V. Explaining Domestic Violence
Scholars have had a difficult time developing explanations for the occurrence of domestic violence. Yet, it is widely understood that perpetrators turn to abusive behaviors as a means to gain power and control over their partner. Behaviors of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse within a relationship typically increase in their severity over time, as the perpetrator seeks to dominate the victim more fully. But abusers may differ from one another when it comes to the reasons why they seek to increase their power through abuse.
A. Cycle of Violence
The majority of relationships characterized by domestic violence experience what is referred to as the cycle of violence, which consists of three stages: (1) the tension-building stage, (2) the explosive stage, and (3) the honeymoon stage. The cycle is not the same for all victims in terms of duration, but there is evidence that the violence escalates as the cycle increases in frequency. Victims become so accustomed to the cycle that based on the behavior of their partner, they can usually anticipate when their batterer will become abusive. The first stage, the tension-building stage, is a time that can be characterized by extremely high stress. The batterer may vent this increased tension by taking it out on objects or by acting aggressively in other ways, and it is common for the batterer to act overly jealous of his partner and attempt to isolate the partner from family and friends more than normal. While this is happening, many victims feel like they are walking on eggshells and they try to do anything they can to stop their batterer from becoming physically abusive.
The tension-building stage is followed by the explosive stage. The term for this stage is appropriate because this is the point in the cycle when the batterer releases his accumulation of stress by perpetrating violence against his partner in an act of rage. This may consist of either physical or sexual violence. During this stage, the batterer believes that the victim has caused him to be violent and that she must be put in her place, which is the batterer’s effort to control the situation. Law enforcement may or may not become involved at this stage, depending on whether the victim or a third party calls the police. If law enforcement does become involved during this stage, many batterers who remain at the scene often appear very calm and collected to the officer, since their stress was released through their perpetration of violence. On the other hand, victims often appear confused, hysterical, terrified, shocked, angry, afraid, and degraded. Batterers often use the victim’s demeanor to manipulate the situation by lying about what had transpired and denying that they perpetrated violence.
The final stage is referred to as the honeymoon stage. This stage is composed of acts on the part of the batterer to convince the victim to stay in the relationship, including promises to the victim that things will change. The batterer will typically ask for forgiveness and shower the victim with various presents as an expression of love and commitment to the relationship. During this stage, batterers also may seek counseling or go to church to show the victim that they are committed to changing their behavior. Unfortunately, victims who have been through the cycle before want to believe the promises that are being made, but instead feel depressed, helpless, hopeless, and trapped. While the batterer may feel somewhat in control again, he is still fearful that the victim may leave or obtain the involvement of the criminal justice system. Although apologies are made, batterers tend to minimize the abuse they inflicted on the victim.
In sum, the honeymoon stage eventually cycles back to the tension-building phase, since the cycle of violence is a continual repetitious pattern. Many women find it difficult to break out of the cycle of violence because of the new hope that comes out of the honeymoon stage, which is a reminder that their partner has the capability of also being a good person and isn’t always a bad person.
One explanation behind domestic abuse is that the perpetrator suffers from certain mental disorders that lead him to seek psychological gratification through dysfunctional relationships. Detractors of this theory point out that most domestic abusers manage to function normally in other relationships, not necessarily behaving aggressively toward others in their daily life. While some abusers probably do suffer from mental illness or exhibit some signs of personality disorders, it is difficult to claim psychopathology as the main cause of domestic violence.
C. Perceived Gender Roles
A more widely accepted theory from the feminist school of thought, gender role theory is a perspective that sees institutionalized patriarchy as an explanation for domestic violence. Abusers look to society’s heterosexual behavior norms as reinforcing male power and control, and reflect them in their intimate relationships. As such, an abuser who expects his partner to fill a traditionally subservient feminine gender role may resort to power and control behaviors to assert his power in the relationship. While this explanation rings true for many couples in abusive relationships, it fails to explain the occurrence of domestic violence within lesbian and gay relationships. There are specific reasons for domestic violence between same-sex couples, which will be discussed later in this research paper. However, one may argue that gender role theory can apply to homosexual relationships as well, in that the abuser may be trying to achieve a perceived societal gender norm within the relationship.
