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Paradoxes of Romance, Conflict, and Control
Many researchers have examined the seeming paradox of violence that occurs in a context of love and intimacy. After all, doesn't involvement in an intimate relationship promise protection from the outside world, love and respect from one's partner, and happiness. ever after? Yet, how do these promises jibe with the reality that for a woman, the greatest likelihood of physical assault or homicide victimization comes from the man with whom she is intimately involved?
These findings have led many researchers to concentrate their work on the dynamic of male perpetration and female victimization. For an alternative view, see the work of Murray Straus.
Additionally, I concentrate here on heterosexual relationships, reflecting the fact that much of the literature on intimate violence has studied this population. The study of intimate violence in gay and lesbian relationships is a new and rapidly growing area of inquiry; see the work of Claire Renzetti for an overview of this body of literature.
Ironically, the closeness and time spent together that we cherish in our intimate relationships, when coupled with power inequities and the desire to control the behavior of one's partner, may heighten the possibility of very negative and problematic behavior such as physical violence. Research spanning the past three decades has clearly demonstrated that violence which occurs in a close relationship must be understood within this context of intimacy and power. In this article I describe three critical contexts of intimate violence: the context of romance, the context of conflict, and the context of control.
The Context of Romance
In the United States, we are surrounded by a discourse of romance in books, films, television, and popular culture. This discourse emphasizes the blind and forgiving nature of love, its magical power to heal deep relationship problems, and love as a form of redemption and salvation. Such romantic notions simultaneously serve as powerful attractors for being in a relationship and as blinders against any relational problems. A paradox is that romantic ideals are also evident in the explanations given for violent behavior: in studies conducted by Rod Cate and June Henton and colleagues, most attributed violence to anger, but fully one-third of those who had experienced violent behavior also indicated that it was a sign of their partners' love for them. And, the majority of those who had experienced violence indicated that their relationships had improved or stayed the same after the violent incident.
This is a far cry from the typical reaction I receive when I ask a classroom of students, "What would you do if your intimate partner ever hit you?" Nearly every woman in the room swears that she would walk away at the first sign of such violent behavior. Yet countless surveys have demonstrated that walking away is not a typical initial reaction. Rather, when violence against women occurs in the context of an intimate relationship, the reaction is often one of forgiveness of the perpetrator (he didn't mean to hit me, or he was under so much stress that he just snapped, or he doesn't know any better because this is what his father did to his mother) and self-blame (if I hadn't made him so mad he wouldn't have hurt me).
The context of romance is at the heart of the tendency to forgive and remain in a violent relationship. Love is a very powerful emotion, especially when it is framed as something that can conquer all relational problems. Couple this with the consistent socialization of young girls that a woman cannot be whole without a close relationship with a man, and you have created a context where women are highly constrained to stay despite abusive behavior.
The Context of Conflict
Numerous studies have demonstrated that conflict and communication patterns are different in relationships where violent behavior is occurring. In their path-breaking studies, Gayla Margolin, Amy Holtzworth-Munroe, and colleagues demonstrated that physically violent husbands (as compared with husbands who were not violent) were more likely to make hostile attributions about their wives' actions and were more likely to display poor problem-solving skills, negativity, threats, hostility, defensiveness, and cycles of attack. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman have further described the communication patterns of violent husbands as including highly provocative forms of anger, particularly contempt and belligerence. Violent husbands were also likely to reject attempts of their wives to influence them, were controlling and demanding, and were notable for their lack of willingness to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with their own behavior. Their wives, on the other hand, demonstrated both intense anger and high levels of fear and sadness.
My study of everyday interaction patterns adds to a sense of the volatility of these relationships and the difficulty that spouses have in resolving their conflicts. Both husbands and wives in violent marriages described significantly more use of verbal attack, anger, and withdrawal, and less use of negotiation and apology in their conflict episodes. Furthermore, I observed a tendency to engage in conflict over nearly every issue that came up (as though the spouses were not adept at "letting the small stuff go"). In addition, their use of ineffective conflict-negotiation skills nearly ensured that long-term resolution of marital problems was unlikely.
