| Home | Article Database | Resources | Tools & Just for Fun | Search HY |
Plain Talk About... Wife Abuse
"To have and to hold...to love and to cherish..."
"Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."
These sentiments reflect the feelings of most people toward
marriage, home, and family--but not all. The surprising fact is that a
lot of violence, bringing fear and pain, is reported among family
For example, about one-quarter of all murders in the United States
take place within the family. Surveys of American couples show that 20
to 50 percent have suffered violence regularly in their marriages. The
records indicate that between two and four million incidents of domestic
violence occur every single year. Wife abuse is one kind of family
violence that probably occurs far more often than most people imagine.
The tragedy is that many women suffer this abuse for years without
getting help. This flier explores what wife abuse is, who experiences
it, some reasons it occurs, the pattern it usually takes, and why women
don't get help. Finally, it looks at what women can do if they are
abused and how, ultimately, the abuse might be prevented.
What Do We Mean By "Wife Abuse"?
Defining wife abuse or wife battering is not easy. For starters,
whom are we thinking of when we use the word "wife"? Actually, any woman
who maintains an intimate relationship with a man (her husband,
ex-husband, boyfriend or lover) could become a battered or abused
"wife." The words "abused" or "battered" which are used here do not
refer to the normal conflict and stress that occur in all close
relationships, but rather to the violence that can cause serious injury
and death. In the pamphlet "Assaults on Women: Rape and Wife-beating,"
Natalie Jaffe cites a typical description of the kind of physical harm
suffered by battered women surveyed in shelters and treatment in
"Most injuries were to the head and neck and, in addition to
bruises, strangle marks, black eyes, and split lips, resulted in eye
damage, fractured jaws, broken noses, and permanent hearing loss.
Assaults to the trunk of the body were almost as common and produced a
broken collarbone, bruised and broken ribs, a fractured tailbone,
internal hemorrhaging, and a lacerated liver."
These are serious consequences of serious assaults. Another serious
aspect is that once wife beating occurs, it is likely to happen again
and again, with violence getting worse over time.
A Closer Look at How the Abused Woman Feels
A woman who has been abused over a long period of time is afraid.
Not only is she afraid that she, herself, will be seriously hurt, but if
she has children, she fears for their safety also. Her feelings of fear
link her to all other women, from all classes of society, in similar
Fear might be a woman's first and most immediate feeling during or
after a beating, but other negative feelings may surface when she is not
in physical danger. The abused woman is apt to develop doubts about
herself. She might wonder if she is justified in fearing for her life
and calling herself an "abused wife." Most likely, however, a woman who
thinks or feels she is being abused, probably is.
Or, she may feel guilty, even though she's done nothing wrong. An
abused wife may feel responsible for her husband's violence because in
some way she may have provoked him. This has her placing the shame and
blame on herself--instead of her abuser. The longer she puts up with the
abuse and does nothing to avoid or prevent it, the less she likes
herself. Along with the feeling of being a failure, both as a woman and
in her marriage, may come a real feeling of being trapped and powerless,
with no way out.
Why Do Men Abuse Their Wives?
Instances of wife abuse have been on record in the United States
since the 1830s, but only every now and then does it arouse public
concern. Generally, public opinion supports traditional family relations
and male authority. The battering syndrome is both cause and effect of
stereotyped roles and the unequal power relations between men and women.
No social class is exempt. Wife abuse occurs in wealthy as well as in
poor communities--in middle class as well as in working class families.
Over the years it has been tolerated by those who govern community
affairs, the courts, medicine, psychiatry, police, schools, and the
church. History shows that the helping professions often protected
patterns of family authority, unwittingly sanctioning wife abuse rather
than condemning it.
In present-day society, violence in the movies, on TV, and in the
newspapers is familiar and accepted. Many husbands who abuse their wives
have learned that violence, especially against women, is okay. They
often were abused themselves as children or saw their mothers abused.
The battered wife most likely grew up in a similar environment.
There are other psychological reasons. A wife abuser tends to be
filled with anger, resentment, suspicion, and tension. He also,
underneath all his aggressive behavior, can be insecure and feel like a
loser. He may use violence to give vent to the bad feelings he has about
himself or his lot in life. Home is one place he can express those
feelings without punishment to himself. If he were angry with his boss
and struck him, he would pay the price. But all too often he gets away
without penalty when he beats his wife. She becomes the target of his
vengeance, and he gets the satisfaction he's looking for.
What about the victimized wife? If she accepts her husband's
traditional male authority, she may be labeled as immature. If she
fights back or if she refuses to sleep with him if he's drunk, she might
be accused of being hostile, domineering, and masculine. These are
complaints of abused women.
Familiar patterns of wife abuse often develop in three phases: the
tension-building phase, the explosion or the actual beating phase, and
the loving phase.
The tension builds over a series of small occurrences such as a
wife's request for money, her refusal to do all the household chores
without her husband's help, her serving a meal not pleasing to him, or a
similar incident. What follows is inevitable. She may become the object
of any or all of the following assaults: punching with fists, choking,
kicking, knifing, slamming against a wall, throwing to the floor, or
shoving down the stairs. Sometimes even threats with a gun have been
When the beating is over, the couple move into the third phase. The
batterer feels guilty about what he has done. He is sorry and may become
loving toward her. He assures his wife that he will never do anything
violent or hurtful to her again. At that moment, he may believe he will
never hurt her again. She wants to believe him, hoping that he will
change. However, even with professional help, the tension building and
the beatings may continue.
