3. Theoretical underpinning of this research

Violent Dynamics of Intimate Partnerships between Women

Constance Ohms, Frankfurt/Main, Germany. January 2008

Aim of research

The aim of my research was to analyse the complex dynamics and multi-dimensions of violent intimate partnerships between women. I chose to use an extended definition of violence that includes physical attacks, sexual violence, psychological and verbal abuse, controlling behaviour and force.

Design and results of research

From 2002 to 2003, 20 qualitative interviews were conducted with lesbian women who had experienced violence in their partnerships. The interviews were designed as focussed and semi-structured and took between 2 and 2.5hrs. They were transcribed and analysed according to ‘grounded theory’ and additional hermeneutic elements.

Since the interviews focused on the process of violence, no single incidents were analysed but rather the partnership over a period of time. The interviews revealed certain dimensions and influential factors that may contribute to the development of abusive/violent behaviour, such as

  • Life history of interviewed lesbian women,
  • Desires and hopes of being a (lesbian) couple,
  • Perception of the partner and partnership,
  • Process of violence,
  • Pattern of violence,
  • Dealing with exerted violence

Expression/Nature of these dimensions

Neediness

Analysis revealed a high degree of neediness in the abusive/violent women; they want to be loved unquestioningly, be cared for and protected. Connected with their neediness is their desire “to be one” with their partners which leads to a dissolution of personal boundaries (I-borders). In some violent dynamics, this dissolution is prevented through the exertion of violence.

Dismissing adult attachment

All women show aspects of dismissing adult attachment, which means that the balance between closeness and autonomy is disturbed. There is an obvious discrepancy between expectations and desires that the interviewed women have of their partnerships and their actual realization. 

Experience of abuse/violence in life history

All interviewed women (victims and perpetrators) reported significant or even traumatic experiences in their life histories ranging from emotional and social neglect to physical abuse and sexual exploitation.  Along with those experiences is a disregard for physical and emotional boundaries, an inability to respect the boundaries of others and the belief that they will find acceptance only in interminable love. Experiences of abuse and violence in the individual’s life history seem to increase the risk of experiencing violence – either as a victim or perpetrator. They also contribute to the perception of violence as normal, i.e. as a normal element of partnerships.

Control/loss of control

All women exerting violence report a feeling of loosing control at the actual moment of their deed. They describe their actions as “volcanic outbursts”, “illness” or “mental disorder”. Even if their “outbursts” recur, their ability to control their behaviour does not seem to improve; rather, they experience themselves once again as powerless and follow familiar patterns.

Control/exertion of control

Even though abusive/violent women view themselves as helpless in these situations, their behaviour effectively exercises control via a) direct controlling behaviour and b) the partner’s fear.

Mitigation of violent behaviour

All women mitigate their violent behaviour and view their companions as “equal conflict partners”. They believe their behaviour is caused by their partners and that they would not act the way they do if their partners behaved differently. In contrast to the mitigating description of their own abusive/violent behaviour, that of the partner often is described in brutal/aggressive terms such as (“a whack in the kisser”).

Feelings of guilt and shame

Some of the interviewed women showed feelings of guilt and shame, some didn’t. The more a woman perceives herself as a perpetrator, the more feelings of guilt and shame evolve. The more complex a violent dynamic is and the more both companions are actively involved in violent dynamics, the less feelings of guilt and shame arise.

Substance abuse (mainly alcohol, pills)

Alcohol and substance abuse only seem to play an important part in certain violent dynamics – those which can be described as perpetrator-victim relationships. However, both perpetrators and victims abuse addictive drugs and current research has not established any clear relationship between the exertion of violence and the abuse of alcohol and other substances. Further, there might be a relationship between coping strategies associated with homophobic experiences and substance abuse. What I know right now is that some perpetrators consciously use alcohol as preparation for violence and also use the companions’ experience of violence and alcohol abuse to threaten and control her. In other cases one partner might use drugs, e.g. drink or smoke (marihuana) without any impact on the relationship and its dynamic.

Internalised homophobia

Most interviewed women share experience of disaffirmation of their psycho-sexual orientation, either directly or indirectly, meaning they have been subject to or witnessed homophobic attacks. It needs to be assumed that lesbian women living in a society which disaffirms parts of their identity internalise those values – there are no lesbian women without internalised homophobia. Internalised homophobia may lead to self-hate which may be transferred to the companion since she mirrors her disaffirmed “lifestyle” or may be directed toward one’s self. Both aspects may lead to or maintain violent/abusive dynamics.

Lesbian community/subculture

Subcultures develop out of marginalisation processes. Members of subcultures usually intend to become part of dominant culture. At the same time subcultures develop own values which are initially reactions to marginalisation and exclusion but then become independent and build the community’s framework of ethics. Usually, lesbian communities silence the phenomenon of abusive/violent partnerships.  Until now, they have not developed values concerning violent acts within the group.  Experiences in the field of male, heterosexual perpetrators convincingly show that “community response” matters. Therefore tabooization of couple violence shows similar effects to “norm prolongation” in explaining the violence of heterosexual men. Silence leads to the affirmation of abusive/violent acts, thus lesbian perpetrators are not under pressure to change their behaviour. Moreover, in some lesbian communities the expression of violence has been regarded as feminist in the sense of overcoming female socialisation. Perpetrators were seen as progressive women while victims stayed in their female roles – and did not deserve any support.

Dynamic as an interactional process

To explain the dynamics and complexity of violence in lesbian partnerships , it is necessary to look at both partners and their interaction, i.e. to perceive the partnership as a small social system permeated by societal and sub-cultural norms and values as well as its own values and fantasies/myths. Analysis revealed complementary structures which can be described in terms of interaction. Interaction means verbal as well as non-verbal communication, its intrinsic desires, fantasies about being a couple, expectations of the partner, etc. When interviewed, each member of the couple revealed expectations, hopes, wishes etc. of their partners, their disappointments and finally the development of a violent process and their subjective interpretations.

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European Commission and the German Federal Ministry of Family, Seniors, Women and Youth.

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