Domestic and Family Violence remains a complex and insidious issue in Australia. It is recognised as a serious and widespread problem within our society. It has been identified as a gendered problem in Australia, with, on average, over one woman being killed, per week, by a current or former male partner. “Between 80 and 100 Australian women die at the hands of their male partners every year – and a woman in Australia is more likely to be killed in her own home by her male partner than anywhere else or by anyone else.” (*The ABS Personal Safety Survey 2006).
But what of women who kill their partners? On average, in Australia, one male per month is killed by a current or former female partner (The ABS Personal Safety Survey 2006). As Christadelphians, this appears to be incomprehensible to our values and what we hold to be true. Nevertheless, it can happen, and this article will attempt to understand what may drive a woman to kill her husband and partner, given it is a much rarer experience?
This article by Sister (Dr.) Fiona Bosly and Brother Andrew Weller reflects on the question.
What brings women to the point where they believe the only way through is to kill their husband and partner? To try and understand this it is important to put some theoretical frameworks around the possible behaviours that women who kill are experiencing.
Domestic and family violence, within most communities, has often been viewed as a one -off event in which the male partner got it wrong. Further, it is often then believed that he won’t do it again, he is exhibiting signs of remorse, and he is a ‘good person’. This has been reinforced within the criminal justice system, which has often viewed domestic and family violence as discrete acts. This attitude is slowly changing with some Australian states looking at, or changing their legislation to incorporate a more complex view of this insidious problem.
In contrast, domestic and family violence is now understood to be a persistent and escalating series of behaviours intended to control the other and break any resistance to opposition (Stark, 2007, 2009).
This accords with women and children’s experiences when trapped in relationships where domestic and family violence is present. They describe their experiences around violence in the home as an ongoing and escalating attempt to maintain control within the relationship (Williamson, 2010), and that violence in the home is much more complex and detrimental to their emotional, psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
Coercive techniques used common with torture
In 1994 a report by Amnesty International named ‘The Report on Torture’ incorporated a chart called ‘Biderman’s Chart of Coercion’. Although the report examined techniques of brainwashing of political prisoners it was found to be instructive in other arenas as well, including domestic and family violence.
Biderman’s Chart of Coercion incorporates the following seven techniques:
· Isolation: Deprives the victim of all social support necessary for the ability to resist. Develops an intense concern for self. Causes victims to depend on the victimiser.
· Monopolization of Perception: Fixes attention upon immediate predicament and fosters introspection. Eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by the captor. Frustrates all actions not consistent with compliance.
· Induced Debility & Exhaustion: Weakens mental and physical ability to resist.
· Occasional Indulgences: Provides positive motivation for continued compliance.
· Demonstrating “Omnipotence”: Suggests futility of resistance.
· Enforcing Trivial Demands: Develops habits of compliance.
· Degradation: Makes cost of resistance appear more damaging to the self-esteem than capitulation. Reduces prisoner to “animal level” concerns.
These techniques have been identified by women recovering from domestic and family violence as behaviours within the repertoire of their abusers. Grouped together these behaviours fall within the Emotional Abuse paradigm found on the Power and Control Wheel, another model developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. The techniques Biderman identified are designed to break down the resistance of the victim and create a sense of helplessness.
Coercive Control in a God-centre marriage
These techniques and their accompanying behaviours are in stark contrast to scriptural commands that a husband should “live with his wife in an understanding way” (Ephesians 5), and that husbands should “love their wives as their own bodies”. The relationship should have a purpose that the couple should be “heirs together of the grace of life”. This purpose speaks of a mutual endeavour to help each other in a Godly walk and to genuinely share goals and interests aligned to that purpose. Similarly, the marriage should “develop a Godly seed”, yet if one partner uses their unChristlike behaviours as a tyrant, children are abused and traumatised. They may be discouraged, view such behaviours as hypocritical, question marriage or worse still, question the need to follow Christ.
