abuse of spouses + children

By Clay Tucker-Ladd

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 no thicker 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.

what backgrounds + 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 to stop anger

It is helpful to think of 5 steps - or choices! - taking us from the initial frustration to intense anger in which we feel justified to express primitive rage:

- Deciding to be bothered by some event;

- Deciding this is a big, scary issue or personal insult;

- Deciding the other person is offensive and evil;

- Deciding a grave injustice has been done and the offender must be punished - you must have revenge; and

- 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:

- "It's not such a big deal."

- "Calm down, I can handle this rationally."

- "There is a reason why he / she is being such a [fill in blank]."

- "Let's find out why he / she is being so nasty."

- "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.

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.

the statistics

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 a re 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. Worldwide 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 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.

husband abuse

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 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). 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?

- Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire publishes a large bibliography covering all forms of family violence.

- The Violence Against Women & Children Resource Page is excellent.

Get informed. It will help you get out of this situation.

Books aren't the only source of help. There are many websites. For general information, type the following phrases into the google search box with quotation marks around the words:

- Domestic Violence;

- Feminist Majority Foundation;

- When Love Hurts;

- Relationship Violence Warning Signs;

- Domestic Violence Resources; and

- The Nashville, Tennessee Police Department (model program for Domestic Abuse).

american domestic violence hotlines

- 1-800-799-SAFE

- 1-800-FYI-CALL

- 303-839-1852

- Domestic Violence: 415-681-4850

- 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?

- Why Women Stay

The US National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) is a source of information and place for referrals to a local clinic. And there are sites attempting to help abusers:

- Broken

- Online Abuse

- Child Witness to Domestic Violence

- Help Overcoming Professional Exploitation

Psychological Self-Help - download this free book!

Copyright 2002 Clay Tucker-Ladd


There is a limit to which a human being can be degraded; there is a limit to which a human being can be abused.

Amedeo unleashed his violence on his history master during a lesson on the overly-enthusiastic strategies of the Austrian and Russian commands in the early part of World War II. He pushed his chair back from the desk and stood, mechanically walked to the front of the classroom and without the most marginal change in expression, grasped the master's chair and brought it down heavily over the man's head. My brother was tall even then, with rower's shoulders and adamant hands. The master crumpled like that proverbial house of cards. Amedeo paused and then began to kick his face and torso with all his mass, until six astounded peers leapt up and struggled to restrain him.

Predictably, he was expelled in some disgrace.

Equally predictable was the turbulence at home, turbulence which took the form of Aldo blackening both his eyes, splitting his lip so that it required fifteen stitches, and fracturing his right humerus by throwing him from the balcony. A Chi'ing vase was shattered. Chairs and tables - cabriole feet kicking - were overturned. Certain priceless pieces were destroyed. Huge glossy books on Arbus and Soutine were flung at mirrors and through windows.

I attempted to intervene, but was thrown mightily against the wall and broke my wrist. Unconscious Amedeo lying by the salt-water pool in his own blood. My mother - with a stifled gulp and loud low tomcat hiss - had observed the two men in her life for a Roman moment before rapidly scaling the stairs in her stiletto-heeled blue marabou-feather mules, robe fluttering.

I discovered her striking an attitude by her bedroom window: - left arm perpendicular to her bowed head, right hand crushing the sleeve of that soft robe to her hard mouth, snivelling, puling, bawling, begging an Almighty in whom she had never believed for his help. Outside, a massive bone-white moon was reflected in black sheets of water. The night was still and cool. An ambulance, policemen, wreckages.

Misery is so easy to create.

The Pure Weight of the Heart, by Antonella Gambotto


Depression and anger
Feeling suicidal?
Illness: a new perspective
The biochemistry of hope
Find your own North Star

Sexual abuse questionnaire
Message board for sexual abuse survivors - NOW!
Forum for survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault - NOW!
Abuse Survivors message boards and email list - NOW!
Excellent resources for sexual abuse survivors
Climbing out of the Spiral
Barbados - a rape and sexual abuse site inspired by Tori Amos
Alice Miller's message boards on emotional suffering - NOW!
Free guided audio online relaxation exercises