The context and dynamics of intimate aggression against women

Sally A. Lloyd

Miami University of Ohio

Beth C. Emery

Middle Tennessee State University

Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, 17, (4 & 5), 503-521.



This article presents a series of working observations on the context and dynamics of intimate aggression perpetrated against women. These reflections flow from our research, and are woven together with the work of scholars from diverse fields, from feminism to marital communication to social constructivism. Our reflections emphasize that intimate aggression is sustained not only by powerful dynamics of dominance and control, but also by the very ways in which we view, experience, and talk about relationships and aggression.

KEY WORDS. dating violence. domestic violence. marital abuse. marital aggression


Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of intimate relationships is that they can be the simultaneous site of love and romance, control and aggression. Over the past two decades, we have been shocked by the frequency of physical and sexual aggression in marriage, cohabitation, and dating (prevalence estimates range from 1 in 6 to 1 in 2 intimate relationships; Koss, 1988; Stets & Henderson, 1991; Straus & Gelles, 1990). Today, after hundreds of studies of this topic, the fact that physical and sexual aggression occurs so often at the hands of our loved ones is no longer a surprising phenomenon. Instead of concentrating on documenting the extent and sociodemographic correlates of intimate aggression, we have turned our efforts to understanding the context of aggression, from the influence of the cultural milieu that supports the use of violence against loved ones to the interpersonal dynamics of coercion and control.


The purpose of this article is to share our work on intimate aggression in the form of a series of working observations. These observations are based in part on the insights we have gained from our quantitative (Lloyd, 1990, 1996) and qualitative (Emery & Lloyd, 1994; Lloyd & Emery, 2000) studies of physical and sexual violence in dating and marital relationships. Rather than presenting the results of these studies in a linear fashion, we have organized this article around a series of reflections that stem both from our own research and from the work of other scholars who seek to understand the context and dynamics of aggression in intimate relationships. Our use of the term 'working observations' is quite purposeful, for in this article we want to emphasize the ongoing nature of our inquiry into the topic and our openness to modify these observations as new studies are conducted and new insights unfold. We hope that our reflections will stimulate an expanded conversation about intimate violence, one that emphasizes that aggression is sustained not only by powerful dynamics of control and dominance, but also by the very ways that we view and talk about relationships and aggression.


I Most women believe that aggression will never happen in their intimate relationships


While this first observation may sound rather obvious, it is critical to start with the point that most women believe 'it will never happen to me - not in my relationship!' Over and over, we have been told by our respondents that the first time physical or sexual aggression occurred, they were caught totally by surprise. Indeed, in our qualitative study, a sense of unreality, disbelief, shock, and confusion was threaded through the narratives provided by survivors of aggression as they described their reactions to the first incident of aggression:


"I just couldn't believe it. I just could not believe that it was him doing this. We had a great relationship. . . I just could not believe it was him doing this to me." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p.75).

"I'd never heard of him hitting a girl. I never thought he'd do it to me. I was stunned!" (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 75).


We speculate that the belief that 'aggression will never happen to me' stems from two important features of the context of intimate relationships. First, the broader discourse on relationships fails to deal with negative behaviours, for relationships are construed as both romantic and equalitarian (this will be elaborated in observation 3). Second, it is extremely difficult to make sense of the experience of intimate aggression because the perpetrator is not a stranger, says that he loves her, and is someone she cares for and trusts. The bottom line is that the experience of aggression simply does not fit into our fairy tale scripts for loving relationships (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


It is not surprising that women who have experienced aggression report difficulty describing what has happened to them, and figuring out how to label the experience of aggression (Kirkwood, 1993; Koss, 1993; Sedlack, 1988; Warshaw, 1988). Terms like abuse or domestic violence are reserved for the extreme cases where women end up in the hospital or shelter:


"I knew it wasn't normal but I didn't think it was abuse. . . . When I think of abuse, I think of somebody, you know, beating somebody up. Having black eyes and stuff." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 76).


The more common occurrences of physical aggression may be seen as not fitting these extremes. And, she may see the inherent dangers of labelling his behaviour as 'abuse,' for such a label might require a significant reframing of the very nature of their relationship, that is, can this really be a loving relationship and can he still be Mr. Right? This leads directly to our next observation.


