Charles R. Ullman & Associates Scholarship Essay Contest: Marital Domestic Violence
Talking the Beast Into Peace: Answers for Couples Facing Marital Abuse
Marital domestic violence is a crisis with many facets and sometimes unshakable repercussions, refusing to discriminate against children, the elderly, or those with mental disabilities. Yet among all the research articles and new reports detailing the horrors of domestic abuse, there are avenues of promise where keen and informed citizens can find answers – and ultimately heal their wounds. For such abuse to be curtailed in our American society, three issues must be addressed: the prominence and role of mental illness in marital abuse, the barriers to disclosing marital abuse to health care providers, specifically shame and avoidance of discussing the abuse, and the early onset of abuse in childhood. By offering talk-based therapies to both abusers and victims, making information about mental illnesses more relevant to partners, and fostering problem-solving skills in children, we as a nation are more likely to promote marriages built upon empathy and patience, thereby stamping out the threat of domestic violence.
In order to better understand the causes of marital domestic violence, a clarification of terminology is needed. According to the World Health Organization (2002), intimate partner violence, or IPV, is an umbrella term for any acts of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, including coercion that aims to isolate the victim from family and friends. IPV most often defines abuse of women by male perpetrators, the abuser being a current or former spouse or romantic partner, although women can also be the abusers.  Intimate partner violence in marriage shares many traits with abuse in intimate relationships; for example, female perpetrators typically engage in abuse as a means of self-defense; males commit sexual violence more often than females; and females sustain more injuries from such abuse than males. [2,3] For the sake of simplicity, intimate partner violence will be used from here on to refer to marital domestic violence.
Across multiple psychology journals, a consistent result of many studies is that mental illness and spousal abuse are closely tied. Compared to those without physical or mental disabilities, disabled household members are more likely to experience domestic violence and suffer from anxiety, depression, and isolation as a result.  Reported incidents of marital violence can be shockingly high in some countries; for example, in Goa, India, out of 379 married women surveyed, 26.6 percent reported physical violence by their spouse within the past three months.  Abuse can and typically does have an early onset, even before marriage. Amy Bonomi and her colleagues at the Ohio State University found that in a sample population of adolescents from ages 13 to 19, 64.7 percent of females and 61.7 percent of males reported dating violence victimization, with over one third of those victimized reporting more than one abusive partner.  For these reasons, a more readily accessible and relevant education on intimate partner violence (IPV) and mental disorders is essential in our country. One form of education which may be effective in reducing IPV is the “Emotions in Marriage Lab” counseling, a type of couples counseling in which the perpetrator is taught positive communication skills. Proposed by Julia Babcock, co-director of the Center for Couples Therapy at the University of Houston, this treatment plan focuses on discussions about areas of conflict in marriage, a well-known factor associated with the onset of IPV.  In the study, male batterers were asked to engage in a scripted argument with their partner. Compared to the men who were asked to take a time-out, the men who undertook editing-out-the-negative skills training and an accepting influence skills training showed a substantial decrease in aggressive feelings. Furthermore, their female partners reported feeling less confrontational when their husbands used these listening and talking skills.  Due to the reported decrease of both partner’s aggression, I propose that both the undertook editing-out-the-negative skills training and accepting influence skills training be endorsed by counselors working with IPV couples.
In order to teach effective communication strategies to couples, health care providers, not just counselors, must also become involved in the fight against intimate partner violence. In the North American criminal justice system, judges can order an abuser to attend approved counseling sessions, although the efficacy of such a forced treatment is questionable.  Rather than relying on the court system as the first major impetus for seeking (or being forced to seek) couples counseling, unobtrusive routine screenings for domestic violence should be conducted in order to help victims and abusers. Research has shown that, when screening for IPV in females, victims omitted fewer details of their abuse when they were given written self-completed questionnaires, compared to computer-based and face-to-face methods. Further, the women who responded said that, in terms of privacy and ease of use, they preferred the computer-based survey and self-completed questionnaires over face-to-face interviews.  For the sake of facilitating a comfortable discussion about IPV, health care providers should be trained to screen for abuse and give their clients several options for finding help. Effective and specific steps that health care providers can take include offering to connect the client to IPV advocacy services, giving the patient the National Domestic Violence Hotline number, and screening the patient for co-morbid disorders such as substance abuse and suicidal ideation.  By easing into such a personal topic with sincerity and professional knowledge, physicians and other primary care providers can bring relief to victims who have not been able to speak up for themselves.
While self-education and receiving support from health care providers is essential to combating marital violence, our society will not make long-lasting reductions in such abuse unless we teach our children how to engage in constructive problem-solving, rather than physical abuse. The inception of many domestic abuse cases can be traced back to households in which violence was an everyday occurrence for many children. In a study by Angie Kennedy and Andy McGlashen at the University of Michigan, 85 percent of 180 female high school students in a poor Chicago community reported that they had witnessed domestic abuse in their homes, while 72 percent were physically abused themselves and 29 percent had been sexually assaulted.  Compared to those whose mothers are not abused, children of battered women are more likely to exhibit behavioral problems and somatic disorders, such as anxiety and insomnia.  Because a significant obstacle to treating IPV is also the silence of children who witness such violence, more open communication must be utilized by both counselors and health care providers screening for this abuse in families with children. One type of therapy which can be highly advantageous to such families is a physical-and-emotion-focused safety plan, as suggested by Kress, Adamson, Paylo, DeMarco, and Bradley (2012). In this safety plan, counselors collaborate with both the caregiver and the client, working to inform all parties of the risk of IPV overlapping into child abuse, as well as the legal reporting process for child abuse. Furthermore, the counselor serves as or nominates someone who can be warm and encouraging to the victim, role plays instances where it is necessary to call the police, and helps the child identify a safety zone where they may go when the home environment becomes unsafe [13,14] Much like a fire drill, this safety plan is rehearsed with clients, so that children can react appropriately in even the most stressful instances of abuse. By making caregivers aware of the emotional and physical consequences of IPV on their children, as well as the counselor’s ability to report abuse to the appropriate social services center, perpetrators are more likely to seek help for their abusive tendencies, although, as Kress et al. pointed out, (2012), counselor counter-transference and rebuttal by the guardian after a report being filed are potential obstacles to this safety plan. By giving victims and perpetrators solution-focused alternatives to violence, however, there is a greater hope that IPV will be curtailed as children learn to seek help and utilize more peaceful communication skills.
Ending marital domestic violence may seem like a glacial process, but advances in counseling, a better understanding of mental illness, and an increased focus on treating children who have witnessed domestic abuse have all come together to give us powerful insight into the weaknesses of this beast. Our strongest hope lies in marriages whose husbands and wives practice communicating and listening to one another, and although talk therapies may not be readily accessible to or desired by all couples, such treatments seem to offer long-lasting results while not being overly intrusive. In his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression¸ Andrew Solomon says that “successful relationships are usually partnerships in which power can be passed back and forth between a man and a woman to suit the various circumstances that they encounter together and separately.”  Across all stressful circumstances, from work to raising children to buying a house, every spouse deserves to be heard and comforted by unconditional love. That is the point at which we will free ourselves from partner violence.
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