Wife-battering is not an exception. It's the norm for half of all American couples, Denver psychologist Lenore Walker announced recently to a startled audience at a Laguna Beach conference on family violence.
"Our research and most other studies show that wife-battering occurs in 50% of families throughout the nation," said the therapist generally credited with first describing the battered-woman syndrome. "This is an estimate because it's hard to get actual numbers since most people minimize or deny wife-battering has occurred."
For example, Walker elaborated later, "one study by Murray Straus (of the University of New Hampshire family violence center) showed that approximately a third of those interviewed said wife-battering occurred in their homes. But Straus himself said he thought this was a drastic underestimation."
Walker, who was the featured speaker at the recent conference, "The Dark Side of Families: Breaking the Cycle of Family Violence," emphasized that she is not talking about one isolated physical assault but rather a pattern of physical assaults almost always preceded by a series of serious confrontations.
In the first stage of the wife-beating cycle, Walker noted, a woman typically knows her husband has been "getting upset lately" and that it's not related to anything she's done; she just wants to make things better.
"She reads the ladies magazines--Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal--and every month they have articles about 'How to Win and Keep a Man.' "
Following through on their advice, she rushes home from the office, sets an exquisite table, digs out a special wine and cooks her husband his favorite meal.
Unfortunately, said the psychologist, her husband has not been reading women's magazines and he doesn't understand what she's up to.
At dinner, when he spills wine on the white tablecloth, he explodes. "Damn it! Look what you made me do!"
Later, when he burns his tongue on a mouthful of casserole, he lets out a deafening scream, flings the casserole across the room and lashes out at her with a string of profanities.
Her example, Walker said, illustrates the "tension-building" phase of the woman-battering cycle, a phase in which there are a lot of little, discreet incidents.
These episodes peak and stop until one day the "explosion" phase occurs in which the husband (or boyfriend) physically assaults his wife (or girlfriend), Walker said. This is followed by a fast drop in tension that is psychologically relieving to both partners because it clears the air of pent-up frustrations and anger.
The woman-battering cycle concludes with what Walker calls the husband's "loving contrition." Walker said this phase occurs not because the husband feels any guilt or remorse about the violence he's just inflicted on his wife; batterers don't believe they're doing anything wrong.
Rather, the batterer is motivated by a desire to get back in his wife's good graces, Walker said. During this "loving contrition" phase the husband will lavish his wife with love, gifts, or just about anything else she wants.
The only difference between the middle-class wife in her example and women on the lower end of the economic totem pole is that poor women find it more difficult to escape a violent household, Walker told her audience of 135 counselors, attorneys, and law enforcement officers at the conference sponsored by Human Options, an Orange County residential shelter for battered women and their children. The turnout--double that expected by the sponsoring organization--reflects the growing concern about woman-battering even in affluent, family-oriented Orange County, a Human Options spokeswoman said.
Why don't women nip the battered-woman cycle in the bud during the initial "tension building" phase?
Only Two Choices
"I know what I'd do if I'd rushed home from work to prepare my husband's favorite meal and the jerk ends up throwing it across the room," said Walker, a widow who has a 17-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son. "But I'm not a battered wife, and a battered wife only has two choices.
"She can get angry and tell him he's a jerk, but she'll be setting herself up for a beating. Or, she can try to calm him down.
"All battered women know what to do to calm their men down. If they're in the 'explosion' phase of their relationship, a beating is inevitable no matter what she does. But if the couple is lower down (at the 'tension building' level) then it's worth her while to try to calm him down.
"She can offer to give him her dinner, sweet talk him, or walk out of the house. What she is doing with her anger is stuffing it inside her. This is how the battered-woman cycle begins--and continues.
"The woman has some control, but she can only slow down or speed up the inevitable cycle of beatings; she can't change the cycle to prevent the beatings from ultimately happening, whether it's today or tomorrow."
If violence is endemic in the marriages of half of all American couples, why are people seemingly shocked when they hear of wife beatings and titillated by TV docudramas such as the recent NBC feature "The Burning Bed" starring Farrah Fawcett?
"We (researchers) are learning that domestic violence is hidden and not acknowledged," Walker explained, noting that only 1 in 10 battered women report serious violence to the police. "There's a conspiracy of silence."
Men and women have been conditioned to believe violence is an integral part of a relationship, Walker said. "History tells us that men have always used violence against women," she added. "Violence was considered a woman's lot in life. Those women who escaped violence were considered 'lucky.' "
Even today, most police departments are reluctant to arrest wife beaters. "Some police departments have instituted pro-arrest policies," Walker said. "A Minnesota study shows that such a policy does have the positive effect of deterring future violence."
Despite today's battered-women's shelters, things are not all that different from what they've been through the ages, Walker said. Shelters give women and their children the only real opportunity to escape a life of violence, Walker said, since court orders requiring a violent man to stay away from his wife and children are largely ineffective because most men don't abide by them.
