Power, Patriarchy, and Abusive Marriages – Part 1 (Nov-Dec 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

Cynthia Ezell
November – December, 1999

(A licensed marriage and family therapist at the Center for the Family, Cynthia is chair of the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute. A certified Imago Relationship Therapist, she authors a monthly column on parenting in Nashville Parenting magazine. Her specialties include treatment of depression and eating disorders and marital therapy. This article and the one to follow are her contribution to Healing the Hurting: Giving Hope & Help to Abused Women, edited by Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998).

A young pastor receives into his office for a counseling session an attractive young woman from his congregation. She is married to a man who also attends this pastor’s church. The young woman has bruises on her face and on her arm, but the young pastor decides not to mention them for fear of embarrassing her. He waits for her to tell him that her husband caused the bruises. He asks her, “Why did he hit you? Is he jealous?” He then counsels the young woman to curtail her social and career activities so as not to give her husband an opportunity to become jealous. He suggests that she try to praise her husband more frequently so that he will feel more confident that she loves and admires him (Wicks, Parsons & Capps, 1985).

This story reflects both the theology and the sex-role beliefs of the pastor. This is not an extreme example. Another account of a similar counseling session is presented by Carole R. Bohn: “While our children were still small and I was being battered, I went to our pastor for counseling. I realized that he meant well, but he laid a heavier burden of guilt on me. His advice was to ‘pray harder, have more faith, and be grateful for your six fine children’ ” (1989, p. 107).

Both of these stories highlight some of the elements that make patriarchal thinking so dangerous for women, especially married women. In the first story, the pastor hesitates to name the abuse, and then, in his ignorance, he looks to the woman to provide an answer as to why the abuse occurred. In neither story did the pastor address the woman’s safety. Both women were expected to control the abuse by being more attentive and subservient and by taking responsibility for the abuse. Patriarchal beliefs about marital relationships make women vulnerable to abuse and powerless to protect themselves once abuse occurs.

This chapter will explore the ways, both subtle and overt, that patriarchal attitudes founded in religious beliefs contribute to the abuse and subjugation of women within marital relationships.

A brief look at the history of religious ideology concerning the place of women in families will shed light on the foundations of patriarchal sex-role beliefs. Factors that contribute to the victimization of women that are maintained by patriarchal beliefs will be discussed, and alternate ways of relating and an egalitarian model for marriage will be suggested. Implications for therapists, ministers, and lay counselors will also be discussed.

The Burden of Inequality

In 1980, a United Nations report cited the burden of inequality for women. While women make up half the world’s population, they do two-thirds of the world’s work, earn one-tenth of the world’s income, and own one-hundredth of the world’s property. Despite the fall of repressive governments and the growing representation by women in corporations, the 1993 United Nations Human Development Report found that in no country are women treated as well as men. In spite of the progress of democracy worldwide, the UN still reports a “global epidemic of violence against women” (MacFarquhar, Seter, Lawrence, Knight & Schrof, 1994, p. 44).

Over the last twenty years, the feminist movement has dramatically influenced sex roles for men and women in America. While feminist ideology has certainly made an impact on women in the context of family and church, its effects have been muted by traditional religious teaching. Religious teachings that support the primacy of males, still a dominant thread in the fabric of our society, are woven into the beliefs we have about marital relationships. At their worst, such teachings have served not only to keep women silent but also to keep them vulnerable. A survey of third world women’s groups conducted in the 1980s found violence to be the chief concern for women. Feminists are beginning to realize that addressing abortion rights is less important to the average woman than the issue of violence against women …

For Christian women, the influence of religion in defining their role in the family has not been a positive one. Several authors discuss the fact that adherence to traditional religious beliefs about sex roles contributes to the depression, suppression, and victimization of women in families (Neuger, 1993; Shupe, Stacey & Hazlewood, 1987; Stoudenmire, 1976).

The term patriarchy has been defined as a type of social organization in which the father is the head of the family. The husband is the final authority, and wives and children are legally dependent upon him (Russell, 1990; Suassy, 1991). Patriarchy has also been described as a social system of male domination structured by racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism (Freedman, 1993). One of the tasks of feminism has been to point out the ways that patriarchy permeates our culture and limits the options of women in defining themselves and their roles. When religious teachings support and even prescribe those patriarchal beliefs, then those beliefs can be even more limiting for women and their partners.

