Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Apple Barrels and Clarifications About the Places Where We Seek and Find Ourselves

Phillip Zimbardo offers an analogy in the book “The Lucifer Effect” that applies well to our spousal abuse scenario addressed here in recent blog posts. He describes the soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison as apples in a barrel, with the prison representing the barrel. The system that created, provided and maintained the system would then be the division of the Armed Forces that oversaw the prison. Zimbardo argues that the apples were not bad, but that the barrel was terrible. The barrel was bad because the system that maintained the prison barrel was grossly inadequate for the task, ultimately resulting in the corruption of the apples. This does not absolve individuals of their wrong actions, but it addresses the responsibility that we have to the whole system. The apples became rotten because of the conditions of the barrel which could have been greatly averted had the system been wisely planned and maintained. So bad apples are not always the cause of ruin, and thrown into a bad situation, some apples don’t stand a chance. He concludes the book with a discussion of heroism and encourages others to seek to be heroes like the MP who reported the injustices (whose family had to go into protective custody after the trial because of his unpopular decision to speak against his fellow officers).

If we take that analogy to the issue of marriage, the husband and wife become the apples, the marriage becomes the barrel, and all the beliefs about what marriage is and how it works become our proverbial barrel maintenance system. If one accepts the CBMW concept of marriage, the barrel that is prepared and maintained through their teaching becomes an inhospitable place. Systems like CBMW create and support the environment in the marriage barrel, casting husband and wife as those in contention with one another by nature. I assert that it is the system that promotes the spoilage of the apples (the husband that feels such frustration with his wife making abuse understandable) by erroneously defining the barrel as an adversarial system. In the case of a husband desiring to abuse his wife, it is not the wife that is the bad apple (through her lack of submission) but the system that predicts abuse.

Sadly, family systems therapists have well established that human beings seek out familiarity of our previous relationships, and people tend to do “barrel hopping.” We learn to anticipate and PASSIVELY seek the familiarity of our previous barrel in terms of relationships. People who leave bad relationships gravitate toward the familiar. It’s just what human beings do. Women who married and divorced alcoholics or wife beaters often end up “finding themselves” (to their own mortification) in new marriages with yet another alcoholic or wife beater. They do not ACTIVELY seek out another spouse of the same persuasion, but they do PASSIVELY seek out the familiarity of their previous relationships. They don’t actively seek or even invite the abuse but passively seek the familiar, whether that is desirable or not. Add to this all the complexities of relationships in general.

In a previous post I made this statement:

Victims will automatically punish themselves and redefine every situation to make them the causative factor in every situation gone awry. Those are the roles that victims know well, and they will then generally seek out an enabler to encourage what they understand to be their role within all of their relationships. A victim 'one-downs' him or herself in any given setting because that is what is most familiar to them, whether the context of the situation deems them to be so or not.

This is no way means that the shame-based or victim-oriented person invites abuse by “seeking out an enabler,” whether that is a person or a religious system that believes that suffering should never be avoided. What I was referring to was the passive seeking of the familiar, something very different from inviting abuse. Kate Johnson of the Christian Coalition Against Domestic Abuse contacted me in order to express her concern that my language could also be misconstrued by an abuser to mean that a woman was “asking for it.”

She offered this alternative:

“Victims will automatically blame themselves and unjustly become the causative factor in every situation gone awry. Those are the roles that victims know well, and they will then generally be drawn to someone who is abusive, which keeps them in the role they know too well, that of victim within all of their relationships. A victim finds themselves in a 'one-down' position in any given setting because that is what is most familiar to them, whether the context of the situation deems them to be so or not.”

I understand the concern, but I am personally uncomfortable with this alternative. This comment defines the victim as a type of “innocent bystander” in some sense. I don’t believe, and family systems theory (Bowen, et. al.), exit counseling literature and the addictions literature would argue that the person does make unintentional choices through their preference for the familiar. Kate Johnson may not agree with me. Shame-based people will inevitably seek out dysfunctional relationships, though I don’t believe that this is ever an active, deliberate choice but a passive search for familiarity. Persons are responsible for where they “find themselves” and what they “unjustly become” in a relationship, no matter how passive their choices were that put them there. There are choices involved for which they are responsible, wherein they hop out of one bad barrel, often hopping right into another familiar one (also frequent behavior practiced by people leaving abusive churches to find themselves right back in a new abusive church – cult hopping).

This, again, is not a situation wherein people ACTIVELY invite or seek out ABUSE, even though people are still responsible for their passive choices (which also DO NOT INVITE ABUSE). This also does not justify abuse of any kind under any circumstances either.

The bottom line: People are still responsible for their own actions, and on that I think that Kate and I can agree. I also want to own what I profess, particularly in this forum. There may likely no way to safety proof every argument to ensure that an abuser will not twist some of these statements to legitimize their behaviors. But we can try!