But this is not enough, Walker said, because this therapeutic approach erroneously assumes that a woman can be made strong enough to change the status quo single-handedly.
Wife-battering is a man's problem, not a woman's problem, Walker said.
"It's rarely stressed that stopping violence is a man's duty, without the assistance of other family members," Walker said. "A man has to stop his battering behavior regardless of the woman's behavior because you and I know that women can behave pretty terribly themselves. The only time anyone should use violence is in self-defense."
That's why Walker maintains that the only truly effective treatment regimen for woman-battering requires not only women to change, but also their husbands and children--and the larger society, especially the male-dominated law enforcement and legal systems, which, she says, implicitly condone wife battering.
All too often battered wives who become self-reliant enough to divorce their abusive husbands find that they have achieved a hollow victory. "Domestic relations courts, especially in California, in determining visitation rights for former husbands rarely examine the pattern of violence by the husband against the wife and children," Walker said.
The tendency of California courts to award joint custody of children to divorced spouses, Walker said, allows the pattern of violence to continue. For example, dropping off or picking up the children from his former wife's home gives the man an opportunity to batter her.
A frequent expert witness at trials--especially those involving women charged with killing abusive husbands, Walker has had a ringside seat to what she sees as the limitations of the judicial system in meeting the needs of battered women.
(Walker is president of Walker & Associates, a Denver counseling service which specializes in providing therapy to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and is director of the Domestic Violence Institute of Denver, which provides psychological evaluations and expert witnesses for domestic violence cases.)
In 1982, Walker testified in the first federal court trial in which the battered-spouse defense was used.
The case arose in San Diego County, where Mary Louise Player, then 30, was charged with fatally shooting her 34-year-old husband, Joseph, at their Camp Pendleton home following what both prosecution and defense acknowledged were eight years of beatings and sexual abuse from her husband, a Marine Corps sergeant.
To counter the prosecution's claim that Player could have escaped from the house with her four children on the night of the fatal shooting, Walker testified that Player was convinced that her escape would have been short-lived. Player, like other battered women, believed her husband would track her down and kill her and her young children.
Player Found Guilty
The battered-woman syndrome defense was only partially successful. While the prosecution had sought a first-degree murder verdict, Player was found guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder. And Player was paroled from federal prison in December 1983 after serving only 10 months of her three-year sentence.
Walker and her colleagues at the Domestic Violence Institute believe they have shattered a number of myths about battering with their recent National Institute of Mental Health-funded study of 400 battered women in the Rocky Mountain states. (The results were published last year in Walker's book "The Battered Woman Syndrome.")
"We used to say that the marriage license was the husband's license to kill his wife," Walker told her attentive audience.
However, the NIMH-funded research shows violence starts exceedingly early in a relationship, with 1 in 4 college women being involved in violent relationships. "Actually, (in the batterer's mind) the beginning of a man's 'right' to hurt a woman starts with his right to make love to her," Walker said.
And there continue to be other myths about battered women--some of them perpetuated by mental health professionals, Walker said. Perhaps the major myth is that women precipitate the violence inflicted upon them.
"Battered women are supposed to be masochistic, to have a mental health problem," said Walker. "A new book came out last year by a well-known female psychoanalyst in New York propounding this theory once again." A variation of this old myth is that women provoke abuse because they like it.
A widely held corollary is that battered women, once they end one abusive relationship, inevitably become intertwined in another. But Walker's research shows that this happens to less than 1 in 10 battered women, and usually because of economic necessity.
"Women who have been abused once (usually) keep out of relationships with all men, especially those who are violent," Walker maintains.
While Walker said that women in the early stages of wife-battering are not suffering from a psychological disorder, she explained that the cumulative effects of battering causes a woman to suffer a psychological disorder, the so-called "battered-woman syndrome," which Walker is generally credited with discovering.
Women afflicted with the battered-woman syndrome suffer from anxiety, depression, an inability to keep or make relationships with friends and relatives and psychosomatic illnesses. Ultimately, these women undergo what Walker terms "learned helplessness," the belief that they no longer have control over whether they or their children can obtain safety from physical harm.
While Walker has come to believe that wife-battering will continue as long as society is male dominated, she also believes some immediate damage-control steps would be effective.
"We need to change enforcement of the law," Walker said. "Police should treat an assault as an assault, even if it's a man assaulting his wife."
While jailing is the only effective deterrent for some batterers, Walker said that studies show that others respond positively to a combination of jailing and court-mandated treatment consisting of group therapy with other male batterers.
"A lot of male batterers are not (psychologically) 'sick,' but are on the deviant end of the behavioral scale," she said. "Their behavior, however, is reinforced by society's acquiescence in their misbehavior. What these men need is an 'attention getter' to show them that what they are doing is wrong, and it will no longer be tolerated."