by Angela Browne-Miller
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip.) on Aug 26th 2008
Angela Browne-Miller's To Have and To Hurt represents a comprehensive survey of psychological and sociological theories explaining and seeking to remedy violence in intimate partner relationships. The need for the book is established from its outset by astounding figures of partner violence. Intimate partner abuse is reported at a rate of more than a million injuries a year in the United States alone; this figure is undoubtedly a vast understatement of the problem, since it excludes rapes and sexual assaults, and because victims often feel shamed of, or blameworthy for, their own abuse. There also exists strong social pressure to maintain a code of silence around the details of private relationship behaviors, which induces victims to keep their injuries secret out of a sense of social propriety.
Browne-Miller's book is a response to these social and personal pressures to let sleeping dogs lie. Her goal, as she states from the outset, is to enlighten, to bring to the reader's awareness, the complexity of issues involved in intimate relationships and to stress the crucial necessity of constantly stopping and monitoring those relationships, to take stock of the evolving power distribution between the partners and the manner in which the boundaries of connection are being renegotiated. Browne-Miller explicitly avoids the common tendencies to lay blame upon the victim, society, biological factors, religion, or gender; the object of her work is simply to highlight the warning signals of dangerous behavior patterns that can develop in intimacy. She argues that relationships mirror the whole human story and since the story of the human species is overwhelmingly violent, partners must remain hyper-vigilant in monitoring the parameters of their behaviors. Home is where the heart is, but as statistics confirm unequivocally, home is also where the violence is.
Precisely because home is where the heart is, passions, hormonal and other biochemical processes, and social pressures concerning gender roles and privacy concerns assert constant weight in intimate relationships, and can support or gnaw away at healthy modes of interaction. When problematic intimate relationship behaviors do develop, they generally come on the scene only very slowly, and alter the power distribution between the partners in "micro-minishifts" (p. 82). Problematic behaviors evolve gradually but soon become habitual, and increasingly complex and difficult to sort out; patterns of denial, confusion, wounding, pain, sorrow, and agony influence both parties' ability to see the situation clearly. Sorting out the mess once it reaches a critical stage becomes an increasingly thorny task. Anguished events and violent episodes ultimately can become a way of life, and these patterns of interaction can be carried across generations. So it is crucial to recognize the most subtle forms of relationship violence as early warning signs of violent behavior that can over time become confirmed patterns that, without active intervention, will devolve into more and more destructive and dangerous forms.
Browne-Miller argues that single theory explanations prove far removed from the reality of complex intimate partner situations. Often to outsiders, the situation seems clear: the abuser is a monster and the abusee needs to get out while she can. However, Browne-Miller explains, to fully understand where relationships go right and wrong involves appreciating the complex interconnections of a plethora of factors, including familial and social pressures, role expectations, biochemical causes, ownership issues, distribution of careers and family responsibilities, and fiduciary considerations. Most often patterns of denial and self-deception, the mixed messages we send to others, and the "crazy-making experience" of emotional abuse, coupled with the strong tendency for victims to share the worldview of the dominant partner, militate against the victim's clear vision of her own situation. Even if she does recognize the abuse as such, the trauma of truth-telling and the sense of failure and betrayal that accompany the ugly truth can dissuade victims from "recognizing and changing, or escaping" their destructive relationships. People become profoundly immersed in the minutiae of their everyday lives. There exists little time and space, and often a strong social directive against, questioning "the process" of our intimate relationships. We live out relationships; we don't tend to analyze them objectively and intelligently.
Alongside the various intimate relationship theories, Browne-Miller's book offers many helpful illustrations and charts comparing models of healthy and unhealthy relationship progression. As well, practical lists of early warning signs of abuse and illuminating stories of concrete intimate partner situations help to illustrate where relationships succeed and fail. Her theory of "Compromise and Trade" processes in intimate relationships reveals that intimate relationships are much like dynamic and evolving life-forms, whose (largely implicit) contractual parameters are constantly under construction (p. 82). Large and small, and even minute, shifts in the relationship power distribution continuously renegotiate the contract. When the power balance shifts to the point of starkly revealing the ground of the contract as sheer "might," it may already be too late to save the relationship, and escaping may be the only safe and viable option.
The strengths of To Have and To Hurt lie in its appreciation of a spectrum of violence and its articulation of the tiny increments that lead to full-blown partner abuse and violence. In the context of the violent world in which we are immersed, which not only tolerates but often glorifies violence, Browne-Miller's counsel is clear on two levels. Her final word to individuals struggling with intimate relationship abuse is explicit: "Do not sacrifice personal or children's well-being or safety for the preservation of the relationship" (p. 121). Her advice to her readers as a species is equally frank: our human situation composes a choice "to evolve to a higher point of consciousness or to remain a violent species" (p. 2).
Some scholars may find To Have and To Hurt somewhat disappointing, since Browne-Miller explains and applies, but does not always formally identify the various theories she employs, nor credit their creators by name. There exists also a strong tendency in her articulations of violent situations toward polar identifications--abuser and abusee--suggesting a weak appreciation for the entanglement of human lives between these two positions. Most often life is not so neat; there is a little victim and a lot of perpetrator in all of us, and especially in the parties of painful relationships.
In fairness to Browne-Miller, however, she does not claim to be writing for specialists and scholars. Her audience is persons in intimate relationships, which includes all of us. This book is an excellent read for a general educated audience, building the reader's subtle awareness of the intricacies of partner abuse.
© 2008 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip.), North Carolina A&T State University