When protection of the state or political system takes precedence over the individual, the needs of most citizens are not served; instead they generally suffer economically, politically, and personally. Similarly, when the couple or family system takes precedence over its members, issues of human rights become a low priority. Both conditions set the stage for authoritarian control, suppression, and submission, and cause a good deal of emotional suffering. In general, the imposition of conventional attitudes and stereotypic views restrict people’s thinking, increase their hostility, and negatively influence their behavior toward one another.
The “ideal” couple or family would attempt to gratify the physical, economic, and emotional needs of the individuals involved and enhance the personal development of children. There would be a minimum number of rules and restrictions, allowing for optimal freedom and autonomy.
In contrast, the “less-than-ideal” couple or family tends to exert excessive control over its members by imposing attitudes and regulations that favor obligation over choice and image over self-expression. Unnecessary restrictions, manipulations, and power plays, as well as the mystification needed to deny the fact that such controls exist, cause considerable harm. It is absurd to place primary value on any social institution, whether it be the couple, family or government above considering the well-being of its constituency.
A number of clinicians and theorists have written about couples and family systems that are similar in many respects to a totalitarian state and have described the suppressive practices within these relationships. For example, they observed that people who rarely, if ever, use coercion with others make an exception in the case of their mates and their children. Tedeschi and Felson (1994) called attention to the “high levels of coercive behavior, including bodily force, verbal and physical punishment, physical isolation, and deprivation of resources” (p. 290-291) in American families.
People who manifest intrusive, domineering or hostile behavior, attitudes of superiority, self-centeredness or narcissism, tightness, a victimized orientation, paranoia or suspiciousness take their toll on other people, especially their partners and their children. I view these as human rights violations in the interpersonal sphere.
Violation of Basic Human Rights in the Family
Unfortunately, no child grows up without suffering a certain amount of damage in basic areas of personality development that disturb his/her psychological functioning. As children cope with emotional or physical neglect or abuse, they develop defenses that lead to toxic traits and aversive behaviors, which injure their self-esteem and inadvertently hurt other people. It must be considered an abuse and a violation of children’s basic rights when imprinting from early interactions with family members has long-term debilitating effects on their conception of self and personal relationships, leads to a condition of general unhappiness, and interferes with and stifles the development of career and vocational pursuits.
Some forms of child abuse are subtle and, while hurtful, may leave no visible scars. I have defined emotional child abuse as damage to the child’s psychological development and emerging personal identity, primarily caused by parents’ or primary caretakers’ immaturity, defended lifestyle, and/or conscious or unconscious aggression toward the child. Emotional maltreatment includes verbal abuse, lack of respect for the child, harsh treatment, threats of abandonment, and efforts to inhibit a child’s aliveness and spontaneity. Neglect is a more passive form of abuse. Some parents fail to take even the minimum precautions necessary to insure their child’s physical health and safety. One form of emotional abuse is that of isolating children and adolescents from social contacts that offer different points of view from those held by the parents. Studies have shown that resilient children who experienced severe abuse and neglect, yet failed to develop symptoms as adults, usually had a significant other—a relative, family friend, or teacher—who took an interest in them and provided them with support (E.J. Anthony, 1987).
The capacity for abstract thinking, the ability to experience feeling and compassion for self and others, and a unique conscious awareness of life and death are a basic part of our human heritage. It is reasonable to propose that whenever these basic qualities are damaged or distorted they can be considered human rights violations. A lack of genuine physical affection as well as overt and covert parental rejection arouse overwhelming feelings of shame in children, a painful affect that Orbach (1988), Shengold (1989), and J. Gilligan (Parr, 2008) have referred to as “soul deadening.”
Violation of Basic Human Rights in Couples
Many couple relationships are characterized by disrespectful interactions, including those that effectively intimidate or control through defensive maneuvers or manipulations. Power plays and other strategies of control are manifested in various ways, including domination, bullying, and the use of force; self-destructive threats that cause fear reactions; and manipulations that trigger guilt feelings in the other person.
There are other common behaviors that can be considered a human rights violation within a couple. Partners lie about money issues, addictive habits and, in particular, about extramarital affairs. Misleading one’s partner about reality is particularly damaging. Within some couples, a form of social terrorism is practiced in which one partner is held accountable or responsible for the unhappiness of the other. The tyranny of weakness, helplessness, and self-hatred exerted by self-denying or self-destructive individuals has a profoundly manipulative effect. Self-harming behavior is perhaps the most effective and destructive means of controlling because it elicits fear, anger, guilt, and alarm in one’s partner.