The imprisoning nature of economic abuse
It has been shown that when women kill it is usually someone they know well and have an established relationship with. The murders mostly occur in the home and are often acted upon as a desperate attempt to protect themselves or their children (Dr OZ, 2020). According to an ABC News analysis, women who kill their partners are often motivated to do so for economic reasons. A motivating fear is that their partner has been or will economically disadvantage them in some way. This might occur through the male partner restricting access to relationship assets, particularly finances. Economic disadvantage can also occur as the male partner continually buys goods and services exclusively for his own needs to the detriment of the family. A further economic disadvantage is that the female partner becomes the one who generates the income for the family but has little say in how it is spent or allocated.
Economic abuse, such as this, is threatening in that it imprisons women in a cycle of ongoing helplessness. Coupled with this is often verbal abuse where the wife is belittled and degraded. This undermines her confidence and she can become convinced that she would not survive economically if she left. Where children are present this can be a pressing issue for her. This too can be exacerbated by his threats to leave and ensure she have no money, no access to the family resources and further that the courts would support him.
A thoughtful reflection on this imprisoning nature of economic and emotional abuse helps us understand one of the many reasons why women in these relationships choose not to leave.
Economic abuse & scriptural expectations of husbands
Scripture tells us that failing to provide for one’s family, (frequently one of the few easily discernible facts of a situation) is a serious matter. The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy states ‘he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Timothy 5:8). It goes without saying that to imprison one’s spouse by means of these tactics is entirely counter to the teaching of our Lord and the Apostles. It can never be justified, minimised or excused by those who follow the one who came to relieve oppression and set the captive free.
“Why don’t they just leave?”
An article by Pretorius & Botha (2009) cites other authors identifying other factors that may cause women to kill their intimate male partners. ‘These factors include PTSD symptoms, a state of hypervigilance and coercive control by the abuser including needs deprivation, relationships marked by high levels of conflict and the use of substances’ (pp 244).
Women also report feeling ignored or unsupported, particularly within their communities, when they report abuse. They come to understand that they are alone in their need to protect themselves and their children particularly from future attacks.
How does the community response impact it?
This, in the author’s experience is the “typical” lived experience of sisters in abusive relationships. Sisters have sought help from their ecclesias but often they have been encouraged (if not even directed) to go back to their abusive husbands. On occasion this has been supported by spiritual abuse – the use of scriptural justifications such as, “she is not showing respect to her husband”, for instance, or threats of disfellowship if she “separates from her husband”. All too often a sister’s actions are dismissed as the result of mental illness, sometimes promoted by vilification by their abuser. Further often the abuser’s narrative is that the problem with his wife, that has led to this situation is that she has some diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness. When a sister has previously disclosed the abuse, well-meaning but ignorant supporters may have minimised and justified the abuse using scriptural ‘evidence’ that it is her ‘cross to bear’ or ‘her duty and obligations of her marriage vows’, confusing Paul’s instructions to wives about submitting to one another. Submission is an act of will and an act of love. It is not submission if she is being pressured to behave in ways that are harmful to her and her children.
Our go-to paradigm is that this is “a marriage problem”, and we go direct to the go-to treatment: counselling with an older couple who begin with the assumption that all marriage problems are two-sided and amenable to communication, compromise and commitment. “Both sides” state the problems they have with the “other side”, and a set of actions and commitments from both sides are obtained – everybody leaves the counselling with a smile, even if forced. Yet domestic violence is not a marriage problem. Until the violence and abuse stops there is no way to ascertain if there are any marriage problems. As long as the violence remains there is no hope for the marriage which is to all intents and purposes, a sham. The abuser leaves the “counselling” with a list of additional demands that the well-meaning brother or sister counsellor has “required” the victim to attend to and which he can shame the victim into doing.
When we fail to hear and believe the disclosure of people suffering domestic violence, and when we enable the abuse by our inadequate responses, we set up a situation in which victims rightly despair for helpers and understanding and believe suffering in silence is the safest course.