Why Do Women Stay?
Women have learned that it may be their own feelings of fear,
guilt, or shame that keep them in a relationship that is physically
abusive. Often, social and economic pressures compel a woman to stay.
Sometimes she stays for lack of somewhere to go for shelter and advice
or because she feels that she loves her husband and lives with the hope
that he might change, if only she can "hang in there." Tragically, in
most cases, the abuse continues, for in fact her husband's behavior has
nothing to do with her actions.
Other reasons for staying with him may seem as compelling. A woman
may feel that a divorce is wrong and that she should keep her marriage
together at all costs. Perhaps she feels her children need a father. She
may be isolated with no outside job and few friends. The friends and
relatives she does talk to may give her little support, perhaps because
her situation frightens them and they don't want to admit to themselves
that such violence could occur. If she confides in a counselor, she may
also be encouraged to "save the marriage." And, along with her emotional
dependence, she may worry about being able to find a job to support
herself and her children. If she has her husband arrested, he may not be
able to support her. If she doesn't have him arrested, he may beat her
even more severely for trying to leave him. Is there a way out? Most
women suffer these attacks for years before they finally find the
courage and determination to take steps to keep from being victims of
What Can a Battered Woman Do?
The first step for a woman to take is to admit to herself that she
is being abused and that she is not being treated fairly. She has the
right to feel safe from physical harm, especially in her own home.
A woman can do a number of things to protect herself. She can hide
extra money, car keys, and important documents somewhere safe so that
she can get to them in a hurry. The phone number of the police
department should be handy. She should have a place to go, such as an
emergency shelter, a social service agency, or the home of a trusted
friend or relative.
During an actual attack, the woman should defend herself as best
she can. As soon as she is able, she should call the police and get
their names and badge numbers in case she needs a record of the attack.
Most importantly, she should leave the house and take her children with
her. She may need medical attention, too, because she might be hurt more
severely than she realizes. Having a record of her injuries, including
photographs, can protect her legally should she decide to press charges.
A woman needs to talk to people who can help. Good friends can lend
support and guidance. Organizations that are devoted to women's concerns
and not bound by society's traditions can assist her. They might help
her explore her options in new ways. Emergency shelters for women,
hotlines, women's organizations, social service agencies, community
mental health centers, and hospital emergency rooms are all possible
sources of support. The following organizations have information about
State contacts and shelters where a battered woman can go for help:
Center for Women Policy Studies
2000 P Street, NW, No. 508
Washington, DC 20036
National Coalition Against
1500 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Suite 35
Washington, DC 20005
Above all, a woman has to determine her own best course of action.
Positive measures such as confiding in a relative on whom she can
depend, talking seriously with a trusted friend, or consulting with a
sympathetic counselor are steps in the right direction. With the help of
informal and formal help sources, including individual counseling for
the husband as well as her- self, a woman may be able to bring an end to
It has been observed that abused women need to develop better
feelings about themselves--that is, change their self- image. In her
book "Stopping Wife Abuse," Jennifer Baker Fleming says the following
attitudes are positive and useful:
- I am not to blame for being beaten and abused.
- I am not the cause of another's violent behavior.
- I do not like it or want it.
- I do not have to take it.
- I am an important human being.
- I am a worthwhile woman.
- I deserve to be treated with respect.
- I do have power over my own life.
- I can use my power to take good care of myself.
- I can decide for myself what is best for me.
- I can make changes in my life if I want to.
- I am not alone. I can ask others to help me.
- I am worth working for and changing for.
- I deserve to make my own life safe and happy.
Since there is no one cause of wife abuse, there is no easy way to
prevent it. Until society rejects its tolerance and acceptance of
violence for resolving conflict and expressing anger, meaningful changes
in family relationships will not occur. Prevention starts with people
changing their attitudes toward violence and women. No one deserves to
be beaten or physically threatened, no matter what the excuse. It is a
crime to beat anyone--a stranger, a friend, or your wife--and the law
should be enforced. The tolerance of family violence as a way of life in
one generation encourages family violence in another generation. Since
the wife abuser didn't learn to deal with anger appropriately as a
child, he handles his frustrations through aggression. He needs to know
that it's human to feel anger, but inhuman to release those feelings by
beating others. By learning to deal with these emotions through
acceptable behavior, he can gain respect for himself and others. It's
another positive step toward developing mutual respect in the
husband/wife relationship where each sees the other as a worthy human
About Wife Abuse. South Deerfield, Massachusetts: Channing L.
Bete Co., Inc., 1979.
Bowker, Lee H. Women and Crime in America. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Co., Inc., 1981, Part II: pp. 234-328.
Fleming, Jennifer Baker. Stopping Wife Abuse: A guide to the
Emotional, Psychological, and Legal Implications. . . for the
abused woman and those helping her. New York: Anchor
Jaffe, Natalie. Assaults on Women: Rape and Wife-Beating. New
York: Public Affairs Committee, Inc. (Public Affairs Pamphlet
Martin, Del. Battered Wives. San Francisco: Glide Publications,
1976. Straus, Murray A., Gelles, Richard J., and Steinmetz,
Suzanne K. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family.
New York: Anchor Books, 1980.
Walker, Lenore. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
This material was written by Lenore Gelb, staff writer, in
consultation with NIMH scientists.