokers or forced them to strip naked and have their bodies and sexual behavior criticized in front of the children. But what I never got used to was that in the next breath the same women told me how their husbands really loved them. This is one of the effects of the cyclical nature of an abusive relationship. The beatings are very real, the honeymoon period between beatings is real too, yet the co-existence of both extremes lends everything an air of unreality.
The obvious question is, “Why don’t you leave?” At this stage there is no point in asking it. What the woman needs is to tell her story. She can do this verbally, through art, prose, poetry, even music if she is musical. She also needs someone patient enough to listen to her recount her experience over and over again, someone who won’t judge, get angry with her or ask ‘Why don’t you leave?’. Eventually, with skillful listening and probing by the rebirther, her own words will paint a picture that becomes more and more real for her. The co-existence of the two points – he beats me and he loves me – slowly becomes untenable until she finally realizes that if he loved me he wouldn’t beat me. It is at this point that the women needs most support.
At this point she may make decisions about staying or leaving. Leaving means dealing with society. It means housing, money, children, lawyers and, ironically, it is also the time of greatest physical danger. Although it may appear otherwise, the recipient of abuse is pivotal to her abuser’s self-image, his self-esteem, his security and his life in general. Men become most violent and most prone to murder at the time when the woman is about to or has just left the relationship. All of these issues have to be dealt with. They don’t all fall under the remit of rebirthing. The rebirther can provide emotional support and therapy. Ideally he/she should also have some basic knowledge of the legal and financial situation pertaining to family breakdown that prevail in their country. But it is better to give no information at all than to give the wrong information so rebirthers also need to have referrals ready – the phone numbers of refuges, Women’s Aid, Men’s Aid, or other support groups for people experiencing abusive relationships. It would also be advisable for the rebirther to have the number of a good relationship counselor handy as well as support groups for abusers. Some abusive relationships do work out if both parties are willing to change.
At the same time as the recipient of abuse is trying to make decisions about the practicalities of living in society, all the certainties of life come crashing down around her. Her past is a confusing, painful mess, her future has disappeared and her ability to make sound judgments, reliable perceptions, has come into question. What does she actually know about anything and how can she trust herself again? This is the stage most of my relationship abuse clients have come to me for rebirthing. Now is the time for the rebirther to help her make sense out of things, to see patterns, trust herself, to support and reassure. It’s a slow often frustrating process. She may go back and forth to her partner, she may despair of ever being able to make it alone. The practicalities of living in society, especially with children who miss their father, and having to re-learn self-sufficiency may seem just too much. She may drop out of therapy and come back months later. She may seem to not be moving at all. She may appear to be totally blind to the glaringly obvious. And for those who have never experienced a really abusive relationship, we may push too hard.
I have found the best route here is patient, non-judgment, and boosting self-esteem at every opportunity. Looking at her accomplishments and survival skills can help. So too can things like drawing up a ‘Time for Me’ chart where she sets aside time every day to treat herself, even if it is only to smoke a cigarette or watch a soap opera. Looking at the role of women in society, the role the woman herself plays in her family and society, the differences between herself, her grandmother, mother and her daughters if she has any can also be empowering. It can be helpful to have a list of the roles people play in groups available. Another exercise I have found useful is to ask the woman to draw up a list of all the jobs she does during the course of an average day – teacher, nurse, cook, cleaner, etc. and then to put a market value on each of them – the going rate for the job. When she adds it all up, the imaginary wage she would be paid at the end of the week is usually startlingly high. A variation on this is an examination of the woman’s survival skills. She may be inclined to see herself a weak, a failure, when in fact she has developed skills the average person will never need in their lifetime. The rebirther and client can use these exercises to begin work on awareness, one of the essential elements of rebirthing. Awareness of pleasure during ‘me time’ can lead to awareness of self-criticism. Awareness of self-criticism can lead to affirmations. Body awareness can lead to re-establishing trust in her own perceptions and gut instincts and everything leads slowly towards re-establishing her own identity and her sense of self.
The same slow pace needs to be applied to breathwork. From my own experience I would say that pushing a client into full conscious, connected, upper chest breathing at this point can be too threatening. I would settle for the conscious part of it. The type of introduction to rebirthing breathwork I would recommend is the system developed by Joy Manné and described in her book Soul Therapy. It is a gentle, phased build up where people learn at their own pace to trust and work with their own breath. If the client can only manage a few breaths into mid-chest without lapsing into talking, then so be it. Let her talk and gently coax her into another few breaths. Gradually the time spent breathing increases and the talking diminishes.
The reasoning behind such a slow build up with abuse clients is that they have spent large portions of their lives splitting off or containing terror. Restricting their breath is one method of doing this. Talking is another. Lying down silently and breathing freely is removing two of their most reliable coping mechanisms all at once. It is too much for many people. Some of them will tell you so straight out and if the rebirther is aware of the features of relationship abuse and is not tied into a rigid way of proceeding, a working relationship can be teased out. Others will hold their breath for most of the session but they may appreciate the relaxation this sleepy state offers. In my experience the majority of clients will say nothing. They just won’t come back for a second session.
Building up a relationship at the client’s pace and understanding the personal and social issues involved can allow the client to move as gently as possible through issues like co-dependence, guilt, childhood abuse and so forth, to a point where they are able to own the part they have played in their experience and move on from it. I suggest that this be done through letting the client draw her own conclusions by looking at various examples from her own experience. To put forward the theory of ownership (thought is creative) before the concept has been grasped is to heap guilt on someone already drowning in guilt – about herself, about her children, even about her abuser. Almost as long as she has been in the abusive relationship she has been told very clearly and often that she has created it, caused him to abuse her. She has been told this by her abuser as well as by many sectors of society. She does not need to hear it again from a rebirther even if that is not the way the rebirther means it.
But no matter how deep the rebirther’s level of awareness, dealing with domestic abuse as a therapist can be a tremendous test of empathy, patience, confidence and stamina. People involved in abusive relationships can be very skillful at drawing people into collusion, creating smoke screens and avoiding issues. And just when they seem to be finally standing on their own feet, empowered and self-reliant, they can take their abuser back and the cycle starts all over again. This happens with domestic abuse. It is the nature of the beast. But a rebirther who doesn’t know it can happen or who has an investment in a particular outcome, may be bitterly disappointed and have their confidence shaken. The rebirther can use the experience constructively to study the subject, develop referral lists, find other ways of working with the issue. They can also benefit greatly from seeking out nurturing, informed support for themselves. This can help the rebirther to maintain an open, non-judgmental relationship with the client so that he or she feels free to return for more sessions whenever necessary.
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