By Lisa Twerski, LCSW


Differentiating Between Dysfunction, Disorders and Domestic Abuse

It can be very confusing to people who feel abused in their marriage, to try and determine if the cause is a dysfunctional relationship that may have some abusive features, a spouse with a mental illness or domestic abuse. In fact, some of the abusive ways one may be treated by their spouse, may be similar in each of these situations. What determines which type of situation one is actually faced with is the underlying dynamic.

Why is it important to make the distinction between whether the emotional abuse (for example) is due to mental illness, dysfunction or is domestic abuse? Because the most appropriate intervention will vary depending on what the underlying issue is, in a given situation.

In the case of domestic abuse, the abuser employs a pattern of systematic, coercive tactics, to instill fear in order to gain and maintain power and control in the marriage. The most common tactics used by the abuser are: economic abuse, emotional abuse, threats, intimidation, isolation, and sometimes physical or sexual abuse. The abuser does this because he (or she) believes it is his absolute entitlement to have power and control, of his wife, in his marriage. For the abuser, it?¢?‚¬?„¢s all about this entitlement. It is his (or her) conviction that he has the right to everything revolve around him without having to consider the needs, wants or concerns of his spouse.

Feeling Abused Does Not Always Mean Domestic Abuse

There are times, when a spouse might  have been subjected to one or more abusive tactics by their spouse, but it is actually not a case of domestic abuse. To  understand what else might be going wrong, it's best to begin by describing what a marriage looks like when things are going right.

A healthy relationship is one in which each spouse feels responsible, and sees it as his or her tafkid, to enjoy, consider and take care of the other ?¢?‚¬?€? emotionally, spiritually, physically and psychologically. When this dynamic is present, we can refer to this as a functional marriage, because both partners are functioning in their intended roles, and the marriage works in the way it was intended.

In general terms, a dysfunctional marriage can be defined as one in which one or both spouses is not abiding by the principle that defines a healthy, functional marriage. The times when that breakdown in functioning can be so bad as to feel abusive, usually fall into one of two categories: 1) certain mental illnesses 2) where one or both spouses has a profound inability to function in a healthy way as a spouse:  manage conflict, negotiate, communicate effectively or appropriately, think of marriage in terms of giving instead of getting, which leads to the sporadic use of an abusive tactic.

Mental Illnesses That Can Feel Like Domestic Abuse:

There are a variety of disorders which can cause someone to react to their inner turmoil in ways that then feels abusive to his/her spouse. The following are a couple of examples:

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): One of the hallmarks of BPD  is the person?¢?‚¬?„¢s intense fear of abandonment. This fear often causes the person  to be controlling as well as exacting with his or her  spouse. Any attempt on the part of his or her spouse to have independence in belief or action that is contrary to theirs, provokes the fear of abandonment which, in turn, becomes rage. In that rage someone with BPD can become very abusive, but again, the etiology (root cause), as well as intention, is very different.

Another example can occur when married to someone with intense anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In the case of OCD, people use rituals of various types in an attempt to calm their anxiety. If the person with the disorder is prone to ?¢?‚¬??include?¢?‚¬?„¢ their spouse in their attempt to alleviate anxiety, it can feel very abusive. Take for example, someone who uses obsessive orderliness in an attempt to alleviate anxiety. Upon coming home to things being ?¢?‚¬??out of place?¢?‚¬?„¢ they might launch a vicious  verbal attack that would sound similar to  an abuser?¢?‚¬?„¢s use of emotional or psychological abuse.

The key to differentiating between mental illness and domestic abuse, would lie in looking at the bigger picture surrounding the abusive behavior.

A Profound Inability To Function In a Healthy Way as a Spouse:

When a spouse can only think in terms of what s/he should be getting out of marriage, in the extreme, this can look very much like domestic abuse. If this spouse also does not know how to manage conflicts or communicate appropriately, disagreements can, at times, dissolve into name calling or even a fit of rage. There may be a demand for things to revolve around him/her; or, an expectation that is more focused on self rather than giving. The ability or interest in compromise, or resolving conflict, rather than having thing?¢?‚¬?„¢s all one?¢?‚¬?„¢s own way, may seem to be non-existent.

What differentiates a case of domestic abuse from one of dysfunction is twofold. First, while there may be abusive behavior, there is not a systematic pattern of coercive control. Again, looking at the bigger context will give some clues. When the dysfunctional spouse?¢?‚¬?„¢s behavior is examined carefully, one can see that the abusive treatment is sporadic and often only comes at times of conflict or potential conflict.

Second, while the spouse who is trying to be  giving and caring may get overwhelmed by the demanding, self centered behavior of the dysfunctional spouse, s/he actually could step out of that role and say ?¢?‚¬?“no?¢?‚¬? to the excessive demands. Not that it would be easy. The healthy spouse in a marriage has always wanted and expected to fulfill that role in an appropriate way. Also, this intentional role change may be frightening, because the anger, or perhaps the fragility, that the unhealthy spouse displays seems difficult to challenge.

In fact, a challenge to the dysfunctional spouse?¢?‚¬?„¢s self-centeredness may at first make the marriage seem even more dysfunctional, because it increases discord, as both spouses are now ?¢?‚¬?“fighting?¢?‚¬? for their own needs. However, in a dysfunctional marriage it is possible to stop assuming the caretaking role and assert one?¢?‚¬?„¢s own needs. In this situation the absolute belief in the right to power and control does not exist. Consequently, there is a limit to how far the dysfunctional spouse will actually go, leaving the other spouse with more options.

In true domestic abuse cases, the abused spouse doesn?¢?‚¬?„¢t have the option of fighting to get her needs or her opinions considered, because if she did try to stand up for herself, she would have to contend with much more than just discord or unpleasantness. In an abusive relationship, the abuser will continue to escalate the consequences, making things increasingly unbearable or frightening for his spouse, until she feels that she must either  comply with his expectations or leave. If she is not willing to leave, she then feels that her one option is to capitulate to the abuser?¢?‚¬?„¢s demands.

  It is impossible to overstate the importance of making the distinction between these categories of ?¢?‚¬??marital problems.?¢?‚¬?„¢  What is an appropriate intervention for one situation is a waste of time for another. What  would be helpful in that situation would be unsafe in still another. If you are struggling with feeling abused, but don?¢?‚¬?„¢t quite know what to do, getting a proper assessment of the situation will be the best first step towards help and health.



Lisa Twerski, LCSW, has been working with victims of domestic violence for over twenty years, maintains a private practice in Brooklyn and lectures locally and nationally on many subjects including domestic abuse, marriage, and dating. Parts of this article have been excerpted from her book, I?¢?‚¬?„¢m So Confused, Am I Being Abused? due out at the end of 2011.