Abuse of spouses and children
Many of our conflicts are hand-me-downs from our original family, our grandparents, and even further back. A generation or two ago most parents whipped their children. Just a few generations ago there was a "Rule of Thumb:" you may beat your wife with a stick if it is smaller than your thumb. If your grandfather beat your father, it is not surprising that you are beaten. If your mother was always envious and angry with her brilliant, perfect older sister, it is not surprising if mother is very critical of you, if you are her oldest daughter. If your dad's youngest brother was thought to be emotionally disturbed, he may watch carefully for problems in his youngest son...and find them. Know your history to know yourself and to understand others' reactions to you. Messina (1989) has a series of workbooks for adult children from dysfunctional families. The workbooks help you become aware of your abusive history and find ways to get rid of the anger.
What backgrounds and conditions lead to abuse?
Battered women tend to be less educated, young, and poor with low self-esteem, from an abusive family, passive-dependent, and in need of approval and affection. If women are violent against their husband, they tend to have a history of violent acts against others. Abusive men often have a need to control their partner and tend to be unemployed or blue-collar, a high school drop out, low paid, from a violent or abusive family, between 18 and 30, cohabiting with a partner with a different religion, and occasionally uses drugs. Don't let these specific findings mislead you, however. Abusers come from all economic and educational levels. Most hit their wives only occasionally and feel some remorse; a few are insanely jealous and a scary few simply appear to coolly relish being violent.
How do we start abusing someone close to us?
The common belief that abusers (of children) were themselves abused as children may only hold true in general for males, not females. In fact, physical abuse may mean different things to women and men. In a dating or marriage situation, the beginning steps toward severe abuse may involve psychological aggression--yelling, swearing, threatening, spitting, shaking a fist, insulting, stomping out, doing something "for spite"--and slapping, shoving, or pinching (Murphy & O'Leary, 1989). There is some evidence that early in a relationship women do these things as often as men, maybe more so, but men eventually cause more physical damage than women. There is a great difference between an opened female hand slap to the cheek and a hard male fist crashing into the face, knocking out teeth, and breaking the jaw. The slap expresses hurt feelings; the blow reflects raw destructive, intimidating anger. It would be wise to never start the cycle of abuse; so, try to avoid psychological aggression, such as name calling, insulting, and yelling (Evans, 1992). The evidence is clear that once mild physical aggression of pushing and slapping has started, it frequently escalates into fist fights, choking, slamming against the wall, and maybe the use of knives and guns. Psychological or verbal aggression by either party must be considered an early warning sign that physical abuse is possible in the near future. Take verbal assaults and rages very seriously.
Steps taken to build anger... or to stop it
It is helpful to think of 5 steps (choices!) taking us from the initial frustration to intense anger in which we feel justified to express primitive rage: (1) deciding to be bothered by some event, (2) deciding this is a big, scary issue or personal insult, (3) deciding the other person is offensive and evil, (4) deciding a grave injustice has been done and the offender must be punished--you must have revenge, and (5) deciding to retaliate in an intensely destructive, primitive way. By blocking these decisions and thinking of the situation differently, we can learn to avoid raging anger. Examples of helpful self-talk at each step: (1) "It's not such a big deal," (2) "Calm down, I can handle this rationally," (3) "There is a reason why he/she is being such a b____," (4) "Let's find out why he/she is being so nasty," (5) "I'm not going to lower myself to his/her level... is there a possible solution to this?" When you practice these self-control responses in fantasy, you are using stress inoculation techniques (see method #9 in chapter 12).
McKay, Paleg, Fanning & Landis (1996) have studied the effects of parents' anger on their children. It is a serious problem that parents can handle with better self-control, especially by giving up false beliefs that fuel anger and by learning problem-solving or communication skills (see chapters 13 and 14).
Physical abuse follows a pattern
First, there is conflict and tension. Perhaps the husband resents the wife spending money on clothes or he becomes jealous of her co-workers. The wife may resent the husband drinking with the boys or his constant demands for sex. Second, there is a verbal fight escalating into physical abuse. Violent men use aggression and fear as a means of control (Jacobson, et al, 1994). When the male becomes violent, there is little the woman can do to stop it. Actually, women in violent relationships are as belligerent and contemptuous as their husbands but their actual violence tends to be in response to the man's aggression. Nevertheless, over half of abused women blame themselves for "starting it." Third, a few hours later, the batterer feels guilty, apologizes, and promises it will never happen again, and they "make up." Sometimes, the couple--or one of them--will want to have sex as a sign that the fight is over. The sex is good and they may believe (hope) that the abuse will not happen again, but almost always within days the cycle starts over and the tension begins to build.
