Domestic Violence and Divorce: Interview with Dr. Katherine van Wormer

Jodee Redmond
Domestic violence is all too common in North America.

Dr. Katherine van Wormer is the author of a number of books including Women and the Criminal Justice System (2007, co-authored with C. Bartollas) and books on addiction and human behavior. Dr. van Wormer teaches Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Dr. van Wormer recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer LoveToKnow's questions about domestic violence and divorce:

Can you give LTK readers an idea of how common domestic violence is in North American society?

Domestic violence is sadly common in the U.S. and Canada. Drawing statistics from the National Violence against Women (NVAW) survey and Statistics Canada, we learn that women experience way more partner violence than men: 22% compared to 7.4% in the U.S. and 21% compared to 17% in Canada. The U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey cites a higher rate, that 85% of domestic violence crimes are against women.

Women are far more likely to be injured than men. Stalking and marital rape are largely male-on-female attacks. I stress these facts, as media headlines that have appeared over the past few years claim women are as violent as men. They may be as mean, but they are not as violent. Women rely more on verbal abuse and manipulation. The anti-feminist backlash is making some claims that are inconsistent with the facts.

How often is domestic violence a factor in the breakdown of a marriage?

It's hard to get data on this, but I did find an Oklahoma study that found that 30% of divorces in that state involved domestic violence. And an empirically-based study by Paul de Graaf found that 54% of divorces in the Netherlands involved violence in the 30 or so years after World War II and that only 21% do so today. The reason for the drop is that it takes less today for people to split up; divorce is more acceptable for reasons of incompatibility.

A Canadian survey from CanadianDivorceMagazine.com showed that about one in five women said emotional or physical abuse was a cause of their divorce. I would reverse this question, based on my research of murder-suicide and say that breakdown is a leading cause of domestic violence, the danger point for the woman.

When we think of domestic abuse, most of us focus on physical violence only. Would you agree that emotional abuse is just as damaging to the victim?

I don't know if it's just as damaging considering in the U.S. over 1,000 women are killed by spouses and partners each year (compared to around 400 men). But it is extremely damaging and involved in all cases of physical abuse. There is economic abuse, threats against children, torture of a woman's pets, and insults hurled at women for gaining weight. Some people never recover from the horrible things said, by women as well as by men.

What percentage of victims are men?

Answered above. It's said to be mostly covered up as men are ashamed of being slapped around by their wives and partners. But fewer women resort to violence of this sort. Gay men use more violence against their partners than lesbians, for example. And almost all murder-suicides are committed by males.

Is there a "typical" profile of a person who is prone to abusing his or her domestic partner?

My research tells me that the Duluth model, which is the most commonly relied on model, is more ideologically than scientifically based. According to this model, all domestic violence is derived from the patriarchal culture. But there are many other factors such as alcohol and other drug use which removes inhibitions, stress related to global competition as reflected in employment, and psychological factors, which may be the most crucial factor of all. The psychological portrait of the male abuser is of an insecure man, who is possessive of his wife/partner and who isolates her so he can control her. Typically, he has been abused in childhood. This man doesn't know how to love and trust.

Would you say that this pattern of behavior runs in families; that is if a child grows up in a home where there is domestic violence, they are themselves more likely to become an abuser or a victim?

Yes, absolutely. There are cultures where domestic violence is ubiquitous; violence is passed down the generations.

A number of people may think that the only solution to a situation where there has been a history of abuse is to leave (and get a divorce). Is this the best option?

Therapy for the batterer can help a batterer turn his life around by getting in touch with his own victimization and suppressed feelings from childhood so he can feel empathy for his victim and understand and control his own feelings. Jacobson and Gottman have conducted scientific research and come up with two types of abusive and dangerous men. The "pit bull" type has a conscience and can change; his feeling run deep and he is apt to be a stalker because he is obsessed with the one woman. The "cobra" is utterly cold and belongs in prison. He will go from woman to woman. Psychological testing can determine which type one is dealing with. These are both extreme types.

For the woman, the best option is to get out of the relationship. For society, treatment is (or long-term imprisonment) is crucial, because otherwise the batterer will find another victim, and another, and another.

Can someone with a history of violence towards a spouse or partner be helped through treatment? If so, what form does the treatment take? How long would the process take?

Sometimes after a long period of separation, restorative justice conferencing can bring community support to the victim and help with communication and apologies. Safety plans are crucial for a woman who decides to stay.

Those treatment interventions offered by the Duluth model for batterers have been found to be highly ineffective. The men do not think they are using power and control tactics; they think they are victims. Most drop out.

Does the justice system do enough to protect victims who report abuse?

No, in the U.S. police have taken to arresting both parties when there is a complaint. The fear of this and of having to have children placed in a foster care situation holds women back from complaining. This situation has come about as an anti-feminist backlash response to the policy of mandatory arrests. Domestic violence shelters and counseling for victims are crucial to save lives and prevent family violence. Yet there have been budget cuts here. Much more money needs to be put in shelters and batterer treatment programs.

What advice would you give to a person who is an abuser? To a victim of domestic violence?

For an abuser, seek help at a mental health center that offers psychotherapy to get at the underlying causes of the violence. If substance abuse is involved, treatment for this is a must. Get all guns out of the house.

For the victim, I would get help from domestic violence services and develop a safety plan that includes a way to escape and get crucial documents and money on short notice. And get all guns and weapons out of the house.

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Domestic Violence and Divorce: Interview with Dr. Katherine van Wormer