History of Patriarchy

The interplay of religion, myth, and tradition in shaping our cultural beliefs about men and women is complicated (Lerner, 1986). Separating religion from culture is impossible. Admittedly, the biblical texts that are used either to support or to refute asymmetrical sex roles are bound up in the culture of that time. The exclusion of women from certain roles in ancient Israel cannot be equated with the exclusion of women from those roles in our society. Taking those ancient injunctions, lifting them out of their time-bound culture, and applying them to present-day marriage roles is risky and ridiculous. The church, however, has traditionally used the biblical text to serve and support its purposes, whether political or religious. The church fathers have used the biblical text to maintain a hierarchical model of marriage where in woman is subservient to man.

The writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther provide us with information regarding the sources of Christian misogynism (Farley, 1976). “Hopelessly entangled in the sources for Christian misogynism are not only myths of the Fall and Hellenistic dualisms, but also ancient blood taboos and Hebrew connections between nakedness and shame. The notion of woman became theoretically entrenched in theologies of original sin” (1976, p. 165). M. Farley cites these two briefly mentioned sources of sexual inequality in Christian thought: the concept of woman as responsible for sin entering the world and the concept that the fullness of the image of God is found only in males. She states that “neither line of thought is finally compatible with assertions of sexual equality.” Both lines of thought “lead irresistibly to conclusions regarding role definitions that exclude both women and men from important opportunities for reciprocity in a shared Christian life” (p. 165).

One important interface between religion and culture is found in the observance of religious rituals. Rituals are one of humanity’s ways of making and expressing meaning and transmitting those meanings and values through generations (Neville, 1974). Women experience and learn the roles they are to take through community interactions and socially prescribed rituals. Every worship service, Sabbath, or Mass is a mini-ritual reenacted weekly; this ritual confirms to all that women are to be passive, separated, and silent because they are not allowed to pass out the sacraments, lead in prayers, or have contact with the holy vessels.

In contrast to the male-only rituals that permeate much of religious practice, Christianity brought with it the inclusive ritual of baptism. With this ritual, which was available both to men and women, a door was opened for new patterns of relationship. In spite of such texts as 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 3:28, the patriarchal forces of society and the need of males to dominated led to entrenchment in the familiar pattern of seeing man as made in God’s image and seeing woman as made of something other.

Many of the social and religious teachings of Jesus reflect a mindset that was remarkably egalitarian. Jesus stood against the patriarchal leadership of his day and modeled a new way of relating (Bohn, 1989). The New Testament church in some places afforded women more opportunities for leadership than many present-day churches do. There were prophetesses and woman church leaders such as Lydia. The church, however, became more patriarchal as it aged.

Some feminist exegetes want to liberate the Scripture from its patriarchal bias. Some believe the text is irreparable and have serious questions about canon and the extent of biblical authority. Others suggest an acceptance of the text as patriarchal but are willing to overlook that bias in an effort to extract the larger truths. “Christian feminist apologetics asserts that the Bible, correctly understood, does not prohibit but authorizes equal rights” (Fiorenza, 1993, p. 789). Feminist theology is concerned with naming the patriarchal structures of the past and finding new ways of applying and interpreting Scripture that affirm the equality of all persons.

Religious tradition and teachings are relied upon to provide the basis for social structures and laws. In the same way, religious traditions are called upon to provide justification for existing social norms. Bohn refers to this phenomenon as the “chicken-and-egg nature of a theology of ownership” (1989, p. 105). The first laws enacted to regulate family and property issues were based on the accepted social norms of the time. Often religious teachings and traditions were cited as the basis for those laws.

In Roman law, a woman was considered to be the property of the man on whom she was financially dependent — whether father, husband, or brother-in-law. In the Islamic faith, a husband had, and to some degree still has, almost total control of his wife’s activities. In the Middle Ages, a wife who refused to obey her husband or who was considered unruly in a social sense could be flogged, chained, or publicly punished for her disobedience (Hauser, 1982). Marriage laws in western precapitalist Europe maintained a husband’s right to batter his wife. The legal and moral codes of the day recognized the family as the domain of the husband. Christian religious tradition provided ideological reinforcement for the continuation of such practices. In England, a husband’s absolute power over his wife was abolished in 1829 (Schechter, 1982), but she still could not have real legal and social autonomy. As late as 1874, police in North Carolina who investigated domestic disputes were told not to interfere in a husband’s battering of his wife unless the wife was critically injured as a result (Hauster, 1982). Richard J. Gelles and C.P. Cornell (1985) report that in fairly recent history many local criminal justice systems followed an informal “stitch rule,” by which a woman could not have her husband arrested for assault unless she was injured severely enough to require a certain number of stitches.

