When men and women are violent in marriage relationships, they usually engage in different patterns of behavior, for different reasons, and with different consequences. The relative proportion of men and women who use violence against a partner differs greatly, depending on whether one is looking at situational violence, domestic abuse, or responsive violence.
Any individual can choose to abuse their partner, and some women do so. The fact that the same term – domestic violence – is used for both fights and abuse (see side bar) has led to enormous amounts of time and energy being spent in fruitless arguments over whether men and women are “equally abused.” Men and women clearly do not abuse their partners at the same rate.
Studies point out that the tactics of men who abuse women specifically target aspects of sexual inequality, such as what is called women’s “default consignment” to housework, caretaking and sexual service. Coercive control is built on the rules for the victim’s daily conduct as a woman, which makes it hard to tell where the constraints of women’s gender role leave off and coercive control begins. No parallel thing happens to men, the studies conclude, even to men with abusive partners.
Women as abusers?
When women are violent, it usually takes the form of fighting or responsive violence. The smallest group of women who use violence in their relationship are women who actually abuse their partner. There are a couple of major reasons for this:
- Women’s attempts to dominate men are much more likely to fail, because “… discrimination allows men privileged access to the material and social resources needed to gain advantage in power struggles.”
- Norms for female behavior work against women becoming abusers. These norms include:
- Defer to men.
- Be nice – you can “catch more flies with honey.”
- Adapt to things you don’t like; endure what you can’t control.
- Soothe other people’s anger.
- Shut up! Keep your feelings to yourself – especially anger.
- Keep the peace.
- Keep the family together.
- Take responsibility for how men treat you.
- Don’t be too “demanding.”
This does not mean that women can’t be abusive – just that both social power arrangements and their learning histories work against women engaging in coercive control.
Aren’t there more female abusers and male victims than people think?
The Myth: The number of female abusers only seems small, because most male victims are too ashamed to contact law enforcement or domestic violence services.
The Reality: There is little evidence that male victims report abuse significantly less than women do. In reports from U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, for instance, an estimated 72% of IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) against males was reported to police, vs. only 49% of IPV against females. When men don’t report an incident to police, they usually say it’s because they see it as a private or personal matter, not that they feel ashamed and embarrassed. Some male victims want to protect the partner who assaulted them – just like female victims do.
Researchers and service providers have described this state of affairs in various ways:
- Men readily tell researchers that they are being hit, complain in court about mistreatment during divorce and custody cases, and insist in counseling that they are the ones who are being abused.
- A “committed public effort to reach out to [heterosexual] male victims has not resulted in domestic violence programs suddenly discovering they need to rethink their emphasis on serving women.”
- We don’t see heterosexual men whose self-esteem is destroyed by abuse, who give up school and career progress, who are forced into unwanted sex, or who flee for their lives. People intervene in abuse more than they used to, and if those men were out there, someone would have noticed.
So when women do initiate the abusive behavior, what is going on?
Most likely, there is a mental or personality disorder triggering those behaviors. That said, the experience the man has of the abuse can be horrific and no one should have to live that way. The purpose of differentiating what is behind her behavior is about how to intervene and what type of help should be sought; the interventions for domestic abuse are very different than those for mental illness.
Domestic Abuse is abuse that is ongoing, purposeful behavior in service of dominating one’s partner, and often one’s children as well. It is also referred to as coercive controlling violence. Domestic abuse involves repeated, ongoing, intentional control tactics including physical, sexual, economic, psychological, legal, institutional, or all of the above.
Responsive violence is violence used by victims of domestic abuse or other assaults who are trying to escape, stand up for themselves, stop the assailant’s violence, defend themselves or others, or retaliate. It is an attempt to gain short-term control in a violent situation.
Situational violence is when one or both partners handle conflicts with violence – fights, arguments, disagreements. There is no ongoing pattern of coercion or intimidation between fights. Either partner may be afraid of the other during a fight, but neither one fears the other on an ongoing basis when they are not fighting.