Culture lag and family violence

July 6, 2014

If she were in treatment for her behavioral problems, my mother would probably be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her extreme reactions to perceived abandonment, her tendency to idealize or devalue those closest to her in black and white terms, her intense and mercurial mood swings and her propensity for violence all fit the clinical profile.

David Mallen writes about the intergenerational relationship problems that give rise to Borderline Personality Disorder on his blog about psychoanalysis, focusing on a concept called culture lag. This concept has to do with social transitions and regressive attitudes toward institutional change that hold some families back from the benefits of social progress.

In mapping the family trees of patients, he says, “one can often see just how far a family’s operating rules lag behind the current cultural norms. In anthropology, this problem is called cultural lag. The cultural progression in Western nations, which is mimicked within certain families, was thus: First, women really could not have careers at all. Then, they could have careers, but only when they were single. Then – and here is where many families with BPD members are stuck – they could only have careers when they had not yet had children. Then, they could have careers even if married with children, but they had to give priority to the husband’s career. Last, both men and women were entitled to the same freedom.”


Women of my mother’s generation, the baby boomers, had conflicted role models in their mothers – women who may have enjoyed careers during World War II, only to give that economic independence up again when their husbands returned home. Social pressure, the soft power exerted by men, was what brought them back into domestic roles.

Institutional change would shape the options of their daughters, with the advent of affordable hormonal contraception and, in 1988, divorce law reforms that made pursuing child support payments from absent fathers more feasible for single mothers. This had a profound effect on my childhood, since my father resisted child support payments but was ultimately compelled to make a meaningful contribution to our household expenses.

Whether her mother resented the care-giver role imposed on her generation or not, it’s clear my mother developed a love-hate relationship with the responsibilities of a single parent. She idealized her own power over me but expressed great bitterness about the financial sacrifices and time that parenting errands took from her other interests. The unpaid work of childrearing was all hers by default, a situation described in Affective Inequalities as a vacuum left to be filled largely by women in a market economy that places little socioeconomic value on “love labors”.

She had supported my father through graduate school, lost her second marriage while I was still a small child, and in the bargain she had somehow lost the right to pursue her own happiness – time no longer allowed for the self-indulgent. Everything that had mattered to her as a young adult – adventure, travel, culture, friends – took a backseat towards the doubled care-giving work of a career schoolteacher with a child at home.


The social obligations of care-giving roles fall out in an informal economy unregulated by contract law, where trading sex for instrumental support is still sanctioned and redress for cohabiting relationship violence is in conflict with housing insecurity problems on the part of dependent victims. Here culture lag is in full force, warping the social expectations and identity-forming experiences of parents and children alike.

The socially regressive tilt of the informal economy is formalized in a victim-blaming theory of domestic violence that posits “make-up sex” as the pivotal phase in a domestic violence cycle explaining why victimization is so often chronic – putting “gifts” in the fine print of the “kiss and make-up” phase of the cycle to trivialize the role of poverty in victimization. The prerogatives of homeowners to terrorize their dependents are institutionalized in the stigma this theory assigns to victims of intimate partner violence.

Neoliberalism’s patent indifference toward the needs of those who lack spending power of their own has sealed a glass ceiling over social progress in this respect. Parents can be pressed into sweatshop labor to keep up with the needs of their children, and oversight of their childrearing capabilities is scant. Those who don’t cope well with the stress have a free hand with their dependents, and are rarely penalized for taking their frustrations out on their children.


Gender theory could enrich the analysis of domestic violence and child abuse by getting past the gendered role expectations of the “domestic violence cycle” and seeing every participant in family violence as a potential aggressor. A female victim of child abuse can internalize attitudes toward violence that lead her to lash out in turn herself, and dependency relationships needn’t be heterosexual partnerships to take on dyadic chronic violence dynamics.

Queering the domestic violence cycle would shed light on these more diverse potentials for abuse and family violence. Queer theory treats identity as fluid and culturally produced rather than innate and static, and regards gendered roles as options rather than birthrights.

Abstracting the heterosexual dyadic stereotypes in domestic violence theory from the analytical frame and treating them as an artifact of cultural production foregrounds the ritual element to interpersonal violence, the sense in which violent incidents are all role playing games and BDSM themes are the scripts ordinary people avail themselves of during threat displays and mind games with their habitual victims.

