An analysis of jailhouse phone calls between men charged with felony domestic violence and their victims shows that accusations of sexual infidelity — made by one or both of the partners — was the most prevalent trigger for an episode of violent abuse.
Researchers said they have long known that sexual jealousy played a role in abuse, but this is the first time it was shown that it was a specific form of jealousy — concerns about infidelity — that tended to initiate the violence, said Julianna Nemeth, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in public health at Ohio State University.
The findings are powerful because they come directly from conversations of couples involved in domestic violence, said Amy Bonomi, Ph.D., co-author of the study and associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State.
“What we had before was what the abuser and victim said to police, to courts, to advocates, to health care providers,” she said. “But we never before had the couple together discussing just among themselves what happened during the violent episode.”
The study involved 17 couples in which the male was in a Washington state jail for felony-level domestic violence. The victims sustained serious injuries during the attacks, including severe head trauma requiring hospitalization, bite wounds, strangulation, and lost pregnancy.
The researchers used up to four hours of recorded phone conversations between each couple. The couples knew they were being recorded, the researchers said, noting that all of the recordings involved cases that had already been resolved.
The researchers found a variety of chronic stressors in the relationships of these couples that may contribute to abuse. One chronic stressor was the same issue that often triggered the violence, they noted.
“We found that long-term disputes regarding infidelity pervaded nearly every relationship,” Nemeth said. “Even if it didn’t trigger the violent event, it was an ongoing stressor in nearly all of the 17 couples we studied.”
Drug and alcohol use was also a key, both as a trigger to violence and a chronic problem. Alcohol or drugs helped escalate what started out as just a conversation into severe violence, she said.
Another key to understanding these violent relationships was the extent to which the couples had accepted traditional gender roles, which were often justified through religion, Bonomi said.
“We commonly heard the couples discuss how women are supposed to marry and have children, and how men are supposed to be strong and in control,” she said. “Men tended to use these traditional gender role prescriptions to justify their use of violence.”
The violence at times centered on “reproductive coercion” — men who wanted to control when and if their partner became pregnant. For example, one man told his partner he was justified in raping her because she wanted to be a mother anyway. Five of the 17 couples talked about severe violence during pregnancy and two women discussed a lost pregnancy as a result of violence.
In about half of the couples in which they had clearly internalized traditional gender roles, religion was used as a justification, the reseachers note. In one case, the male abuser told his victim that his attack was about “cleansing your soul.”
“It was very disturbing the way religion was used to justify the violence and to justify why the relationship should continue,” Nemeth said.
These results could prompt changes in procedures for victim advocates and other mental health providers, Nemeth said, noting that advocates for domestic abuse victims often prepare safety plans to determine how much danger a woman may be in and what she can do to protect herself.
“A lot of safety plan tools don’t ask specifically about sexual jealousy and infidelity, but it is a question we should be asking,” she said. “If it is an issue that couples are discussing, it is a red flag that the relationship may be volatile.”
The results also suggest there should be more coordination between health care providers helping those with drug and alcohol use, mental health issues, and domestic abuse, since all of these issues can be related, she concluded.
The study, which was funded by the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State and the Group Health Foundation of Seattle, appeared online in the Journal of Women’s Health.
Source: The Ohio State University