with Violent Women
Pulling aside the blanket of silence on a taboo subject.
by Erin Pizzey
Copyright © 1997 by Erin
Those of us
working in the field of domestic violence are confronted daily by the difficult
task of working with women in problematical families. In my work with family
violence, I have come to recognize that there are women involved in emotionally
and/or physically violent relationships who express
and enact disturbance beyond the expected (and acceptable) scope of distress.
Such individuals, spurred on by deep feelings of vengefulness, vindictiveness,
and animosity, behave in a manner that is singularly destructive; destructive
to themselves as well as to some or all of the other family members, making an
already bad family situation worse. These women I have found it useful to
describe as "family terrorists."
In my experience, men also are
capable of behaving as family terrorists but male violence tends to be more
physical and explosive. We have had thousands of international studies about
male violence but there is very little about why or how women are violent.
There seems to be a blanket of silence over the huge figures of violence
expressed by women. Because family terrorism is a tactic largely used by women
and my work in the domestic violence field is largely with women, I address
this problem discussing only my work with women.
Whose moods set the tone?
potential for terrorism may rest dormant for many years, emerging in its full
might only under certain circumstances. I found that in many cases it is the
dissolution, or threatened dissolution, of the family that calls to the fore
the terrorist's destructiveness. It is essential to understand that prior to dissolution, the potential terrorist plays a role in the
family that is by no means passive. The terrorist is the family member whose
moods reign supreme in the family, whose whims and actions determine the
emotional climate of the household. In this setting, the terrorist could be
described as the family tyrant, for within the family, this individual
maintains the control and power over the other members' emotions.
The family well may be characterized
as violent, incestuous, dysfunctional, and unhappy, but it is the terrorist or
tyrant who is primarily responsible for initiating conflict, imposing
histrionic outbursts upon otherwise calm situations, or (more subtly and
invisibly) quietly manipulating other family members into uproar through guilt,
cunning taunts, and barely perceptive provocations. ( The
quiet manipulative terrorist usually is the most undetected terrorist. Through
the subtle creation of perpetual turmoil, this terrorist may virtually drive
other family members to alcoholism, to drug-addiction, to explosive behavior,
to suicide. The other family members, therefore, are often misperceived as the
"family problem" and the hidden terrorist as the saintly woman who
"puts up with it all.")
While the family remains together,
however miserable that "togetherness" might be, the terrorist maintains
her power. However, it is often the separation of the family that promises to
rend the terrorist's domain and consequently to lessen the power. Family
dissolution, therefore, often is the time when the terrorist feels most
threatened and most alone, and because dangerous.
position of fear, the family terrorist sets out to achieve a specific goal.
There are many possible goals for the terrorist, including: reuniting the
family once again, or ensuring that the children (if there are children in the
relationship) remain under the terrorist's control, or actively destroying the
terrorist's spouse (or ex-spouse) emotionally, physically, and financially. When it was evident to Adolph Hitler that winning the War as an
absolute impossibility, he ordered his remaining troops to destroy
The family terrorist, like the
political terrorist, is motivated by the pursuit of a goal. In attempting to
"disarm" the family terrorist, it is vital that the practitioner
begin intervention by trying to recognize and understand the terrorist's goal.
The source of the terrorist's goal
as in the case of the political terrorist, usually can
be understood to spring from some "legitimate" grievance. The
grievance's legitimacy may be regarded in terms of justified feeling of outrage
in response to an actual injustice or injury, or the legitimacy may exist
solely in the mind of the terrorist. Whether this legitimacy be
real or imagined, the grievance starts as the impetus for the terrorist's
motivation. One hallmark of an emotional terrorist is that this motivation
tends to be obsessional by nature.
Whence this obsession? Why this
overwhelmingly powerful drive? In many cases, that which the terrorist believes
to be the grievance against the spouse actually has very little to do with the
spouse. Although the terrorist may be consciously aware only of the spouse's
alleged offense, the pain of this offense (real or imagined) is invariably an
echo of the past, a mirrored recreation of some painful situation in the
I will not describe here in any
detail the types of childhood that tend to create the subsequent terrorist. I will say, however, that invariably the terrorist's childhood, once
understood, can be seen as violent (emotionally and/or physically). Also
invariably, the terrorist can be regarded as a "violence prone"
individual. I define a violence prone woman as a woman who while complaining
that she is the innocent victim of the malice and aggression of all other
relationships in her life, is in fact, a victim of her own violence and
and painful childhood tends to create in the child an addiction to violence and
to pain (an addiction on all levels: emotional, physical, intellectual,
neurochemical), an addiction that then compels the individual to recreate
situations and relationships characterized by further violence, further danger,
further suffering, further pain. Thus, it is primarily the residual pain from
childhood - and only secondarily the pain of the terrorist's current familial
situation - that serves as the terrorist's motivating impetus. There is
something pathological about the terrorist's motivation, for it is based not so
much on reality as on a twisting, a distortion, a reshaping of reality.
