Tactic #16 — Physical Violence: How to understand Men’s Motivations

This is the sixteenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Physical Violence. This blog focuses on men’s motivations for using coercively controlling physical violence against female partners.

Power & control wheel #16 Clare Murphy PhD

A man interviewed by Jeff Hearn(12) said:

“I don’t let it lie, because I always want to have the last word. If I’m not getting the last word then the violence starts. That’s the way I can get her to shut up.”

Imagine Physical Violence against women on a continuum from pulling hair, pushing and pinching, to twisting arms, choking, punching and beating — to murder at the far end of the continuum. Other physically violent tactics entail shoving, grabbing, slapping, hitting, biting, kicking, physically attacking specific parts of women’s bodies such as her genitals and breasts, using objects such as kitchen knives, pots and pans to harm her.

Looking specifically at men’s violence against women, there are three broad categories: (a) Situational Couple Violence; (b) Separation Instigated Violence; and (c) Coercively Controlling Violence.(1)

Situational Couple Violence

The most common form of physical violence against an intimate partner is Situational Couple Violence. Men and women perpetrate this form of physical violence as often as each other. The violence results from a particular one-off situation, conflict or argument. In this type of relationship there are not any issues of ongoing power and control. Neither partner is trying to control the other. Violence in this type of relationship tends to be minor. And neither partner is afraid of the other.(1)

Separation Instigated Violence

Both men and women may use physical violence against an intimate partner at the time of relationship separation. This form of violence does not entail any history of violence, coercive control, nor feeling fear, nor experiencing a lack of safety in the relationship. Rather, the violence is a reaction to experiences such as the trauma of dealing with new family dynamics, public humiliation that some well known professionals or political figures may experience, or discovering that a partner had an extra-marital affair. The tendency is that physical violence is not ongoing, the perpetrator usually admits to using violence and if they are served with a protection order they usually comply with it. The victim of the violence is usually shocked and scared, which can lead to becoming wary of their ex-partner, in a way that was not the case throughout the relationship.(1)

Coercive Controlling Violence

Coercive Controlling Violence against an intimate partner is a different matter. Coercively controlling violence is predominantly perpetrated by men,(1) and the violence always accompanies some, or many, of the other 15 tactics I have been discussing on the power and control wheel. On the other hand, because these other forms of coercive control are effective, many of these men never have to use physical violence to achieve power and control.

Coercively controlling violence is not necessarily frequent and not always severe. However, compared to the other forms of intimate partner violence mentioned above, coercively controlling violence often accompanies sexual abuse and tends to be more frequent and severe and leads to higher rates of physical injury.(1)

Additionally, men’s use of any combination of the non-physical tactics of coercively controlling behaviours is the strongest risk factor for potential future physical violence,(1, 2) and for potential murder.(1, 3) It is men’s history of controlling behaviour that often leads those men to physically attack or murder their partner if she threatens to leave, or if she does in fact leave.

Whilst men and women involved in situational couple violence and separation instigated violence may come to the attention of the health and legal systems, and women’s refuges and other domestic violence agencies — it is actually men and women involved in Coercively Controlling Violence that these social systems most frequently have to deal with.(1)

Men who fall into this category, and who attend a stopping violence programme may, as a result of the programme, stop using physical violence. However, it is common that they will continue to use psychological abuse and other non-physical forms of coercive control.(4, 5)

It is coercively controlling violence that is the subject of this website, and it is this form of intimate partner violence that is the subject of this particular blog post.

Male-to-male violence and men’s violence against women

Not all men who use violence against women also use violence against men. However, the Australian component of an international research survey found that of those men who used physical violence against men outside of the family over the past year, were six times more likely to have used violence against their intimate female partner, compared with men who did not use violence outside the family.(2)

Physical violence and Pregnancy 

Women who become pregnant are at high risk of physical violence. Some studies show that if her partner was violent before she became pregnant, this can sometimes mean she is at risk of being beaten when pregnant. Some studies show that the level of previous violence increases when she is pregnant, whilst other women experience violence for the first time when she announces her pregnancy.(9, 10)  Research also shows that pregnant women who experience physical violence tend to experience more severe forms of violence than women who are not beaten whilst pregnant.(11)

The myth that violence is a loss of control 

Some men who use coercively controlling violence say they lost control. In fact most people believe men’s violence is just that — a loss of control. However, as you will see below, men control their decision to use violence against their partner.