II: Aggression is not always accompanied by relational distress or dissatisfaction


This observation was made in the Cate and Henton studies (Cate, Henton, Koval, Christopher, & Lloyd, 1982; Henton, Cate, Koval Lloyd, & Christopher, 1983). When asked 'what did the physical aggression mean?', approximately one-quarter of high school and college students who had experienced aggression noted that it meant that the perpetrator loved them. Very few noted that it was an indication of hatred. And, the majority of respondents said that their relationships had improved or stayed the same after the aggression (Cate et al., 1982; Henton et al., 1983). In these studies, we noted that a strong tendency exists to 'forgive and forget,' and to externalise the violence by placing its cause outside the perpetrator and relationship. Similarly, when O'Leary et al. (1989) conducted their longitudinal study of physical aggression in courtship and marriage, they discovered that aggression occurred in a context of relative relational satisfaction for the majority of their sample. And, in our quantitative study, although we assumed that all of the couples with a violent husband would be distressed, about one-quarter of our sample consisted of couples who reported physical aggression in a context of marital satisfaction (Lloyd, 1996).


We are not saying that all couples report aggression in a context of relational satisfaction; it is clear that prolonged and/or severe aggression does erode satisfaction and happiness in relationships, as well as the well-being and self-esteem of the victim, and such aggression does lead to break-up/divorce (Gortner, Berns, Jacobson, & Gottman, 1997; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Kirkwood, 1993; Koss, 1993; Rogge & Bradbury, 1999). It is important to keep in mind, however, that aggression may not have an immediate corrosive effect; in the early stages of aggressive behaviour, or when aggression remains at a low level, some couples may be able to maintain high levels of satisfaction. This is reminiscent of common couple violence, where the violence is less severe, less frequent, and arises out of conflict management problems rather than extreme circumstances of control (Johnson, 1995).


We turn once again to the broader context of intimate relationships for an explanation of why victims may strive to 'forgive and forget' aggression. Indeed, the reasons that women believe aggression will never happen to them, as well as the forces that allow aggression to be temporarily non-corrosive, can be found in the social construction of intimate aggression.


III: The discourses of intimate relationships and aggression are critical components of the larger context surrounding intimate aggression


The work of social constructivists who emphasize the role of discourse has had a major influence on our recent work in which we examine the larger context of intimate aggression (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). These scholars emphasize that meaning is socially constructed from our everyday interaction, language, and conversations (e.g., Gubrium & Holstein, 1993; Hare-Mustin, 1994; Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1996, 1998; Weingarten, 1991). These constructions are reflected in the ways that we make sense out of our relationships and in the ways that we talk about them; they provide the basis for our cultural discourse on intimacy and love. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney (1996) use the term 'collective stories' to describe these relational discourses; such stories embody societal values, norms, and ways of behaving in close relationships.


We believe that an analysis of the discourse of intimate relationships and the discourse of aggression is critical to providing a context for understanding how individuals make sense of inexplicable, unanticipated experiences that are outside the script for intimate relationships (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). Such analysis examines the role of invisible relational ideologies that influence the ways that meaning is constructed around specific incidents of physical and sexual aggression (Hare-Mustin, 1984).


The discourse of intimate relationships

In Lloyd and Emery (2000), we identified 3 arenas of discourse on intimate relationships that we saw as having particularly powerful influences on the construction of the meaning of intimate aggression. These are the discourse of equality between the sexes, the discourse of romance, and the discourse of sexuality.

Equality between the sexes. Foucault (1978) has noted that 'power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself' (p. 86). One of the primary ways that power is masked in intimate relationships is through the myth of equality between the sexes (Hare-Mustin, 1994; Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1998). Both marriage and courtship are framed as relationships between equals; this framing serves to hide the reality of male domination in many close relationships, and allows couples to hide inequities in their relationships. The discourse of equality de-emphasizes the dilemmas of traditional gender socialization and institutional inequalities (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1996, 1998). Even our current discourse about domestic violence de-emphasizes male dominance in favour of framing violence as an aberrant act by an isolated man (Ferraro, 1996). Ultimately, the discourse of equality serves two purposes: First, it masks control, coercion, and domination in relationships, and second, it may encourage women to rationalize aggression as more functional than it is in order to retain their equalitarian view of the relationship (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).

Romance. The discourse of romance has an equally powerful effect on the social construction of close relationships. The language of romanticism is familiar to us all, from the statement that 'love is blind' to the assertion that love can overcome any relational problem (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). Romance is presented in fairy tales and in popular literature alike as having the power to redeem, save, and rescue a misunderstood partner (Rosen, 1996; Wetherell, 1995). And most important to understanding the context of intimate aggression, in the aura of love and romance, partners are encouraged to forgive or overlook negative behaviour (Henton et al., 1983; Lloyd, 1991). When faced with truly paradoxical behaviour (physical or sexual aggression that occurs at the hands of one who says he loves you), it is not surprising that the victim may attach a meaning that emphasizes an external reason for his aggression. Similarly, believing his apology and promise that it will never happen again is in keeping with the discourse of romance, for she may believe that her love can keep his aggression from happening again (Lloyd & Emery, 2000; Rosen, 1996).

