On the Research (or lack thereof) of Therapeutic Interventions for Abuse

I don’t think it’s an accident that therapeutic interventions for abusers are so under-researched. Pretty much all of the data we have now is based on theoretical concepts of abuse and relies on statistics that come straight out of the criminal justice system, meaning it’s typically only the most severe and physically dangerous cases of abuse that are filtered through.

If you pay any attention whatsoever to the prevalence of abusers who make up the criminal justice system itself you’d know how incredibly unreliable this data is at giving us an accurate picture of either abuse or the more common, dare I say mundane kinds of abuse that take place in many people’s lives. Not to mention the way “he said she said” sort of situations are filtered out. 

I know this is highly controversial to say but one of my very unpopular opinions regarding this is that the idea that false allegations are rare is not coming from any data we can really trust. The truth is that allegations hold social consequences that hardly need to go through the criminal justice system to impact a person’s life. 

I’ve been saying this for awhile now but if you understand how social alienation is a component of abuse, it doesn’t take a very far leap to conclude that allegations can be an extension of an abuse dynamic. Which is why creating robust models for handling escalation of responses to abuse matters to me. Honestly, being real about appropriate escalation is one reason I could never go full anti-callout and am at odds with both anti-cancel culture positions and even to a degree prison abolition. 

It feels like a massive denial of reality and the genuine risks to community safety that violent abusers hold to pretend we can avoid needing what may seem to be extreme tools to make sure people know about violent abusers, or even in some cases remove people from the general public. If you have been lucky enough not to encounter such violence, I am happy for you! But I challenge someone to find a truly viable alternative when there is someone who poses a genuine active threat.

But returning to my point about false allegations, I do think it’s important to consider models of due process that don’t look only at tangible forms of evidence that even for physical forms of abuse are easy to hide (or a survivor may avoid documenting in the midst of a relationship to protect their abuser) but also forms of psychological violence or other modes of control like financial abuse that aren’t easy to “prove”.

Which kind of segues into my other unpopular opinion which is that statistical rates of abuser recidivism aren’t actually indicative of people with abusive behaviors and attitudes capacity to change. It’s indicative of the worst of the worst who get filtered through the court system and end up in court mandated batterer intervention programs (BIPs) and are being tracked because they are the ones interfacing with the legal system.

The fact about abuse is that it is so extremely prevalent in our day to day lives as to be somewhat meaningless. When people complain that people throw the word “abuse” around and cheapen the term, this may seem paradoxical but I think it’s both true that abuses are being named and exposed in these ways that seem mundane AND it truly is abuse. Maybe we need new concepts and terminology to distinguish levels and kinds of abuse on a spectrum or web or something.

Because (someone should stop me here’s another unpopular opinion) there are kinds of abuse that have multiple loci of responsibility and there are kinds of abuse that are more unidirectional. There are even kinds of abuse that start unidirectional but grow to be multifocal and vice versa. And to be clear here, when I say there are multiple loci of responsibility I don’t mean mutual abuse, though that is certainly a very real thing, despite the fact that many will claim otherwise. 

I mean that in a dynamic of abuse there are two (or more but for simplicity’s sake let’s say two) agents – there are two beings with agency and autonomy. Their relative level of autonomy may/likely varies by certain factors, like let’s say one person who is well liked by a community and another no one really knows or cares about but who is equally a part of said community – by right of social capital the former has more agency without risking repurcussions for their choices and behaviors.

Financial dynamics can also affect relative agency. But the fact is that you have two individuals who are actors. And for an abuse dynamic to emerge requires one to hand over their agency. Often in adult relationships in ways that are avoidable. 

This is why differentiation education is such a central component of my concept of abuse intervention – higher levels of differentiation = higher levels of distress tolerance. Higher levels of distress tolerance = higher capacity to stick to one’s integrity in the face of opposition.

