Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Beyond Power and Control: Towards an Understanding of Partner Abusive Men

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Beyond Power and Control: Towards an Understanding of Partner Abusive Men

Article excerpt

The twin concepts of "the integenerational transmission of domestic violence" and "the family as a training ground for domestic violence" have been staples of the domestic violence literature since they were popularized by Murray Straus and his colleagues in the mid 1970's (Straus, 1978). Most often, they are invoked to emphasize one of the most insidious consequences of exposure to domestic violence, namely, the devastating impact on exposed children. As early as 1975, Levine reported that exposure to spouse abuse was productive of a variety of child problems including anxiety disorders, truancy, and aggression. Rosenbaum and O'Leary (1981) coined the term "unintended victims" to convey their findings that batterers were significantly more likely than non-batterers to come from homes characterized by the occurrence of interparental aggression and the idea that children, especially male children, may experience both immediate, and long term, negative consequences from such early exposure. Over the intervening years, this subject has received a great deal of attention, including four iterations of an international conference devoted exclusively to children exposed to family violence. It is now reasonably safe to conclude that exposure to interparental aggression, even if not directly viewed, contributes to a host of emotional and behavioral problems in children, and increases the risk of perpetration (battering), especially for males, in their adult intimate relationships.

Curiously, exposed males merit sympathy, consideration, and understanding only so long as they are children. Once they become abusive adults, they join the ranks of batterers and any attempt to view them as victims of a violent history is somehow seen as diminishing their responsibility for their aggressive behavior. Domestic violence, according to the prevailing Zeitgeist, is about power and control, or more specifically, about the batterer's need to exert power and control over his female partner. The question of why some men have the need to exert power and control over their intimate partners is rarely, if ever, addressed. One logical answer is that they have the need to exert power and control over others because they feel impotent and powerless in their own lives. Brooks (1998) writing about traditional men, a population in which batterers are well represented, describes the fact that many men feel "powerless in their private lives" and notes that this is even more true of "underclass and marginalized men," who feel ashamed "about their inadequacy in relation to other men" (Brooks, 1998: 28).

A sense of powerlessness may be related to other elements in the backgrounds of batterers, as well. That many of them grew up in violent homes supports a social learning model of intimate partner violence (O'Leary, 1988) but may also be viewed from the perspective of the sense of impotence and helplessness that many felt while being unable to protect their mothers from the much more powerful, abusing father. Many batterers, in fact, report failed attempts to intercede between the parents during an abusive episode, while others report physical fights with their fathers, often in defense of the mother, when they came of age. A common boast is that "I told him if he ever laid another hand on mother/me, I'd kill him and that was the last time he ever did." While this may seem to contradict the notion of powerlessness, it actually reinforces the idea that there is a perceived need or duty to protect the mother, and that this is frustrated, at least until the batterer becomes strong enough to fulfill it. Further, not every batterer ever reaches that point where they are able, or willing, to do it.

Anecdotally, many batterers report having been victims of bullying and abuse as children. Especially among the angriest batterers, a history of being picked on, humiliated, or excluded is common. Further, they report that the perpetrators were not only peers or agemates, but in many cases were family members, including the parents. …

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