MARITAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: INTRODUCTION    

            Domestic violence represents both abuse of basic human rights and a tremendous societal challenge (Furlow, 2010).  It is a difficult issue to effectively address, in part because consensus is lacking on how to define it (what constitutes ‘domestic?’ or ‘abuse?’), who perpetrates it (men or women?), and who its victims are (women or children?).  The following discussion uses the standard definition of abuse found on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website: “Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power over an intimate partner.  Abusive behavior is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person.  This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone.”  For this discussion, focus will be on marital domestic violence (MDV), with husbands in this case as the perpetrators and wives as the victims.  The following cursory analysis begins with three societal factors contributing to MDV, then unique characteristics of MDV which set it apart from intimate partner domestic violence (IPDV).  Finally, three solutions are then identified which might reduce MDV, along with counterarguments to the proposed suggestions.

            Untangling the multi-faceted MDV Gordian Knot is beyond the scope of this review.  To tidy the framework for discussion, societal factors which may contribute to MDV have been confined to three:  marrying too young, use of alcohol, and having witnessed MDV as a child. Underpinning all of these are two assumptions:  a theory of causality, and the assumption that early intervention can course-correct the outcome for those at risk for MDV. 

 

THREE CONTRIBUTING SOCIETAL FACTORS

            Allow the discussion to begin with the suggestion that marrying too young may be a contributing factor to MDV. In neuroscience the frontal lobes of the brain are known as the “Chief Executive Officers,” because fundamental behavioral functions like decision-making and impulse-control are within the purview of their control (Stuss & Knight, 2013).  Human frontal lobes do not reach a “critical mass” at a magical age, but continue developing into adulthood (Bunge & Wright, 2007):  the practical implications of marrying before impulse control is mastered are enormous. A theory of causality is implied in saying that a man with poor anger management skills is a man less capable of preventing a marital disagreement from escalating to verbal and physical aggression.  In spite of the neurological argument that early marrying makes a couple more vulnerable to domestic violence, eighteen is the age for legal marriage in all but two states (nineteen in Nebraska, and twenty-one in Mississippi), and those who are even younger are allowed to marry in most states with parental and/or judicial consent (www.usmarriagelaws.com).

            A second societal factor contributing to MDV, habitual excessive alcohol consumption is one of the most documented risk factors for partner violence (Schumacher, Homish, Leonard, Quigley and Kearns-Bodkin, 2008).  Alcohol reduces one’s ability to inhibit impulses and can cloud judgment. While alcohol by itself has not been shown to mandate abusive spousal behavior, it has emerged as a longitudinal predictor of MDV among hostile men with high levels of avoidance coping (Schumacher et al., 2008). In other words:  poor anger management coupled with high avoidance coping are a potent combination with alcohol.  Though Alcoholics Anonymous was founded as long ago as 1938 (www.aa.org), drinking continues to be an accepted form of entertainment in American society.

            Finally, children who have been exposed to domestic violence are at risk as adults for taking up the same maladaptive behavior their parents modeled (Kolar & Davey, 2007).  Because it has been shown that early family experiences are one of the clotheslines on which the dirty flapping laundry of MDV is pinned, a strategy which takes previous family dynamics into account can be a critical starting point in a campaign to promote healthy marriages.  Early to mid-adolescence is a window of opportunity for learning healthy ways to form intimate relationships, especially if it has not been modeled at home.  Teenagers are often eager to explore relationship possibilities, so care should be taken to provide accurate ‘maps’ for them to do so lest they forge ahead on their own sometimes crippled devices (Wolfe & Jaffe, 2005).

 

DIFFERENTIATING MDV FROM IPDV

            Characteristics of MDV which differentiate it from IPDV are subtle. One typology distinguishes between “situational couple violence” (MDV) and “intimate terrorism” between non-married partners (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000; as cited in Whiting, Bradford, Vail, Carlton, and Bathje, 2009).  In this composition, the former refers to control gained primarily through coercion (fear, guilt, and humiliation), while the latter refers to power gained primarily through brute battering.  According to Whiting et al. (2009), both demoralize the spouse but the former typically does not lead to her death. Unfortunately, this rubric leads one to believe that MDV is less damaging – when, in fact, death of the soul can be as profound as death of the body. There is literature which describes the ‘silently enduring spouse’ as one whose abuse has left her with substantial (albeit unmet) health and support needs, but so stripped of any sense of identity that she may not even have the wherewithal to seek assistance (McGarry, 2010).

 

THREE PROPOSED SOLUTIONS AND THEIR COUNTERARGUMENTS

            Three solutions to reduce MDV are: raising legal age requirements for marriage, couples’ therapy to address underlying issues that mix with alcohol as a catalyst for MDV, and identifying adolescents at risk for perpetrating violence in later marriage through early intervention programs in high school. Following a description of these suggestions is a rebuttal acknowledging the challenges of each.

            First, if one accepts the neuroscience which argues convincingly against marrying young (Stuss & Knight, 2013; Bunge & Wright, 2007), then a logical suggestion for reducing MDV is to raise the legal age for marriage.  A quick sweep of the Internet reveals a practical tutorial on how-to-change-a-law-through-the-democratic-process-in-seven-steps at www.wikihow.com. As well-intentioned as this suggestion is, the counterargument is that all states would have to a) agree to the same age requirement (something they are unable to do even now), and b) all agree to enforce it.  If not, eighteen year-olds would simply drive to whichever state would legally grant them marriage certificates.

            Second, if a hostile husband with high avoidance coping is more likely to abuse his wife when he is drunk (Schumacher et al., 2008), then a prudent intervention might be to address in couples’ therapy those things which exacerbate the use of alcohol.  Such foci may include strategies to assuage hostility, and healthy ways for both husband and wife to address conflict.  The rebuttal in suggesting couples’ therapy for MDV is this:  there may be physical and psychological risk to the wife through retribution the next time the husband drinks, the wife may feel undermined by her husband’s sober façade in front of the therapist, and the power differential between husband and wife may be completely ignored or so well disguised as to go unaddressed (Harris, 2006). The greatest hurdle to the suggestion of couples’ therapy is, of course, getting the couple there in the first place. 

            A final suggestion for reducing MDV is to identify those adolescents for whom domestic violence has been modeled at home, and then intervene with a high school program aimed at teaching anger management and healthy relationship-building skills.  On the one hand, it could teach at-risk males healthy ways to build relationships with women, and it could teach at-risk females not to take even partial blame for intimate violence (Hayward, Steiner, and Sproule, 2007).  Just as a violin in a cupboard does not make music, however, even the best relationship-intervention program would be for naught without the students for whom it would do most good.  The counterargument to the suggestion of adolescent intervention is the formidable impasse of determining which students come from homes where MDV has been or is being modeled. Attitudes and shame about family privacy and loyalties may prevent students from disclosing their parents’ MDV to counselors (Krishman, Hilbert, and Van Leeuwen, 2001). Another conundrum would be how to circumvent HIPAA laws governing confidentiality (Whiting et al., 2009).  Finally, an adolescent intervention program may require consent from one or both of the very parents who are modeling MDV.

 

CONCLUSION

            In summary, MDV is a complicated threat this country needs to address.  How America manages it today will determine the degree to which violence is the legacy for its marriages tomorrow.  Robert Fulgham said:  “We shouldn’t be worrying that our children never listen to us; we should be worrying that they are always watching us.”

 

 

             

 

 

 

 

RESOURCES

 

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          Retrieved April 8, 2013 from:

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