Zero Tolerance Domestic Violence Laws

When I teach my anger management class, I encounter class participants who have never before been in trouble with the law, but nevertheless now find themselves court ordered to be there. Due to several domestic violence incidents which resulted in severe injury and even death, more and more towns, cities and states are enacting zero tolerance domestic violence laws — and more and more partners are finding themselves in situations they never imagined they would be in.

Suppose a couple gets involved in an argument. The argument becomes more and more heated, and they engage in a full-blown shouting match. A neighbor hears the shouting, feels uncomfortable, and calls the police. The police show up. If a zero tolerance law is in effect, the police must arrest someone, and sometimes arrest both people — regardless of the fact that neither has touched the other physically, and regardless of the fact that neither party has pressed charges. Zero tolerance domestic violence means tolerance for no form of domestic violence. And, shouting is a form of domestic violence.

So, one or both parties find themselves embarked on a journey they did not anticipate: getting charged with an offense; having to obtain legal counsel, either through the public defender’s office or privately; appearing before a judge; receiving a sentence, usually through a plea deal, and usually involving attending anger management classes for anywhere from eight to twenty-six weeks. All this involves time and money. In my anger management classes, 100% of participants acknowledge that the incident that brought them to class started over “something stupid,” and if they had managed their anger differently they would have saved themselves, their partner and their family a lot of hardship.

The next time you feel the urge to let loose with a torrent of angry words, whether you are in the privacy of your own home or driving down the street in your car, be mindful that your behavior might precipitate a call to the police by a concerned citizen. Stop shouting. Stop talking. Take a breath. If you can leave the vicinity, tell your partner you need to leave for a half hour, and go for a walk. Calm down. Think about your own contribution to the problem, not how wrong your partner is. Develop a plan for approaching your partner peacefully when you return. If you were arguing about an issue that needs resolution, table it until the two of you can talk calmly about it.

You have a choice whether or not to get caught up in the zero tolerance net.


The Escalation of Anger, Part 2

Because arguments so often escalate into verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse, this topic warrants additional discussion. Let’s take a look at situations that typically lead to escalation, and suggestions on how to handle these situations differently:

  • You dominate conversations, leaving the other person with little space to talk. This causes the other to pen up anger until he/she finally explodes. [Suggestion: Avoid monologues. Pause at frequent intervals, and allow the other to respond, so that you’re truly conversing, rather than giving a speech.]
  • You blame the other for the problems in the relationship. [Suggestion: Consider what role you play in the problem.]
  • You can’t control your own anger when the other person gets angry. [Suggestion: Focus on what the other is trying to express. Say something like, “In other words,….” or “So you felt that….” and add, “I imagine that makes you feel….” Responding in this way helps to defuse the other’s anger, because he/she feels heard.]
  • You control what the other person can talk about. [Suggestion: If a topic is uncomfortable, explore within yourself what it is triggering. It is most likely an indication of an area that needs work on your part.]
  • You engage in the one-up/one-down loop. [Suggestion: See The Escalation of Anger, Part 1.]

As you can see, awareness is a healthy first step in any of these situations. In any of your interactions, be mindful of the impact your words or actions have on the other person and on the relationship. Don’t minimize the effect of what you say and do. Recognize when you are being emotionally abusive, and takes steps to change.

Tension in Relationships

For some couples, it doesn’t take much before tension between them begins to mount. Before they know it, they’re “getting into it” with each other — and neither really knows why. It’s a pattern they follow time and time again, and they can’t seem to prevent it from recurring.

One thing to watch for are the assumptions you make when your partner has triggered your anger. If you assume that your partner has done something deliberately to make you angry, of course you’re going to respond with anger. Think for a moment that perhaps your partner’s action was due to the fact that he/she was stressed out due to circumstances relating to work or some other reason. It may not have been about you at all. You just happened to be the closest target. While it’s really not OK for your partner to strike out at you, it may help the situation if you avoid striking back, and instead offer him/her some support and empathy. See if you can find the compassion within you to let the incident go for the moment. When the incident has passed and your partner is calm once again, you can then let him/her know that you felt hurt, frustrated, offended, and so on when they said x or did y. Make a pact with each other that you will let each other know when you’re moody for reasons unrelated to your relationship. This opens up the channels of communication and keeps tension from mounting between you. Your partner can relax, knowing that whatever is bothering you will blow over, rather than causing an argument between you.

Another way to prevent tension from mounting when your partner is upset is merely to listen. Hear what he/she is saying so that you are sure you understand before you respond. Often partners begin to “talk into” each other, focusing only on what they want to say, and they don’t really hear or acknowledge what’s going on with the other person. They interrupt each other and make sarcastic comments. Sometimes they have such difficulty listening to each other that they don’t even recognize when they’re in agreement! If what your partner is saying seems unreasonable or crazy, see if you can find at least one kernel of truth in what your he/she is saying, and agree with that. Don’t get defensive, and don’t try to explain yourself. Listen without judging or criticizing your partner’s thoughts or feelings. Just agree with that one kernel of truth. By doing this, you can lower the intensity of the moment and avoid causing a rift in your relationship. You’ll have plenty of time to explain yourself later.

It’s hard to react differently to your partner if you’ve both spent years suppressing your true feelings and building up strong resentments about times when you each haven’t been heard or understood.  If you each wait around for the other to react differently, it will never happen. Change begins with you!

Return to Equilibrium

Have you noticed that, when you have an argument with someone, one of you gets over it more quickly than the other? In fact, in intimate relationships one partner might want to make love after a fight, while it’s the furthest thing from the other partner’s mind. When people engage in emotionally reactive exchanges in which both are shouting in frustration at one another, they “lose their balance,” and they may differ in the amount of time they each need to return to equilibrium afterward. One person may take only minutes, while the other may need several hours or a whole day. Usually, the more volatile an argument has been, and the more emotional the participants have become, the longer it will take to “come down” from the incident. It can take a while to settle down after parties have been throwing things at each other, either verbally or literally — and again, it may take one person much longer than the other to recover from the incident, regardless of how hard the other tries to get them to “snap out of it.”

