Since the late 1970s, researchers and theorists have focused increased attention on the widespread problem of domestic violence in contemporary society. Research has shown that domestic violence cuts across racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic lines. In particular, researchers have sought to identify the factors associated with intimate violence in an effort to develop theories explaining the causes of battering.
One of the most widely cited theories in the domestic violence literature is Lenore Walker’s cycle of violence. According to Walker, the cycle of violence is characterized by three distinct phases which are repeated over and over again in the abusive relationship. As a result, domestic abuse rarely involves a single isolated incident of violence. Rather, the abuse becomes a repetitive pattern in the relationship.
The first stage in the cycle of violence is tension building. During the tension-building stage, the victim is often subjected to less serious nonviolent forms of abuse, such as threats and insults. Victims soon come to realize that the verbal threats usually precede physical violence and will therefore attempt to delay its onset. For example, the victim may act compliant in the hope of mollifying the batterer and avoiding a violent outburst, but eventually the inevitable occurs, namely, the physical assault.
The second stage in the cycle of violence is acute battering. The acute-battering stage is marked by uncontrolled physical aggression, which may be extremely violent in nature. It is during the acute-battering stage that victims are most likely to sustain injuries ranging from bruises, cuts, broken bones, disfigurement, and miscarriage to loss of life. The acute-battering stage, however, tends to be abrupt. The violent episode usually lasts only a few minutes.
Immediately following an acute-battering incident, the abuser usually acts remorseful. Walker describes this third stage in the cycle of violence as loving and contrite, or the ‘‘honeymoon’’ stage. The batterer is apologetic as well as attentive to the victim. The abuser may shower the victim with gifts, compliments, and sincere promises that it will never happen again. The victim becomes reassured that the perpetrator loves her and that the relationship can be salvaged. The victim may actually begin to feel responsible for the violent outburst. Predictably, the third stage ends, tension building resumes, and the cycle of violence persists.
As the cycle of violence continues, victims report that they are less successful in delaying the onset of the acute-battering stage and that the abusers become less remorseful with each new incident of violence. Many researchers have observed that the violence also tends to increase in severity over time. More specifically, escalation theory posits that the battering becomes increasingly more violent with each successive incident. Consequently, the risk of personal injury increases with the number of events of less serious violence.
Research has found that over time the violence increases in frequency and severity. For example, a study examining domestic homicide patterns in Kansas City discovered that in approximately 90 percent of the domestic homicide cases, police had responded to at least one call for service at the address of the victim or suspect in the two years prior to the murder. It was further reported that in about 50 percent of the domestic homicide cases, police had responded to five or more calls. Comparable results were reported for domestic aggravated assaults. Similar findings were found in studies examining domestic disturbance calls in other cities, including Boston and Minneapolis.
Beginning in the 1980s, researchers began to focus attention on same-sex battering. These studies lend further support to the cycle of violence theory as well as the escalating violence thesis. Studies found that intimate violence among lesbians tends to be characterized by what Elizabeth Leeder refers to as ‘‘chronic battering.’’ As with heterosexual couples, lesbian victims experience domestic abuse that is repetitive in nature and escalates over time. Many battered lesbians have reported that the violence was preceded by a tension-building phase and followed by a period of contrition. In addition, a significant number of battered lesbians have communicated that the abuse grew more intense and serious over time.
For gays and lesbians, serial incidents tend to involve more serious personal crimes than first-time incidents, including assault with and without a weapon, attempted assault with and without a weapon, and rape. Furthermore, being victimized more than once increases the likelihood of injuries that require outpatient care or hospitalization. These findings suggest that gays and lesbians, like their heterosexual counterparts, experience escalating violence that intensifies and becomes more serious over time. Collectively, these studies provide evidence of escalating violence in all types of abusive relationships. Researchers have begun to explore the consequences of living under a constant threat of danger. It is believed that as the violence increases in frequency and severity, victims of intimate violence often exhibit diminished hope, less self-esteem, and more fear.
The Effects of Escalating Violence
Research indicates that there are both short-term and long-term psychological consequences for battered intimates. Lenore Walker found that the repeated cycle of violence led to severe psychological symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, eating problems, fatigue, and indicators of stress, i.e., headaches, back pain, high blood pressure, and heart problems. She identified a pattern of psychological consequences that developed in women exposed to chronic battering. Walker introduced the concept of the battered woman syndrome, which is characterized by a pattern of learned helplessness, reexperiencing of the trauma, intrusive recollections, generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, and social withdrawal.
Low self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness have been consistently reported in victims of battering. Survey research with clinical samples have identified numerous other psychological problems: anxiety, depression, anger and rage, nightmares, dissociation, somatic problems, sexual problems, and addictive behaviors. Overall, 75 to 80 percent of victims in these samples suffered depression.
Suicidal ideation is greater for women experiencing assault. Murray Straus and Richard Gelles compared a sample of victimized women with a sample of women experiencing no violence. The seriously assaulted women reported two times the number of headaches, four times the rate of depression, and five and a half times more suicide attempts. A number of researchers have found that nearly half of battered women contemplate suicide. It has been estimated that greater than 20 percent of domestic violence victims actually attempt suicide. Victims often report that with increasing isolation from support networks such as family and friends, they became more vulnerable. They also experience increasing negative attitudes toward their partners, decreasing hope for changing the violence, and feelings of there being no escape other than suicide.
The psychological consequences of powerlessness and depression also contribute to the difficulty some battered women have leaving a relationship. When victims leave, however, escalating violence can occur during the separation. ‘‘Separation assault’’ often results from retaliation attempts or jealousy. Most women who are murdered by their partners are killed when they separate from the batterer.
