Breakups are hard, but new research sheds light on why some people can move on, and others leave tragedy in their wake.
Lisa Matula received a hug while holding a candle at a vigil last month to honor victims of domestic violence. Matula’s daughter, Mandy, 24, was last seen May 1 with her ex-boyfriend, who later killed himself. Her body was found last weekend.
Slowly, some Twin Cities mysteries are being solved, and some of their consequences resolved.
The discovery last weekend of Mandy Matula’s body ended a search that began almost six months ago, after she left with an ex-boyfriend who killed himself the next day.
A funeral on Oct. 26 for Kira Steger ended a months-long wait while her estranged husband was on trial, and ultimately was convicted of her murder.
Other cases linger. Whoever killed Danielle Jelinek, found dead in May after disappearing last December, remains undetermined. An ex-boyfriend, considered “a person of interest” by police, is in prison on a probation violation.
Over a year of hopeless headlines, fruitless pursuits and revealed lives, a question has loomed — one of those artless queries that are the stuff of water cooler chats: Why can some guys handle a breakup, while others flip out?
Experts say violent impulses often are linked to childhood experiences.
Some men also believe that society gives them permission to be controlling in the face of someone resisting control.
An emerging influence, however, is rooted in the sometimes awful power of love.
Aaron Milgrom, who works with men’s groups at the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis, said that recent advances in brain imaging are helping researchers learn how actions cause reactions. Add to that new findings about attachment theory, “and we learn that love and caring and belonging are as important to human beings as food and shelter.”
He said being loved is so important that to some men’s brains, “the withdrawal of affection can be perceived as seriously as a death threat.”
In domestic violence circles, it’s tragic gospel that the decision to leave places women in their greatest danger.
Yet couples break up every day. For some, there are tears. For others, a sense of relief. Yet for others, resignation. But then each person gets on with their lives — and gets out with their lives. Why the difference?
“It goes back to our whole society,” said Colleen Schmitt, Day One manager at Cornerstone in Bloomington, which advocates for the abused. “Some men are taught that it’s OK to move on, that they don’t need to have power and control over another person.”
Others lack that example. “Generally, it’s a select population of men that batter,” she said. “And it’s not always about the physical assault. There’s usually a pattern of manipulation, economic control, isolation from family and friends that goes on every day.
“But what we hear about is that final moment.”
Breakups along gender lines
It’s hard to know exactly how many deaths come at the hands of a partner, said Liz Richards of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, which uses public records and media reports to compile its figures. Some deaths may not clearly be linked to domestic violence, and some don’t get press coverage. The coalition prefaces its statistics with “at least.”
Richards allowed as how this year stands out for the unusual nature of some deaths — women’s bodies going unrecovered for months, a wife shot with a bow-and-arrow in Detroit Lakes, a wife dismembered in St. Paul.
Some men also have been killed in domestic disputes, but not because they were trying to end a relationship. “When [homicide] happens around a separation,” Richards said, “this clearly is a gendered phenomenon.”
Last year, at least 18 homicides in Minnesota were linked to domestic violence. So far this year, there have been at least 37 such deaths, with Matula having been confirmed as a homicide.
According to the coalition, that number encompasses a range of deaths: 24 were women murdered by current or former partners. Six were men, four of whom were murdered by women. Seven were friends, family members or bystanders of women with violent male partners.
Safia Lovett, with the coalition, cautioned against looking for trends such as economic strains, hot weather, the holidays, whatever. “It’s happening year-round,” she said.
Likewise, she noted how domestic violence covers a spectrum, “with death at the end of that spectrum. We as a society tend to focus on the criminal side of things that might exist in relationships, but there are other forms of abuse that don’t result in a police call being made.”
Men grapple with emotions
Both Schmitt and Milgrom say that men who believe they have the right to control others aren’t born this way, but learn it from society. More than 80 percent of abusers witnessed violence in their own homes while growing up, Milgrom said. “It’s a family legacy.”
Just as damaging is another cultural message: Men shouldn’t cry, or admit that their feelings are hurt, Milgrom said. Further, our culture shames a guy who can’t hold onto a girlfriend or a wife.
“Women can take a breakup just as poorly, but they generally don’t become violent and murder their partners,” he said. If anything, the cultural liberation that women have experienced over the past several decades has made them less dependent on men.
“Women have become more interdependent on women, but there hasn’t been any similar growth for men,” he said.
In other words, women are developing more traditionally male traits to navigate society, but are we teaching boys any traditionally female traits to help them cope with life?
“The short answer is that men become emotionally dependent on a partner quite quickly,” Milgrom said. “That’s how men do emotions — through their female partners.”
So when a man’s emotional safety valve leaves, the pressure builds, sometimes to tragic levels.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185