Shame is a highly complex and potentially dangerous human emotion often associated with intolerable feelings of humiliation, disgrace, and embarrassment (Mills, 2008). In contrast to guilt which focuses on behavior, shame refers to a particular state of emotionality where an individual’s entire sense of self is targeted for critique (Tangney, 1996 cited in Kivisto et al. 2011).
Understanding this difference is hugely important to the study of violent and aggressive behavior–and thus to the field of domestic violence–primarily because of the differential impact guilt and shame are thought to have on the promotion of violent behavior. Whereas guilt has been found to deter aggression, both towards ourselves and against others, shame tends to promote anger and violence (Tangney, 1996, cited in Kivisto et al. 2011). Shame is experienced as such an intensely painful emotion that it is suppressed at all costs. It eventually and inevitably erupts though, displaying itself in harmful behaviors that can include self-mutilation, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation (Mills, 2008). Shame can also result in the externalization of this pain, manifesting in violence directed at other people (Mills, 2008; Gilligan, 1999).
This fact holds particular relevance for the domestic violence field. Specifically, research on the link between shame and aggression provides often overlooked insight into the etiology of partner violence in addition to shedding light on why traditional models of intervention and treatment–exemplified by Duluth-style programs–have failed to break the cycle of violence and keep victims safe.
Shame and Partner Violence
It is well established that one of the single greatest predictors for the perpetuation of partner violence is having witnessed physical aggression between parents in one’s family of origin. Dutton, van Ginkel, and Starzomski (1995, cited in Kivisto et al. 2011) found however, that when parental physical violence was controlled for, shaming experiences were more strongly correlated with adult perpetuation of partner violence. To be sure, direct shaming of children can co-occur with parental physical violence, and further, physical violence against children is shame-inducing in that such experiences communicate to children that they are unloveable (Gilligan, 1999). The importance of Dutton and colleagues findings however underscore the powerful and potentially dangerous role of shame in the promotion of violent acting out.
Taken together, findings such as these highlight the powerful effect that shame has on the developing child’s personality and on the likelihood of adult perpetration of aggressive and physical forms of partner violence: “Early shaming experiences contribute to the formation of the ‘abusive personality’, characterized by high levels of chronic anger and an attributional style of externalizing blame, and parental physical abusiveness provides the modeling of behaviors to express anger characteristic of this type of personality”.
Unfortunately, advocates and professionals working in the domestic violence field have strongly resisted the inclusion of psychological factors in theories of causation (Corvo & Johnson, 2003). The traditional paradigm favors instead, an ideologically based explanation that conceptualizes partner violence as culturally sanctioned behavior, deployed consciously and strategically by men against their female partners, in order to exert their (men’s) perceived right to power and control (Corvo & Johnson, 2003). Attempts to expand the etiological parameters established by feminist discourse in the field are dismissed as making excuses for a perpetrator’s violent behavior or worse, as victim-blaming. Critics of this rigid framework contend however, that seeking to understand why someone behaves the way they do hardly justifies the bad behavior. In the end, disrupting the cycle of violence is only possible to the extent that we accurately identify the root causes of such behavior.
To date, the ideological stranglehold that posits a singular theory of causation for domestic violence has prevented the development of more accurate and precise etiological theories; stunted scientific inquiry into more effective interventions and treatment models; and given birth to federal and state policies which rely almost exclusively on punitive, criminal justice-based responses to domestic violence. In spite of a growing body of research which challenges the efficacy and safety of Duluth-style programs, it remains the treatment of choice for domestically violent individuals (Corvo & Johnson, 2003).
Implications for Treatment
If early experiences of direct shaming put children at risk for adult perpetration of partner violence, then it is no wonder that current interventions have have failed to meaningfully address abusive behavior. Besides failing to target the root cause(s) of violent behavior, interventions that rely on punitive, anti-therapeutic responses can be seen as shame inducing themselves and thus might contribute to continued incidents of partner abuse. Corvo and Johnson (2003) contend for example that much of our legal, clinical, and social responses are rooted in the ‘vilification of the batterer’: “The popular, policy, and ‘scientific’ designation of perpetrators of partner violence as being appropriate targets for dismissive, degrading, and stereotypical characterizations”. Such a response is likely to activate the perpetrators trauma history and could reinforce, rather than uproot, maladaptive behaviors.
Advocates who ascribe to the Duluth Model assert that if domestic violence perpetrators could just unlearn their patriarchal socialization, they could stop being abusive. The above cited research indicates that partner violence is far more complicated than that though, often–although not always–having roots in a abusers own long and painful history of victimization.
This is not to say that we should adopt a universal policy of addressing partner violence solely through a psychological lens. We should however, investigate and develop theories of causation that identify all of the social, psychological, and biological factors that potentially contribute to partner violence. Interventions should be tailored to the unique needs of each victim and perpetrator rather than the one size fits all approach of Duluth-style programs. Finally, professionals in the field must resist conceptualizations of perpetrators as treatment resistant villains who are undeserving of help and should utilize intervention models that are responsive, holistic, and that affirm the humanity of all those involved in the treatment process.