Jimmy, like most of the male batterers I have encountered, suffered from both forms of addictive intoxication: the need for merger with an abundant other and the need to wrestle nature, as represented by his wife, into submission. Shirley helped me see the connection between the two forms of intoxication in a couple’s therapy session when she offered a suggestion.

“If you really want to be of use to somebody,” Shirley proposes, folding out the wrinkles of her fashionable miniskirt, “what you should do is write yourself up some little grant, you know, some little research project, and figure out what happens to guys when their girlfriends spend time on the phone. I never met a man yet who didn’t get berserk when I was on the phone for more than ten minutes.”

Jimmy sputters, “Hey, listen. The baby was crying. I’m trying to get your attention. You’re yappin’ away on that damn . . .” He gives up, waving his hand. “It gets me upset.”

At the time, Jimmy expressed his “upset” by ripping the telephone out of the wall and handing it to Shirley. A year ago she  would have gone berserk, and the fight would have escalated until the police arrived. With a half year or so of therapy under her belt, Shirley simply put down the phone, gathered up the baby, and went to her mother’s with instructions for Jim not to call her until after he had spoken to me. And with six months of therapy under Jim’s belt, including a batterers’ program and addictions work on his drinking, he was able to let Shirley go instead of blocking or attacking her. A few sessions later, after things calmed down, I asked Jim to describe the feelings that had flooded him before he gave in to the violence. As is common with batterers, he described a momentary sense of total abandonment.

The origins of Jimmy’s hypersensitivity to feelings of desertion were not hard to ascertain. His mother had died of a cocaine overdose when he was twelve, and his father spent much of Jimmy’s life in and out of prison. Jimmy was raised for the most part by loyal members of his neighborhood gang. Certain that he would live a short, violent life, he once told me, “My motto was, ‘Die young. Stay pretty.’” Jimmy reacted to his own surprising survival with depression his twenties, soon followed by serious drinking and crime. Like a sprinter, Jimmy could hold his pain at bay as long as he thought it was for the short run. Once he realized he might have a future to face, he collapsed. Then Jimmy met Shirley, a social worker with whom he had grown up and, in a rare moment of good judgment, he allowed her to love him. Sober now, with a good job and a baby, he was as dismayed as she when he succumbed to fits of rage. The telephone, for him, was a cipher for being shut out, betrayed, abandoned. To call the feelings that surged up in him mere “upset” was too mild; “volcanic” was more like it; “panicked” might be better still. Jim felt victimized and alone in the minutes before he erupted–as if he were back in the chaos of his own childhood.

I felt,” he says, “as if I could stand there and slit my own throat and she’d just go right on talking.”

“You felt that uncared about,” I reflect back on him.

Like she just couldn’t give a shit,” he replies.

Jimmy was in a monetary but profound instance of love addiction. When his connection to Shirley was disrupted by the telephone, the abandonment that engulfed him, were literally more than he could bare. Jim then reached out for another addictive defense–violence–to pump up his plummeting self-esteem. Like alcohol or drugs, violence operated for Jimmy as a magic elixir transforming his shame into grandiosity, shifting him from a sense of helplessness to a sense of omnipotent control. In place of healthy self-esteem, Jim had habitually turned to Shirley for comfort. When Shirley, even for a few minutes, “betrayed him” by focusing elsewhere, he found himself becoming enraged. When Jimmy’s defense of merger failed him, he turned to the defense of elevation. Rage never abandoned Jimmy. Like an ideal wife, rage was always available to him, night or day, at a moment’s notice. These are the common dynamics of domestic violence.”

Pp. 66-67 in Real, Terrence. 1997. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York: Scribner. [Bold and pictures not in original. This quote is immediately followed by the text in a previous post, Male Battering of Women as Medicating Covert Depression.]

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