October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, so I thought I would shed some light on this grim topic.

John Gottman and his colleague, Neil Jacobson, studied domestic violence in couples at The University of Washngton.   They found that there are two distinct types of batterers in violent relationships: Cobras and Pit Bulls.

“Cobras”, like the venomous snake, attack their partner without warning. They have sociopathic, antisocial traits and a pathological need for power and control. Their behavior is calculating and sadistic. Cobras do not tolerate their authority being challenged, with anyone, not just their partners.   They tend to be more violent than pit bulls, yet abused women have a hard time leaving Cobras because of the power and control exerted on them. One unsettling finding that Gottman and Jacobson found in their research is that cobras get more physiologically calm as they get more aggressive, whereas pit bulls experience physiological arousal.

“Pit Bulls”, have stereotypical traits of a vicious dog latching on and not letting go. These men are emotionally dependent on their partners. They fear abandonment and are controlling, jealous and react violently to perceived betrayal. Pit bulls are generally viewed as charming men because their behavior is only directed at one person. Cobras, on the other hand, are aggressive towards everyone in their life, including pets. Abused women can be more successful getting away from Pit Bulls, but Pit Bulls are the ones that can be homicidal when they feel abandoned. When a woman leaves a Cobra, there is still risk, but the Cobra moves on to a new victim more quickly.

These two types are classified under the heading of “Characterological Domestic Violence” because there is clear control and dominance in the abuser and fear in the victim.   Couples therapy is contraindicated in these situations and the abused partner should be referred to a therapist for individual counseling, a women’s shelter and/or law enforcement.

But what about the couples that drinks too much on a Saturday night and end up in a brawl with one another? “Situational Domestic Violence” erupts when couples lack conflict management skills and as their fights escalate, they can turn physical. These couples do not share the traits of Pit Bulls or Cobras and often feel remorse for their actions.

When couples seek help for their relationship, we conduct a thorough assessment, including an assessment of domestic violence. If the therapist deems couples therapy is appropriate for situational domestic violence (not characterological domestic violence), we can work with the couple to learn how to de-escalate arguments. We can also work with couples to recognize and manage physiological arousal and practice self-soothing before arguments turn physical.

To learn more about domestic violence, read Gottman and Jacobson’s book When Men Batter Women.

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist