Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Abused Heiress - Anne Scripps Douglas


There is a great deal of literature devoted to the study of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. Much of it tries to understand what drives a formerly loving couple to become violent. Social scientists have generally accepted that the use of violence, fatal and otherwise, is the result of emotions like anxiety, anger, helplessness, humiliation, shame, guilt, jealousy, hostility, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss. These emotions lead to "an imbalance and subsequent experience of loss of control and loss of ability to predict, plan and channel one's life course. Under such conditions, violence becomes a perceived means to acquire a sense of power and control," wrote Zeev Winstok, Zvi Eisikovits and Richard Gelles in Families in Society.

An abuser does not go from the negative emotional state directly to violence, psychologists theorize, but escalates over time through a series of interactions with the victim that create a vicious cycle of despair. Authorities disagree over what paths these interactions take and the factors that lead to a violent confrontation, but there is general agreement that escalation requires a threat and response to it by counter-threats.

Winstok, Eisikovits and Gelles have broken down the path from calm to violence into distinct sections, each with its own opportunities for control and de-escalation. This model of domestic violence fits in with other generally accepted theories of violent behavior that maintain violent actors have a choice about acting on their feelings. The Winstok, et al. model describes the phases of calm, where the aggressor may experience moments of anger due to conflict with the potential victim. The authors refer to the aggressor as male and the victim as female.

"When escalation is avoided at this point, the woman's self-confidence and trust in her partner is reaffirmed," they write. "However if it turns out to be a true alarm, and the man expresses anger, the process is headed towards the second juncture. In this eventuality, the woman tends to perceive her partner's behavior as normative'after all, men get angry from time to time.'"

This second juncture is angry confrontation, with the man still in control of his emotion. "When the man's anger is held under check, the woman is likely to perceive him as strong, since he is able to overcome expected loss of control. However, if the reins are lost, the process advances to the next juncture," they write.

"The third juncture identified is the one in which the man loses control over the process. At this point the woman and the anger compete to control the process." If the woman can control the process, the argument de-escalates and violence is averted. If not, "the man will most likely be overcome by his anger and will be perceived by the woman as being forced to act violently against her. This is the stage at which the couple's reality becomes permeated by violence, and it is likely to continue as long as anger controls the situation."

The unfortunate part about the research into domestic violence is that while social scientists have a fairly clear understanding of the causes and the process, for the victim, discovering the keys to de-escalating the conflict is usually a trial-and-error process. Too often, the victim runs out of time before the solutions can be found. Equally problematic is the added variable that alcoholism or other drug abuse adds to the equation.



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