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
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
Know your history to know yourself and to understand others' reactions
what backgrounds + conditions lead
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
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
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
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
- 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
- "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 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,
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
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,
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
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,
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
american domestic violence hotlines
- 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
- Is Your
Relationship Heading into Dangerous Territory?
- Why Women
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:
- Online Abuse
- Child Witness
to Domestic Violence
- Help Overcoming
- 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,
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