If you respect each other’s need to settle down after an incident, you will give each other the space needed to return to equilibrium — however long it takes. Attempting to reconnect while one of you is still “out of balance” may only incite another argument. Wait until the emotional reactivity has subsided and then get back together to make peace.

Awareness: The Three-Legged Stool

In order to manage anger effectively, a person must develop a sense of awareness — awareness of what’s happening in their body, awareness of what feelings are underlying the anger, and awareness of the thoughts that are triggering the anger. I call this the Three-Legged Stool, with each leg being just as important as the other two.

When you get angry, you might not be aware of how and where your body is reacting to the anger-provoking incident. Your body is actually the first indicator that you are angry. In fact, your body can display signs of anger even before you realize you’re angry! Common indicators are a tight jaw, clenched fists, and shallow or rapid breathing. There are many more. The next time you begin to feel angry, tune into your body and scan it to notice what’s happening. On a piece of paper, jot down what you notice to reinforce your awareness of your personal physical signs.

Feelings comprise the second leg of the stool. Anger is a secondary emotion, and there are always primary emotions under the anger. Often people focus on, and express, only the anger, failing to note underlying feelings such as hurt, disappointment, fear, or sadness. When you express anger, the target of your anger will usually express anger in return. If you’re feeling hurt or disappointed, this is the last thing you need. However, if you take time to explore what you might be feeling under your anger and express that feeling, you are more likely to receive the response that you’re really needing in the moment. Saying “I’m disappointed that you didn’t remember to….” or “I feel hurt when you say….” may result in an apology from the other person and a commitment to remember to do things differently in the future. If you lash out in anger instead, the other person will become defensive, offer excuses, and feel victimized by your anger.

Finally, it’s important to identify the thoughts that are running through your head when you are angry. Ask yourself whether they’re realistic or distorted. Are you jumping to conclusions without all the evidence; seeing things in terms of black and white with no “grey areas”; overgeneralizing; placing all the blame on someone who’s not fully responsible? If you take the time to step back and notice your thoughts before responding in anger, you will be better able to express yourself rationally and explain your perspective of the incident that has made you angry.

Your physical signs, underlying feelings, and thoughts affect you regardless of whether or not you are aware of them. Let’s suppose you are not aware of these indicators, and the following takes place:

You feel tension in your neck when a set of circumstances arises. You think that the circumstances are out of your control, and there’s nothing you can do to change what is happening. Feeling “out of control” makes you angry, and you take it out on the person closest to you.

Contrast that with what you can do if you are aware:

You feel tension in your neck when a set of circumstances arises. You take a few minutes to breathe into the tension and consider what might be causing it. You realize that you are feeling “out of control” over a certain situation. When you examine your thoughts, you notice that you are jumping to conclusions without having all the facts. You’ve managed your anger, and the awareness process has helped you to avoid taking your anger out on the first person to walk into the room.

You have a choice: To become aware or to stay unaware. Which will it be?

The Escalation of Anger, Part 1

Fights can easily escalate into physical abuse when a person’s anger gets out of control. That physical abuse can take a number of forms, including punching or hitting, pushing or pulling, pinching, biting, and so on. One factor contributing to the escalation of anger is what I call “getting caught in the loop.” Here’s how it works:

Person 1 does or says something that puts himself in a one-up position and Person 2 in a one-down position. It’s uncomfortable for Person 2 to feel one-down, and he’s going to do whatever he can to feel better. So, Person 2 is going to do or say something that puts himself one-up. This automatically causes Person 1 to slide into the one-down position. Person 1 doesn’t like being one-down, and says or does something to regain his one-up position causing Person 2 to slide into a one-down position again. And so on, and so on, and so on…. These two people are “in the loop.” If you recognize that you’re in a loop with someone, you can step out of the loop by refusing to engage in the “one-up/one-down” dynamic. By doing this, you step out of the loop, and the loop collapses, because one person can’t be in the loop by themselves. Once you’re out of the loop, you can try to communicate about the issue at hand in a more productive way. If neither of you steps out of the loop, the situation is likely to escalate, and you may be headed for a physical encounter. Here’s an illustration of the loop. It’s no accident that it resembles an infinity sign, because it can go on and on for what seems like an infinity!

Following are common ways that people get into the loop with each other:

  • Using put downs
  • Raising one’s voice and using dismissive hand gestures
  • Arguing facts
  • Responding impatiently, causing the other person to feel offended by tone of voice
  • Blaming

The best way to get out of the loop is to take a time-out as soon as you recognize you’re in the loop. Calmly tell the other person that you can see that things are starting to escalate, and you don’t want to say or do things that you might regret, so you’re taking a time-out. Let him or her know when you will be back to resume your conversation. (This is very important. Do not leave the other person feeling abandoned and wondering when or if you’re going to return!) Leave quietly. Do not stomp out and slam the door behind you. Remember, you are trying to preserve the relationship/friendship. Return when you said you would. (If you don’t, this tool will lose its credibility, and will not be effective the next time you try to use it.)

When you do resume discussing the issue, use “I feel” statements rather than attacking with “you” statements. For example, say “I feel hurt when you turn on the TV when I’m trying to talk with you” rather than “You never listen to me when I’m trying to talk with you.” Say “I feel disrespected when you talk over me” rather than “You always interrupt me when I’m talking.”

It’s always wise to take whatever steps you can to de-escalate a situation. Your relationships with significant others, friends and family members will benefit if you put wise steps into practice.