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No Safe Place: Violence Against Women
Interview: Susan Hanks, Ph.D.

Director of the Family and Violence Institute, Alameda California

Transcript of Interview

Q: Tell us about your program and how you deal with men who are abusive.

In terms of specifically working with men who are abusive towards their female partners, often times there are many political prescriptions that are in the literature and in the field these days and I think it's incumbent upon all of us as researchers and scholars, both to pay attention to those and to further develop and go beyond them.

In the program which I direct and have had a major influence in building the philosophy of, we work with men on both an individual and group basis and we've tried to differentiate among all the men who are abusive towards their female partners because all men who are abusive towards women are not the same. And their needs are not the same and they can't be treated the same in terms of an intervention package. We do believe that violence is a crime and should be treated as such. However, beyond that men also need to be treated with a great deal of respect and understanding in the same way that we would want them to respect and understand the individuals with whom they live. And the family members who they often batter and unless we can model that ourselves as psychotherapists, then the men won't be able to go home and do that within their own families.

So in my program we work with people individually. We also work within the context of group therapy for men and we also on occasion will see them in the context of group of family therapy. For some men who are able to assume responsibility for their behavior. And we're looking as a research project also at all the various treatment modalities that exist and really looking from an outcome perspective on which are most effective in terms of stopping men's violence and also helping them then improve the quality of their relationships in general and their family relationships in specific.

Q: How common is the problem of violence against women?

The problem of violence against women is a very pervasive and ubiquitous and age-old problem. Women are as we are finding, as we have known for a very long time and are now finding from our studies are subject most frequently to violence in the home. They are subject to assault by people they know at a much higher rate than they are by strangers but they are victims of child sexual abuse, child physical abuse when they are young girls, they are victims of rape when they grow up to be women or teenagers and then when they are adults, they are often victims of spouse abuse within their own home. So the problem of violence against women is a very serious one, and now we're also learning about sexual harassment in the work place which again is not a new problem but just a problem that we as a society are beginning to identify and intervene in.

Q: What causes men to be violent toward women?

The question of why men as a group are more violent than women is one that we've struggled with through the ages of trying to understand and what comes up in that question is whether men's violence is biological since there are biological differences between men and women or whether men's violence is socialized. What we do know is that all human beings can be violent given certain circumstances and certainly in times of war we sanction some people being violent towards other people but we also know that not all men are violent outside of a war time or unique situation like that.

Only some men are violent and we also know that men in general as a group are more violent than women in general. That's a very important question for us to understand. Why are some men more violent than others? What causes them to be that way and why is it that the person towards whom they are most violent is often a woman although men are also violent towards women who they know and with whom they are in intimate relationships or towards their own children. That's a very important question for us to understand.

Of men who are violent towards women, we need to look at them as a differential group. And look at the differences among women or among men say who batter the woman with whom they are living. Some men batter the woman with whom they are living because they are very much afraid of losing them. Some men batter them because they're afraid of rejection. Some men batter because of the influence of drug and alcohol abuse. Many men batter however because society has not sanctioned them in any kind of way and in fact many times society has given them permission to behave in a violent or abusive way towards people in their families. And we've given men that permission by not passing laws saying that spouse abuse is against the law and that violence towards family members should be treated in the same kind of way as violence towards strangers. And we as society have been very ambivalent about protecting women in their own homes. Because we have not wanted to see that women are most at risk from men they know.

Q: Do you see a profile of men who batter women?

There is no one profile of men who batter the woman with whom they live, or their significant female partner. There are many differential characteristics. As I said previously, some men batter because of an overwhelming life circumstance, but do not, or in response to that such as a major illness, a financial setback, the death of a child, death of a parent, and their violence is not an ongoing pattern within their relationships. However, many men who batter and we know of in ten percent of all relationships in the United States there is severe frequent, ongoing battery, psychological, physical, verbal battery of women. In those situations men batter often because they have psychological struggles internally which they bring home and hope to have resolved within the context of the relationship.