It is highly rare that abuse begins with outright threats of physical violence or severe kinds of retaliation. Typically abuse begins with subtle tests to see what one can “get away with” in terms of walking all over the other person. Abusers filter out who they will target based on how they respond to these little tests and become disinterested in people who can hold onto themselves enough to oppose them. Then things escalate from there.

One example of a kind of abuse that starts out unidirectional in terms of responsibility then becomes multifocal is a parent-child dynamic. Children cannot abuse a parent, it is just not possible that a child can hold enough power to do so. But as children emerge into adults, they do begin to have power, and have a responsibility to themselves. 

Many adults simply accept abusive dynamics with their parent(s). Scroll any forum about marriage problems and you will find a plethora of examples of adults who cannot fathom that they are being controlled and abused by their parent and that it’s destroying their adult relationships. 

But as an adult, it is their responsibility (conditionally, I realize we are in a unique economic situation that limits choices at times for those who still need to live with parents) to grow their level of differentiation and interrupt the dynamics of control.

Power in relationships is always being negotiated – constantly. When we aren’t aware of this, we are prone to control or be controlled. Most people occupy both positions in different contexts, even within the same relationship. And if we aren’t responsible, let alone aware of this, it’s easy for one to feel controlled when they actually had agency in a given situation, or for one to feel justified in exercising control over another.

And to return to my opening statement that it’s not an accident that abuse intervention is so under-researched: abuse, control, and power are the bones of any system of hierarchy. To expose them would be to expose the tools with which domination is perpetuated, and the reality that every person is an agent in their own right.

There is some reality to models like the Duluth Model that pose abuse as generally a gender-based power dynamic, but it also leaves out so much and paints a reductive picture of abuse. It also leads to the idea that abuse always follows lines of broader social power when this is not the case. Power is contextual and it’s distribution will different depending on the community/communities in question.

Honestly, I have been studying abuse for over a decade and the closest I have come to understanding it in all it’s nuance and complexity is by combining meta analyses of social hierarchies and micro analyses of differentiation on the individual, dyadic, family, and community levels.

I’ve discovered that it’s both true that abuse is highly prevalent and exists even in the most seemingly mundane contexts, AND that because of this abuse as a term has a misalignment between the suggested gravity of it and the reality of it. It paints a picture of complete lack of agency when this is not the full truth. 

I genuinely believe that seeing and understanding abuse, destigmatizing the word while also being highly aware of levels of danger and having context-appropriate responses will lead us towards interventions that actually work. In a nutshell, I see Schnarch’s crucible approach as a guideline for how to achieve this. 

And I think opposition to seeing agency as something that is shared and abuse as a power negotiation is threatening…. because it disrupts abuse in more ways than one. Both in that it illuminates survivor agency in ways that challenge the victim narratives and by the same token illuminates survivor agency in a way that *actually* disrupts dynamics of abuse. 

Obviously the latter is a threat to any system of domination at any level. But the former I think is threatening because for so long victim narratives have been an important tool for getting any form of social support whatsoever in escaping abuse. 

Survivor respectability and the purity of one’s victim narrative has long been a metric by which the severity of one’s experience of abuse is measured. To challenge that is to challenge one of the ways survivors are taken seriously. And for many that is going to be both scary and offensive. But imo, it is also necessary to disrupt the prevalence of abuse.

One must recognize their own agency. One must be able to look back and see where their power resided, where it didn’t, and the ways they ignored or subdued their own agency – either because of fear or because of pressure, even when they could have acted or chosen differently. And if you can’t do that, not only are you at risk to be victimized again, but you’re also at risk of exercising your own agency in dominating ways against others.

The ability to do that honestly is predicated on your ability to see yourself in an unflattering light. Any abuse intervention worth it’s salt will raise an individual’s capacity to do this – whether it is a survivor or an abuser being supported in this. But yeah, that kind of capacity and self-awareness is a genuine threat to modes of social power. So who knows if we will ever see research and implementation of such interventions.