American social norms are the product of the melting pot of immigration. Each ethnic group that immigrated to American brought with it a blend of culturally and religiously-based sex-role expectations and practices. The patriarchal social and relationship norms that we struggle with result from this great stew of cultural and religious beliefs. Historically, marriage has not been a place of equality for women. Often it has not been a place of safety. The patriarchal forms of relationship between men and women have contributed to making marriage a place of violence for many women.

Marital Violence

Marital violence is so serious a problem that it [was] addressed in a significant way by the crime bill proposed by the White House (1994). This bill included $610 million in expenditures to prevent spousal violence, $900 million in expenditures to address crimes against women, $30 million to combat rural domestic violence, and $600,000 to help educate judges in how to handle gender crimes (Klein, 1994).

Violence in families is underreported. Some couples experience violence on such a regular basis that it becomes a normative experience, hardly worthy of complaint. Generally, the more intimate the victim, the less seriously people consider the assault. This is especially true in the case of marital sexual assault (Finkelhor, 1983). More severe forms of family violence carry social shame and a greater threat that outside forces will move in to disrupt the family, so authorities do not always see the real extent of violence (Straus, 1977-78).

Murray A. Straus’s landmark study on marital violence was conducted with two thousand couples who were chosen in such a way that they were representative of American couples. He used a Conflict Resolution Techniques (CRT) scale to see how couples settle conflicts between themselves. Found within the CRT scale is a Physical Violence Index that contains items defining the behaviors considered abusive: throwing things at someone; pushing, shoving, and grabbing; slapping; kicking, biting, hitting with an object; hitting spouse with an object; threatening spouse with a knife or gun; assaulting spouse with a knife or gun; (Straus, 1977-78).

Studies show that couples reporting physical violence report a median of 2.4 serious assaults per year (Hampton & Coner-Edwards, 1993; Straus, 1977-78). A survey made of admissions at a Yale emergency room during one month showed that 3.4 percent of the women entering for treatment had been injured by their partners. Because incidents of battering are underreported, the actual number was estimated to be as much as ten times higher (Hillard, 1988).

Some of the most significant factors in creating a marital climate in which spousal abuse is likely are provided by Straus (1977-78): social isolation; lower opportunities for employment for women; socialization of women for subordinate roles in marriage; use of violence as a legitimate resource to maintain power; poverty; assumption that the wife is responsible for the success of the marriage and the care of the children; abuse of alcohol.

Violence occurs in families at all socioeconomic levels. Researchers have repeatedly found violent families to be characterized by high levels of social isolation, rigid sex-role stereotyping, poor communication, and extreme inequalities in the distribution of power (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986). Unequal social power and sex-role socialization cause many of the problems women face, especially emotional, sexual, and physical abuse (Enns, 1988).

Marital violence often results from the husband’s attempt to use physical force to gain control of his wife and her behavior. Husbands are also the victims of physical violence, but because women are usually not as strong as men, the potential for physical harm to men is greatly reduced. Studies suggest that when women batter, it is in self-defense not in an attempt to use physical force to gain power (Rosenbaum & O’Leary, 1981). Evidence shows that the risk of violence in marriage is greater when all the decision making is in the hands of one partner. Violent husbands report that they “need” to hit their wives to show them who is in charge (Gelles & Straus, 1988). “It only takes one such beating to fix the balance of power in a family for many years – or perhaps for a lifetime” (Straus, 1977-78, p. 446).

Most battering incidents between married couples follow a predictable pattern with three phases. In the first phase there is a buildup of tension: the beginning of an argument or the accumulation of alcohol and its effects on the batterer. The second phase is the acute phase, in which the actual emotional and physical assault takes place. The last stage is the stage of loving contrition, wherein the batterer becomes profusely apologetic and begs for forgiveness. Often the woman nurtures the illusion that this will be the last time her husband hits her. She may begin making downward comparisons in this stage to convince herself that the relationship is really not that bad (Walker, 1987).

