Wife-battering is not an exception. It's the norm for half of all American couples, Denver psychologist Lenore Walker announced recently to a startled audience at a Laguna Beach conference on family violence.
"Our research and most other studies show that wife-battering occurs in 50% of families throughout the nation," said the therapist generally credited with first describing the battered-woman syndrome. "This is an estimate because it's hard to get actual numbers since most people minimize or deny wife-battering has occurred."
For example, Walker elaborated later, "one study by Murray Straus (of the University of New Hampshire family violence center) showed that approximately a third of those interviewed said wife-battering occurred in their homes. But Straus himself said he thought this was a drastic underestimation."
Walker, who was the featured speaker at the recent conference, "The Dark Side of Families: Breaking the Cycle of Family Violence," emphasized that she is not talking about one isolated physical assault but rather a pattern of physical assaults almost always preceded by a series of serious confrontations.
In the first stage of the wife-beating cycle, Walker noted, a woman typically knows her husband has been "getting upset lately" and that it's not related to anything she's done; she just wants to make things better.
"She reads the ladies magazines--Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal--and every month they have articles about 'How to Win and Keep a Man.' "
Following through on their advice, she rushes home from the office, sets an exquisite table, digs out a special wine and cooks her husband his favorite meal.
Unfortunately, said the psychologist, her husband has not been reading women's magazines and he doesn't understand what she's up to.
At dinner, when he spills wine on the white tablecloth, he explodes. "Damn it! Look what you made me do!"
Later, when he burns his tongue on a mouthful of casserole, he lets out a deafening scream, flings the casserole across the room and lashes out at her with a string of profanities.
Her example, Walker said, illustrates the "tension-building" phase of the woman-battering cycle, a phase in which there are a lot of little, discreet incidents.
These episodes peak and stop until one day the "explosion" phase occurs in which the husband (or boyfriend) physically assaults his wife (or girlfriend), Walker said. This is followed by a fast drop in tension that is psychologically relieving to both partners because it clears the air of pent-up frustrations and anger.
The woman-battering cycle concludes with what Walker calls the husband's "loving contrition." Walker said this phase occurs not because the husband feels any guilt or remorse about the violence he's just inflicted on his wife; batterers don't believe they're doing anything wrong.
Rather, the batterer is motivated by a desire to get back in his wife's good graces, Walker said. During this "loving contrition" phase the husband will lavish his wife with love, gifts, or just about anything else she wants.
The only difference between the middle-class wife in her example and women on the lower end of the economic totem pole is that poor women find it more difficult to escape a violent household, Walker told her audience of 135 counselors, attorneys, and law enforcement officers at the conference sponsored by Human Options, an Orange County residential shelter for battered women and their children. The turnout--double that expected by the sponsoring organization--reflects the growing concern about woman-battering even in affluent, family-oriented Orange County, a Human Options spokeswoman said.
Why don't women nip the battered-woman cycle in the bud during the initial "tension building" phase?
Only Two Choices
"I know what I'd do if I'd rushed home from work to prepare my husband's favorite meal and the jerk ends up throwing it across the room," said Walker, a widow who has a 17-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son. "But I'm not a battered wife, and a battered wife only has two choices.
"She can get angry and tell him he's a jerk, but she'll be setting herself up for a beating. Or, she can try to calm him down.
"All battered women know what to do to calm their men down. If they're in the 'explosion' phase of their relationship, a beating is inevitable no matter what she does. But if the couple is lower down (at the 'tension building' level) then it's worth her while to try to calm him down.
"She can offer to give him her dinner, sweet talk him, or walk out of the house. What she is doing with her anger is stuffing it inside her. This is how the battered-woman cycle begins--and continues.
"The woman has some control, but she can only slow down or speed up the inevitable cycle of beatings; she can't change the cycle to prevent the beatings from ultimately happening, whether it's today or tomorrow."