Ironically, couples who are embroiled in a violent relationship do not always report that the relationship is completely unhappy or extremely distressed. As foreshadowed in the discussion of the context of romance, violence and love can coexist, and indeed physically violent husbands and boyfriends report strong attachments to their partners, including intense feelings of love, positive interactions, and great fear of being abandoned by their wives or girlfriends. The simultaneous presence of such positive behaviors and violence makes for a very volatile emotional climate within the relationship.
The Context of Control
Beth Emery and I found strong themes of control and coercion in our study of intimate violence in dating and courtship. Indeed, every woman interviewed for this study spoke about the dynamics of control. Their descriptions were multifaceted and multi-layered, emphasizing four interrelated aspects of control: domination of an argument, domination of the woman, keeping her in the relationship, and ownership/possession.
Sometimes physical aggression erupted in the relationship when the man was trying to dominate an argument. Here, an argument had escalated to the volatile and heated stage, and aggression was his way of "getting her to listen" to his demands. Aggression was also a response to her refusal to comply; some of the women interviewed emphasized that aggression happened when they stood their ground or stood up for themselves. Quite literally, then, intimate aggression served as a means of "winning" an argument and forcing one's demands on the partner.
Domination often extended beyond the immediate context of a heated argument to the domination of the woman herself. Embedded within this facet of control was the man's belief in the right to tell her what to do, and to mold her into a more perfect romantic partner. Such domination was evidenced in his making all the decisions about where to go and whom to see, how she should dress, and whether or not she could interact with her family and friends. And it extended to bending her will to his, while undermining her self-confidence and self-worth. The women we interviewed described their boyfriends as using the language of "love and obey me" that was interlaced with "I need to whip you into shape and make you a better (that is, more compliant) partner."
Perhaps the ultimate form of domination occurred when physical violence was used to literally keep the woman in the relationship. Sometimes this dynamic played out as physical restraint when she tried to leave, and at other times it was enacted as a severe beating that occurred as she attempted to pack up her things. In some of the relationships, psychological constraint was sufficient, for the women knew that any attempt to leave, or even to show independence, would be met with violence. And, some of the women described his use of violence as the ultimate test of her love; if he could push her to the limit and she stayed, if he could beat and harm her and she still forgave, then he would believe that she truly did love him.
Finally, in its most extreme form, control was enacted as ownership and possession. Although some women first viewed possessiveness as a sign of strong romantic interest, they later viewed the behavior as obsessive when any perceived violation of the rules (from talking to another man to failing to fix dinner) was met with a violent reaction. From statements to other men of "don't touch her; she's mine," to checking the odometer on her car and asking for an accounting of every minute of her day, these men communicated to their partners that they "owned" them. What is particularly chilling here is that these dynamics of control and domination were being enacted against young women who were in their teens and early twenties, and who had been dating their partners for less than a year.
Research on intimate violence and control contains an interesting caveat. Often, men who batter women speak about their use of physical violence as a "loss of control," describing a sense of blacking out or being so consumed by anger that they cannot recall what happened. In these examples, the men are describing their use of violence as an expressive action, rather than in the instrumental terms of dominating their partners or controlling their wives. Certainly, physical violence can be a very expressive action, but we argue that in the context of intimacy, it usually is simultaneously quite instrumental. Our argument is further supported by the finding that batterers choose carefully when and where to enact violence against their girlfriends and wives (in most cases, intimate violence occurs at home or in privacy, away from the eyes of others who might protest).
Ultimately, the paradox of romance and violence must be brought to the forefront, for violence in an intimate relationship is affected by the very fact of that intimacy. It will be very difficult to ameliorate intimate violence without careful attention to the patterns of romance, conflict, love, and control that are enacted within the relationship. Improving problem-solving skills, communication patterns, and positive interaction must be accompanied by an analysis of control dynamics that challenges male domination of relationships and cultural support for the use of violence to resolve problems.
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