Sexuality. A third area of the discourse of relationships that bears scrutiny is sexuality. The discourse of sexuality is constructed around the 'traditional sexual script', which emphasizes that men have an urgent sexual drive, that men may lose control when it comes to their sexual needs, and that women are expected to be in control of men's sexuality and moral conduct (Eurkhart & Stanton, 1988; Eyers, 1996; Hare-Mustin, 1994; Kalor, 1993). This discourse also includes components of the token no; women's resistance to sexual pressure is merely token resistance, for 'no' really means 'yes' (Muehlenhard & Hollabaugh, 1988). Our language about sexual permissiveness further complicates the discourse of sexuality. Hare-Mustin (1994) argues that permissiveness norms grant men freedom of access to sexual interaction, and that such norms urge women to comply with men's desires for sexual interaction.


The discourse of sexuality is very potent as we seek to make sense out of sexual aggression; it may be used to excuse the perpetrator (he just lost control) and blame the victim (she was a tease and led him on). Furthermore, because sexuality is framed in the language of permissiveness and openness, it may be difficult to believe that she did not consent to sexual interaction, particularly in the context of an established relationship (Hare-Mustin, 1994; Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


The discourse of aggression

Although aggression in intimate relationships has a relatively short history as a 'social problem', we believe that explanations for its occurrence and conversations about who is at fault are readily available. Thus, in our analysis of the context within which aggression is embedded, we also identified 4 arenas of the discourse of aggression: Excusing the aggressor, blaming the victim, the debate over the definition of aggression, and rendering the intimate nature of aggression invisible (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Excusing the aggressor. The discourse of excusing the aggressor is very much a part of our language on intimate aggression. To begin with, keeping the analysis of why battering occurs at the level of individual men serves to mask the role of norms of male dominance and patriarchal courtship structures (Ferraro, 1996). Add to this an emphasis on aggressive behaviour as emanating from a lack of control, and the aggressor has been taken off the hook for his behaviour (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). Even perpetrators themselves speak in the language of excuse, as they describe their reasons for aggression as extreme anger, impulsiveness, and an inability to control their emotions or actions (Dutton & Golant, 1995; Stets, 1988). Similarly, date rape has been interpreted as a misunderstanding wherein having been led on by the woman, the man just simply could not control his sexual urges (Eyers, 1996; Warshaw, 1988).


Blaming the victim. Blaming the victim goes hand in hand with excusing the aggressor. There are multiple ways to ensure that the victim is at least partially to blame, from asking a woman who has been raped 'what were you wearing?' to emphasizing that physical violence is nothing more than a transactional pattern of interaction. Ferraro (1996) argues that being a victim in the first place carries cultural ideas of deservedness; victims are automatically subjected to questions about their behaviour and efforts (or lack thereof) to protect themselves. Victim blaming has a powerful influence on how women make sense of having experienced aggression, for victims consistently ask themselves why they went out with the wrong kind of man, why they made him angry when they knew he had a violent temper, or why they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (Goldner, 1999; Koss & Cook, 1993; Lloyd & Emery, 2000; Warshaw, 1988).


Blaming the victim is reflected in popular discourse as well. Linguistic avoidance and use of the passive voice both serve to de-emphasize the harm experienced by the victim and leave open the question of who was really at fault (Henley, Miller, & Beazley, 1995; Lamb, 1991; Lamb & Keon, 1995). Women who have been victimized are usually divided into 'good' girls and 'bad' girls, with the result that, unless she was too old or too young to fight back, she is represented by the media as being responsible for the aggression (Bograd, 1999; Meyers, 1997).


Defining aggression. A third key component of the discourse of aggression is the debate over the very definition of aggression. This debate is perhaps best captured in the work that downplays the extent of acquaintance rape and accuses scholars who emphasise the widespread prevalence of rape and sexual coercion of overstating their data (e.g., Gilbert, 1993). Ultimately, terms like date rape and marital rape are viewed as oxymorons, for how can rape occur in a context wherein consent for sexual interaction is automatically implied (Estrich, 1987; Finkelhor & Yllo, 1987; Koss & Cook, 1993)? Similarly, the debate rages on over the use of terms like family violence vs. wife abuse, and over who is the 'most aggressive,' men or women (Bograd 1999, Kurz, 1993; Straus 1990, 1999; see Johnson, 1995, for an enlightening perspective on this debate). And this debate clearly is not limited to professionals, for our public discourse on sensational cases of physical and sexual aggression against women also reflects key disagreements not only about the culpability of the alleged perpetrator, but also about whether the behaviour was really 'aggression' in the first place (the William Kennedy Smith rape trial comes to mind here).