Statistics about abuse of loved ones
The O. J. Simpson case stimulated interest in spouse abuse, including death. About 1400 women, 30% of all murdered women, are killed by husbands, ex-husbands, and boyfriends each year; 2 million are beaten; beatings are the most common cause of injury to 15 to 44-year-old women. The statistics are sobering and truly scary (Koss, et al, 1994). A 1983 NIMH publication says, "surveys of American couples show that 20 to 50 percent have suffered violence regularly in their marriages." In 1989, another survey found physical aggression in over 40% of couples married only 2 1/2 years. 37% of 11,870 military men had used physical force with their wives during the last year (Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994). Walker (1979, 1993) says 50% of women are battered. The latest research (O'Leary, 1995) shows that 11% to 12% of all women were physically abused during the last year. Among couples seeking marital counseling, 21% were "mildly" abused and 33% were severely abused in the past year. Yet, they seldom volunteer this information; therapists must ask.
Research also shows that men and women disagree about the frequency and degree of their violent acts. However, men and women beat each other about the same amount but the injury rates are much higher for women. One early study found that 4% of husbands and 5% of wives (over 2 million) are severely beaten each year by their spouses. Another study said that 16% of all American couples were violent sometime during the last year. It is noteworthy that 45% of battered women are abused for the first time while pregnant. The FBI reported that battering precedes 30% of all women's trips to emergency rooms, 25% of all suicide attempts by women, and 25% of all murders of American women. World-wide the abuse of women is even worse (French, 1992). This is very serious. In addition, female infants are frequently killed by their parents in India. We must not deny these problems.
Much abuse is still hidden, not only is marital abuse kept a secret but sibling abuse is also. Within the privacy of our homes and even unknown to the parents, brothers and sisters physically, emotionally, and sexually mistreat each other (Wiehe, 1990).
Spouse abuse dynamics
Why does wife abuse occur? Many writers believe the cause is male chauvinism --a male belief that men are superior and should be the boss, while women should obey ("to honor and obey "), do the housework, and never refuse sex. A male abuser is described as filled with hate and suspicion, and feels pressured to be a "man." That sounds feasible but new findings (Marano, 1993; Dutton, 1995) suggest that the chauvinistic facade merely conceals much stronger fearful feelings in men of powerlessness, vulnerability, and dependency. Other research has found abusive men to be dependent and low in self-esteem (Murphy, Meyer & O'Leary, 1994). Many of these violent men apparently feel a desperate need for "their woman," who, in fact, is often more capable, smarter, and does take care of their wants. These relationships are, at times, loving. The husband is sometimes quite attentive and affectionate. Often, both have found acceptance in the relationship that they have never known before. Then, periodically, a small act of independence by the wife or her brief interaction with another man (perceived as intended to hurt him) sets off a violent fight. The abusive man becomes contemptuous, putting the woman down in an effort to exercise physical-emotional control and build up himself. Of course, the insecure aspects of many abusers are well concealed within the arrogance.
Likewise, battered women have been thought of as weak, passive, fearful, cowering, self-depreciating partners. Of course, some are, but recent findings (Cordova, Jacobson, Gottman, Rushe, & Cox, 1993) suggest that many battered wives, during an argument, are outspoken, courageous, hot-tempered, equally angry and even violent, but they are overwhelmed by the husband's violence. They don't back down or de-escalate the argument; they respond with verbally aggressive, offensive comments. The women were often "unmothered" as children. The male abuser often grew up in a violent environment, where he was sometimes (30%) abused himself or (30%) saw his mother abused. So, we often have a situation in which two insecure but tough, angry, and impulsive people are emotionally compelled to go through the battering ritual over and over (Dutton, 1995).
Researchers are just now studying the complex details of battering by males. There are many theories about male violence: hormonal or chemical imbalance, brain damage, misreading each other's behavior, lacking skills to de-escalate or self-control, childhood trauma, genetic and/or physiological abnormality, etc. Also, beneath the abuser's brutality, therapists look for insecurity, self-doubts, fears of being "unmanly," fears of abandonment, anger at others, resentment of his lot in life, and perhaps a mental illness (Gelb, 1983). Several TV movies, such as The Burning Bed, have depicted this situation. In short, we don't know the causes of wife abuse; it is a safe bet that they are complex.
Okay, then why does husband abuse occur? We know even less about husband abuse. Some women probably have the same fears, needs, and weaknesses as battering men and are in a situation where they can physically abuse their partner. Most psychologists believe women are much less abusive than men, but the data isn't clear on this point. It is known that women are victims of 11 times more reported abuse than men (Ingrassia & Beck, 1994). But, men may be hesitant to label themselves as "battered husbands." Spouse abuse occurs in all social classes and with independent as well as dependent women. Society and strangers, even the police, seldom interfere with family fights but society pays the bills in the emergency rooms.
Abuse should not happen but no treatment is a sure cure, probably we don't even have a good cure. About half of batterers will not get treatment and half of those that do, drop out. In most cases, it is wise to report the abuse to the police. Most police have had some training in handling "domestic violence" cases; however, officers in New York, which has a mandatory-arrest law, arrest only 7% of the cases and only report 30% of the domestic calls (Ingrassia & Beck, 1994). Police are supposed to provide the victim some protection (of course, this is hard to do and can't be guaranteed). Recent research confirms the benefits of pressing charges in these cases, however. If the abuse is not reported to the police, about 40% of the victims were attacked again within six months. If the abuse is reported by battered wives, only 15% were assaulted again during the next six months. So, protect yourself.
