Is Domestic Violence a “Choice?” No, not exactly…
By Phyllis B. Frank and Chris S. O’Sullivan, PhD
Reprinted with Authors permission from
The Voice: The Journal of the Battered Women’s Movement, Fall 2011

There are many terms and explanations that have caught on in
domestic violence work as we come to new insights, but we
must often go back and rethink how the phrases are being used
and their accuracy. An important and subtly misleading claim is
that men who abuse their intimate partners are choosing to be
violent. That is not quite right. It is not as simple as choosing to
take the bus, or opting for the Cabernet over the Zinfandel.
The first problem is definitional. It is easy to imagine making a
choice not to hit someone or otherwise assault them physically or
sexually, but if we include the full range of behaviors that people
in the field generally agree constitutes intimate partner violence –
the patterns of tactics used to assert power and control, such as
intimidation, denigration, manipulation, and other subtle forms of
mistreatment – then the notion that a perpetrator is continually
making choices to behave in this manner becomes less intuitive.
The person adopting these strategies may not even be aware of
using them and may not be conscious of the impact and underlying
motive.

We began to make the “choice” argument for good reasons. The
point was that they don’t have to do it; they could stop. We meant
that abusive behavior is under the control of the abuser. In making
this statement, we are saying that violence against women is not
an addiction, nor (although there are exceptions) is it typically the
result of intermittent explosive disorder, which does lead to
random uncontrollable behavior. Typically, abuse does not stem
from a medical or psychiatric disorder.

We often follow up the “choice” statement by saying that men
who abuse their intimate partners don’t beat up their employers or
punch police officers; they do not usually verbally attack judges;
they choose their victims. We ask our audience to consider these
questions: Why is it that their anger is out of their control only
with their intimate partners, and possibly their children? How is it
that they control themselves when confronting someone with the
power over them to impose severe consequences? We are,
however, missing a point if we rest our case for domestic violence
as a choice on the abuser’s apparent ability to be selective in
victims. We are missing the social and historical context in which
we all function and we are missing the gender dimension.
What is more accurate is to say that for a man not to abuse his
partner, whether with physical force or psychological
undermining or assertion of dominance, is a choice. Perpetrating
domestic violence is so embedded in a sense of entitlement,
hierarchical beliefs, and cultural devaluation of women that it
“comes naturally.” Resisting those habits, norms, and absorbed
models of male behavior requires a conscious, deliberate decision.
Giving into them does not. To insist to men that they are making a
choice when they use tactics of power and control can befuddle
them rather than enlighten and help them struggle against
normative male behavior.

Historically, and to a somewhat modified extent
contemporaneously, men have been responsible for their children
and wives – legally, financially, morally, and socially. They have
been providers and decision-makers; they have been “in charge.” A
sense of superiority follows from that sense of responsibility.
When an intimate partner or other woman threatens his
authority, behaves in a way that is displeasing to him or he does
not condone, many men feel entitled to stop her and reassert
control. They are acting without thought as to whether there are
other options. Even men who use physical violence deny
culpability: “things got out of control” or “she pushed my buttons.”
Moreover, when we insist that a man was making a choice when
he was “merely” manipulative or bullying, we lose credibility
because so many men have no conscious thought that they are
doing anything abusive. For example, a wife said to her husband,
“You are embarrassing me in front of everyone!” He responded in
all sincerity –while denying her reality, “I would never do that to
you.” (A concomitant of men’s authority is not having to listen to
women; a common complaint that women make about male
intimate partners and colleagues is that they are not being heard.)
We came to our construction of domestic violence as a choice
because we wanted to combat the false perception that abusers
are out of control of themselves and that is the reason they are
lashing out. We came to understand that men often resort to
abusive tactics when they experience losing control of their
partner; we wanted to make it clear that abuse is an assertion of
control. That the objective is to control the partner does not mean,
however, that every act toward that end is controlled and
deliberate.

For a man to recognize and reject controlling tactics requires self-analysis
and observation – a recognition that he has been walking
in lockstep with rules of which he was largely unaware. Resisting
pressure to conform to norms of masculinity in our society not
only requires attention and thought, it comes with social
penalties. The male posture of strength, “protecting” women and
children, never allowing a slight to one’s dignity to pass without a
show of power, is strongly reinforced and admired. Stepping back
from that posture can be perceived as weakness and a failure of
masculinity. A man who doesn’t use the subtle strategies of
control or abuse is walking against the tide and will encounter
disrespect from other men – and often from women. Our culture
values men who are firm and even brutal. Men who deliberately
choose not to conform to this “ideal” represent a challenge to core
beliefs. Embarking on a journey of awareness and transformation
based on a new vision of manhood is an individual choice. That
choice is not made in a moment. If it were, it would be a superficial
change, a suppression of impulse, and it would be liable to break
down under stress.

Most of us in the field are or are around men who are at least
nominally engaged in the process of change; and quite possibly, we
are around or acutely aware of men who have been identified as
abusers because they have used physical violence. Seeing the two
extremes may delude us into believing that there are just two
categories whose members are easily identified. When we include
the majority of men who fall somewhere along the continuum from
physically abusive to engaged in the effort to shed cultural
strictures, we recognize how pervasive abusive behavior is in our
society and how many men use subtle tactics without making a
conscious choice to do so.

What language should we use instead? We suggest that instead of
saying “abuse is a choice,” we should say “Not to abuse is a choice.”
It is a choice that is made over time. It requires consistency, focus,
and attention when interacting with women and men. It requires
courage. There will be pushback from those around them when
men behave in fully respectful ways toward women in general and
intimate partners in particular and when they appear not to “stand
up” to challenges from other men.

This decision is being made by more and more men. Growing
numbers of organizations and individuals are dedicated to
supporting men in redefining masculine norms. Success will come
when we have revised what it means to be a man in our society; in
doing so we will have made great strides toward ending domestic
violence.