Rendering the intimate nature of aggression invisible. Finally, multiple methods obscure the link between intimacy and aggression in our discourse. Above all, the vulnerability of all women to experiencing rape or physical aggression is rendered invisible by our culture's strong emphasis on aggression as a problem that is rare and that is most likely to occur at the hands of a stranger (Estrich, 1987). In addition, aggression is portrayed as a problem that affects women who do not count in our society (poor women, women of colour, marginalized women) and women who somehow deserved to be beaten or raped (due to their 'risky behaviour' from nagging their husbands to going out alone after dark). Physical and sexual aggression are not things that happen to 'nice' women at the hands of the men who purport to love them (Bograd, 1999; Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Inherent in the invisibility of the intimate nature of aggression is a great irony: Women strive to protect themselves from strangers, when the real threat of harm is from those men who are already in their lives and homes (Hickman & Muehlenhard, 1997; Kelly, 1988). This focus on the 'stranger' is successful in diverting attention away from boyfriends, lovers, or husbands as potential perpetrators, and also serves to downplay the power of men in intimate relationships to harm the women they profess to love (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Overall, the discourse of intimate relationships and the discourse of aggression are important components of the context within which physical/sexual aggression is embedded. While the discourses of intimacy and aggression may seem abstract and far from everyday interaction, we believe that these discourses have a pervasive impact on our social construction of events. We believe that the discourse of relationships encourages victims, perpetrators, family, friends, and service providers to use the language of equality, romance, and the male sexual drive when seeking explanations for aggressive behaviour. And, the discourse of aggression is likely to encourage excusing the aggressor, blaming the victim, silencing her definition of the aggression, and rendering the intimate nature of the aggression invisible (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


IV: The intersection of aggression with interpersonal communication enhances our understanding of the dynamics of aggression


As alluded to in the title of this article, we are interested not only in the larger context of intimate aggression, but also in the dynamics that surround it. Here we take a relational perspective as we examine the ways in which aggression is related to interpersonal transactions in the relationship, as well as the ways aggression is embedded within the everyday lives of individuals (Cahn, 1996; Lloyd & Emery, 1994; Rosen & Bird, 1996). Here, we review 3 aspects of the intersection of communication and aggression: Communication patterns, everyday conflict and interaction, and talking about and reframing aggression.


Communication patterns


Many scholars in the fields of communication and psychology find consistent evidence of ineffective communication and problem-solving skills as a key dynamic in intimate aggression (Lloyd, 1999). Couples with a violent partner are low in argumentativeness, that is, they have poor skills in presenting and defending their positions on issues without becoming hostile. Overt hostility and passive aggressiveness have both been hypothesized to be key precursors to aggression, with messages that entail character attacks, curses, and threats as the most catalytic (Infante, Chandler, & Rudd, 1989; Infante, Sabourin, Rudd, & Shannon, 1990; O'Leary, Malone, & Tyree, 1994; Sabourin, 1996). Spouses in aggressive marriages exhibit information processing and problem-solving deficits; in particular, aggressive men are likely to attribute hostile intent to their wives, and to respond negatively to their wives' attempts to influence them (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe & Hutchinson, 1993; Holtzworth-Munroe & Smutzler, 1996).


Laboratory observations of couple interaction have yielded strong support for dominance and power issues as core mechanisms. Couples with an aggressive husband exhibit higher levels of negative affect, cycles of attack and defence, anger-reactivity, and aversiveness, and lower levels of facilitation and de-escalating behaviours (Burman, Margolin, & John, 1993; Cordova, Jacobson, Gottman, Rushe, & Cox, 1993; Jacobson et al., 1994; Margolin, Burman, & John, 1989; Margolin, John, & Gleberman, 1988). Aggressive husbands use highly provocative forms of anger, belligerence, and contempt, are more controlling, are likely to reject any influence by their wives, are demanding, and are unlikely to admit that there is anything wrong with their behaviour (Bems, Jacobson, & Gottman, 1999; Coan, Gottman, Babcock, & Jacobson, 1997; Jacobson et al., 1994).