The Battered Wife

Students and researchers of marital abuse have tried to delineate the personality characteristics of women who remain in battering relationships. This concern with finding the differences between battered and nonbattered women obscures the issues of power and control that are at the heart of marital abuse. Studies suggesting that battered women are different from women who are not battered are “methodologically indefensible” since much of the literature on spouse abuse is sexist and rife with misogyny (Wardell, Gillespie, & Leffler, 1982, p. 71). Research repudiates the myth that women who are battered are masochistic and feel they deserve it, or that they set themselves up. Women stay in abusive relationships because they have few viable options. They often feel that it is safer to stay than it is to leave (Walker, 1987) ….

Several authors conducted extensive research to find out how and why women stay with abusive men (Herbert, Silver & Ellard, 1991). They found that women who stay in these marriages are able to make downward comparisons that reframe the relationships in a more positive light. They are able to form and maintain the illusion that the marriage is better than it really is by saying to themselves, “Well, at least he doesn’t drink,” or “At least he doesn’t hit the kids or run around on me.” The greater the verbal abuse, the less able these women were to frame the relationship in a positive light. The psychological damage done by verbal abuse may be ultimately more damaging than the physical abuse (Strube & Barbour, 1984). The ability of these women who were being beaten to deny their own suffering and frame the relationship as better than it is, points to what Valerie Saiving (1979) calls the sins of women. She says the sins of women are rarely about excessive pride or overt abuses of power but are more likely to be sins against the self and others born out of a self-destructive tolerance and self-sacrifice.

The Battering Husband

In a study of men involved in a treatment program for male batterers, researchers developed a profile of men who are violent toward women (Adams, 1989). The violent and controlling behaviors included in the profile range from physical force and violence to frequent, demeaning criticism, possessiveness, restrictiveness, and emotional withholding. Men who physically or sexually abuse their wives typically believe in male superiority over females; believe in traditional sex roles for men and women; either see women as weak, or idealize women; expect women to be caretakers; are intolerant of women’s anger; project responsibility for their own feelings; see their wives as extensions of themselves; have relationships with other men that are superficial and limited; are interested in looking strong to other men.

Men may resort to violence in response to perceived powerlessness (Hampton & Coner-Edwards, 1993). If a man believes he is supposed to be superior to his wife but he makes less money or is not as intelligent as his wife, he may believe that his physical advantages of size, weight, and strength are the most effective ways of letting her know that he is still in control. Unemployed men are twice as likely to batter their wives as emn who are employed. Men who have less status in their jobs than their wives have are more likely to batter their wives (Gelles & Cornell, 1985). Men who abuse alcohol are more likely to commit spousal abuse than men who do not drink. In fact, the abuse of alcohol is the most significant factor in marital abuse (Straus & Sweet, 1990). Abuse of alcohol provides a man with an excuse for his behavior, allowing him to displace responsibility for battering his wife.

Men who batter use various defenses to justify their behavior (Adams, 1989): they minimize the seriousness of their violence; they claim their intentions were good (“I just wanted her to listen.”); they blame the abuse on the fact that they were drinking and therefore not responsible; they claim loss of control; they blame their wives for provoking them.

Greenblat (1983) examines the argument about loss of control that batterers so often use to explain their behavior. She asserts that most people who act violently have on some level at first reflected on the likelihood that they will suffer negative consequences as a result of their behavior. If a man believes that the chances of his being arrested or of his wife leaving him as a result of the abuse are low, then he is less likely to make the judgments necessary to prevent him from acting out his feelings of rage. The rewards of battering her into submission may outweigh the possible costs. “An individual will attempt to obtain a desired outcome or reward at a minimum cost. If a man lacks legitimate power, he can use violence as low cost alternative” (Hauser, 1982, p. 23). The husband who has other resources for validating his superior position over his wife is not likely to use violence (Hauser, 1982). Inherent in these research findings is the cultural and religious concept of a relationship model in which the man is entitled to be in charge.


(Part II in the following issue)Wineskins Magazine

Cynthia Ezell

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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