Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Defending What's Theirs: Men, Control, and Custody

Marrie Tessler, of Woman's eNews, has written a piece on the legal obstacles that keep children in the custody of abusive parents. It reads like an article pulled from any newswire, dryly relating the research on each side of the issue, but the unadorned prose still packs an immense emotional wallop derived entirely from the unsettling facts.

It opens with this claim: "Research indicates that abusers seek sole custody more often than nonviolent parents, and they succeed about 70 percent of the time."

At first I was shocked. But there is really nothing surprising about that sentence. The psychological research that has been done one abusers makes one thing clear - control is at the center of the abusive mentality. The two most common types of abusers are "cyclically emotional volatile perpetrators" and "over-controlled perpetrators." The latter group seeks to maintain control in the family, and utilizes psychological abuse more often than physical violence. The former develop emotional dependency on their victim, but (possibly as a reaction to an actual or perceived inability to maintain attachment) experience intense feelings of shame, fear, abandonment and anger toward the victim which are dispelled through acts of violent aggression. These are the abusers most likely to display contrition between violent episodes. They are also the most likely to commit violence of escalating severity with each cycle.

The possessive, controlling and emotionally dependent nature of the abuser would explain the increased likelihood to fight for sole custody of the child. And the abusers often win, because courts are unwilling to spend the time or money to investigate claims of abuse:

"It's very common for people to make recommendations in child protective cases and child custody litigation without ever looking at clinical evidence of child abuse, spouse abuse or trauma," says Robert A. Geffner, who directs the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego's Alliant International University.

It is disturbing how little voice women and children have in our judicial system when the demands of expediency in resolution issued by men suing for sole custody can convince a judge to ignore the likely fact they will be sentencing a child to spend the remainder of her or his youth in the care of a pathological abuser. The need to standardize judicial procedures for investigating abuse claims is apparent. But as the article points out, moves by "fathers' rights" activists oppose much of the legal work being done in that area, claiming that it unfairly puts fathers on the defensive when claims of abuse surface. Even when children themselves are willing to testify - often an excruciating experience that entails reliving the shame, degradation and physical pain of abuse - some are discredited based on the APA-rejected theory of "parental alienation syndrome", which holds that mothers brainwash their children to testify against their fathers.

This bizarre rhetoric underlies the proprietary lens through which many men view family: as an acquired signifier of social status or achievement, which he has a right to maintain control of once he has labored to build or earn it, as though familial bonds were governed by some twisted Lockean scheme of patriarchal acquisition. The data on abusers points toward such a mindset. Consider the psychological profiles, in which men feel embarrassed or hurt at their lack of attachment to their family. Whether or not this is consciously viewed as an injustice akin to theft of property, the violent response suggests an active desire to reassert the level of attachment that the male perceives to be proper. That men who control more of a family's income than their spouse are more likely to commit violence verifies that the concepts of ownership, input, desert and power have places in the psychology of abusers, as does the fact that men who are dissatisfied with their perceived power in relationships are more likely to commit abuse. The overlapping issues of economic power, emotional dependency, attachment and control that underly abusive relationships suggest that patriarchal conceptions of property and family are perfectly relevant to the intractable problem of domestic violence.

Moreover, the intervention of "fathers' rights" activists reminds us of a crucial fact that can never be understated in discussing abuse: most abusers are men. One commenter on Alternet accuses the article of spreading "the same old anti-father lies that we've been hearing for years", and angrily objects that "the abusers are not only men." And the second part, at least, is true. Domestic abuse is a crucial issue no matter who commits it. But a well-regulated and consistent process for investigating abuse would not do anything to hurt men, and would, in fact only help men who were living with abusive women.

Meanwhile, the reverse-victimization rhetoric employed by many men obscures the facts that violence is overwhelmingly committed by men against women and children, and that women are more likely to be economically dependent on the male abuser and thus less able to flee with their child. The response of men to the domestic violence that their gender overwhelmingly commits cannot be defensiveness, nor can it be to make clutches for legal power to silence the claims of women and children. It seems ridiculous to state that rule bluntly, but when men respond to the violence that results from their desire for familial control by reasserting their desire for legal control, I feel that it has to be said.

Via Alternet.

1 comment:

Nisha said...

great post, matthew. it is truly sad that abusers so often are successful in getting sole custody of their children -- that statistic really stood out to me.