My wife-to-be attacks me with her fists

I'm bigger than she is and can fend off the blows -- but is this going to be a problem in our marriage?

Published January 3, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Something upsetting happened to me last night, and not for the first time. My fiancée and I were having an argument. My feelings had been hurt earlier in the evening and I'd gone off to sulk and be alone. I was burning off my anger by folding laundry and doing the dishes. After half an hour or so, my fiancée demanded that I stop doing the dishes and come to talk about what happened. I admit that I didn't want to talk yet and was stubbornly and repeatedly saying that I was busy doing the dishes. After so I refused three or four times, my fiancée, in a fit of temper, jumped over the open dishwasher door that separated us and started screaming at me and punching me.

Now here's the thing: I'm a man who stands well in excess of 6 feet, and I outweigh my fiancée by 100 pounds. It's unlikely she could injure me. She was punching me as hard as she could, but even so, it only took me a few seconds to get hold of her wrists to stop her from hitting.

Once so restrained, she kicked me a couple of times in the shins and tried to knee me in the groin, but I was also able to easily parry that, and only had to hold on to her tightly for a minute until she calmed down. But still, it bothers me a lot that she resorted to violence, even if it was ultimately not injurious.

When we talked about it later, she was sorry. She was emotionally abused as a child and this has left its scars, including apparently this tendency to lose control and hit. But in the end she basically blamed it on me. She told me that if I hadn't been stubborn, she wouldn't have been driven to the point of loss of control. Now, I've been taught since childhood that resorting to violence against another, and particularly against your significant other, is NEVER justified. I know that were the genders reversed, many would advise me to get out of the relationship. But I love this woman. She is so good for me in so many ways. This has happened only three times in the two years we've been together, and as I said, she can't actually hurt me. Is this a deal breaker?

Confused and (Slightly) Bruised

Dear Confused,

I spent a lot of time wrangling with the legal and political aspects of your particular situation -- you know, how domestic violence is domestic violence no matter what gender the participants are, how the law sees it, that kind of thing. It became apparent after a couple of drafts, however, that what was missing, and what I uniquely have to offer, is not so much a great and penetrating knowledge of the social and legal implications of your plight, but a personal understanding of what you're going through. I was missing empathy.

I was not really getting into your shoes. I was not really getting into your shoes because those shoes are scary. I did not want to be in those shoes. I have been in those shoes and did not want to be in them again. Nor did I want to admit that your pattern of sulky avoidance is my pattern of sulky avoidance, that your stuffing it, your taking righteous refuge in the silent performance of domestic tasks to avoid emotional confrontation is all too familiar.

And though it is taboo to imagine oneself as the batterer, I also had to imagine, before I could write with true empathy, how it might feel for your fiancée to stand there brimming with anger across the dishwasher from you, unable to get to you, unable to make a dent. You place the dishwasher between you and your fiancée -- out of fear, of course, because she has attacked you before, but also as a defense against her feeling: You shut her out, and she feels herself cease to exist, so she leaps over and tries to punch through the jail of your ribs; she tries to make a dent in you; she tries to prove to you that she is there.

If, in writing of a male batterer, I were to entertain notions of what legitimate emotional needs he might be meeting by battering his wife, if I were to suggest any objective other than the satisfaction of his rage and her subjection to his will, if I were to even hint that it might also be, for him, a form of connection, I would be scorned, and perhaps rightly so, because the idea is fundamentally abhorrent.

It is abhorrent to the extent that it serves to exonerate the batterer. And yet in the case of this woman, though we edge perilously close to the taboo, might we ask this: Is she expressing certain needs in this way -- needs that, if she could learn to articulate them without violence, might be met to the great satisfaction of you both? That is, it is possible that she is seeking not so much to kill you or injure you but to force you to feel her presence?

But there I go again, straying into the hypothetical, forgetting about you and your very real problem: What to do?

Well, what to do indeed? How to learn the interpersonal skills that allow you to say I am hurt, leave me alone, I am angry, I am disgusted, without fear of physical reprisal? It doesn't come naturally to us to say what we are feeling. It must be learned.

Therapy may help. A reverence for the truth may help. It is remarkable to notice how our speech changes if we insist on speaking only things that are true -- not speaking all things that are true, but speaking no things that are not true. Perhaps it is true that she wants to hurt you. She could say that. Perhaps you could bear to hear her say that. Perhaps what is true is that you do not want to engage with her. You could say that. Perhaps you also fear her. You could say that. Perhaps she could bear to hear that truth. In this way you might begin. Simply agree to say the things that are true and let them be.

These are the kinds of things that take a while to digest. But after a while, as you live with them, you begin to see the pattern. There is almost always some kind of pattern. For instance, in your family, I wonder who did the yelling. Was it your father or your mother, or both? And while you were taught that it is never OK to hit someone, were you also taught that it is always OK to have emotions, that all emotions are OK, and that most all emotions have some outlet that is not harmful? I doubt that you were taught that. I know very few people who were taught that. Most of us were taught not to feel that way.

And what form of refuge did you find when you had feelings you could not feel? Did you, as a wounded child, retreat to the folding of laundry and the doing of dishes?

And here is another thing that is taboo to acknowledge: Though there is always the perpetrator and the victim, the victim plays a role. We victims are innocent, but we play our part; we have to look at what we did. You turned your back on her. You shut her out. That is when she attacked.

The way you said so baldly "my feelings had been hurt earlier in the evening" tells me something, perhaps that you are a wounded person, sensitive yet physically powerful. A certain kind of woundedness in a person such as yourself can be infuriating to others, who are also wounded but who find in it something abhorrent, to be destroyed. They will sometimes try to destroy it, or destroy you.

I have known violent people. I know how much damage they can do; I know how long it can take to recover from the damage they can do. I know too that trauma is different from bruises.

That is better. Before, in the drafts that you will not see, I was writing about the legal definitions of battery. I was avoiding feeling. My avoidance showed in the writing. It was as though I were doing the dishes. The tone had a brittle, legalistic quality to it; it sounded as though I were lecturing you.

I am not lecturing you now. I am asking you to sit with this and see where it comes from, this habit of sulking in silence, of losing yourself in domestic work. And I would ask you to think about what it means to say that a woman who beats you with her fists is "good for you."

If you want to stay together, you will have to think about these things. She will have to commit to change. So will you. She will have to learn to substitute symbolic action for physical action. She will have to learn to say, "I am so angry at you right now I could leap over that dishwasher and beat you with my fists."

And you need to be able to stop avoiding her and look at her and accept the fact of her anger, the fact of your fear and humiliation and your hurt. You will need to learn to tell her that you are so hurt you can hardly talk, that all you can do is fold laundry and do the dishes.

Maybe in that way you can make a go of it.

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