Vince, twenty-six, had a hostile relationship with his mom who was single for most of Vince’s childhood. Vince’s dad lived two-hundred miles away, remarried when Vince was three and he started a new family, resulting in little connection with Vince. Vince yelled, screamed and hit his mom when he experienced frustration with school or with friends. After difficult high school years and a few difficult college years, Vince settled down into a stable academic life where he began to do well in school. At the same time, Vince connected with his high school girlfriend, Lenah, and as they did in adolescence, they re-started their abusive relationship where Vince would yell, scream and occasionally hit Lenah in times where Vince felt unhappy or angry. Lenah, a young woman without a history of platonic or romantic relationships was seemingly grateful for Vince’s attention, even though Vince was abusive from time to time.
“It seems like Lenah has become a substitute for your mom,” I say to Vince, highlighting the obvious parallel that Vince seems to need to be abusive to someone since he seems unable to contain his anxieties; he seems to need to externalize them by becoming aggressive, historically to his mom and currently to Lenah.”Well, yes, I can see why you say that,” Vince responds calmly. “Lenah puts up with it, so how bad could it be?” Vince asks, to my dismay. “The fact that Lenah takes your abuse does not make it acceptable behavior,” I say, hoping that he will see the obvious. “I don’t know,” Vince responds, “I have gotten so much better.” Vince says, referring to our work together, but also trying to get me to change the subject. “Yes, I can hear that, but there is no excuse to hit Lenah because you are frustrated with your family or you are frustrated with school.” I say, again, stating the obvious, but realizing that saying words out loud can sometimes shake people into looking at their sadism. “Yes, of course, but sometimes I can’t help myself.” Vince says, as if that is a good alibi. “I don’t believe that,” I say, explaining that he can control his behavior. “Well, yes, maybe, but I have been behaving this way for so many years with my mom.” Vince says, as if history should excuse the present. “I understand that. I understand that your mom did not set a limit with you about your aggression and now you have trouble limiting yourself, but at the same time, you are old enough to exert impulse control so that you do not hurt people.” I say, again trying to reinforce how important it is for her to contain her anxieties in a way where she can share them, but not act on them. “I don’t know Dr. Vollmer. I hear what you are saying and I don’t like it. I will think about it though,” Vince says, as if to reassure me that we are still on the same team.