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The Causes of Wife Abuse - A Question Of Power

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The struggle for power in a relationship appears to play a significant role in battering. Some researchers suggest that the need to exert control over one's partner begins long before marriage.

In a study by Diane R. Follingstad et al. titled "Risk Factors and Correlates of Dating Violence: The Relevance of Examining Frequency and Severity Levels in a College Sample" (Violence and Victims, vol. 14, no. 4, Winter 1999), 290 male and 327 female college students were questioned about violence in their dating relationships. The authors found that students who used physical force in dating relationships often did so in order to exercise greater control over their dating partners. Compared to students who did not use violence in their dating relationships, respondents who reported using force were more likely to express anger, experience higher levels of jealousy, have poorer communication skills, report more daily stressors, display more irrational behavior and beliefs, and have more difficulty controlling their anger. These same respondents also reported more problems with alcohol, more verbal aggressiveness, and more efforts to control their dating partners than the students who never used force. The researchers concluded that intervention in the area of dating violence should focus specifically on an individual's need to control his or her dating partner and the motivations for the need to control.

Dissatisfaction with the amount of power a dating partner felt in a relationship was associated with the use of violence for both men and women, according to "Power and Dating Violence Perpetration by Men and Women," a study of 352 male and 296 female undergraduate college students by Shelby A. Kaura and Craig M. Allen. They found, however, that witnessing parental violence was a stronger predictor (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 19, May 2004). The study also found that women reported they were the perpetrators of significantly more dating violence than did men. The authors concluded that "dissatisfaction with power in relationships is important for both genders."

The Balance of Power

The desire to dominate one's partner may be manifested using methods other than violence, such as attempts at financial, social, and decision-making control. Some researchers theorize that men of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to batter because they do it to assert the power that they lack economically. Violence becomes the tactic that compensates for the control, power, independence, and self-sufficiency these men lack in other areas.

In "Marital Power, Conflict, and Violence in a Nationally Representative Sample of American Couples," Diane Coleman and Murray Straus analyzed data from the 1975 National Family Violence Survey to determine the characteristics of families most prone to violence (Violence and Victims, vol. 1, no. 2, 1986). They asked respondents to indicate "who has the financial say" when it came to buying a car, having children, choosing a house or apartment, the type of job either partner should take, whether a partner should work, and how much money to spend each week for food. The response options were divided into "husband only," "husband more than wife," "husband and wife exactly the same," "wife more than husband," and "wife only."

Coleman and Straus arranged the responses to create four categories: male-dominant, female-dominant, equal, and divided power. The difference between the equal and divided-power types was that in the former the wife and husband made most decisions jointly, while in the latter they divided responsibility for decisions, with each having the final say for different decisions. The highest likelihood of violence occurred in relationships where one partner was dominant. Equal and divided-power relationships, in contrast, had the lowest likelihood of violence. Coleman and Straus also found that equal relationships could tolerate more conflict before violence erupted than other power relationships. Inequality, they posited, inevitably leads to attempts to even out the relationship, which in turn causes conflicts and perhaps violence. However, the researchers observed, male- or female-dominant relationships in which the partners accepted their status in the relationship usually experienced lower levels of conflict and violence.

Learned Gender Roles

Pointing to history, some researchers see wife abuse as a natural consequence of women's second-class status in society. Among the first to express this viewpoint were Emerson Dobash and Russell Dobash in Violence against Wives (New York: Free Press, 1979). Dobash and Dobash argued that men who assaulted their wives were actually living up to roles and qualities expected and cherished in Western society—aggressiveness, male dominance, and female subordination—and that they used physical force as a means to enforce these roles. Many sociologists and anthropologists believe that men are socialized to exert power and control over women. Some men may use both physical and emotional abuse to attain the position of dominance in the spousal relationship.

Other researchers agree. Violence often grows out of inequality within an intimate relationship and reinforces male dominance and female subordination, according to Kersti Yllöo, in "Through a Feminist Lens: Gender, Power, and Violence," from the book Current Controversies on Family Violence (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1994). For Yllöo, violence against women in all of its forms, including sexual harassment and date rape, is a tactic of male control, and domestic violence is not just a conflict of interests, it is domination by men. In their study of thirty-three male batterers titled "Gendering Violence: Masculinity and Power in Men's Accounts of Domestic Violence," Kristin L. Anderson and Debra Umberson wrote: "violence is… an effective means by which batterers reconstruct men as masculine and women as feminine" (Gender & Society, vol. 15, June 2001).