Because the emotional terrorist is a
violence-prone individual, addicted to violence, the terrorist's actions must
be understood as the actions of an addict. When the family was together, the
terrorist found fulfillment for any number of unhealthy appetites and
addictions. When that family then dissolves, the terrorist behaves with all the
desperation, all the obsession, all the single-minded determination of any
addict facing or suffering withdrawal.
The single-mindedness, the
one-sidedness of feeling, is perhaps the most important shibboleth of the
emotional terrorist. Furthermore, the extent of this one-sidedness is, for the
practitioner, perhaps the greatest measure and indicator of how extreme the
terrorist's actions are capable of becoming.
Any person suffering an unhappy
family situation, or the dissolution of a marriage or relationship, will feel
some pain and desperation. A relatively well-balanced person, however, will be
not only aware of their own distress but also sensitive, in some degree, to the
suffering of the other family members. (For example, reasonably well-balanced
parents, when facing divorce, will be most concerned with their children's
emotional well-being, even beyond their own grief.) Not so the emotional
To the family terrorist, there is
only one wronged, one sufferer, only one person in pain, and this person is the
terrorist herself. The terrorist has no empathy and feels only her own pain. In
this manner, the terrorist's capacity for feeling is narcissistic, solipsistic,
and in fact pathological.
will not attempt here to detail the factors in childhood that lead to the
creation of an emotional terrorist. What is, however, evident, in the
terrorist's limited or non-existent ability to recognize other people's
feelings, is that the terrorist's emotions and awareness, at crucial stages of
childhood development, were stunted from reaching beyond the boundaries of
self, due to a multiplicity of reasons. Later, the adult terrorist went on to
make a relationship that was, on some level, no true relationship, but a
re-enactment of childhood pains, scenarios, situations, and
Throughout the relationship, the
solipsistic terrorist did not behave genuinely in response to the emotions of
other family members but self- servingly used them as props for the recreation
of the terrorist's programme. And when that relationship finally faces
dissolution, the terrorist is aware only of her own
pain and outrage and, feeling no empathy for other family members, will proceed
single-mindedly in pursuit of her goal, whether that goal is reunion, ruin, or
revenge. The terrorist's perspective is tempered by little or objectivity.
Instead the terrorist lives in a self-contained world of purely subjective pain
Because conscience consists so
largely of the awareness of other people's feelings as well as of one's own,
the emotional terrorist's behavior often can be described virtually without
conscience. In this lack of conscience lies the dangerous potential of the true
terrorist, and again the degree of conscience in evidence is a useful measure
in my work to anticipate the terrorist's destructiveness.
An additional factor, making the
terrorist so dangerous, is the fact that the terrorist, while in positively
monomaniacal pursuit of her goal, feels fueled by a sense of omnipotence.
Perhaps it is true that one imagines oneself omnipotent when, in truth, one is
in a position of impotence (as in the case of losing one's familial control
through dissolution). Whatever the source of the sensation of omnipotence, the
terrorist believes herself to be unstoppable, and unbound by the constraints or
conscience or empathy, believes that no cost (cost, either to the terrorist or to
other family members) is too great to pay toward the achievement of the goal.
The terrorist, and the terrorist's
actions, know no bounds. (The estimation of the extent of the terrorist's
"boundlessness" presents the greatest challenge to my work). Intent
only to achieve the goal (perhaps "hell-bent" is the most accurate
descriptive phrase) the terrorist will take such measures as: stalking a spouse
or ex-spouse, physically assaulting the spouse or the spouse's new partners,
telephoning all mutual friends and business associates of the spouse in an
effort to ruin the spouse's reputation, pressing fabricated criminal charges
against the spouse ( including alleged battery and child molestation), staging
intentionally unsuccessful suicide attempts for the purpose of manipulation,
snatching children from the spouse's care and custody, vandalizing the spouse's
property, murdering the spouse and/or the children as an act of revenge.
