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.