Many men batter because they feel, because they are tremendously dependent on the woman, because they depend on her to keep a stable sense of self-esteem for themselves, because they feel that they can't survive without her, because they are threatened by her moves towards any kind of individual life of her own or individual thinking of her own. Some men batter because that's the only way they know how to be close. We know from working with families in which there is spouse abuse, that there is a cycle that, repetitive cycle that happens in many families. And over the course of time, the family cycles through episodes of abuse and families emotional life then revolves around either anticipating an episode of violence actually coping with an episode of violence or recovering from that and oftentimes in the recovery phase of an episode of violence there's tremendous closeness in the family, or at least a diminution of the anxiety that previously existed. So that sometimes men's violence is reinforcing because the closeness in the relationship that existed in the beginning of the relationship or the wish for the closeness is actually reestablished after an episode of violence. So it's paradoxical.

And also the women experiences that too. The man who previously can be very frightening and intimidating and terrorizing turns into a very sad, needy, dependent, remorseful man and that captures her back into the relationship a and makes her recommit to him a in a fantasized hope that it will never happen again. She takes on the belief that somehow, if she only changes and behaves differently, that she will be able to prevent him from being violent again. Although as we know, a man's violence resides in his own psychology and that there's very little a women can do to prevent a man from being violent if a man has a propensity to be violent towards the woman with whom he lives and he'll often go on to be violent even with the next partner, even if the marriage should end. However, my view of a woman's role in the cycle of violence is that it's her job to keep herself safe and to learn how to do that. And to learn what the limits of basically her love and her own omnipotence are and to realize that there's little she can do to control the man's violence.

Q: What about the children? How are they affected?

All violence in families is a life-threatening trauma for children. Children who grow up in families where there is ongoing violence are repeatedly traumatized year after year and repeatedly terrorized. They always live with the fear that one of their parents is going to kill the other parent. They live with the experience of having seen and heard one parent yelling or screaming at another parent, throwing the parent across the room, they live with waking up the next morning after an episode of violence in which their father has battered their mother with seeing their mother's bruises, with seeing holes in the wall, with seeing refrigerator doors torn off the refrigerator. And they see their father coming back into the family at some point in time, being very depressed and remorseful and the terrorizing person they heard the night before turns into a very pathetic person in front of their eyes.

Children also, in this day, hear the police intervening, so they hear the police coming and often arresting their father and then they stay, then they often accompany their mother to a shelter for battered women where their whole life changes. Or they see their father being arrested, and then they're home with their mother cleaning up the broken dishes, or helping her put bandages on her wounds, accompanying her to the emergency room. And then trying to go to sleep after that.

The aftermath of that is that children are always traumatized by witnessing violence in families. We know that from family backgrounds of men who are abusive that they often witness their mothers being abused and also they were often victims of child physical abuse themselves. We also know that of women who are battered, if they have the misfortune of having come from a family of witnessing their own mother being abused then they will be susceptible to developing what we call the battered women syndrome, in which they believe that there is nothing they can do to get out of the situation and they have a lock of a psychological sense of entitlement not to be abused. So it has a tremendous impact on children. It also has created developmental delays for children. It causes sleep disorder in children which leads to growth delays in children. It causes school learning problems. It causes major depression in children. It causes separation anxiety. It leads to may many child psychiatric disorders that we are only beginning to now link with family violence.

Q: So what do we do to prevent violence against women?

We need to both communicate to men unequivocally that violence in the family is absolutely unacceptable and that it's a crime to batter one's, a person with whom, to whom one is related just as much as it's a crime to batter a stranger on the street. But we also need to understand that men who batter are psychologically traumatized themselves, are oftentimes the adult victims of childhood abuse and we need to understand that they need psychological intervention as well as containment by the legal justice system.

