Causes of Domestic Violence

Not only is it challenging to determine the impact of violence on children, but determining the cause of domestic violence is also complex. Nevertheless, three general approaches attempt to examine possible reasons for violent behavior between individuals who are or have been intimately involved.

Individual Characteristics

One approach focuses on the characteristics of the individuals in the relationship. This approach studies psychological characteristics associated with the violent individual and the victim. Although one attribute by itself will not necessarily explain the characteristics of an abuser or a victim, it is thought that the examination of all attributes combined will help to predict which individuals may be predisposed to be violent or to become a victim of violence.

According to the first theoretical approach, characteristics associated with individuals who abuse their partners include low self-esteem, isolation from social support, a manipulative nature, and a desire for power and control (Kakar 1998). These individuals are likely to be unable to cope with stress, be unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions, have extreme feelings ofjealousy and possessiveness, be overly dependent on the victim, and/or have certain mental or psychological disorders. Additionally, some studies have indicated that violent individuals are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. The use of controlled substances, however, has not been shown to necessarily cause violence.

The characteristics that have been associated with the victims of violence are used to explain why individuals would become involved with and/or remain in a relationship with an abusive person. Attributes associated with the victim include low self-esteem; isolation from social support; feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame; and mental illness such as depression. Some researchers suggest that victims experience feelings of helplessness that prevent them from leaving the relationship. After repeated failures of escape, victims believe that they cannot escape the relationship and resign themselves to remain in the violent atmosphere.

Another theory used to explain why victims remain in abusive relationships proposes that violence occurs in a cycle. This theory, first introduced by Len-ore Walker in 1979, contains three main phases: (1) tension-building, (2) acute battering incident, and (3) calm, loving respite. The first phase includes minor incidents of abuse such as verbal attacks. During this stage the victim submits to the wishes of the violent individual in order to appease the attacker. The second phase contains more severe abuse and is followed by the third phase or the ''honeymoon period.'' In the last phase, the abuser becomes loving and attentive and apologizes profusely for the attack. The victim

Women and children living together in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Many cases of domestic violence and abuse go unreported for fear of retaliation by the victimizer. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

believes that the violent behavior will stop and remains in the relationship. The tension-building occurs again, however, and the cycle repeats itself, leaving the victim to feel trapped and helpless.

Family Structure

Another approach to understanding domestic violence moves attention away from the individual and focuses on the structure of the family. In this approach, it is believed that certain characteristics put a family or a couple at risk for violence. Individuals who have witnessed violence within their own family as a child may be more likely to imitate similar behavior in their relationships as adults. At the same time, conditions exist that produce stress and conflict on the family. Factors such as low socioeconomic status; low-income occupations, which may result in frequent unemployment; and little to no social support from family, friends, or the community create high levels of stress. It is hypothesized that individuals who have learned to resolve conflict with violence use violence as a method of coping with these types of stressors (Flowers 2000).

Societal Perspective

A third approach takes a broader perspective than the previous two and examines domestic violence in the context of society and societal values. Violence against women is considered to be accepted by society as it has been supported through law and religion since the beginning of recorded time. This approach examines the traditional dominance of men in society, which has condoned and even encouraged men to act violently toward women to maintain dominance and control over them. An unequal distribution of power in the relationships between men and women assigns women a lower status. From this position of subordination, women become dependent upon their spouses or partners and are subjected to the demands and abuse of their mates.

The societal perspective may help to explain the lack of public attention to problems of domestic violence and prosecution of abusers until the 1970s. Permission for violence by men against their wives has been reinforced through Western religion and law for centuries. Examples of spousal abuse can be found in the Bible and serve to justify a husband's right to control the behavior of his wife. During the Middle Ages, English common law allowed a husband to chastise his wife as long as he used a stick no larger than the width of his thumb, a concept commonly known as the ''rule of thumb.'' Although legislation was enacted in the American colonies to outlaw domestic violence in 1641, with later laws originating in the late 1800s, the laws were not usually enforced and served only to curtail extreme cases of violence. It is purported that American society's apparent acceptance of domestic violence resulted from long-held beliefs in Western society that supported a husband's control of his wife and that discouraged intervention by the law.

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