Common beliefs about the form of domestic violence termed mutual battering assume that it involves physical, verbal, and/or psychological fighting between married intimate partners. The term can, however, be extended to include types of abuse between other family members such as siblings, cousins, and same-sex partners. In fact, many discussions about mutual battering seem to focus on same-sex partners (Haugen 2005; Renzetti 1993). Furthermore, it is also said to occur during adolescent dating (Ely, Dulmus, and Wodarski 2002). For purposes of this research paper, however, the focus will be on abuse between adult intimates. The scenario plays as if the fault for the abuse lies equally with each individual who takes part in the conflict. Each person is perceived to be both perpetrator and victim. Each party seeks to control the behavior of the other by exerting some form of power over the other using whatever is at his/her disposal: wit, muscles, emotions, verbal criticisms, or psychological threats. Whatever works best for the abuser is what he/she will use to exert power and control over an intimate partner.
According to Ellen Pense and Michael Paymar (1993), mutual battering, like abuse by one partner against the other, is also ‘‘coupled with the threat or use of violence to control what the other partner thinks, does, or feels’’ (p. 2). In the case of mutual battering, there is often the assumption that both partners in the relationship exhibit abusive and controlling behaviors. When such conflict occurs, the perpetrator’s intent is almost always to control the behavior of the other partner in the relationship. The above scenario of abuse is considered to be an age-old phenomenon. There are many instances where partners (homosexual or heterosexual) hit each other, and the conflict between the couple turns into an all-out brawl, tit-for-tat. One partner is considered to be just as much to blame as the other. Herein lies the dilemma in describing the form of domestic violence called mutual battering.
The Debate about Mutual Battering
The crux of the debate surrounding this form of domestic violence can be summed up with the following questions: Is mutual battering a myth? Should it more accurately be described as a form of self-defense? According to many advocates for abuse survivors, what accounts for mutually abusive behavior is the individual’s response to abuse. It is considered a reaction, a defense mechanism used in order to thwart a partner’s attempt to gain power and control in the relationship (Haugen 2005; Sarantakos 2004). It is also argued to be a person’s way of controlling the resources (i.e., material or symbolic) within the course of the relationship (Renzetti 1993). The assertion here is that someone must ‘‘rule the roost.’’
In a relationship where abuse occurs, victims’ advocates argue that victims of abuse often fight back to protect themselves against being controlled and to maintain an equal status with their partners within the relationships. Each individual is trying to assert him/herself to some degree, but the physically and emotionally stronger person may be the perpetrator of the abuse, while the other partner is (re)acting, either physically or emotionally, in defense of his/her life.
The other side of the debate holds that mutual battering is common in a culture characterized by violence. People tend to handle disputes through the use of violence; hence violence within the context of an intimate environment such as the home is no exception. Rapp-Paglicci, Roberts, and Wodarski (2002) assert that intimates deal with conflict in an aggressive way, especially when there is difficulty dealing with the stress of making a living in the larger society. One must therefore take into account the role that culture plays in shaping how partners cope with conflict. People tend to mimic what goes on in the larger society, and in a culture that seems to glorify violence, it should not be surprising that people living in that society cope with life stressors (e.g., work, school, finances) in aggressive ways.
Those who argue that women are just as likely to be abusive as men in their intimate relationships point out the prevalence of female aggression in many parts of the world (Sarantakos 2004). It is further asserted that women’s violence toward their partners is not always an act of self-defense or a case of fighting back, though much of the research on domestic abuse focuses on women as victims, not perpetrators. Traditional research seems to dismiss abuse initiated by women against their partners. Again, the nature of the culture in which they live influences the perceptions of the role of women not only in the larger society, but in the household as well (Mills 2003). Some experts question claims of self-defense whenever women are the aggressors in abusive relationships (Haugen 2005; Lawrence 2003; Migliaccio 2001). They hold that women’s violent behavior in their intimate relationships should not be viewed as an anomaly or as simply a case of fighting back. Rather, women’s violence toward their partners should be viewed as an extension of the violence in the larger society. Both women and men are products of the larger culture, and as such, will mimic within the household the same kinds of responses to conflict exhibited in the larger society.
In research on domestic violence, mutual battering seems to be synonymous with female aggression in intimate relationships. There do not seem to be any studies devoted to cases of mutual combat where both partners engaged equally in abusive behaviors. Is there competition between partners within these relationships for power and control? Does this competition sometimes result in violence within the household? Does the outcome of these fights result in a ‘‘draw’’ between partners, and if so, does the mutual battering recur? Future research on the social problem of domestic violence is needed in order to address more seriously the issue of mutual battering. The gap in the existing literature shows the need to definitively prove the existence of mutual battering as a legitimate form of domestic violence and to more concretely debunk the myth that it does not exist.
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