These ineffective communication skills are most evident in situations of perceived rejection by the wife or possible abandonment (Dutton & Browning, 1988; Goldner, 1999; Holtzworth-Munroe & Anglin, 1991). Such themes were highly evident in our qualitative study as well, as over 70% of the women who had experienced physical aggression noted that a perceived threat to the relationship was a primary catalyst for aggressive episodes (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Everyday conflict and interaction


In Lloyd (1990,1996), everyday occurrences of both conflict and interaction were described. In the 1990 study, spouses in marriages where physical aggression was occurring provided different descriptions of naturally occurring conflicts than did non-aggressive spouses. For example, spouses in aggressive marriages described conflict patterns that included fewer 'everyday squabbles' (conflicts that were low in escalation, covering a new topic; and unresolved; Lloyd, 1990). We speculated that these spouses may have a tendency to strive for resolution to all their arguments; these couples did not appear to be able to 'let the small stuff go.' However, because they also used ineffective conflict strategies, such as anger and verbal attack, long-term resolution of conflicts and problems was unlikely (Lloyd, 1990). These results were in keeping with the work of Margolin, John, and O'Brien (1989), who demonstrated that the conflicts of violent couples are highly ritualised and reactive.


An important feature of the 1996 study was the description of differences in everyday marital interaction using a behavioural self-report assessment of positive and negative behaviours across a period of two weeks. Here, a significant interaction effect emerged between distress and aggression. Distressed/ aggressive couples reported the highest levels of negative interaction, as well as high levels of positive interaction. Distressed/non-aggressive couples reported low levels of both positive and negative interaction, whereas non-distressed couples (whether aggressive or not) reported low levels of negative and high levels of positive interaction. And, in an 18-month follow-up, the marriages where physical aggression had stopped had been significantly lower at Time 1 in the level of negative interaction and husband's aggression (Lloyd, 1996). We hypothesized that these results indicate that distressed/aggressive couples are quite volatile, whereas distressed/non-aggressive couples are withdrawn. In a similar vein, Langinrichsen-Rohling, Schlee, Monson, Ehrensaft, and Heyman (1998) and Murphy, Meyer, and O'Leary (1994) concluded that distressed/aggressive husbands are characterized by strong but insecure attachments. Indeed, these men are very focused on their relationships, and report strong motivations of love for remaining with their wives.


Thus, not only do couples with an aggressive husband evidence significantly different interaction patterns in laboratory and questionnaire studies, they also evidence these differences in their everyday interaction with their wives. Ultimately, these couples are characterized by a relational climate that includes a volatile and intense relationship, long-standing anger and frustrations, and dependency/enmeshment. This climate is accompanied by interaction patterns that are ineffective, ritualised, and sequenced, with husbands reacting with hostility and belligerence toward their wives (Lloyd, 1999).


Talking about and framing the experience of aggression


The communicative dynamics of intimate aggression do not stop with the analysis of the interaction patterns that surround aggression. Our qualitative study revealed that communication intersects with aggression on at least 2 other levels: Talking about the aggression and framing what had happened as abuse.


Most of the young women we interviewed found it difficult if not impossible to talk about their experiences of aggression with the perpetrator, with their families and friends, and most certainly with the authorities. This difficulty arose from the sensitive and intimate nature of the aggression they had experienced, from embarrassment and self-blame, and from the bizarre situation of trying to talk things over with the person who had perpetrated the aggression:


"I was waiting for him to say something about it [the violence], anything, and he just came in and went to sleep. He saw what I looked like [her face was bruised], and he didn't ask." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 64).


"[After he forced me to have intercourse] he finishes, he rolls over - I am still crying - [and] he took my face in his hands and said 'Stop crying. There's nothing wrong. Nothing happened.' I was like 'What the hell are you talking about? Of course something happened!' . . . He said 'Nothing happened, there's no reason to be bawling. Just quit your crying' . . ."He just got up, went upstairs and went to bed. That was it." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 106).


Some of the young women also feared the reactions of their parents and friends. They did not want to be judged harshly, and they did not want the opinions of significant others to change:


"My parents came to really like him. And when we broke up and everything, they still talk about him. ...But they don't know how really bad it got. They don't need to know. I'll never tell them, I don't want them to know how stupid I was." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 83).


One of the most important aspects of this unwillingness or inability to talk about the aggression they had experienced was that the opportunity to frame the perpetrator's actions as abusive was lost. When changes in the meaning of his aggressive actions did occur, it was often in a social context. The young women described how the remark of a friend, or a conversation with a family member, helped them to reconstruct their partner's behaviour as abusive and unwarranted:


"My brother walked in right after it happened, and M was standing over me and I was sitting in a chair and M started to cry and say 'I've done something awful.' And he wanted my brother to hit him. My brother said he wouldn't hit anyone, and the worst thing to do would be to hit a woman. . . . My brother was the cause when he said no real man would do that. I guess that was the climatic point. . . . I realized that. . . I deserved better." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 86).


