In 1976, researchers at the University of New Hampshire interviewed more than 2,000 families as part of a national study into family violence (Queijo, 1987, p. 103). Twenty-eight percent of the couples surveyed reported that violent acts had occurred at some point during their marriages, and because family violence is considered shameful and there is a tendency to whitewash or not report incidents, it was estimated that the actual percentage of marriages in which physical abuse takes place is 50 to 60 percent (Queijo, 1987, p. 103). In other studies, researchers have pinpointed a number of factors that may lead to or aggravate marital violence. They have suggested approaches that counselors and society as a whole may take to reduce its incidence.
Researchers have suggested that married couples are prone to violence because of certain features characteristic of the relationship, among them:
(a) the amount of time spent together, (b) wide range of their activities and interests, (c) intensity of their involvement, (d) implicit right to influence each other’s behavior, (e) inequality that results from the sexist organization of the family, (f) privacy of the family . . . (h) extensive knowledge that each spouse has about the social biography of the partner (Flynn, 1987, p. 295).
A large number of other factors have also been linked to marital violence. Some relate to the histories of the persons involved. Many studies have demonstrated that there is a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and family violence – alcohol has been reported to be a factor in up to 90 percent of the cases studied (Queijo, 1987, 106). Drug abuse is likewise a factor (Neidig, Friedman, & Collins, 1985, p. 199). A person who has grown up in a family where violence was present is more likely to be violent in turn, although it is unclear how much intergenerational violence is related to genetic influence and how much it can be attributed to being exposed to violence during crucial periods of development (Quiejo, 1987, p. 107). A child who grows up in an environment that does not foster trust in the world and does foster impulsive, violent behavior as means of expressing rage and evoking a response from others, may be more likely to become a violent adult (Queijo, 1987, p. 107). As a general rule, an individual who suffers from a sociopathic condition as manifested “in gross deliberate distortions of reality, denial, absence of remorse, and a history of . . . antisocial behavior” may be more prone to marital violence (Neidig et al., p. 199).
Certain events or stresses in the lives of the individuals involved may trigger marital violence. Unemployment, for example, may trigger violence by men toward women (Mason, 1987, p. 203). Parenting may be stressful (Queijo, 1987, p. 106). Threats to the ego and the ability of a powerful family member to retain control, such as the return of a wife to school or work (Queijo, 1987, p. 104), may trigger violence (Mason, 1987, p. 203).
Living conditions may facilitate marital violence. While family violence cuts across class, racial and economic lines, it has been noted that it may be built into the environment of impoverished communities, where people have to struggle for resources, are more crowded together, and keenly feel the disjunction between the good life portrayed in the media and their own (Queijo, 1987, pp. 103-104, 106). The presence of extended family members, such as grandparents, may also affect the prevalence of violence in a household (Queijo, 1987, p. 106).
Other contributing factors may involve how people relate to each other and the outside world. Extreme marital dependency perpetuates family violence (Neidig et al., 1985, p. 196). Social isolation, not having friends or being involved in social or community organizations, is a major factor (Queijo, 1987, p. 104). Deficits in certain skills, notably in interpersonal communications, may foster violence (Neidig et al., 1985, p. 203). A couple may also entertain false expectations of harmony, which lead them to fail to communicate or deal with problems while they are manageable (Neidig et al., 1985, p. 203).
It has further been noted that relationship violence is a learned behavior that may be repeated under similar circumstances (Flynn, 1987, p. 295). Abusiveness tends to escalate if not treated (Neidig et al., 1985, p. 197), and if violence has occurred in a first marriage, it is more likely that it will mark a second (Flynn, 1987, p. 298).
By reexamining some of the conditions that perpetuate family violence, one can arrive at some measures that society as a whole might take to prevent it. If environmental conditions such as joblessness, overcrowding, lack of resources and feelings of deprivation when one compares one’s own situation to that of others portrayed in the media create a climate conducive to violence, then steps taken by society to alleviate unemployment and improve living conditions for impoverished families presumably would help to reduce the incidence of marital violence.
Research has suggested that mental health professionals in social agencies generally are not available when they are needed by families in which problems are occurring (Queijo, 1987, p. 105). Increasing funds for their services might make them more effective. Since the police frequently are called upon to intervene (Queijo, 1987, p. 106), it seems advisable to train them to be proficient in handling marital violence when it reaches a crisis point and they are called in. It has been further suggested that the best solution may be to raise community awareness of the problem of family violence by spreading information through the media, schools, and churches so neighbors and relatives can help families experiencing difficulties (Queijo, 1987, p. 106).
In addition, it has been suggested that society’s attitude toward violence may need to change. Specifically, it has been recommended that society should condemn aggression in all interpersonal relationships and educate people to be nonabusive themselves and socialize their children to be nonabusive, so the cycle of marital abuse can be broken (Mason, 1987, p. 209).
Depending upon the circumstances in which a particular maritally violent couple entered treatment, a counselor might focus on a number of different issues and the development of specific helpful skills. Making couples aware of the aspects of a personal relationship that are likely to foster violence is one major goal (Flynn, 1987, p. 298). The core curriculum of a spouse abuse treatment program developed for the Marines included instruction, behavioral rehearsal and feedback designed to enable participants to accept personal responsibility for violent behavior. Couples are to make a commitment to change, develop and use “time-out” and other security mechanisms, master anger-control skills, develop negotiating and conflict containment skills, and, after accepting that violence is the result of a sequence of events rather than an isolated incident, learn to control the occurrence of potentially violent episodes accordingly (Neidig et al., 1985, pp. 199-200, 202). Other topics included as needed were communication skills, stress management techniques, jealousy and trust issues, sexuality, problem solving skills and assertiveness training (Neidig, 1985, p. 200).
In the short term, it might be helpful for an abused wife to be aware of study results showing that while a wife’s compliant reaction to a husband’s aggressiveness strengthens his tendency to be aggressive in the long run, its immediate effect is likely to be the avoidance or termination of his hostility (Wiggins, 1983, p. 111). On the other hand, counter-aggression or even indications of suffering such as crying tends to produce greater aggression on the part of the husband, whose physical strength generally is superior (Wiggins, 1983, p. 111).
Marital violence has a variety of causes and appears to be a not uncommon phenomenon in our society. It may be possible to alleviate it however, through counseling of maritally violent couples and measures taken by society as a whole.