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Domestic violence — mental models

“The human mind cannot hold what it cannot grasp,” explains Elaine Weiss, Ed.D.

Weiss is speaking about how we make sense of our world, especially when the unthinkable happens.

Our minds scramble to explain it, to understand it, and many times, falsely believe something because that’s the only sensible explanation. Weiss calls these “mental models.”

Rewind to atrocities like the Holocaust. We explain it away because Hitler was “mentally ill.” True, but what are the chances that all his soldiers and commanders were mentally ill — the ones committing the genocide; the ones looking into the eyes of suffering men, women and children, begging for their lives. How is it possible to send them to their death? What mental model do we use to make sense of how these fellow humans were capable of such evil?

Fast forward to 9/11. What mental models exist for understanding that day? “Those people” are violent animals, brainwashed to believe Americans, particularly those of Christian faith, are sinful and, thus, deserve punishment. They are uneducated maniacs with rage issues. Mental models.

Now let’s look at something much less extreme as Ground Zero, yet something that affects the everyday lives of thousands — domestic violence.

What mental models do we form to make sense of this abuse?

First, we assume it only happens to “those people,” typically imagining those people are poor, uneducated folk who just don’t know better. Alcoholism or drug addiction is also included in this mental model. We presume victims are weak, with low self-esteem, needing to depend on someone to survive. We imagine victims having no skills, no means to be independent, much less capable of aspiring to anything.

Mental models can be tricky, often faulty, and detrimental. They can cloud our judgment and cause us to overlook the true problem.

The reality is that domestic violence can affect anyone.

What about Susan, a highly-honored law student, graduating top of her class, passing her bar exam in the top 5 percent of the state? She married when she was 29, already secure in a prestigious law firm. The abuse began shortly after the honeymoon.

What about Kara, a junior high school principal with her master’s in early childhood education? She married her high school sweetheart, but only after they both completed their bachelor’s degrees. There was always some form of mental abuse, but the beatings didn’t start tuntil she was pregnant with their first child.

These women go against our mental model.

Do we re-focus and try to dissect these women, form another mental model … what was wrong with them, what were they lacking in their lives? Did they grow up in violent homes and this was all they knew about marriage? They must have some form of abandonment issues, right?


They are women like you and me. Could you believe they just fell for the wrong guy? No blame, just a choice that later turned out to be a harmful one. Normal human occurrence — making the best choice at the time and running on faith that it’s the right one.

Mental models are natural human coping mechanisms. But I ask that we challenge ourselves to dissect our mental models and see if what’s behind our protective layers is the true image. Or is our world cloaked in optimistic bliss?

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Learn more. Make change.

Call the Archuleta County Victim Assistance Program for free, confidential help if you are concerned for yourself or a loved one, or to learn how you can become a partner in eliminating domestic violence. Call 264-9075.