Domestic Violence

Type of psychology: Psychopathology Fields of study: Adulthood; aggression

Domestic violence refers to all forms of abuse which occur within families, including child abuse, elder abuse, and spouse abuse. The term came into common usage in the 1970's to emphasize wife abuse. Domestic violence is explained by several psychologically based theories which in turn propose different solutions.

Key concepts

• battered woman syndrome

• cycle of violence

• domestic violence

• family systems theory

• feminist psychological theory

• learning theory

• post-traumatic stress disorder

• psychoanalytic theory

• systems theory

Domestic violence is difficult to measure because there are no agreed-upon standards as to what it is. In addition, most domestic violence occurs in private, and victims are reluctant to report it because of shame and fear of reprisal. Its scope is also difficult to determine, and society's reluctance to acknowledge it results in only estimated numbers of rapes, robberies, and assaults committed by family members and other relatives, such as spouses, former spouses, children, parents, boyfriends, and girlfriends.

In the 1970's, publicity about domestic violence, and more specifically wife abuse, made the public aware that many women did not live in peace and security in their own homes. Through the usage of the terms "abuse," "woman abuse," "battering," "partner abuse," "spouse abuse," "intimate violence," "family violence" and "relationship violence," feminists made the public aware of the problem. As a result of the publicity, women were identified as the most likely victims of domestic violence.

The selection of a name for the behavior will have implications for treatment choices. In addition, the term "domestic violence" removes the issue from a societal perspective, which condones, reinforces, and perpetuates the problem. Domestic violence minimizes the role of gender and places the relationship in the dominant spot. As a result, the choice of a name offers varying perspectives, which differentially view the persons involved, the nature of the problem, and possible solutions.

Abused women in a domestic violence situation are confronted with several types of abuse, namely economic abuse, physical abuse, psychological/

emotional abuse, and sexual abuse. Economic abuse results when the financial resources to which a woman is legally entitled are not accessible to her. Examples of economic abuse include being prevented from seeking employment even if qualified to do so, as well as being denied access to needed education, which would aid the woman in securing better employment.

Physical abuse is the major way that abusive men control the behavior of women. Abused women have likened psychological or emotional abuse to brainwashing. Little research has been done on this type of abuse because it is difficult to record. The abused woman is terrorized, isolated, and undermined by her abuser. Psychological or emotional abuse allows men to avoid the legal effects of physical abuse, because they can frighten women without touching them. Five common emotional abuse methods include isolation, humiliation and degradation, "crazy-making" behavior, threats to harm the woman or those she loves, and suicidal and homicidal threats.

Sexual violence was reported by 33 percent to 59 percent of the battered women in a study by Angela Browne published in 1987. Since 1992, it has been legal throughout the United States for a woman to charge her husband with rape. Historically, rape was thought of as intercourse forced on someone other than the wife of the accused. As a result, a woman could not legally accuse her husband of rape.

Possible Causes

Four theories, each of which has a psychological basis, attempt to explain wife abuse. Each of the theories has a unique perspective regarding the causes of wife abuse. The four theories are family systems theory, feminist psychological theory, learning theory, and psychoanalytic theory.

The first theory, family systems theory, includes the application of systems theory to all current family therapy approaches. Systems theory stresses mutual influences and reciprocal relationships between the individual members and the whole, as well as vice versa. In family systems theory, abuse is seen as a feature of the relationship between the abused wife and her husband. Underlying the abusive behavior, both the abused wife and her husband have a frail sense of self. When they marry or establish a relationship, a battering routine or system unfolds. Several factors lead the man to have a drive for power and control over the woman. These factors include social conditions, the need for control, intimacy fears, and lack of awareness of his own conflicts regarding dependency. The abused woman, in turn, has a limited range of coping behaviors, dependency conflicts, a history of childhood family violence, and other psychosocial traits which are similar to those of the man. Change is prevented from occurring, and the dysfunctional interpersonal behavior patterns continue as a result of the unwritten expectations that control these behaviors. Change is blocked by the use ofvi-olent behavior.

The second theory, feminist psychological theory, is based on the work of American feminist psychologist Lenore Walker. She believes that the behav iors of abused women are coping behaviors developed as a result of living in a brutal environment.

Walker first theorized the concept of learned helplessness as used in relation to abused women. The abused woman can do nothing to stop the violence. The woman's chief concern is survival. However, survival comes with consequences. Several of the consequences include passively giving in to her abuser, becoming an observer of her own abuse through the process of disassociation, and waiting for days to seek medical care because she may distort the reality of the abuse. In addition, women's helplessness is reinforced by society in two ways. First, women learn to respond passively to abuse through gender-role socialization. Second, women's ability to control their lives is thwarted through the interrelated effects of sexism, discrimination, and poverty.

Walker has described a cycle of violence that unfolds in the individual relationship. The woman yields to the batterer's demands in the first stage in order to keep small episodes from increasing. However, over time these small episodes increase and accumulate. The woman also begins to withdraw from family and friends because she does not want them to know what is going on as the family tension increases. As time passes, the woman withdraws from the batterer as well, because she realizes that her efforts to prevent further development of the violence are futile. The batterer, in turn, becomes more and more angry because he fears that he is losing control of his wife. He then explodes, in the second stage. The third stage quickly follows; The batterer is characterized as being placid, and there is a pause in the abusive behaviors. The man promises the woman that he will change, brings her gifts, and is extremely regretful. He changes back into the man she originally loved and is at his most defenseless state.

In order to explain the behaviors of women who have been frequently abused, Walker developed the theory of the battered woman syndrome, which she sees as a variant of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The key behaviors of anxiety, cognitive distortion, and depression can on one hand help a woman to survive her abuse. On the other hand, they can interfere with her ability to change her life situation by using appropriate methods.

The third theory is learning theory, incorporating both social learning theory and cognitive behavioral therapy. Social learning theorists stress the occurrence of modeling and the reinforcements received for abusive behavior. Cognitive behavioral theorists stress the internalization of beliefs that support abusive behavior. Boys may internalize the belief that they should be in charge by learning abusive behaviors from male role models, ranging from their fathers to media stars. Girls internalize the belief that they are helpless and weak by learning passively from their role models. Later adult behaviors are hindered by the earlier learned behaviors and internalized messages.

The fourth theory, psychoanalytic theory, focuses on intrapersonal pathology. This theory argues that the early life experiences of abused women and abusive men shape the particular pathological personality. The battered woman develops beliefs and behaviors that are dysfunctional in adulthood, although they are based in childhood experiences with cruel persons. The women do not resist the abuse. They submit to the abuse because they fear offending the stronger male and also because they think of themselves as deserving abuse. The women choose abusive men and may even touch off the abusive behavior because of their strong feelings of worthlessness. Passive-aggressive, psychopathic, obsessive-compulsive, paranoid, and sadistic are some of the labels given to violent men who have experienced severe and traumatic childhood abuse episodes themselves. Men learn that violence gets them what they want and also allows them to feel good about themselves, in spite of their childhood experiences of abuse both as victims and as observers.

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