Mind Matters — The Battering of Women

Many years ago, I remember hearing a woman’s story about her husband’s physical and emotional abuse of her. There was something she said in her narrative that sent chills up my spine and a red flag popped up in my brain. Bluntly I told her, “Get out before he kills you.” She took me seriously.

That was 1983, but violence against women is yet to be passé. Not a new book, but timely just the same, is When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships by Neil Jacobson and John Gottman. Would that I had had their wise words to offer my client many moons ago.

First, they dispel the myths about battering. One myth is that both men and women batter. While there may be a small percentage of women who do, overall it is men who are the perpetrators of such violence and who do serious physical harm to the point of murder to their partner. Moreover, the intent of the abuse is about domination and control and the instilling of fear in the other. Jacobson and Gottman state, “… battering is not just physical aggression: it is physical aggression with a purpose. … to control, intimidate, and subjugate one’s intimate partner through the use of the threat of physical aggression. … fear is the force that provides battering with its power.”

The second myth to be toppled is that “all batterers are alike.” According to Jacobson’s and Gottman’s research, there are different types of batterers. The differences arise from whether the individual has antisocial, psychopathic tendencies, lacking conscience and feeling entitled; or is an individual who is emotionally dependent on the partner and fears abandonment and therefore seeks absolute power and control. No matter the differences, the violent sameness remains, sometimes to the point of murder.

Also debunked by these researchers is the myth that “batterers can’t control their anger.” Their premise is that battering is voluntary behavior that involves choice. Furthermore, battering seldom stops on its own. Jacobson and Gottman assert that, while men’s physical violence dissipates, the emotional abuse continues unabated. This means that underlying the relationship the threat of violence remains the controlling factor.

Gottman and Jacobson, although clinicians, find in their studies that psychotherapy is not necessarily an effective alternative to a prison sentence for a batterer. They consider how “family violence” is often minimized. “Family violence is still regarded as less serious than violence against strangers, even though most women who are murdered are not killed by strangers, but by boyfriends, husbands, ex-husbands, and ex-boyfriends.”

One of the oft heard myths bandied about is “Women often provoke men into battering them.” Jacobson and Gottman clarify how men initiate violence independent of what their partners say. They state, “Holding the husband accountable for using violence, regardless of what the wife does or says, is a necessary step for the violence to stop, but it is not sufficient. The batterer has to ‘feel’ accountable in order for the violence to stop.”

Another myth, closely linked to the last one, is that “battered women could stop the battering by changing their own behavior.” Not so. “Battering,” Gottman and Jacobson report, “has little to do with what women do or don’t do, what they say, or don’t say. It is the batterer’s responsibility—and his alone—to stop being abusive.”

Battering does not happen in a vacuum, but “occurs within a patriarchal culture, and is made possible because such a culture dominates American society,” say Jacobson and Gottman. These researchers give hope that our culture can change.