Men choose which tactic of violence to use

Zeev Winstok and colleagues interviewed a man who described consciously controlling his level of violence. He said, “I am unable to beat her to death. I give her a slap and that’s all, not more than that. Just to deter her. Stop it and that’s it. She’s getting just what she deserves, no more, sometimes less, but never more.”(6)  Other men control where, how much and in what way they hit their partner.(7)

What motivates men to use coercively controlling violence?

Several researchers have asked men why they used physical violence against their female partners. Here are some of the motivations men outlined.

To stop her from saying or doing something

Some men give clear warnings that they will use violence. One man interviewed by Jeff Hearn said that when he thought he was losing an argument he’d say to his partner, “If you don’t shut up I’m going to hit you.”(12)  Such threats show intention to use violence, not a loss of control. In Michele Bograd’s study, the men said their violence was motivated by a desire to facilitate communication or to stop a fight.(8)

To punish, discipline or harm her

All the men interviewed by Ronda Reitz used violence to punish their partner when they believed she was ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.(13)  It is common for coercively violent men to say they were disciplining their partner when they believe she is undermining his authority as a man.(14)  Another man said he used violence because he wanted to “cause pain and mess her looks up.”(15)

To dominate and make her respect his self-appointed ‘King of the Castle’ role

All of the men interviewed by Julia Wood said that because they believed their partner disrespected him — as a man — he was therefore justified in using physical violence.(16) Likewise, all of the men interviewed by James Ptacek said they used violence because they had to maintain dominance.(15)

To make her conform to his views

Some men use violence when they believe that women are opposing them, that her wishes are at odds with his, or that she is depriving him of something.(13)  They justify their violence by saying she should have been conforming to the submissive wife role.(12)

When I interviewed Bob, he described a belief that he was losing some of his authority as the head of the house when he had discussions with his wife to make mutual decisions. He said: “I’ve already kind of given up a little bit of my authority coz I’m happy to just like have a discussion with my wife about anything and everything rather than just saying, ‘This is how it’s gonna be and that’s that’.”

To maintain his ‘Top Dog’ position

Dominant social messages still abound that influence many men to believe they are the ‘top dog’. Their sense of masculinity, status, identity and self-esteem are linked to being the superior, dominant partner — the boss, the master, the one who should be obeyed. Therefore, as Bob described above, some men believe that when they feel their partner says or does something to shake their superior position and sense of entitlement, this makes them feel very threatened. A man in Jeff Hearn’s study believed women are “making you feel inadequate … coz in some way they’re taking something away from you, you don’t feel comfortable with your own image as a man … they’ve put you in a situation and they’re threatening your self-identity. You’ve got this image of yourself and they’re doing summat to take it away and you can’t handle that. You’ve got to do summat in order to live with yourself otherwise you just give up. You’re not the same person you think you are.”(12)

When women threaten to leave, or do leave a coercively controlling partner, there is a strong risk that he will use violence in an attempt to maintain power and control. Men who Jeff Hearn interviewed said, “I’ve always liked to dominate, get everything my own way … I know you’re not going to leave me, so I can crack you as much as I want. But having said that I did feel scared she would leave me a lot of the time.” And: “I felt that she were a possession of mine, that I owned her. That’s why I felt motivated to be violent towards her and not to anyone else … I were frightened of her leaving.”(12)

When some of these men believe their partner is doubting their ability as a breadwinner, they may lash out with physical violence, rather than take personal responsibility for dealing with their own doubts about their abilities.(16)

Coercively controlling men believe they have the right to do what it takes to maintain power and control. Bob, a man I interviewed, described feeling so justified in hitting his wife that he had no fear of consequences. He said:

“I don’t think getting into trouble with the police would have changed me in any way. Coz at the time, when I hit my wife I didn’t really care about too much at all. So getting into trouble from the police was certainly not a big deal for me at the time. My wife actually grabbed the phone. I said, ‘That’s my phone, what are you doing with my phone? I pay the bills, it’s mine. Who you ringing on my phone?’ She said, ‘I’m gonna ring the cops.’ I said, ‘Good, do you want me to dial the bloody number for ya’?”

