So in the wake of the horrific murder-suicide in Brisbane this week, a lot has been written and shared about domestic violence and societal responses to it. I’ve tried to read as much of it as I can stomach, and now I can’t read any more. Now I have questions, so bear with me while I build up to them.
Studies by sociologists and by counsellors dealing with both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence have concluded that a straight line can be drawn from seemingly innocuous physical expressions like punching a wall or smashing something small to physically assaulting loved ones. That is not to say every man who ever punches a wall will one day hit his wife, but rather every man who hits his wife starts out punching walls. The implication is that small physical expressions of anger are a gateway to bigger ones.
Experientially, anecdotally and as someone who has punched a few inanimate objects in my time, I find this difficult to accept, but I’m also of the opinion that the conclusions drawn by experts in their fields should be taken more seriously than my own narrow, subjective perspective. But it still raises questions I can’t quite resolve.
To be clear, I’m not talking about flying off the handle, punching walls near someone’s body, or expressing anger physically in a way that intimidates, threatens or frightens. That’s definitely a form of domestic violence and can’t be defended or mitigated. I’m talking about a controlled release where someone steps away from a conflict or frustrating exchange, takes a deep breath, walks away into another room and quietly releases the pent -up anger by beating three shades of spit out of a pillow. Because I’ve done that. Not for a long time mind you, and not since I’ve been married, but I’ve definitely done it.
So my question is this: if there’s a straight line between this sort of expression and hurting people we love, then what’s the alternative?
Please don’t say talking. Communication is important, but merely talking about emotions does not disengage them. Some physical processing is needed. Sadness is released through tears, joy through laughter, fear through fight/flight responses. Anger doesn’t have to be released through hitting things, but it sure is effective. And even other less violent physical releases like yelling would be defined by many as intimidatory and a form of DV. Sure, talking things out is beneficial to everyone, but if it’s the conversation in front of me that has got me angry in the first place, then walking away is a much better option than losing my temper. But then that anger has got to go somewhere.
I’m trying to integrate studies on male violence with other studies that suggest (white, straight, Australian) men need to be better at dealing with emotions and expressing how we’re feeling. There does seem to be a disjuncture here: “Please, men, be more in touch with your feelings and express your emotions more. Wait, no, not THAT emotion.”
Please don’t read this as a defence of violent behaviour. I’m seeking healthy alternatives, but I’m trying to be realistic about it. Can it be a more abstracted response? I haven’t punched my bedroom furnishings for many years, but I’ve been known to mutter under my breath “there are some bandits in a cave in Skyrim somewhere that are going to wish this never happened.” And, boy, do they. Is that any healthier? I honestly don’t know.
I’m very lucky to be a musician. I can, at times, disengage some pretty nasty stuff with an hour to myself and a piano, but that’s not always possible even for me, let alone someone without an instrument and/or the ability to use it.
I’m not really trying to make a point here, just asking questions. If bottling anger is a bad idea (it is), talking about it is insufficient (it can be) and expressing it physically is the path to the dark side (is it?), then what are the alternatives?