Ending the Cycle of Violence
Louie admits he's been abusing his wife, Shannon, for 13 years. He has been convicted of domestic violence twice—once in 1999 for punching Shannon and a second time for pushing her to the ground. He says he no longer physically abuses Shannon, but that the emotional abuse has continued.
In an e-mail to The Oprah Winfrey Show months ago, he confessed his behavior and pleaded for help. "I am an abusive husband," Louie wrote. "I verbally abuse my wife every single day, and I just can't seem to stop. I'm desperate for help. I lose my temper. Yelling, screaming and name-calling are part of our daily lives. At times, I will get within an inch of her face and scream at the top of my lungs. I will call her a liar over nothing and have even threatened to kill her. ...
"My emotions get out of control, and I have no idea why. I love my wife and kids and being a father. I can't imagine someone treating my daughters this way. I've been trying to change and I just can't make that final step."
Another Story About Domestic Violence
Louie and Shannon are trying to understand his anger for a very specific reason. "We wouldn't be fighting for it as hard as we have and going through all this if there wasn't a lot of beautiful times making it worth something to fight for," Louie says.
"You were disrespected as a child and you have physical and emotional wounds to prove that," Dr. Robin says. "We then grow up and we get involved with someone innocent, and violate them the way we were violated. We get into adult relationships and act out the stuff we saw that was a secret when we were children."
Dr. Hendrix says that when a person falls in love, they may appear to be attracted only to their partner's positive traits. Subconsciously, that person is also attracted to their partner's negative traits that are connected to the unfulfilled needs of childhood.
The Imago Theory is that it's not a coincidence you're attracted to your partner. "You lost [happiness during childhood] and you'll never feel fully alive again until you get it back. We think that committed partnership or marriage is the context within which those issues can be restored."
The first step is mirroring, in which one person acts as a stand-in for their partner's guardian. "You listen to your partner talk and you make every effort you can to accurately hear what they're saying without criticizing it, without judging it," Dr. Hendrix says.
At Dr. Hendrix's prompting, Shannon asks Louie to explain what living with his parents was like. "The only thing that you've ever cared about is yourself," Louie says. "You had kids because you thought they would make you happy, not because you wanted to take care of them or because you cared about them."
With Dr. Hendrix's help, Louie went even further with mirroring. "It's not fair that you take away my childhood and take out everything that you've done wrong in your life on us. ... I'm learning from you how to hurt people so when I grow up then I can hurt the ones I love," Louie says.
"So living with us is like being in hell—never feeling loved, never feeling wanted, never feeling taken care of," Shannon says, as she mirrors Louie's parents.
Dr. Hendrix believes that mirroring is an important first step because it allows someone like Louie to re-experience and then release his pain. "You don't get it all out in one session or with one deep experience of sobbing, but you begin to open up," Dr. Hendrix says. "When you start acting out in adulthood with hurtful behavior, you're actually acting out of that pain. If you release the pain, then you remove the power [that pain holds]."
"It keeps [me] feeling safe," Louie says. "I'm afraid to let that go. I'm afraid that I'm going to get trampled on, or she's going to walk out on me like everybody else."
Shannon also "benefited" from poor communication, using it to shield herself from the reality of their relationship. "I don't expect much out of him, so he doesn't really disappoint me," she says.
The emotional wall between Shannon and Louie insulated each of them from feeling even more pain, Dr. Hendrix says. "Closeness is connected with pain from childhood for both of them. Closeness has in it pain. Deep in the brain, pain is always connected to the possibility of death," he says. "In order to stay alive, I'm going to have to keep any distance."
Louie maintains this emotional distance in the way he was taught by parents. Dr. Hendrix says that Louie maintains this emotional distance because he does not know how to have "appropriate separateness without being abusive verbally."
Couples need to tell each other their wishes, he says. Oprah points out that most people believe their partner should automatically know their desires. For example, isn't it obvious the dishes need to be done? Why can't he just do them?
Dr. Hendrix calls this type of thinking "the illusion of romance." "It's like symbiosis," he says. "[Partners think], 'You live in my head, don't you? Don't you know what I'm thinking? Why aren't you doing it? I fuse you with me—I assume that we're just one person.'"
Dr. Hendrix asks Louie to come up with three things that Shannon could do for him that would reduce his frustration. She will choose one of the three and commit to changing her behavior for three weeks.
Louie's first request is for Shannon to create a daily list of household chores for him. His second request is a permanent list of things that need to be done on a regular basis. Louie's third request is for Shannon to tell him every afternoon the specific tasks that need to be done that day. Shannon says she's willing to make a daily list of things that need to be done around the house.
Shannon's main dissatisfaction with Louie is that she feels lonely and wants more time with her husband. "He pretty much spends all of his time when he's at home in our bedroom," she says.
Shannon's first behavior change request is for Louie to engage the family for at least one hour every day. Her second request is for him to limit the time he spends by himself. Shannon's third request is that Louie eats dinner with the family instead of alone in his room. Louie chooses to spend at least an hour with Shannon and their children every day for three weeks.
By really listening to each other, Dr. Hendrix says, couples "become passionate friends. That's what we call a conscious partnership."
"It is super hard, but it's the most amazing thing," Louie says, admitting that he and Shannon have only committed to one appreciation each day. "When [your partner] gives you that one appreciation, all [the day's troubles] turn off. All day you're thinking about, 'Man, that was nice and I feel good about what she said about me.' It changes your whole outlook on the day."