To the outsider the real question is: Why do they stay together? Why doesn't she leave? There must be varied and complex dynamics which tie an abusive couple together. We have much speculation; we need more facts. Clearly, there are likely to be emotional bonds, fears, shame, guilt, children to care for, money problems, and hope that things will get better. Many abused women are isolated and feel unable to find love again. Some women assume abuse is their lot as a woman, this is an expected part of life. A few women even believe a real, emotional, exciting macho "man" just naturally does violent things. Some violent men are contrite later and even charmingly seductive. Some women believe they are responsible for his mental turmoil and/or are afraid he will kill himself or them. She may think she deserves the abuse. Many (accurately) believe he will beat them more or kill them, if they report the assaults. The abused woman often becomes terrorized and exhausted, feeling totally helpless. Walker (1979, 1993) says the learned helplessness (within a cycle of violence and making up) keeps women from breaking away from the abuser. Celani (1994) suggests that both the abuser ("she can't leave me") and the abused ("I love him") have personality disorders, often originating in an abusive childhood.
The Horrors of Domestic Violence
No person should ever physically hit, slap, or shove another person, certainly not a supposed loved one. Physical threats should not be made either. Yet, the frequency of physical/emotional aggression (see statistics given above) is horrible. Lenore Walker (1979, 1993) describes the victim as traumatized and cruelly dominated to the point she feels helpless and, often, worthless. The abused becomes so unable to confront the abuser that she can not walk out. The most dangerous time is when she is walking out. Walker's work is regarded as one of the best self-help books for battered women (Santrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994; Norcross, et al, 2000). The two reference books just cited about self-help resources, along with many other sources, suggest many helpful and more recent books: (Ackerman & Pickering, 1995; Geller, 1992; Martin, 1989; Strube, 1988; Follingstad, Neckerman, & Vormbrock, 1988; Deschner, 1984; Fleming, 1979; NiCarthy, 1982, 1987, 1997). NiCarthy is especially good for women still in the abusive situation.
Abuse comes in several forms. Two well written books address verbal/psychological abuse (Evans, 1996; Elgin, 1995). There are books specifically for violent men (Sonkin & Durphy, 1992; Paymar, 1993), but, abusers often resist therapy, so how many would read and faithfully apply a book? There is also a book for partners of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Davis, 1991). The Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire publishes a large bibliography covering all forms of family violence. Get informed. It will help you get out of this situation.
Books aren't the only source of help. There are many Web sites. For general information, check out Violence Against Women, Office of Violence Against Women (1-877-739-3895), National Sexual Violence Resources Center, Blain Nelson's Abuse Pages (he is a former abuser), and Feminist Majority Foundation. Moreover, there are many sites that focus on a more specific problem or on a special population. One Web site, for instance, counsels young girls and women who might be experiencing When Love Hurts. It describes how unhealthy abuse subtly infiltrates a "love" situation. Since the abuse victim is unable to defend herself or escape, it is crucial that the community provide help and protection. The Nashville, Tennessee Police Department has a model program for Tennessee Abuse Program. In addition, there are national hotlines (1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-787-3224 or 1-800-FYI-CALL or 303-839-1852) and specialized groups, like Domestic Violence (415-681-4850) and Batterers Anonymous (909-355-1100). Many online support groups exist, see several at Abuse-Free Mail Lists and at Violence Against Women. Most communities have Women's Centers, Domestic Violence shelters, and Mental Health Centers where help is available. Please get help. In some extreme cases, getting out is a life or death situation.
There are several sites that advise women (mostly) about protecting themselves: Is Your Relationship Heading into Dangerous Territory?", A Community Checklist then click on publications, and Why Women Stay. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224) is a source of information and place for referrals to a local clinic.
And there are sites attempting to help abusers: Domestic Violence Resources. Some counselors working with abusers have made up lists of excuses often used by the out-of-control partner--these long lists of excuses dramatically illustrates to some abusers how many ways his mind distorts and denies reality. (See other books and groups above.)
Finally, there are sites about many different kinds of abuse: Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Center, Online Abuse, Child Witness to Domestic Violence, and Help Overcoming Professional Exploitation. Remember, books about verbal and emotional abuse are cited above. Norcross, et al. (2000) also provide several additional sites concerned with abuse by a priest, therapist, lesbian or gay partner, religious leader, self, elder caretaker, etc.
Child abuse is our next topic. Rape will be dealt with later in this chapter, because the act of rape is a hostile, cruel, aggressive, demeaning act, not really a sexual experience. In chapter 9, child sexual abuse, such as incest, is briefly discussed. It is located there because it is often a family affair. In chapter 10, date rape is covered as part of the dating process. As you can see, abuse comes in many different forms.