A Sportsman’s Instinct: The Final Verdict

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The Pistorius case highlights the fact that too little attention is paid on a daily basis to a problem that is likely to affect as many as one in four women during their lifetime.

In a stunning reversal of an earlier ruling, the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa has overturned the manslaughter conviction of athlete Oscar Pistorius and instead found him guilty of murder. Pistorius now faces a much stiffer sentence for his crime. And while some will debate whether justice has finally been served in this high profile case that cost the onetime girlfriend of Pistorius, model Reeva Steenkamp, her life, there are undoubtably many valuable lessons to be learned from it, especially with regard to the all too common dynamics typically at play in instances of intimate partner violence.

I’ve written an unusual number of times before on matters pertaining to the Pistorius case:

That’s largely because there are so many things the tragic killing of Ms. Steenkamp and the resulting trial of her killer can teach us about the nature of relationship violence, the factors that increase the risk for abuse and violence in relationships, and the longstanding inadequate ways in which society has tended to address and deal with the problem. While high profile cases like that of Pistorius help bring the issue to the fore, it’s troubling that for the most part little attention is paid on a daily basis to a problem that is likely to affect as many as one in four women during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. (While both men and women can be victims of intimate partner violence, women are three times more likely to be victimized.) Fortunately, and possibly due to concerted prevention efforts in recent years, between 1994 and 2010 the incidence rate in the U.S. declined by 64 percent. But even in view of that good news, intimate partner violence is still unacceptably commonplace.

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In the third of my earlier articles on the Pistorius case, I expressed dismay at what may have been the rationale a lower court judge had for endorsing a conviction for a lessor crime than prosecutors sought. It appeared to me that the after-the-fact reaction of the killer — Pistorius was reported to have sobbed and even vomited when the gruesome details of the crime were described — was regarded by the judge as prima facie evidence that Pistorius was not a murderer. Such a rationale would provide little comfort to the thousands of victims of relational violence whose hot-headed partners so often express regret for their violent actions and their consequences. I’ve personally dealt with hundreds of individuals who felt horribly after every single time they lashed out. Unfortunately, such regretful sentiments afterward did little to stop them from perpetrating their next violent episode. I’ve written before about the difference between regret, remorse, and contrition:

Unlike the bad actor who may experience some practical regret, the contrite person hates not only what they’ve done but also hates the unhealthiness in them responsible for their heinous behavior, which is what motivates them do whatever is necessary to make themselves a better person. And that always involves confronting and scrutinizing how one looks at and thinks about things, one’s core beliefs and attitudes, and especially one’s habitual yet maladaptive patterns of behavior. Sadly, in following the Pistorius case as closely as I have, I never saw any evidence of that kind of scrutiny happening. Pistorius certainly appeared to regret what he did. He killed a woman he most likely cared for. He also did great damage to his reputation, career, and future. He had a lot to regret. And his only chance of salvaging some semblance of the life he had known for so long was to convince folks he didn’t really mean to do evil, even if the result of his intentions — whatever they were — was fatal. But was he remorseful? Contrite? I think the jury is still out on that.

I’ve spent a good deal of my professional career dealing with both abusers and victims in volatile relationships and I know from experience that all too many individuals have stayed in dangerous, toxic situations because they paid some heed to their abusers’ expressions of regret. Feeling bad after the fact is easy. Saying you feel bad is even easier. Correcting the twisted ways of thinking and the behavioral habits that make you a living, walking time bomb ready to explode whenever things don’t go your way is an entirely different matter.

Oscar Pistorius has been serving the latter portion of the relatively light sentence he received after his first conviction by being confined to his comfortable home. Now, he faces more prison time, although just how much time he’ll actually end up serving is uncertain. Of course, there’s no punishment he can be given that can restore the life he stole from his victim. So what we hope is that he will never create another similar victim. And that’s not likely to depend so much on how he regards his punishment but rather on how seriously he’s confronted the aspects of his character that predisposed him to his actions. If there’s anything the Pistorious saga should teach us, it is that while it’s easy for any violent relationship partner to feel sorry for losing control after the fact, if an offender is ever truly going to reform and help stem the tide of relationship violence, they have to confront and deal directly with the attitudes and habits that predisposed them to sensless behavior in the first place.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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