In my experience both men and women
are equally guilty of the above behavior but on the whole, because it is men's
dysfunctional behavior that is studied and reported upon, people do not realize
that to the same extent women are equally guilty of this type of violent
Lapsing into lucidity
definition, then, of a family terrorist or an emotional terrorist is: a woman
or a man (but for the purposes of this work, I refer only to women) who,
pathologically motivated (by unresolved tendencies from a problematical
childhood), and pathologically insensitive to the feelings of other family
members, obsessionally seeks through unbounded action to achieve a destructive
(and, therefore, pathological) goal with regard to other family members.
Of course, this defining profile
pertains to individuals in differing degrees. Many people, unhappy within a
relationship or made unhappy by the dissolution of a relationship, may lapse
into periods of "irrational" behavior. What characterizes the
terrorist, however, is that the vindictive and destructive behaviors are consistent;
the moments of calm and periods of lucidity are the lapses, temporary lulls in
Also, there are women who, suffering
chagrin and misery during or after the lifespan of a relationship,
appear far more self-destructive than destructive to anyone else. For the other
partner, contemplating leaving this kind of individual, the very thought of
leaving such a person is made difficult and untenable by such frequently
uttered protestations as "I cannot live without you," and
"Without you, I might as well be dead."
To be sure, many women exist,
extremely dependent within their relationships, who,
probably having suffered sever emotional betrayal during their childhood,
genuinely feel that their life outside a relationship would be so lonely as to
be unbearable. It is difficult to leave such a woman, and the man attempting to
leave may well feel that, by leaving, he would be
responsible for delivering a mortal blow to an already pathetic wretch. Men
also, are often kept in their relationships which can only be likened to
personal concentration camps, by the fact that they feel a genuine feeling of
chivalry toward their partner. Women tend to put so much more of themselves
into their relationships and therefore suffer when these relationships fall
There is a valid question as to
whether or not this sort of suicidally-inclined individual may be deemed a
terrorist. (To many minds, this kind of individual, no doubt, would seem to
fall more within the category of "emotional black-mailer.") I believe
that sadly, there are people, deeply damaged by their childhoods, who genuinely
cannot face life by themselves. When dealing with such potential cases,
however, I try to make the leaving partner understand that the suicidally
inclined's inclinations predate the relationship by many years, and that,
however tragic the situation, one person simply cannot be held responsible for
keeping another person alive.
Longing for death
individuals, the authentic (though unhealthy) longing for death is a longing
planted within them since early childhood, and there is very little a partner
can do to alter the apparently inevitable course of that longing.
Among true terrorists, however,
threats of suicide can be seen to serve a largely manipulative role. In short,
the terrorist says, "If you can't do as I tell you, I will kill
myself." Whether suicide remains only a threat or is realized, the true
terrorist uses suicide not so much as an expression of desperate grief but as a
weapon to be wielded against others.
In working with clients struggling either in relationships or with the dissolution
of a relationship, I am faced with many questions, all relevant to gauging the
woman's terrorist potential: Will the woman persevere in her efforts to
financially ruin her partner? Is she sincere when she promises to kill her
partner, or have him killed, should he ever become involved in a new
relationship? Are the threats of suicide genuine or manipulative? Will she
carry out the promises of using the law to kidnap the children in order to hurt
the ex-partner? Will she brain-wash the children to
such an extent that her ex-partner dare not form a new relationship?
terrorism is by no means confined to the family context. I know an extremely
successful woman in the world of fine arts. This woman has been haunted by a
former assistant who, vicariously imagining herself to be the writer herself,
dresses like her, stalks her, and issues public statements that it was she, not
the writer, who created the works of art for which the writer is
internationally famous. If the writer is to ensure her own safety, then very
definite steps must be taken.
In situations of emotional and
family terrorism, there are two areas of work to be done: practical measures of
protection (strategies for survival) on the part of family members, and
therapeutic work with the terrorist himself or herself. I must reiterate at
this stage, that both men and women are capable of terrorist tactics but men
tend to behave in a more physically violent manner within the family. Women, as I have shown use far more subtle tactics; i.e., that of
the terrorist as opposed to outright war.
The first step, on the part of other
family members, toward limiting the terrorist's destructive potential is to
understand the terrorist to be a terrorist.