Some of the most destructive behaviors commonplace in relationships are those that people act out to ward off loving responses from their partner. Defended individuals tend to maintain the negative identity they acquired within their original family and are resistant to being seen in a more positive light. Changing their basic self-concept would threaten their defense system and arouse considerable stress, so they unconsciously strive to establish distance. In their attempt to avoid anxiety, they often hurt the people who love them.
Other insensitive behaviors that transpire routinely within couples include unpleasant exchanges about finances and childrearing, hurtful interactions in the privacy of the bedroom, depreciating comments made publicly in front of family, friends, and strangers, and abrasive arguments that disrupt the harmony of a shared activity. Even when overt, these aversive behaviors often remain on the periphery of the offending partner’s consciousness while he/she maintains a fantasy of being loving.
Toxic personality traits are often rationalized or denied by the perpetrator. (Meissner, 1995). For example, people who are stingy may see themselves as being frugal or thrifty. Many are proud of their self-denial when it may, in fact, be an indication of neurosis. Those who are intrusive and emotionally needy may view themselves as loving and demonstrative. Those who are acting parental and superior may think that they are being constructive or helpful.
People who act parental and superior tend to control, dominate and humiliate their loved ones. Their partners suffer from feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and harbor deep resentment. On the other hand, individuals who regress to childish modes of relating and withhold adult responses indirectly coerce their partners into taking care of them. In this way, they preserve the imagined security of the original fantasy bond with their parents. When the childish, victimized behaviors of a passive person provoke an angry response from a more dominant, assertive individual, both parties are damaged psychologically in the exchange. The same is true when the parental, punishing behaviors of an aggressive person demand a compliant response from a more submissive individual. It is just as unethical to continue to accept abuse from a loved one, as it is to act it out. This statement does not imply that one should blame the victim or excuse the perpetrator. It merely illustrates that both people collude in this dynamic interaction, and it is in the interest of both to end this type of relating.
Negative character traits and aversive behaviors that people develop as a result of a painful upbringing not only have a pervasive, destructive impact on their relationships, but also on society as a whole. Individual psychological defenses are pooled and combine to form the social mores, sanctions, standards, and institutions of a particular culture. Then the social pressure exerted by destructive mores, attitudes and beliefs acts back on each member of society in a negative feedback loop. To a certain extent, contemporary social practices have a fundamentally restrictive effect on people’s freedom, healthy sexuality, personal integrity, and natural drive for affiliation with others.
On an individual level, undesirable traits and damaging behavior patterns can be identified, assessed, modified, and replaced by more positive and constructive ways of being and behaving. In psychotherapy, more specifically Voice Therapy, clients are able to identify their destructive thoughts or negative internal voices toward self and others that influence the acting out of offensive traits and behaviors. They learn to expose and work through their associated emotions, such as sadness and anger, and then put into action corrective suggestions that are opposed to the negative dictates of their inner voices.
On a broad scale, we must try to overcome our narrow view of couples and family life and objectively examine dehumanizing practices. We need to learn to treat children respectfully as individuals and not intrude on their unique qualities. We need to develop couple relationships where we respect each other’s freedom and independence, and allow the other person to live and flourish. Understanding the dynamics underlying harmful couple and family interactions can play a significant part in facilitating change. The goal is to build more constructive relationships that, like an “ideal” democratic system, would meet the needs of the individual and support his/her personal development toward self-actualization.
Anthony, E. J. (1987). Children at high risk for psychosis growing up successfully. In E. J. Anthony & B. J. Cohler (Eds.), The invulnerable child (pp. 147-184). New York: Guilford Press.
Meissner, W. W. (1995). Treatment of patients in the borderline spectrum. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Orbach, I. (1988). Children who don’t want to live. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Parr, G. (Producer and Director). (2008). The roots of violence, Part I, Voices of violence. Documentary Film. Santa Barbara, CA: The Glendon Association.
Shengold, L. (1989). Soul murder: The effects of childhood abuse and deprivation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Tedeschi, J. T., & Felson, R. B. (1994). Violence, aggression, and coercive actions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.