Moving away from the subjective and into object relations theory, the socially constructed identities and entanglements of participants in family violence can be seen as market-mediated processes of individuation and transformation. Relationships with dependents, understood within the analytical frameworks of consumerism and adculture, unfold as status commodity spending patterns that are unstable precisely because the cash involved is fungible and every expense imposes a perceived opportunity cost.

The objectification of dependents and the sexualization of commodity display culture can imbue any relationship with the energies of frustrated libido, curbed by the same normative cues as aggression and hence prone to simultaneous, explosive release when the curb is relaxed (behind closed doors).

Hence the prerogative of fathers to rape their daughters, as if any sex object presumptuous enough to invite itself in were available to the homeowner’s consumption privileges. The logic is not much different from date rape, when the car is substituted for the house as the unit of personal space within which all guests are at the owner’s disposal. Fuzzy thinking’s mixed metaphors for everyday life blur getting in with giving consent, and even victims may second-guess whether or not such an assault counts as rape.


The problem-solving logics of governance and trade fail to make sense of love relations, which are predicated on tolerating tension even when it threatens to enmesh the individual with multiple commitments in the contrary experience of cognitive dissonance. Ambivalence about the limits of personal responsibility arises near those limits, and cannot be totalizing, or love does not hold sway.

But market pressures and hegemonic traditions shape love relations intimately, through the cultural contingencies that give rise to intimate relationships. The prerogatives of the informal expectations don’t just shape vulnerabilities, they also shape desires. A domestic violence theory that focuses on the failure to leave on the part of victims is one that fails to ask important questions about why aggressors initiate acts of abuse.

Love labors demand a profoundly forgiving attitude towards the burdens we impose on one another as care-giving needs. Joanna North explores the concept of forgiveness in detail: “What is annulled in the act of forgiveness is not the crime itself but the distorting effect that this wrong has upon one’s relations with the wrongdoer and perhaps with others.” A domestic violence cycle that lacks heterosexual stereotypes about role expectations would explain the chronic nature of cohabiting relationship violence in terms of conflict-resolution failure, the impossibility of forgiveness, and its distorting effects on the relationships between breadwinners and their dependents.

  • Forgiveness begins with introspection.
    • What was the nature of my mistake?
    • What are my beliefs about the mistake?
    • What emotions did I experience in the aftermath of the mistake?
    • How did I cope with the mistake?
    • What changes did I make in my practice as a result of the mistake?
  • The structure of a situation open to forgiveness requires reciprocation.
    • Forgiveness for the forgiver has three levels:
      • Cognitive: “I will stop thinking about the offense.”
      • Emotive: “I will cease to feel anger and hatred toward the offender.”
      • Behavioral: “I will not seek revenge.”
    • Remorse for the forgiven also has three levels:
      • Cognitive: “I will acknowledge and admit my wrongdoing.”
      • Emotive: “I will feel and express sorrow for what I did.”
      • Behavioral: “I will desist from committing that wrong again and make amends.”

An enduring sense of grievance and an attitude of hypocrisy towards conflict-defusing phases in the cycle of violence characterizes any abusive relationship, and as role expectations adapt to habitual conflict, leaning into the perceived injustice instead of attempting to resolve the cognitive dissonance of unresolved tension would become part of the identity-formation experiences of the participants.

An embodied sense of justice is like the aesthetic instinct, it respects harmony in appearances as an immediate goal, working with the available materials and their surface presentations to seek a resolution to dissonance. Hardening a position in response to tension is one way of coping with disruption in everyday life, and giving up on a relationship that isn’t going away is a real option in the ebb and flow of the intimate and mundane.

Ways of escape that are superficial are myriad, and escapist coping mechanisms allay the more brutal fears of exposure to the elements and the vicissitudes of strangers that represent the more practical barriers to freedom from abuse. The degree to which abusers also dissociate from the here and now, sustaining a fantasy about life with which reality can never compete and attacking scapegoats for their disappointments, makes the abusive home a plane on which the minds of the inhabitants rarely meet, finding each other confusing and untrustworthy at every turn.

If culture lag explains this stalemate, the time warp governing the informal economy reflects real shortcomings in institutional reform to protect vulnerable populations like women and children. Only further radical reform like universal basic income would redress the pressures neoliberalism brings to bear on affective inequalities, taking housing insecurity out of the equation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: