In one of the first studies of wives who murdered their abusive partners, When Battered Women Kill (New York:
The Free Press, 1987), Angela Browne of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire compared forty-two women charged with murdering or seriously injuring their spouses with 205 abused women who had not killed their husbands. Wondering why some women were unable to see that their partners were dangerously violent, she found that some of the personal characteristics of men inclined to violent, abusive behavior were the same qualities that initially attracted the women to them. For example, a woman might initially perceive a man who always wanted to know where she had been as intensely romantic. Only later, when she was unable to act or move without her partner's supervision, might she realize that she had become a virtual prisoner of her controlling mate.
Browne asserted that the intensity of these early relationships further serves to isolate the women. Women may be denied contact with family and friends to the extent that a casual conversation with a neighbor may provoke abuse. A woman may come to see her partner's behavior as extremely jealous and possessive. This pathological protectiveness is communicated by an abuser's belief that his partner belongs exclusively to him and is a possession to be used as he pleases. Browne found that many abusive husbands feared or believed their wives were sexually promiscuous. These mistaken beliefs frequently prompted extreme sexual assault.
Browne's findings suggest a link between the frequency of marital rape and homicide potential. More than 75% of women who had committed homicide claimed they were forced to have sexual intercourse with their husbands, compared to 59% in the group of women who had not killed their husbands. Some 39% of the former group had been raped more than twenty times, compared to 13% of the latter group. One woman Browne interviewed said, "It was as though he wanted to annihilate me…; as though he wanted to tear me apart from the inside out and simply leave nothing there."
According to Raquel Kennedy Bergin in Wife Rape (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), about 60% of the women who are raped in their marriages report that their husbands have threatened to kill them. Three of the women in her study reported that they were finally able to break free of their abusive relationships when they realized that they would kill their husbands if they did not leave. About half the sample confessed to thinking about killing their partners but did not believe they could actually follow through with their murderous plans.
Murder and Suicide Threats
Men murdered by their spouses had often threatened to kill their partners. In Browne's study, 83% of the men killed by their wives had threatened to kill someone, compared to 59% of the men whose wives did not kill them. Men killed by their wives had used guns to frighten their spouses and were sometimes killed with their own weapons. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of this group also threatened to kill themselves. Many of the threats were made when women tried to leave the relationship or when the men were depressed. Browne questioned whether the suicide threats were genuine expressions of wishes to die or whether they were used to manipulate the women in efforts to make them feel guilty and prevent them from leaving.
Studies have found that battered women often contemplate suicide because they see no other escape from the cycle of abuse, and that as many as a third of women who do commit suicide each year have been abused by a male partner. Neil Websdale explored the subject in "Reviewing Domestic Violence Deaths" (National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003). One woman in Browne's study expressed her wish to escape abuse when she decided not to seek help after a severe beating because she thought "[death] might not be so bad; like passing out only you never get beaten again."
Drug Use and Physical Abuse
When Browne compared abused women who had murdered their spouses and women who had not, she found that in the homicide group, 29% of the men had used drugs daily or almost daily versus only 7.5% of the men in the other group. There were even sharper differences in reported alcohol use. Twice as many (80%) of the men killed by their wives were reportedly drunk every day, compared with 40% of the abusive men not killed by their spouses.
Lenore Walker, a renowned expert in domestic violence who is often hired as an expert witness in homicide cases, researches and testifies in cases where women have killed their husbands after they pass out from drinking. She argued that women, convinced the beatings will resume when the men awake, take the opportunity to murder their abusers. Autopsies show that these victims had blood alcohol levels of up to three times greater than the measure normally defined as intoxicated.
In addition, 92% of the men killed by their wives had been arrested for crimes ranging from drunk driving to murder, compared with 77% of the abusive men not killed by their wives. A common feature of the marriages where the wife killed her spouse was that the wife did not know anything about her husband's criminal past, including his arrest records.