Murray Straus compared data on wife battering with indices to measure gender equality, income, and social disorganization variables as part of his research work in "State-to-State Differences in Social Inequality and Social Bonds in Relation to Assaults on Wives in the United States" (Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, Spring 1994). Straus evaluated gender equality by measuring twenty-four indicators to determine the extent to which women have parity with men in economic, political, and legal arenas. Income inequality was assessed using census data on family income. Social disorganization measures the level of societal instability, such as geographic mobility, divorce, lack of religious affiliation, female- or male-headed households, and the ratio of tourists to residents in each state.

In all fifty states studied, Straus found that gender equality was the variable most closely related to the rate of wife assault—states where the status of women was higher were less likely to report high rates of wife abuse. Social disorganization was also related to abuse—the higher degree of social disorganization, the greater the probability that the state would have a high rate of wife assault. Straus found that economic inequality did not appear to be related to wife abuse rates.

Attitudes toward Violence

Some researchers believe attitudes about violence are shaped early in life, long before the first punch is thrown in a relationship. In "The Attitudes Towards Violence Scale: A Measure for Adolescents" (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 14, no. 11, November 1999), Susan B. Funk et al. asked junior high and high school students attending an inner-city public school in a Midwestern city about their attitudes toward violence. Some students identified themselves as victims of violence and others completed the survey before and after participating in a violence awareness program.

Using the responses of 638 students who took the survey prior to the violence awareness program, the researchers examined the correlation of violence with gender, grade-level, and ethnicity. They found that males endorsed more pro-violence attitudes independent of age, grade-level, and ethnicity, as did those students who identified themselves as victims of violence. African-American teenagers endorsed "reactive violence," or violence used in response to actual or perceived threats, at higher levels than other groups. Endorsement of reactive violence was linked to having violent behaviors in one's repertoire, willingness to act in a violent manner, and supporting the actual choice of a violent response. Hispanic Americans endorsed "culture of violence" measures, reflecting a pervasive identification with violence as a valued activity, at slightly higher levels than the teenagers as a group. "Culture of violence" measures included the conviction that the world is a dangerous place where the best way to ensure survival is to be vigilant and prepared to take the offensive. European Americans scored lower on measures of "reactive violence" as well as "total pro-violence attitudes."

The study found that gender, ethnicity, and selfidentification as a victim of violence were all related to proviolence attitudes. Males, regardless of cultural background, were more likely than females to endorse pro-violence attitudes. The researchers concluded that a combination of biological, environmental, and social influences were responsible for these findings.

Does a Patriarchal Society Breed Violence?

Donald Dutton, a professor of psychology and director of a treatment program for batterers, questioned the role of male domination in wife battering and offered alternative explanations for violence in "Patriarchy and Wife Assault: The Ecological Fallacy" (Violence and Victims, vol. 9, no. 2, 1994). According to the patriarchal model, societies that place a high value on male dominance should have high rates of abuse. But Dutton and other investigators cite studies that contradict this premise. For example, Coleman and Straus found that in marriages where spouses agreed that the husband should be dominant, violence levels were low.

Other research discounts the weight of the patriarchal theory of abuse. David B. Sugarman and Susan Frankel, in "Patriarchal Ideology and Wife-Assault: A Meta-Analytical Review" (Journal of Family Violence, vol. 11, no. 1, 1996), examined studies for evidence of a relationship between patriarchy and violence. They measured whether violent husbands had a higher acceptance of violence than nonviolent men and whether they believed that women should exhibit traditional gender roles of obedience, loyalty, and deference. The researchers also measured whether assaultive men were more likely to possess a traditional "gender schema," an internal perception of an individual's own levels of masculinity, femininity, or androgyny. They also considered whether assaulted wives held more traditional gender attitudes than wives who were not battered and whether battered wives held more traditional feminine gender schemas.

Overall, their analysis found support for only two of the five hypotheses. Predictably, assaultive husbands found marital violence more acceptable than nonviolent husbands, and battered wives were more likely to be classified as having "traditional" feminine gender schemas than wives who were not assaulted. Sugarman and Frankel concluded that their findings offered only partial support for the patriarchy theory.

Mark Totten, however, found another link between patriarchy and violence. He concluded in a study of thirty male adolescents, primarily gang members, that under-privileged males in society use violence toward women in response to their lack of access to the traditional benefits of patriarchy ("Girlfriend Abuse as a Form of Masculinity Construction among Violent, Marginal Male Youth," Men and Masculinities, vol. 6, July 2003). Totten posited that the ideals of patriarchy—and the inability of these disenfranchised boys to wield any patriarchal power outside of their gangs or family groups—led them to be violent toward their girlfriends as one way to define their masculinity. "Violence," he wrote, "was one of the few resources over which they had control." On the other hand, he wrote, "Men with more resources can commit different, less visible forms of abuse."

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