At UNM, researchers hope to modernize domestic violence treatment | KOB 4

At UNM, researchers hope to modernize domestic violence treatment

At UNM, researchers hope to modernize domestic violence treatment

Chris Ramirez
July 27, 2018 10:44 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – It began when her boyfriend started talking to her differently.


“He loved to hear me talk and we’d have conversations,” Alexandra McQuarrie said. “One day he was like, ‘Do you ever shut up?’ I was like, ‘Oh. I guess I talk too much.’”

The abuse only escalated from there—from vocal to physical, until McQuarrie says she was bullied out of her job, with little in the way of a support system.

“I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t talk to anyone,” she said. “I had to hide bruises.”

One night, one of her boyfriend’s punches missed her and landed on their infant child. That was the last straw for McQuarrie, already at a point where she believed their increasingly abusive relationship might become deadly for her.

“There was definitely more than one situation where I thought he was going to kill me,” she said. “The night I left when he hit my son, that’s what really pushed me to do it, because that’s my baby.”

By the time McQuarrie asked her help, bruises big and small covered her body. Her soul was nearly broken.


Inside a small lab at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, a research team has been experimenting for years, trying to figure out what causes one partner to lash against another.

Perhaps more importantly, the team wants to know how to curb that domestic violence.

“In this study we are doing a real basic science investigation on this process of over-arousal. At this point we have compelling evidence that alcohol is related to physical aggression through becoming completely overwhelmed in conflict,” said Brandi Fink, Ph.D., who works with couples in crisis and leads the research being done here.

Through lab experiments with real couples in real distress and prone to violence, Fink and her team work to figure out when to intervene.

The couples are encouraged to argue, even raise their voice, and all of it is caught on camera.

“We want to experiment or mimic as closely as we can in a laboratory setting what conflict is like for a couple when they are at home,” Fink said.

The person inflicting violence in the relationship is brought back to the lab alone. Since 70 percent of physical fights involve alcohol, that person is given vodka before watching the video recording of the argument.

Among the things researchers are analyzing: brain activity, heart rates, sweat and pupil dilation. Fink says it’s that data that allows them to understand what kind of situations make partners feel overwhelmed in conflict.

“People who get overwhelmed like this tend to feel blends of emotions—sadness, fear and anger,” she said. “Folks who feel these blends tend to be overwhelmed or flooded with emotion and this increases the likelihood they will engage in physical aggression.”

Dr. Brandi Fink's suggested rules for an effective timeout.

(Graphic by David Lynch)

There isn’t a magic pill to curb domestic violence, but New Mexico is a good place to find solutions. One in three New Mexican women has experienced it, and the FBI ranked our state in the top 10 for men killing women.

At UNM, Fink’s team is flipping what we thought we knew about domestic violence. She said she believes treatment plans currently being utilized by psychologists for violent abusers are flawed.

Much of it, Fink says, focuses on males—a strategy based around the myth that men are almost always the batterer, and women almost always the victim.

“There is no scientific evidence to support that,” she said. “That also contributes to why we have no effective interventions for family violence.”

After experimenting on 75 distressed couples, Fink said she believes what her team learned will change therapy for couples who have physical arguments.

“I’m at a good stepping-off point to begin developing new treatment,” she said. “With the data we have, one thing we want to target in treatment with these couples is teaching people how to feel these emotions – sadness, fear and anger – but feel them as separate things.”

Fink’s research studies what is actually going on inside the body and the brain when conflicts escalate to the point of physical aggression, including flight-or-fight responses. A new kind of therapy would focus on helping people adapt to conflict, something therapists don’t currently prioritize on a large scale.

Fink says she believes couples should engage in two kinds of therapy—one with each other and the other with their own gender.

“I’m also a big proponent of group therapy for that, because this is interpersonal social behavior. And I think it’s best unpacked in a group therapy setting,” she said.

In McQuarrie’s situation, her violent boyfriend refused therapy. The aggression only escalated.

Eventually, she knew the safest route was to leave and get help.

“I want people to get out of my story that, first off, you can get yourself out of a situation and you can be OK,” McQuarrie said. “Back then I dropped out of high school. Since then I finished high school, I’m in college (and) I have sole custody of my son.”


Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2018 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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