For many, this reconstruction of his behaviour as abusive developed over time, as the result of multiple conversations, considerable anguish, and personal reflection about the quality/viability of the relationship.


In summary, we have found the use of a relational perspective to be very helpful in understanding the dynamics that surround the use of aggression in intimate relationships. These dynamics encompass not only the conversation patterns that are hypothesized to be catalytic to aggression, but also include everyday interactions as well as the interactions that take place after aggression occurs. Ultimately, these relational pieces to the puzzle of intimate aggression all share something in common: Aspects of control and attempts to dominate are threaded throughout these interpersonal dynamics.


V: Control is a key dynamic in intimate aggression


In much of our recent work, we have conceptualised intimate aggression against women as a tactic of coercive control (Emery & Lloyd, 1994; Lloyd, 1999; Lloyd & Emery, 1994, 2000). Here we build on the work of scholars, notably Dutton and Golant (1995), Goldner, Penn, Sheinberg, and Walker (1990), Jacobson and Gottman (1998), Kirkwood (1993), Marshall (1994), and Stets (1988), who have emphasized that violence is used to cause fear, force compliance, punish, intimidate, or dominate.


It is interesting that in our interviews with the young women who had experienced physical and sexual aggression during courtship, nearly every respondent spoke about the dynamics of control (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). The women provided many nuanced and multifaceted descriptions of men's control of them and of the course of the relationship. Our analysis of their narratives revealed 4 interrelated facets of control: Domination of an argument, domination of the woman and the relationship, keeping her in the relationship, and ownership and possession.


Domination of an argument


For some of the women, physical aggression emanated from the men's attempts to dominate a particular argument. Some women described the ways in which their partners' use of physical aggression was an attempt to 'make me listen:'


"[He would hit me] to get me to listen to him. To get me to see his vantage point or way of thinking or to get some sense into me, is what he'd tell me. To get his point across and the only way he could do it was with force." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 67).


Other times, this type of domination of an argument happened when she stood her ground or would not comply with what he wanted:


"If he thought he was right - and I'd be sitting there arguing, I'd go 'NO' and if I stood my ground, and I refused to see what he was saying, and if he stood his ground, it would get worse. . . . He kept saying 'I'm going to make you.' So he'd pin me down or he'd put me down. Or if I tried to get away, you know, he'd do stuff to me. . . he'd hold me down or grab me or pull me or throw me in the car (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 67).


These narratives serve to illustrate how physical aggression quite literally served as a means for 'winning' during an argument or for getting one's way (Lloyd & Emery, 1994). It also ties into the work of Coan et al. (1997), which emphasizes the ways in which such domination can serve as a means of rejecting female influence.


Domination of the woman and the relationship


Illustrations of domination extended beyond controlling a particular argument to include the domination of the woman and the relationship. This dynamic was complex, in that it included his greater power in the relationship, his belief that he had the right to tell her what to do, and his attempts to mould her into an idealized image. This domination was described as attempts to control decisions about where to go, what to do, and even how she should dress:


"We did what he wanted. Eat, buy, see what he wanted. I found myself wearing clothes I would of never chosen, but that's what he wanted. . . . If he wanted something, it was just automatic, I was scared to object, or he'd be abusive." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 68).


I suppose that he thought if I wouldn't consent to [sex] that he really had no control over me and he really had all these little strict rules for me. . . . they were silly things that didn't make sense. . . I couldn't wear a skirt out with my friends. . . there would always be comments like 'nice slut skirt'." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, pp. 113-114).


In other instances, domination was described as an attempt to bend her will, to make her obey, or to control her feelings and self-confidence, Sometimes, the domination of the woman and the relationship meant trying to change her in a multitude of ways, from wanting her to be more perfect to wanting her to change her very essence to trying to take back her independence:


"He talked down to me a lot. It was like, you know, he wanted me to be the little girl I'd been when he'd started dating me. A little girl that said, 'OK, whatever,' and gave in to whatever he said without fighting about it, and who said 'OK, you know everything and I know nothing.' . . . He told me I was selfish, stubborn, immature, and I couldn't handle life without him, He wouldn't let me wear skirts, and I had to button everything all the way up. . . I wore my hair a certain way. . . . He was always trying to tell me what to do." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 69),


Keeping her in the relationship


The ultimate form of domination of the relationship was seen in the some of the women's descriptions of what happened when they tried to leave the relationship. Here, physical and/or sexual abuse were used to literally keep the woman from leaving:


"I was packing up my things - I told him I was going to leave if he was going to continue to drink - I was walking by the door and he grabbed me with his arm around my neck. I fell to the floor and he dragged me into the bedroom and punched on my face. I was crying and screaming and I got scared cause he wouldn't stop and he kept on continually hitting me." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 70).