When we are dealing with men who are abusive towards people whom they love, we need to encounter them on two different levels. One is society needs to communicate to men that violence towards intimates is absolutely unacceptable. Society needs to have a zero tolerance towards violence within the family. Just as we need to have zero tolerance towards violence between strangers within our society. So violence within the family needs to be treated as a crime.

In addition to that, we must also understand that spouse abuse or child abuse or men's violence towards intimates is also a family problem and a psychological problem. Because men will go on to have relationships for the most part with women whom they batter and also children who witness their violence. So we need to communicate to the man that we want to help him learn to be non-violent and provide options for him and programs for him in which he can learn to behave differently and how not to choose to become violent in his relationships.

Q: What is the link between aggression and anger and violence?

Well, let me start with the difference between the terms. There are major differences between concepts of aggression and anger and violence. Aggression is basically a drive that all of us need, basically to get out of bed in the morning, to go out in the world and do the things we need to do and overcome the obstacles that are there. A first grader in school needs to be aggressive to leave home to go to first grade. I need to be aggressive to be able to speak with you today and tape this particular show. Everyone needs to be aggressive, otherwise nothing would happen in society. So there's nothing wrong with healthy aggression and assertion. However, anger is not aggression, anger is an affect or a feeling that people have that everyone experiences and again it's important for people to be able to feel angry.

Violence, however, is a behavior that people choose sometimes when they don't know how to be appropriately aggressive or assertive or when they start to feel anger. Violent behavior (for particularly men who are abusive) gets linked and part of actual treatment of men who are abusive is to help them unlink needs to be aggressive in a situation or feelings of anger from actually behaving violently. Violence is a behavior, usually between two people or one person and a group of people, violence can be physical. In families, it can range from a slap or a push or restraining someone into a room, preventing them from leaving, to threatening them with a weapon, throwing them on the bed. Violence can also include a sexual assault or sexual coercion.

Violence in families can also encompass things like psychological abuse which is very common in families where there is severe family violence. Psychological abuse is usually an attempt to control and intimidate the other person and encompasses things like threats to harm the person, to kill or harm someone who is very important to them, threats to interfere with a person's place of employment, even threats to harm the family pet. Men who are abusive often try to get people in the family to do certain things or to comply in certain ways by threatening to harm the family pet in hopes that will make the women who wants to be protective of the children and the pet do a certain thing, comply in a certain way. Violence can also be economic, control of financial resources. It can encompass a variety of behaviors.

Q: Why don't women who are in abusive relationships leave?

Fifty percent of all relationships in this country end in divorce. Oftentimes a major reason for that is a previous history of domestic violence. However, that's not always an option available to all women. I'd like to reframe that question and look at what factors prevent women from leaving violent relationships. Up until twenty years ago, it was not against the law to batter one's wife. Women virtually had no legal protection whatsoever if they chose to leave the family. They often jeopardized the potential custody of their children. Laws around that are now changing. Many women who leave relationships often have to opt for living in poverty. That's a very difficult choice to make. There are many social cultural factors that contribute to encouraging women to stay and try and make the situation better. So, there are many, many reasons.

In addition to that, women love the men who abuse them, or at least love them initially. Men who batter are not one hundred percent bad. Nor are they one hundred percent hateful. They can be quite loving and attentive and protective partners at times. It takes a long time for a woman to give up hope in a relationship and to recognize that the only way she can be safe is to leave him. We must also look at why men stay in relationships. They batter women who they perceive as very unsatisfactory. If we hear, listen to men who abuse their wives, what we hear is how terribly inadequate these women are for the men. We also hear how tremendously dependent they are on the women. And their fear of rejection, their fear for emotional withdrawal and/or abandonment are major factors actually that cause them to be violent. Men who batter their women are, their wives are often times psychologically incapable of leaving them.

Q: Is there a profile of women who are battered?