In a recent case, a Mr. Roberts
described to me how, during his marriage, he and his children faced a daily
onslaught of verbal abuse from his wife. Mrs. Roberts was also physically
violent to the children. Now that he has asked for a divorce, she is making use
of every weapon in her arsenal. In the children's presence, she has used drugs
and drunk alcohol to the point of extreme
intoxication. She has staged several unsuccessful suicide attempts in front of
the children, threatened over the telephone to "do something stupid,"
promised to kill Mr. Roberts' new partner, and assured Mr. Roberts that when
she has finished with him he will not have a penny to his name.
To Mr. Roberts, all of this behavior
seemed perfectly usual. After all, he had witnessed this sort of commotion for
thirteen years of their marriage. When I suggested to him,
"What you endured is emotional terrorism," he suddenly and for the
first time was able to see his situation clearly. Now, he realized, his
wife's behavior was neither appropriate nor acceptable. No, this was not the
treatment that every man should expect from his wife, either in or out of
marriage. No, he does not want his children to be subjected to such extreme
behavior any longer. The fact of recognizing a terrorist is the essential first
Then, because a terrorist is fueled
by a feeling of omnipotence and is prepared to behave without bounds, (usually
encouraged by feminist therapists who insist that their clients suffer from
"low self esteem"), pragmatic measures must be taken to define
clearly the boundaries of behavior.
Disarm the terrorists
unfortunate that the legal situation which many divorce agreements mandate is
open-ended. Certainly, when both parties to a divorce are reasonably
well-balanced, it is entirely fitting for the settlement to be flexible enough
to incorporate changing financial circumstances, child-care capabilities, and
visitation rights. When, however, one party to the divorce is an emotional
terrorist, then both the confrontational divorce procedure and the resultant
open-ended divorce settlement provide infinite opportunity for the courts,
lawyers, and the entire battery of psychologists called in for evaluations, to
be used as the terrorist's weapons. In these cases, the court and the divorce
procedure provide no boundaries for the terrorist; instead they allow the
terrorist to continue to behave boundlessly.
For this reason, when dealing with a
terrorist, it is best for the divorce procedure and final decree to be as
swift, as final, as absolute, as unequivocal as
possible. Every practitioner or attorney handling divorces is familiar with
clients described as "litigious." Only when "litigiousness"
is seen as a manifestation of terrorism can the course to swift and precise
legal settlement be steered.
To limit the terrorist's feelings of
omnipotence, there are many effective measures. The guiding principle, as in
the handling of political terrorists, must be: "There is no negotiating
with terrorists." Endless telephone calls, conversations, confrontation,
trial "get-back-togethers," correspondence, visitations, gestures of
appeasement, and efforts to placate the terrorist's demands, all serve to
reinforce the terrorist's belief that she is accomplishing something. Only
determined resolution in the face of terrorism shows the terrorist that her
power is limited.
Furthermore, for anyone dealing
directly with the terrorist, reassurances, "ego boosts,"
"positive strokes," and consolations are lamentably counter-
productive. Mrs. Roberts soon found for herself a feminist therapist staunchly
supporting the erroneous belief "All feelings (and therefore behaviors)
are valid." Mrs. Roberts is told by this therapist that she has a right to
feel and to behave in any manner she chooses, in callous disregard for the
devastation inflicted upon the children. Such reassurances serve only to
fortify the terrorist's already pathological, solipsistic, and eternally
If wishing to undertake the second
sphere of disarming a terrorist - personal intervention with the terrorist
herself - the therapist must be prepared to be straight, honest and very
direct. In my own dealings with women as terrorists, I have found on occasion
that one quite simply can point out to the terrorist, "You are behaving
like a terrorist. This is what you are doing. This is how you are being
destructive. This is the destruction you are heading toward," and the
terrorist, seeing themselves clearly for the first time, might be encouraged to
reconsider their behavior.
More commonly, however, extremely
deep therapy is required. For the terrorist's behavior to change,
there must first be a solid and fundamental change within the terrorist's
physiological constitution. Usually it is only by an in-depth excavation and
resolution of early childhood pain that the terrorist can begin to gain a real,
true, and level-headed perception of her own current situation.
Direct intervention with a terrorist
- like all forms of therapeutic intervention - can hope to achieve change only
if the individual concerned wishes to change and possesses that vital yet
ineffable quality: the will to health. When the will to health is lacking,
there can be no change. If the terrorist cannot or will not change, one can
only help the other family members to be resolute, strong, and, whenever
Pizzey was the founder of a women's shelter in