It was like his face iced over. . . . His voice even changed and he said, 'You just fucked up because you aren't going to leave my house alive.' At that point he tried to kill me. . . . He

tried to put a butcher knife through my head. . . . He forced me back in the bed and he raped me. . . . He bit me too - all over the place." (Lloyd & Emery. 2000. p. 112).


Sometimes, psychological coercion was sufficient to keep her in the relationship, for she feared what would happen when she attempted to leave. In addition, keeping her in the relationship meant that her independence had to be restrained as well.


Some of the women noted an interesting irony. While at times he would beg her to stay and proclaim his love for her, other times he would make her show her love and concern by staying in spite of his coercive behaviour:


"Part of the violence from his point of view was pushing me to the point of view where I lost it. He believed if he pushed me to the edge - pushed all my buttons until I lost it - and still not leave - if he could push me to the limit and I stayed - that meant I loved him." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 71).


A further irony occurred for those women who described rape as the culmination of a physically aggressive episode; they believed that their partners saw such forced sex as an indication of love, and as a sign that the relationship was still intact.


Ownership and possessiveness


In its most extreme forms, control was embodied in a dynamic of male ownership and possessiveness. It was chilling to realize that these dynamics, which were reminiscent of descriptions provided by battered women of the extremes of control that battering husbands utilize, had emerged in most cases after less than a year of dating. The women we interviewed described many incidents that illustrated their boyfriends' possessiveness and treatment of them as property:


"It was like I was his. I didn't look at other guys, I didn't speak unless spoken to. I should know his mind and know when to fix dinner, what clothes he was going to wear. I should be his slave - his servant. I was his property, and I had no use except making his life more easy." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 72).


"I think he was just trying to keep me. I don't think he loved me. He was very obsessed with

me. It got to the point where my parents had to put a restraining order out on him so the police could keep him away from me." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 111).


Sometimes, the men perceived threat in the presence of a rival (either real or imagined). The men would go to unbelievable lengths in checking up on their girlfriends, including spying, following, checking the car odometer, or requiring their girlfriends to call them on a regular basis to report in. The women felt they had to constantly prove their loyalty.


In summary, the dynamics of control as described in the qualitative study were multifaceted. In some cases, aggression was a tactic a man used to assert his will over his partner. In other cases, control was more pervasive, including determining what they did as a couple, when she was allowed to leave, and where she was allowed to go. In the most extreme, control dynamics cut across all the facets to include everything from ensuring that he won every argument to calling her every hour to punishing her with physical abuse every time another man even looked at her (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Certainly, control was not the only dynamic that was noteworthy in the women's narratives. Some of the women also described a dynamic of expressive violence; their partners were unpredictable and had volatile tempers. Other women were clear about the role of the men's sexual desire in a context where they felt it was appropriate to exert their sexual rights through force. Thus, for some, control dynamics were interwoven with issues of emotional expressiveness and sexual desire (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). Ultimately, however, we believe that control, domination, privilege, and intimidation are utilized by aggressors to create fear and compliance in their victims. Certainly control is worthy of further scrutiny as a key component of the tangled web created by the use of aggression within an intimate relationship.


VI: A sense of betrayal and self-blame are pervasive effects of experiencing aggression


Many studies of physical and sexual aggression (including ours) note the pervasive effects of such abuse, from insomnia to fear of men to anger and rage to depression (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 1997; Rosen, 1996; Shapiro & Schwarz, 1997; Zweig, Berber, & Eccles, 1997). In our study, the vast majority of the women reported deep mistrust of men and hesitation to become romantically or sexually involved again well after the aggressive relationship had ended (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