Well, just as there is no one profile of men who batter, similarly there is no one profile of women who are battered. What we know from our research is that there will be an episode of violence in at least one-third of all marital relationships and there will be severe ongoing violence in ten percent or one out of ten of every marital relationship in the United States. So, of those women who are battered, the thing they have in common is that they are all in a situation where they are victims of physical or sexual abuse. However, each women brings to that relationship a different history of her own and is also married to or in a relationship with a different kind of man who batters her. So there is no one profile of the battered woman.

And it's very important also to recognize that different women respond differently to being abused. Some women have a very clear sense that the abuse they experience early on in a relationship is absolutely unequivocally not acceptable and is some how able to communicate that to the man. Other women, particularly women who have a history of seeing their mothers abused or being abused as a child, do not have that internal sense that is, it is absolutely un-okay for them to be physically violated. And they are not able to communicate that to the man in a very clear way.

Also, women respond to the violence that they receive in different ways. Some women do respond violently, certainly most women are very angry about what has happened to them. Some women become violent in response to being abused and this is a very important question and dynamic to look at because often times a woman's self protective response to being abused or battered is viewed as mutual violence. We as society, the police, therapists come into a relationship at a particular point in time and don't see what has happened -- say for the past five years or twenty years -- in that relationship. As a psychotherapist, I actually have major concern about the safety of a woman who lapses into passivity in the face of being brutally assaulted and isn't able to do anything in a self-protective or even mutually violent way. So, yes, some women are violent in relationships and respond to being battered.

Q: What can we do as a society to stop violence against women?

What society must do to curb violence is unequivocally communicate to women that they have a right to be safe in their own families and also to men that it is not okay to be abusive toward people with whom they live. Society should also fund programs to help families learn to be non-violent. The reason for that is because if we don't do that, we're raising the next generation of children who will go on to be the next generation of men who are abusive or women who are battered.

I think if women, this is something very important for women who have been battered to understand, if they do make the decision to leave a relationship that they should unequivocally communicate to the man that they do not want to be with him. Often times women have the misperception that if they get back with him a little bit or help him with his distress around her leaving, that somehow they can let him down easy and help him with the trauma he will experience. It is very important from my work with men who batter, they get a very clear message when the woman with whom they are in a relationship that the woman is leaving and that there is no hope for the relationship. Likewise, society also needs to have programs in place for women, for men who do get that message to help them deal with the trauma and not act out violently at that particular point in time.

Q: What of those who say that women start fights as often as men, that women can be violent as well?

There's one more point. It's very important for us to also realize the climate of intimidation and control that happens in families. Even though woman are violent towards men, we need to remember that woman are most at risk for being physically injured, much more so than men and most at risk for being psychologically traumatized. And so even though people are mutually violent in relationships, the woman is at most risk for being injured and eventually killed.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when we talk about women's violence in relationships is that their violence often begins in response to the men's violence and there actually have been many research studies conducted in my institute about this, and that the aftermath of women's violence is quite different than the aftermath of men's violence. Women are at much higher risk for being injured, physically injured by being assaulted by a male partner than men are at risk for being severely injured by being assaulted by a female partner. Many studies tell us that between twenty and thirty percent of all emergency room admissions of women with traumatic injuries are because of being assaulted at home. There is no comparable statistic for men. A third of all women who are killed in the state of California are killed by someone within their family. That is not true for men.

Women are at much higher risk of being injured and killed because of violence in the family than men are. And if you ask men, "Are you afraid of the woman with whom you live?", Most men will say "No," even if they had also been hit or scratched or punched by her. However, if you ask women that question, are you afraid, you'll often hear that women are terrorized and they live in constant fear of impulsively being battered by the man. They have sleep disorders because they are afraid of being assaulted in their sleep. They have anxiety disorders and depressive disorders because of the chronic trauma that they live with. The impact on women of being battered is much different psychologically and much more traumatic than the impact on men of being physically abused by their female partners.

Q: Doesn't everything tell us that a woman is most in danger when she decides to leave?