It is difficult to pinpoint one distinct explanation for the epidemic of domestic violence; every relationship is unique, and abusers exhibit violent behaviors for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, it is most likely a combination of social, psychological, cultural, and individual factors that lead abusers to control their victims through domestic violence.
Read more about Domestic Violence Theories.
VI. Domestic Violence and the GLBT Community
While the majority of research on domestic violence refers to heterosexual couples, studies focusing on intimate partner abuse within gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) relationships show that it happens at the same rates (Renzetti, 1992). Since their inception, domestic violence shelters have become more inclusive in welcoming and assisting gay women. Nonetheless, as stated by the New York Anti-Violence Project,
Services are fraught with potentials for re-victimization that pivots on homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism. To this end, the deleterious effects of homophobia and heterosexism cannot be discounted in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) survivors of IPV [interpersonal violence].” (Fountain & Skolnik, 2006)
In addition to societal stereotypes in regard to homosexuality, myths also exist around intimate partner abuse within GLBT relationships. Stereotypical beliefs about gender roles and expectations may lead others to think that women are not capable of battering and that men cannot be labeled as victims. As with heterosexual couples, abuse in GLBT relationships is not always physical, does not only occur between couples who cohabitate, and it happens between young dating partners as well as adults.
Legislation in regard to abuse within GLBT relationships is limited. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2008), 30 states and the District of Columbia have domestic violence laws that are gender neutral and include dating partners as well as those living together. Conversely, three states (Delaware, Montana, and South Carolina) have language that explicitly excludes same-sex partners from legal protection in cases of abuse.
VII. Domestic Violence: Myth Versus Fact
One of the major efforts of the domestic violence movement, from the beginning, has been to debunk commonly believed stereotypes and myths about domestic violence. This is important because an accurate awareness of the issue cannot occur within society if the general public believes that domestic violence is a problem that only affects certain groups of people and is therefore not in need of attention since it is not that common. In addition, one of the easiest ways to acquire an overall understanding of the basic elements of domestic violence is to debunk commonly believed stereotypes. For example, it is commonly believed that domestic violence only affects certain populations. As mentioned above, domestic violence occurs across all cultures, religions, ethnicities, income levels, sexual orientations, age groups, and education levels. Another myth is that domestic violence is not a common or serious problem when in fact, in the United States, a woman is battered every 9 seconds (NCVC, 2008). Another myth is that domestic violence is caused by substance abuse. In fact, many batterers abuse alcohol or drugs, but it is not an excuse for their violence, as not all abusers are alcoholics or addicts and not all alcoholics or addicts abuse their partners. While some substance abusers blame their addiction for their battering behavior, they mistakenly assume that if the substance abuse stops, so will the abuse. It is best to think of substance abuse as being correlated with the incidence of domestic violence.
Many believe that if a victim really wants to stop the abuse, she could easily just walk out. The fact is that it is often very difficult for an abuse victim to end the relationship. Victims stay with the batterer for many reasons, including but not limited to economic constraints, child issues, fear, and intimidation. People also assume that as soon as a victim leaves her abuser, she is safe. In reality, abuse victims are in the most danger after the relationship has ended. Another commonly accepted myth is that battering incidents are isolated behaviors. In reality, batterers use a cycle of power and control to keep their partner in the relationship. Abuse rarely happens just once. It can happen often, or only once a year, but most physical violence continues to escalate and happens more often as the relationship progresses.
Another commonly accepted myth is that domestic violence can only occur in instances of physical aggression. In fact, emotional and psychological abuse and control are just as damaging and dangerous to the victim as physical abuse. Finally, many believe the myth that abusers just have anger issues—that the battering can be stopped through anger management courses. The fact of the matter is that although many abusers batter when they are angry, they are using violence to maintain power and control over their partner. They do not batter just because their partner did something to make them mad. While there are intervention programs for batterers, anger management is only a small part of the process. Other issues such as the need for control; the misuse of power; and what constitutes a healthy, functioning relationship must be worked on as well. For this reason, batterer intervention treatment is much more comprehensive than anger management counseling.