Understanding state of mind
Another reason women kill their partners is their fear that their partner is going to continue to harm them and to kill them. Women experience many harms in their relationships, including rape, and this may be their consistent experiences around intimacy within their marriage. Walker (2012) in her article describes the psychological processes that women may be experiencing when they decide to kill their partners. She describes battered women as having a ‘reasonable perception’ (pp 323) of ‘imminent danger’(pp. 324) to themselves but does go on to say that each women’s ‘thinking, feeling and acting must be explained in the context of her life as well as the way the abuse has specifically impacted on her state of mind’. (pp. 324). She describes many women’s lived experiences of abuse within the context of PTSD and ‘learned helplessness’ as ‘psychological torture’ (pp. 324) she and her children are daily exposed too.
It is happening to people you know and love
The writers have first-hand experience of situations where Christadelphian husbands have made threats to kill their wives and children, or their wives family, friends or pets. Weapons have been confiscated, and other deadly weapons such as cars have been used to injure. Wives have had their heads bashed through walls, and their bodies violated in ways that seriously injured them with no empathetic response to their cries to stop. We make no apology for this graphic observation – we each need to recognise that these things do happen behind closed doors, that people you know – perhaps your daughter, sister or friend, may be suffering these things, and that people who we love and respect are not who we think they are. We are not on any witch-hunt or suggesting one, but we should ensure our ecclesias are environments where the oppressed know they will be believed, given safety and helped through the trauma.
There is hope
To kill is never justified, although it may be able to be understood, given the circumstances that some find themselves in. Those who do kill often report serious mental and spiritual impediments to their ongoing spiritual life. Nevertheless Scripture records the process of sin and repentance that King David experienced in relation to Uriah the Hittite. He also experienced loving mercy from the Living God. We, who do not know what happens behind closed doors, are not in a position to judge and the courts of the land are there to make human judgements. Rather we are called on to lead sinners to repentance, in a spirit of gentleness.
In summary: how does it happen?
Whilst women caught within coercive controlling relationships appear to be coping, their lived experiences are often of a different nature. The impacts of coercive control, over time, has the effect of breaking down their defences, their confidence, indeed their sense of identity. Those not exposed to abusive practices and their persistent and escalating behaviours find it difficult to imagine the nature of the constant abusive environment, its impact on self-valuing and well-being of the victim. Abusive husbands are well practiced in facades that cleverly and skilfully hide the reality of their abuse. For women to counteract this façade is difficult. Her experiences tell her she will not be believed and this further hampers any way out for her. When women step into the role of killing their intimate partners they often perceive they have nothing left to lose and act accordingly.
Domestic and family violence is present within our ecclesia’s and many families are constantly exposed to its harmful effects. If you are on the receiving end of these behaviours there are solutions. If you can find someone who believes you this is very helpful. There are websites that contain helpful information. A few are listed below. You may need to cover your tracks looking at this material:
Most states have a women’s legal site and domestic and family violence information.
Ecclesias can access these sites as well. There are resources available e.g. a Safety Plan which gives information on how to engage with the differing parties from an abusive relationship.
Amnesty International. (1975). Report on Torture. (2nd ed.). London: Amnesty International.
Dr OZ https://www.doctoroz.com/article/women-who-kill
Mission Australia: Domestic and Family Violence Statistics - https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/domestic-and-family-violence-statistics
Pretorius, H.G., & Botha, S-A (2009). The cycle of violence and abuse in women who kill an intimate male partner: a biographical profile. South African Journal of Psychology, 39(2), pp. 242-252
Stark. E. (2009) Rethinking coercive control. Violence against Women, 15 (2), 1509-1525
(*The ABS Personal Safety Survey 2006).
The Conversation - https://theconversation.com/the-long-history-of-gender-violence-in...
Walker, L.E.A., (2012). Battered Women Syndrome and Self-Defence. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, 6(2), Article 3. Pp 321-334.
Williamson, E. (2010) Living in the world of the domestic violence perpetrator: Negotiating the unreality of coercive control. Violence Against Women. 16 (12), 1412-1423.