Social consequences of battering are pervasive. Businesses lose about $100 million annually in lost wages, sick leave, absenteeism, and non-productivity as a result of domestic violence. The violent male partner often resents the woman’s job because it is an area of her life that he cannot control. The abuse then has an effect that spills over into the workplace setting. Abused women miss many days of work due to psychological coercion and physical injury. They have far greater problems with lateness, interruption, and harassment by the batterer on the job than do other workers.
Health care costs for treating victims of domestic violence are estimated to be at least $3 billion to $5 billion annually. The emergency room is the first place that many abused women find themselves after an outburst of violence; and between one-fifth and one-third of women who are treated in hospital emergency rooms are victims of battering. Between 20 and 50 percent of women admitted for emergency surgery have been assaulted by a male partner.
Domestic violence is a special risk to pregnant women. Battering often escalates when there is a change of some kind in the home, and pregnancy may trigger such an increase. It has been estimated that as many as 37 percent of all obstetrical patients are abused. Injury can trigger premature labor. Also, battered women are four times more likely to have low-birth-weight babies and twice as likely to miscarry as other women. Abuse of pregnant women is a leading cause of infant mortality and birth defects.
The costs of domestic violence account for almost 15 percent of the annual total crime costs, while family homicide is projected to cost $1.7 billion annually. In addition to direct costs of police intervention, courts devote a large amount of time to issuing protection orders, protecting victims, and housing the most serious offenders.
The Legal System’s Response
It is obvious that domestic violence produces many negative consequences. The most serious is domestic homicide. Women are far more likely than men to be killed by an intimate. As many as three out of four domestic homicides are committed against female victims. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 1,600 women are killed each year by male partners. A significant number of these victims were murdered after enduring years of abuse. Unfortunately, the legal system may have contributed to the escalating violence experienced by victims of partner abuse by refusing to treat such violence as a criminal offense.
For centuries, the physical punishment of women by their husbands was socially condoned. Under common law, the rule of thumb specified the extent of physical force that a husband was permitted to use against his wife. A husband was allowed to hit his wife with a rod no thicker than his thumb.
During the late nineteenth century, the suffragist movement focused attention on the plight of female victims of domestic violence. Simultaneously, many states began enacting laws prohibiting wife battering. These laws, however, often amounted to mere paper statutes, existing on the books but not enforced by the criminal justice system. For example, several states prevented police from arresting a batterer unless they witnessed the violence firsthand. Other states adhered to the stitch rule, whereby police would be allowed to arrest a husband accused of battering if the injuries sustained by the victim were serious enough to require stitches. Police typically responded to domestic violence by temporarily separating the parties for a cooling-down period. Police rarely arrested the batterer.
As a result, victims of domestic violence did not receive adequate protection from the criminal justice system. This in turn may have contributed to the pattern of escalating violence characterizing many abusive relationships. In the early 1970s, the women’s movement lobbied for legislative reforms and stronger criminal sanctions. At the same time, researchers also began to advocate that the criminal justice system take domestic violence seriously by arresting the batterer.
In 1986, Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk conducted the infamous Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment. They discovered that arresting batterers resulted in the least amount of repeat violence. As noted previously, a study of homicides in Kansas City showed that police had been warned by multiple or repeated domestic violence calls to the residence, now the crime scene of a murder.
These findings indicate that police should respond to domestic violence incidents by arresting the batterer to deter escalating violence. Many states have subsequently adopted mandatory and pro-arrest policies. The ability of mandatory arrest to reduce escalating violence is debatable. The Minneapolis experiment has been replicated numerous times with mixed results. Some research has found that arrest actually intensifies the violence. Other studies have revealed that only certain types of batterers are deterred by arrest. Nevertheless, many victim advocates continue to insist that arrest is the most successful response for deterring repeat violence. As a result, mandatory arrest has emerged as the standard response to domestic violence in American society.
Another criminal justice reform that is designed to protect victims of partner abuse from further violence is the warrantless arrest. It allows police to arrest batterers who violate restraining orders without securing a warrant. Warrantless arrests have the potential to decrease intimate partner violence and reduce opportunities for domestic homicide. These reforms show that the criminal justice system is more committed than ever to protecting victims of domestic violence. It should, however, continue to explore additional interventions that may successfully reduce escalating violence as well as prevent domestic homicides.
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- Breedlove, Ronald, G. Marie Wilt, James Bannon, John Kennish, Donald Sandker, and Robert Sawtell. ‘‘Domestic Violence and the Police: Kansas City.’’ In Domestic Violence and the Police Studies: Detroit and Kansas City, Washington, DC: Police Foundation, 1977.
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- Leeder, Elizabeth. ‘‘Enmeshed in Pain: Counseling the Lesbian Battering Couple.’’ Women and Therapy 7 (1988): 81–99.
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- Sherman, Lawrence, and Richard Berk. ‘‘The Specific Deterrent Effects of Arrest for Domestic Assault.’’ American Sociological Review 49 (1984): 261–272.
- Straus, Murray, and Richard Gelles. ‘‘Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys.’’ Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986): 465–479.
- U.S. Department of Justice. Stop the Cycle of Violence: What You Can Do. Washington, DC: Author, 1997.
- Walker, Lenore. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
- ———. The Battered Woman Syndrome. New York: Springer Publishing, 1984.
- Wiehe, Vernon R. Understanding Family Violence: Treating and Preventing Partner, Child, Sibling and Elder Abuse. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998.