While we found that the impact of experiencing aggression at the hands of an intimate partner affected many facets of these women's lives, a sense of betrayal and self -blame were particularly noteworthy. Many of the young women we interviewed talked about a deep sense of betrayal. They felt betrayed by the men who had abused them, in large part because these men had promised the women love, romance, and the end of the fairy tale (the happily-ever-after part). The women felt a betrayal of their very innocence and their vision for relationships, for they had trusted that intimate relationships would be healthy and positive and good. They felt betrayed by friends and family when these networks did not prepare them for the possibility of abuse, or protect them once it had begun. And they even felt betrayed by society as a whole, in that our discourse and formal intervention systems failed to adequately punish aggressors for their behaviour, failed to hold them accountable, and indeed may even have condoned or excused their aggressive behaviour (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Self-blame was also a pervasive part of the aftermath of physical and sexual aggression. Actually, self-blame was a result of two interrelated and complimentary processes of trying to figure out what had happened: The intertwining of excusing the aggressor and blaming the victim. It was almost as if the women had reasoned, if the aggression really was not the men's fault, then it must have been the women's responsibility. The women noted many factors that could excuse male physical and sexual aggression, such as a violent family background, the influence of friends on his drinking or attitude toward women, just being a man, male sexuality as something that is difficult to control, and the like. At the same time, women placed blame squarely at their own feet: They should have known better, they were blind for not being able to 'see the signs' of violence, they should not have made him mad or resisted his control, they didn't say 'no' strongly enough:


"[After he sexually assaulted me] 'I remember just laying there for a while jus! thinking, "Oh God, what am I going to do now?" At that point I thought, 'R, you are so stupid. Your shouldn't have let him in.' . . . I blamed myself for putting myself in a bad situation. Not for the attack, that was his choice. But "I sure as heck didn't take good care of myself" is the way I thought about it at the time. That I had made a huge mistake." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p.124).


"[When he hit me] 'I felt that was deserved, that that was out of love. I knew that was the limit -I knew what I could say and I said that on purpose to make him mad and hurt him and that [the slapping] was deserved to me." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 82).


"I'd feel guilty like I shouldn't have started a fight. He wouldn't of been mean to me, if I had not smarted off and just sat there like an adult." (Lloyd & Emery, 2000, p. 81).


It is of paramount importance for those who work with young women who have experienced physical and sexual aggression to key into this sense of betrayal and self-blame, for these are two critical features of trying to make sense out of an inexplicable experience.


VII: Victims of physical and sexual aggression are silenced in multiple ways


As we have reflected on the dynamics that surround intimate aggression, we have come to the conclusion that looking at silence is as important as looking at conversation or interaction. Silence appears at many levels of a victim's experience. Sometimes, she cannot find the words to describe what happened, for our language is inadequate when trying to articulate such betrayal and pain (Emery & Lloyd, 1994). Plus, because the discourse of intimate relationships does not overtly recognize physical and sexual aggression within such relationships, how can she be expected to identify, let alone discuss, these unacknowledged experiences? Therefore, she is effectively silenced by the dominant discourses of our society that contribute to her embarrassment, the sensitivity of the topic, fear of others' reactions, and/or others' inability or unwillingness to listen (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


It should come as no surprise that many women who experience physical and/or sexual aggression do not talk about it with friends, family, or helping professionals until many years have passed. In our study, women gave many reasons for this silence, including shame, self-blame, inexperience, naiveté, ignorance, or the desire to block this terrible experience from their minds (Lloyd & Emery, 2000). As noted earlier, our discourse on aggression denies women a voice with which to identify and detail its existence, and it blames women for the aggression they have experienced; no wonder aggression has become a hidden aspect of many women's lives. Only when we begin to include the reality of physical and sexual aggression in our discourse on intimate relationships will the need for victims' silence be eradicated.


A final note on the insight and resiliency of women who have survived intimate aggression


As a final note to this article, we would like to emphasize the incredible strengths displayed by women who have experienced physical or sexual battering. In our qualitative study, when we asked the women to describe the impact of this experience on their lives, they did not speak solely of negative effects. They also talked about the ways in which they were taking action to repair their lives and sense of agency, of their increased independence, of new sensitivity to signs of control in a dating partner, and of walking away from subsequent relationships when the tiniest hint of control or aggression surfaced (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).


Their resilience was also displayed in the many ways in which they resisted the negative influence of their male partners. Like the battered women studied by Jacobson and Gottman (1998), our interviewees discussed fear and resistance simultaneously. They did not give in to his extremes of control, and eventually nearly all of them found a way to end their involvement with these abusive men.


Later on in their lives, a relationship with a therapist, with parents and friends, and/or with a new partner (who was non-abusive) helped heal their trust in their own judgment and in intimacy. With time and support, their resilience enabled them to draw strength from what happened, and allowed them to reframe their perspectives of themselves and their intimate relationships (Lloyd & Emery, 2000).




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Sally Lloyd is Director of Women's Studies and Professor of Educational Leadership at Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056 [E-mail: lIoydsa@rnuohio.edul. Beth Emery is Professor of Human Sciences, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee [E-mail: bemery@mtsu.edul.