To make her fit the ‘good wife’ role — a conforming submissive role

The belief that women violate codes of the ‘good wife’ lead some coercively controlling men to use physical violence to bring women into line(15) and to keep her in her place.(16)  These men may admit they were wrong to use violence, but believe they were provoked because of the woman’s failure to conform to the “good wife” role.(15)  These men believe their partner should not be stubborn or assertive and should willingly cooperate with his requirements.(7)

It is common for men who use coercive control to justify violence by saying he was provoked. Men interviewed by Jeff Hearn made excuses such as “she wound me up”, “she started it”, “she was being a bit wise”, “her being clever and cocky”, “she’s so stupid she can’t take ‘no’ for an answer”, and “she deserves what she gets.”(12)

One man said his choice to use violence or not, “all depends on the other side. That is, I hit her, let’s say I give her a slap, she’ll be safer if she moves to the other room. If she does that, it all ends well.”(17) As Zvi Eisikovits and his colleagues point out, these men expect women to take action to avoid his violence.

Most women I interviewed for my Masters thesis did not experience physical violence. However, a couple of women described feeling scared because their partners threatened them with violence to keep them under control. Elizabeth said, “Once, David’s hands were round my neck and I was really, really scared. He said he was going to give me a massage around here (pointing to her neck). And I was thinking ‘do I say something or do I just relax?’ And I didn’t say anything. For quite a long time I was really, really scared he was going to throttle me. And I was thinking about what would happen if he did because he was stronger than me, so that was pretty scary. And he did things like tip me out of the bed but he never hit me.”

Heather’s partner Luke threatened violence in a different way. Heather said Luke, “had a friend who was a bit scary and he used to threaten me with him a lot. His friend had kicked this guy in the head, it was nearly a manslaughter charge, but the guy pulled through, he was always beating people up, into drugs, and I was quite scared of him. Luke used him to threaten me a lot and say, ‘I should be harder on you, he throws his girlfriend around and drags her around the house by her hair,’ and that I needed some of that treatment. I don’t know whether it was because he was with this guy every day and whether this guy told him that he should treat me harder and not be so soft on me, whether that was what made him say and do these things or not, but he started to freak me out a bit about what he was capable of. He’d say, ‘I’m going to get my friend to come over and clean mum’s roof and put poison in the water,’ and things like that. And he wanted to do mum in, and how his friend watched this movie slitting people’s throats and just all this sort of stuff thrown into the conversation. I got quite upset about it. I think he knew that was what got to me the most.”

Yet no matter how justified coercively controlling men feel for using violence, many of them do not take responsibility for their violence, they deny they were violent, they minimise the violence and they trivialise the harm caused.

Jeff Hearn described how a man minimised his 10 year history of violence, control and several arrests by saying, “I just hit her.” Another man minimised his seven years of violence by saying there were times or months when he was not violent.(12)

Many violent men have no empathy, they trivialise and minimise the harm inflicted on their partners saying something like “it was only bruising”(12), or “women bruise easily.”(15, 18)

Although many men do admit to using violence, they minimise it by calling it something else, for example, “I was never violent just bad tempered.”(18)

One man believed that telling his partner to “sit the fuck down and leave me alone” while holding a knife to her face was nothing compared to the possibility of killing her with his bare hands.(13)

And finally, Kate Cavanagh and her colleagues interviewed men who portrayed their violence as accidental, saying “the door hit her” and one man said, “You try to put it to the back of your mind, pretend it never happened.”(18)