The most dangerous time in a relationship in which there is violence is the point at which women leave and then decide not to return. So often times after an episode of violence there's some distance, physical or emotional distance in the relationship. Maybe the man goes to jail, the woman goes to a shelter, there's just some separation. At some point in that, the woman may decide not to return to the relationship. She'll go through that decision many, many times. At the point where the man really hears that she's not returning to him and really gets that she's having a life of her own (in whatever way she chooses to do that), that's often the most dangerous time in a relationship, because that's when the man is most psychologically vulnerable, feeling most rejected and most threatened and his only way that he knows how to deal with those feelings is to act violently towards the woman who he perceives is causing them. And the reason he wants to act violently towards her is because he believes she can restore him to a state of feeling good about himself. These are the psychological states or emotional states that men are in when they kill the woman.

Oftentimes men who kill their female partners may either do that impulsively, without it being premeditated, because they are in a state of rage or it may be a wish to keep the woman just to themselves. They may not be able to perceive that they can live a life separate from her. Men who kill their female partners often times then kill themselves; if we look in the media, those are the dramatic stories because men feel like they cannot live a life separate from the woman because they are tremendously psychologically dependent on her.

Pathological jealousy also comes into this. Some men are very threatened by their female partners having relationships with anyone outside of their primary relationship. They'll be threatened by the woman having a relationship with her own parents, with her therapist, with her children's school teacher, even with children from a former marriage. They cannot tolerate her focusing her emotional life on anyone else and they'll be even more threatened if they perceive that she might be interested in another man. We also know though that pathological jealousy is a condition inside the psyche of the man. A woman does not have to do anything in order to evoke that. In fact, women who are battered often cut off social contacts with many people and become very isolated in their own relationship and their own home in an attempt to try and assuage the pathological jealousy of the man.

If you ask a history of violence in a relationship, what you'll typically get is that women over-report their violence and men under-report their violence. Now we can look at that and say, "Why is that?" That's because women and their definition of violence personally is much more broad than men's violence. And they are much more distressed about what they perceive as their own violence. Oftentimes women state behaviors which I don't consider violence, but they do. I've never had that situation with a man, volunteer behaviors that he thought were violent and I didn't.

Many men just do not understand that their behavior is experienced as terrorizing and intimidating and controlling by other people. That's what men learn when they're in group treatment programs for men. They get feedback from other people who tell them, if you behave in this kind of way, other people are gonna be threatened or intimated by that. Many men don't know that. When we talk about men's denial and minimization of their violence, sometimes they're just lying and conning us, sometimes or often times it's because they just don't get it. And no one has told them, "If you behave in this kind of way, the world is going to respond in a particular kind of way." And that's why men who have propensities to be violent in their families are very socially isolated from other men, from their families of origin, from peers at work, and they don't get a lot of interpersonal feedback because people often withdraw from them and don't tell them what it feels like to be around them.

Q: What of those people who will say the woman does something to provoke the man?

Women who are in relationships with men who are violent are not responsible for the men's behavior. Only the man and the person who is behaving violently can stop behaving that way. Women who are in relationships with men who are violent cannot stop the man from being violent. Only the person who is behaving violently can stop that behavior, just like a situation with drug or alcohol abuse, only the person who is using the drug or alcohol can stop that behavior. Only if a person is over-eating, only the person who is over-eating can stop putting food in their mouth. No one else can make them do that. Women who are in relationships with violent men need to know that. However, they need to be responsible for keeping themselves safe.

A woman's responsibility in a domestically violent relationship is to keep herself safe and also to keep her children safe. And sometimes that may mean that she'll have to do things that she would prefer not to do such as distance herself from the man or get help outside of the family or call the police to have the man arrested because we do know that arrest and incarceration is a major impediment to some men's future violence, particularly men who do not have a history of being previously involved in the legal justice system. So women need to know that even though they cannot stop the man's violence, they are responsible for keeping themselves safe.

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No Safe Place: Violence Against Women is made possible in part by a grant from the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation and the Dr. Ezekiel R. and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation. The documentary is a production of public television station KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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