In this second article on battered wives psychiatrist FRANK NJENGA and lawyer PAUL MWANGI attempt to get to understand the person who is most likely to be the victim of battering and circumstances in which battering takes place.
The battered wife syndrome is in many respects the province of the psychiatrist because it is often argued that domestic violence usually takes place in instances where some form of mental illness exists either in the woman or in the man. In this article we look at the conditions in both men and women that predispose to the occurrence of domestic violence in particular taking cognisance of the fact that mental illnesses be they in the male perpetrator of battering or in the victim can in many instances respond to adequate competent treatment by doctors.
This position however, is not intended to mean that many or even most of the instances of wife battering are caused by mental illnesses. It is however, important to recognise that there are those instances that are amenable to competent medical intervention.
Taking the male or the offender first, there are certain very definite, clearly defined mental illnesses, for example the syndrome of morbid jealousy, that predispose to the most violent forms of wife battering seen in all time. In instances of morbid jealousy for example, the man holds the false unshakable belief (called a delusion) that his wife is being unfaithful and then proceeds on that basis as follows: If his wife denies the “fact” that she is having affairs, the sick mind is then convinced that no woman in her right senses will admit to being unfaithful. On the other hand, if she admits that she is having an affair for the sake of hoping to find some peace domestically, she finds herself the subject of extreme violence.
In the former case where the husband believes that the wife has been or is being unfaithful, the sick man then goes to some lengths – some very expensive like the hiring of private detectives – to spy on her. In certain instances, the man installs voice recording instruments in bedrooms, in cars, in sitting rooms and so on to satisfy his sick mind that the wife is being unfaithful. In either event whether the wife confesses to being faithful or denies it, she suffers violence, and the only way from a medical point is to advise separation of the couple while attempts are made to treat him.
Alcohol is a common contributor to morbid jealousy and in certain cases, is an important cause of this condition. It is, however, important to point out that in cases of morbid jealousy, no amount of talking to the man or to the wife will shake the delusion of infidelity because this is not an ordinary belief held by a healthy mind but rather this is the conviction of a sick mind which is not likely to be shaken by any amount of reasoning by well friends, relatives, employers and so on. However, there are certain drugs that help with this condition.
Many families, church leaders, and elders in communities have expended valuable hours trying to prove to the husbands that their wives are not unfaithful. But in most instances, those who doubt the deluded husband are often accused of being a conspirator in the infidelity and many serious problems have arisen from such a situation.
Cases of morbid jealousy are in the experience of most lawyers and certainly psychiatrists, the most violent of the available domestic problems and must be treated with great caution. Many murders have taken place in the context of morbid jealousy. From this very severe form of mental illness there are very many stages of mental distortions. This could be in the context of formal mental illness or in the context of substance abuse. The commonest substance associated with the abuse of women is alcohol but other drugs including bhang also contribute to wife battering.
We all know of instances in which drunk men from the bars have beaten their wives either because they did not open the door fast enough or because they did not warm up the food quickly enough. Wives have also been beaten for not smiling broadly while serving dinner at 1 am in the morning or for allegedly banging utensils or making rude comments. Commonly, women are beaten up by their husbands at this hour because of not sitting up with them as they struggle to cut up a piece of steak which was nice and juicy when made 6 hours earlier but which has now dried up.
Many women are battered by drunk husbands who are, in fact, covering up for affairs they may themselves be having or they have some other frustrations either at work, in business or finance. Alcohol in this case is used as an agent of causing some form of rationale to allow the husband to beat the wife. Thirdly, men who are having any type of marital problem be it based on sexual difficulties or misunderstanding with in-laws or difficulties with children often let off steam by accusing wives of, for example, neglecting or being unable to manage their teenage children.
In some circumstances, the victim herself may invite violence to herself either because she is suffering from a depressive illness and therefore feels in need or deserving of punishment. She may also suffer a beating because her illness makes her so incompetent that she irritates her inexperienced husband to the point that he decides that the only way of disciplining her is by beating her up. The ultimate in a woman who feels in need or deserving of punishment is the one who commits suicide alone or first kills her children. The stages before suicide however, include a wish to be punished either by her husband or by another person and for this reason, she provokes her husband to violence.
This situation, however, is uncommon and would not be the first one to come into consideration in instances of domestic violence. More commonly, however, depressed women who are suffering from either reactive or endogenous depressive illnesses become so disabled and incapacitated in their ways of dealing with their social and domestic environments that an informed husband will notice it. He will notice the deteriorating cooking, lack of interest in sex, slovenliness, bad temper and so on all which are aimed at making him beat her up.
However, a woman such as described above is in need of love, care, and medical attention to establish the cause, if any, of her depression. Depression is in this case divided into two. The first type of depression is that caused by environmental situation such as bereavement and depression that comes from within the person and no obvious external force can be said to be responsible.
It is important therefore to recognise that domestic violence leading to the battered wife syndrome is but a symptom of factors that maybe either in the woman, in the man or in both and that whereas lawyers ought to be consulted in the evaluation of the battered wife syndrome, doctors and in particular a psychiatrist have a very definite role and very definite opinion to offer in situations such as this one. The Bobbit case in America is rather different from the ones described above in as far as the man in this case was quite clearly, very aggressive. It is quite possible that the violence in the man had a direct bearing and was the direct cause of the woman’s mental state that led to the violence.
As to whether there were ways of preventing this type of violence from taking place, this is only a matter of speculation. Some men are violent because of certain mental states referred to as personality disorders. It is, however, important to state that under no circumstances may a man or a woman take the law into their own hands because if we were all to do so then that would be a prescription for the break-down of law and order and this would see the end of the existence of civilised society as we know it.
In the next two articles, we shall consider the legal aspect of the battered wife syndrome and in particular take account of the battered wife and the legal protections that are available within marriage and in criminal law. We shall also look at the protection available to the woman herself including the defences of insanity, provocation and diminished responsibility.