Patterns of Domestic Violence: Behind Closed Doors

Source: Murray A. Straus, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz, Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family (Anchor Books, 1980).

Behind Closed Doors, by Murray Straus and his colleagues, reports the results of a landmark study of patterns of physical violence in American families. Straus et al. selected a probability sample of 2,143 married (or cohabiting) couples and asked adults in each household a series of questions about acts of violence they, their spouse, or their children had committed during conflicts with other family members in the past year. This survey was carefully designed to obtain valid responses from interviewees and to minimize under-reporting of violence. However, several limitations of this study should be noted: (1) over a third of the sample (35%) failed to complete the interview or could not be contacted; (2) no interviews were conducted in single-parent households; and (3) data were not collected on parents' acts of violence toward children under the age of three. Although they collected data on non-violent methods of conflict resolution and on milder forms of violence, such as pushing or shoving, Straus et al. focus most of their attention on potentially injurious forms of abusive violence: "acts where people punched, kicked, or bit a family member, hit the person with a hard object, 'beat up' another person, or shot, or tried to shoot, stabbed, or tried to stab, another family member" (1980: 22).

Regional Rates of Abusive Violence. The following graph depicts regional variations in three types of abusive violence. It shows that acts of violence between siblings (child-to-child) are by far the most common form of domestic violence, even though this type of abuse is rarely portrayed as a "social problem." Another interesting finding is the relatively low rate of parent-to-child violence in the South, which contrasts with stereotypic views of the South as an especially violent region.

Employment and Abusive Violence. Economic stress is among the primary factors that Straus et al. find to be associated with the incidence of abusive violence in American households. For instance, as shown in the following graph, they find a strong relationship between the employment status of husbands and abusive violence toward children and spouses. As compared to households where the husband is employed full time, families with a husband who is employed part time show nearly twice the rate of parent-to-child violence and three times the rate of violence between spouses. Families with unemployed husbands also show substantially higher rates of abusive violence than those with husbands who are employed full time. Reflecting on the implications of these findings, Straus et al. (1980: 150) suggest that "it would certainly not be unreasonable to expect that the rates, and deadly toll, of family violence would fluctuate with national and local rates of unemployment."
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