Challenging social messages

In sum, men’s coercively controlling physical violence against their female partner is the result of an intentional choice to maintain power and control and to keep her within the bounds of his idea of the ‘good submissive wife’. Because dominant messages in our society associate masculinity with controlling women and at the same time associate physical violence against women as a weakness, these mixed messages are the reason why some men choose to physically harm women and is the reason for denying they did so. Mixed social messages make violence against women both legitimate and illegitimate. One way out of this bind is for all of us to challenge the idea that it is right, natural and normal for men to control women and to challenge and change social messages, so that healthy masculinity is seen to include showing love, care, empathy and kindness. Not all men coercively control women, not all men want to, and many men are forming movements that entail challenging men’s violence against women — my hope is that this social shift will continue to grow and flourish. However, such challenges and changes must include challenging “coercive control” in all its forms — not just physical violence.

References:

  1. Kelly J, Johnson MP. Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: Research update and implications for interventions. Family Court Review. 2008;46:476-99.
  2. Mouzos J, Makkai T. Women’s experiences of male violence: Findings from the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS). Canberra, ACT: Research and Public Policy Series, No. 56 — Australian Institute of Criminology, 2004.
  3. Campbell JC. Danger Assessment Instrument. 2004.
  4. Marshall LL. Psychological abuse of women: Six distinct clusters. Journal of Family Violence. 1996;11(4):379-409.
  5. Murphy CM, Cascardi M. Psychological aggression and abuse in marriage. In: Robert L. Hampton, T.P. Gulotta, G.R. Adams, E.H. Potter III, R.P. Weissberg, editors. Family violence: Prevention and treatment. Newbury Park: Sage; 1993. p. 86-112.
  6. Winstok Z, Eisikovits ZC, Gelles RJ. Structure and dynamics of escalation from the batterer’s perspective. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services. 2002;83(2):129-41.
  7. Lundgren E. Feminist Theory and Violent Empiricism Aldershot, UK: Avebury; 1995.
  8. Bograd M. How battered women and abusive men account for domestic violence: Excuses, justifications, or explanations? In: Hotaling GT, Finkelhor D, Kirkpatrick JT, Straus MA, editors. Coping with family violence: Research and policy perspectives. Newbury Park: Sage; 1988. p. 60-77.
  9. Robinson AL. Reducing repeat victimisation among high-risk victims of domestic violence: The benefits of a coordinated community response in Cardiff, Wales. Violence Against Women. 2006;12:761-88.
  10. Taft A. Violence against women in pregnancy and after childbirth: Current knowledge and issues in health care responses. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse Issues Paper 6, 2002.
  11. Brownridge DA, Taillieu TL, Tyler KA, Tiwari A, Chan KL, Santos SC. Pregnancy and intimate partner violence: Risk factors, severity, and health effects. Violence Against Women. 2011;17(7):858-81.
  12. Hearn, Jeff. (1998). The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women. London: Sage
  13. Reitz RR. Batterers’ experiences of being violent: A phenomenological study. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 1999;23:143-65.
  14. Adams PJ, Towns A, Gavey N. Dominance and entitlement: The rhetoric men use to discuss their violence toward women. Discourse & Society. 1995;6:387-406.
  15. Ptacek J. Why do men batter their wives? In: Yllö K, Bograd M, editors. Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse (SAGE Focus Editions) 1988. p. 133-57.
  16. Wood JT. Monsters and victims: Male felons’ accounts of intimate partner violence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2004;21:555-76.
  17. Eisikovits ZC, Goldblatt H, Winstok Z. Partner accounts of intimate violence: Towards a theoretical model. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services. 1999;80:606-19.
  18. Cavanagh K, Dobash RE, Dobash RP, Lewis R. ‘Remedial work’: Men’s strategic responses to their violence against intimate female partners. Sociology. 2001;35(3):695-714.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Isolation
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Using Children
Economic abuse
Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic Slavery
Cyber Abuse

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.