Spousal abuse is a pattern of domestic violence or abuse perpetrated by one spouse or intimate partner against another. Far from being an isolated problem or one associated with a small or disadvantaged group, it is a problem that cuts across race, age, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. One of the reasons is that spousal abuse is so pervasive and so difficult to stop is that it is typically part of a self-reinforcing cycle. From the point of view of the perpetrator, being abusive stops (albeit inappropriately) the behavior of the victim that prompted the abuse as well as giving the abuser a feeling of power and control that he or she may not experience anywhere else in life. From the point of view of the victim, the cycle of abuse is difficult to break because the victim wants to believe that the abuser will change and that the abuse was a one-time event, rather than a repeating cycle. Further, experiencing abuse can leave the survivor feeling powerless to help him or herself and unable to break the cycle of abuse. There are ways, however, to get help for both the victims of marital abuse and for the abusers themselves. It is important to be aware of potential warning signs of abuse and to offer unconditional support to victims.
Keywords Battered Person; Battered Person Syndrome; Child Abuse; Cycle of Abuse; Domestic Violence; Financial Abuse; Learned Helplessness; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Physical Abuse; Psychological Abuse; Reinforcement; Sexual Abuse; Socialization; Socioeconomic Status; Spousal Abuse
Spousal abuse, also known as intimate partner violence, can be defined as a pattern of domestic violence or abuse perpetrated by one spouse or intimate partner against another. Although it would be comforting to think that spousal abuse occurs in someone else's neighborhood, the truth is that spousal abuse does not appear to be restricted by race, age, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. Further, spousal abuse has not been found to be a unique symptom of any particular mental illness or personality disorder (Waldo, 1987). According to the Commonwealth Fund, which conducted an extensive survey on intimate partner violence in 1998, 16 percent of the women surveyed reported having experienced abuse as a child, 21 percent reported having been raped or assaulted at some time during their lives, 31 percent reported being the victims of domestic abuse, and 39 percent reported having experienced any abuse or violence including assault, battery, or rape by a spouse or intimate partner, physical or sexual assault or rape by anyone else, or physical or sexual abuse that occurred during their childhood (1999). Based on a survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control Prevention in 2010, in the United States alone, twenty-four people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010).
Types of Abuse
The term spousal abuse often evokes the picture of a battered woman (a woman who is physically abused by her husband or intimate partner). However, spousal abuse can also occur against men (in both heterosexual or homosexual relationships) and does not necessarily involve physical violence. Typically, the general concept of abuse can be broken down into several subcategories. Physical abuse includes any physical behavior that is violent toward another person. Prime examples of physical abuse include assault, battery, and inappropriate restraint. However, physical abuse can also be less obvious or less extreme. For example, hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, and biting are also considered to be indicators of physical abuse. Physical abuse can also occur in the form of denial of medical or dental care to an intimate partner or forcing an intimate partner to use drugs or alcohol. In addition, spousal abuse includes sexual abuse, or the violation or exploitation of another person by sexual means. For adults, sexual abuse includes all nonconsensual sexual contact. Sexual abuse can occur even within a marital relationship. Examples of sexual abuse include marital rape, physical attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing someone to have sexual intercourse after an incident of physical violence, or treating someone in a sexually demeaning manner.
Not all abuse involves inappropriate physical contact, however. Perhaps even more insidious is emotional or psychological abuse, or any verbal or other nonphysical behavior that is violent toward, demeaning to, or invasive of another person. Psychological abuse is the intentional infliction of mental or emotional anguish through the use of threats, humiliation or shaming, emotional control, withholding of affection or financial support, or other verbal or nonverbal means. Examples of psychological abuse include intimidation, threats of harm to the person or those close to the victim, harm to pets, damage to property, or isolating the victim from his or her support network of family, friends, and work associates. Other examples of emotional or psychological abuse include attempts to undermine the victim's sense or self-worth or self-esteem, constantly criticizing the other victim, calling the victim names, or damaging the reputation of the victim with her/his children or other family members even after the relationship is over. Finally, abuse can also be financial in nature, comprising any behavior that financially harms another person such as the illegal or improper use of another person's funds, property, or other resources; making the victim financially dependent by maintaining total control over his or her financial resources; or withholding the victim's access to money.
Battered Person Syndrome
Spousal abuse has obvious serious ramifications for the victim's health and well-being. However, there are other ramifications of abuse as well. Battered person syndrome is a set of symptoms that define a pattern of maladaptive behavior in which some victims of abuse respond psychologically to physical spousal abuse and cannot break out of the cycle of abuse. Those who do not understand the emotional and psychological ramifications of spousal abuse have often wondered, for example, why battered persons do not just leave their abusive spouses.
However, within the abusive situation, many victims do not see that other options are available to them, or their abuser has threatened them with violent retaliation should the victim ever try to report or escape the abuse. Proponents of battered person syndrome posit that over time, some victims of abuse exhibit many of the symptoms of learned helplessness and post-traumatic stress disorder. Learned helplessness is a pattern of response to unpleasant situations in which an individual believes that he or she has no control. Based on past exposure to similar situations and the concomitant failure to escape from unpleasant consequences, the individual learns that he or she cannot control his or her environment and may, as a result, fail to take advantage of those control options that are available in future unpleasant situations. In the case of a victim of abuse, this may mean that the victim has learned over time that when she attempts to fight back or flee, her abuser responds with further violence. Over time, victims of abuse can grow to believe that they have no power to change their situation. This attitude may not change even in the face of being told of alternatives or of organizations that are willing and able to help break the cycle of abuse. Proponents of battered person syndrome also posit that some victims of abuse may exhibit many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a "complex psychological disorder in which the affected person's memory, emotional responses, intellectual processes, and nervous system have all been disrupted by one or more traumatic experiences." Post-traumatic stress disorder is sometimes summarized as "a normal reaction to abnormal events." It is important to note, however, that not every abuse victim develops battered person syndrome: development of the syndrome depends at least in part on the severity and frequency of the abuse.
Cycle of Abuse
Another reason that some people do not break out of their abusive situation is because of the nature of the cycle of abuse. This theoretical framework is sometimes used to explain the persistence of battering relationships. The cycle of abuse is a series of three stages in the abusive relationship that repeat themselves continually:
- In the "honeymoon" phase, the abuser treats his or her partner lovingly, making it easy for the victim to believe that the abuser still loves him or her and that the abuser has truly mended his or her ways.
- In the "tension buildup" phase, the abuser begins to show symptoms of irritability and anger toward the victim. In this phase, the abuser may psychologically abuse the victim, telling him or her that he or she is worthless or otherwise making the victim feel incompetent and powerless.
- In the "violence" phase, physical abuse occurs. The cycle then repeats, with the abuser again showing remorse or acting lovingly toward the...
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