The Jeff Wise Blog

Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen: Why Won’t She Leave Him?

The facts are straightforward: on Christmas Day, Charlie Sheen’s wife, Brooke Mueller, called 911, frantic that a switchblade-armed Sheen had threatened her. Police arrested Sheen, then released him after he posted an $8500 bond.

And then, yesterday, their lawyer told US Weekly that the couple were happily back together: “They’re very much in love, and they want to try to work it out. I think they had a really bad day, which is probably an understatement, but they need their privacy and they need some time.”

Three letters: WTF?

But as baffling as the story seems to be, science can offer an explanation.

The incident called to mind a similar case from earlier this year, when top diva Rihanna was forced cancel an appearance at the Grammy Awards after a beating by her then-boyfriend, Chris Brown. Despite visible bruises, the pop diva seemed unwilling to blame her partner for her injuries, and the two were back together three weeks later. (Eventually they broke up.)

Such behavior is difficult to understand because many of us continue to view domestic violence as a straightforward crime, in which one party commits a hostile act against another. This is the model, for instance, underlying the 1991 movie Sleeping with the Enemy, in which Julia Roberts is virtually held hostage by a violent, tyrannical partner and can only escape by faking her own death.

In fact, researchers say, the dynamic is much more complicated than that. Dr. Eila Perkis, a researcher at the University of Haifa in Israel, recently conducted an investigation into cases of domestic violence. She was intrigued by the fact that, outside of the relationship, perpetrators tend to lead normal, law-abiding lives. Since they were obviously capable of controlling themselves in other social settings, she wanted to discover why they repeatedly gave in to violent impulses in the context of their romantic partnerships.

In analyzing the cases she looked at, Perkis divided the incidents of violence into four categories: verbal aggression; threats of physical aggression; moderate physical aggression; and severe physical aggression. According to a press release issued by the university,

“These four levels follow one another in an escalating sequence; someone who uses verbal violence might well move on over time to threatening physical attack, and from there it is only downhill towards acting on the threat,” [Perkis explains]…

The researcher found that acting on each type of violence is calculated, such that the violence constitutes a tool for solving conflict between the partners. “Neither of the couple sits down and plans when he or she will swear or lash out at the other, but there is a sort of silent agreement standing between the two on what limits of violent behavior are ‘ok’, where the red line is drawn, and where behavior beyond that could be dangerous,” she explains. She adds that when speaking of one-sided physical violence, most often carried out by men, the violent side understands that for a slap, say, he will not pay a very heavy price, but for harsher violence that is not included in the ‘normative’ dynamic between them, he might well have to pay a higher price and will therefore keep himself from such behavior. “A ‘heavy price’ could be the partner’s leaving or reporting the incident to the police or the workplace. As such, it can be said that violent behavior is not the result of loss of control and both sides are aware of where the red line is drawn, even if such an agreement has never been spoken between them,” she says.

The uncomfortable implication of Perkis’ work is that domestic violence is not a one-way act of aggression, but a dangerous and dysfunctional tango in which each party plays an active role.  This characterization might seem offensive to some – a classic case of “blaming the victim” – but placing some responsibility in the hands of the abused party at least helps explain behavior that is otherwise hard to fathom. While calling 911 to report a partner’s attack might seem like an irreparable  crisis to most of us, for someone enmeshed in an abusive relationship it might seem like another step in the ongoing pas de deux — not so much a crisis, in the cold clear light of the morning after, but just another “bad day.”

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

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