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Economic Stress and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence impacts thousands of women in all parts of the world. At the heart of the domestic violence problem are numerous inner and contextual factors. Economic difficulties often become an important driver of domestic violence in families. The goal of this paper is to reconsider the criminological and psychological aspects of domestic violence. The paper begins with a brief review of Claire Renzetti’s (2011) article that shapes the direction of the entire paper. Then follow the descriptions of various psychological/ crime theories and their relation to the topic of domestic violence. Implications for criminal justice are provided. Recommendations to deal with the issue of domestic violence are included.

Violence against women remains one of the most shameful features of today’s world. Millions of women all over the planet suffer the tragic physical and psychological consequences of domestic violence. Domestic violence leads to thousands of deaths, either through direct homicides or indirectly, through maternal causes, suicides, and AIDS (Garcia-Moreno & Watts, 2011). Domestic violence increases the risks of morbidity from multiple health complications, including mental health disturbances, reproductive health problems, physical and sexual disorders (Garcia-Moreno & Watts, 2011). The scope and impacts of domestic violence on women have been abundantly documented. More important, however, are the criminal justice and psychological explanations of domestic violence, as well as the current state of domestic violence policies in the developed world. Reasons why women fall victims to domestic violence and abuse are numerous. Poverty and economic stresses are believed to be a frequent factor of domestic violence in developed countries. Meanwhile, attempts to translate battered women’s movement into criminal justice policies are rarely successful. The current state of criminal justice system is focused on punishing batterers rather than ending their violence. In reality, domestic violence is more a social than legal problem. As the number of battered women increases, criminal justice professionals and social service providers will need to develop collaborative relations and work together to end, not punish, domestic violence against women.

Economic Stress and Domestic Violence

That domestic violence is a complex product of multiple influences cannot be denied. In her article, Claire M. Renzetti (2011) discusses economic stresses as one of the major contributors to the escalation of domestic violence in families. Renzetti (2011) reviews the most recent empirical data and research findings in order to delineate the main tendencies in the relationship between domestic violence and economic difficulties faced by families/ couples. Renzetti (2011) suggests that there is a well-recognized link between the risks of domestic violence against women and their financial status. As the level of income goes up, the likelihood of domestic violence decreases (Renzetti, 2011). In families with the lowest incomes, the probability of domestic violence is five time higher than in the households with the highest annual incomes (Renzetti, 2011). It is not surprising that poor women living in the atmosphere of domestic violence are more likely to report health problems, and the more severe the abuse the more serious these health problems become (Renzetti, 2011). All these difficulties call for the development of complex, multidisciplinary approaches to domestic violence.

Notably, Renzetti (2011) was not the only one to explore the relationship between economic difficulties and domestic violence. In 2001, Tolman and Rosen cited material deprivation as one of the main predictors of domestic violence against women. Recent domestic violence victims tend to experience more material deprivation than women who have higher incomes (Tolman & Rosen, 2001). However, Tolman and Rosen (2001) go further to suggest that the relationship between domestic violence and economic well-being is cyclical and resembles a vicious circle of difficulties: domestic violence originates from the low socioeconomic status of families and couples but also results in severe health and mental problems that further prevent women from finding a good employment and improving their economic and financial wellbeing. Health and mental problems resulting from domestic violence impede women’s attempts to achieve economic self-sufficiency (Tolman & Rosen, 2001). As a result, they cannot maintain the stability of their employment in long-term periods and subject themselves to further risks of domestic violenceand abuse. Unfortunately, there is no uniform explanation to the problem of domestic violence. Psychological theories of domestic violence are diverse. All these theories and explanations further confirm the multidisciplinary character of the domestic violence problem and necessitate the development of sophisticated policies and strategies to end violence against women in families.

Domestic Violence and Economic Stress: Explaining Psychology

Because battering (domestic violence) is a popular object of discussion and research, theories of domestic violence become more complex. New psychological, sociological, and criminological explanations of battering constantly emerge. Psychological theories have considered the problem of the relationship between economic status and violence from multiple perspectives: as a result of psychopathology, personality distress, or posttraumatic stress situations caused by serious economic hardships (Roberts, 2002). More often than not, psychologists treat domestic violence as a form of men’s striving to control the family situation and exert power and influence on women. In the conditions of economic difficulties and stress, males find it particularly difficult to control their partners (Renzetti, 2011). They view female employment and their own unemployment as a serious threat to their dominant status. As the income received by women relative to their men’s income increases, the likelihood of violence and abuse also increases (Renzetti, 2011). As a result, when considering the psychological aspects of economic stress and its potential effects on domestic violence risks, it is important to discuss women’s employment and income status in its relation to the employment status and income of men.

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Apart from the psychological aspects, a number of sociological theories can help to explain why low socioeconomic and financial status brings violence to families. First, from the family systems perspective, domestic violence can be viewed as a matter of maintaining the desirable balance of relations and forces between men and women (Roberts, 2002). Because men fail to change the system and improve their socioeconomic position, they apply to violence as an instrument of achieving the desired emotional result. If men cannot prove they are men by being breadwinners, they will use violence and physical abuse as a substitute. By being violent, men create an impression of being potent and respected by their family members, although they remain excessively susceptible to the external economic and social influences.

Back to the theme of control, the resource theory provides an interesting explanation to the effects of poverty and economic difficulties on the risks of domestic violence. “Resource theory is based on the assumption that force or the threat of force is inherent in all social systems. Those with greater resources have greater force of decision-making power” (Roberts, 2002, p.28). By contrast, those who do not have these resources use violence as the way to compensate for the lack of or decrease in their decision making influences. It is generally accepted that men must have greater financial resources and provide women with material support, and those who do not have these resources will feel unable to change the situation and govern their relationships with women. Not all men are ready to accept women’s dominance, and those who refuse to do so may resort to force as the most compelling argument against their financial weakness. Domestic violence may be also explained in terms of the exchange theory, which posits that domestic violence is just another form of interaction among family members (Roberts, 2002). These interactions build on benefits and costs. The benefits of domestic violence for men include greater control and dominance over their female partners. The benefits of being in an abusive relationship for women vary depending on a particular situation: for example, women may choose to stay in an abusive relationship simply because this is the only way to avoid death (Roberts, 2002).

Unfortunately, the current state of criminology lacks any consistent explanation to the relation between domestic violence and economic stress. In most cases, sociological theories are used to explain the effects of economic difficulties on the domestic violence risks, whereas the relevance of economic wellbeing in the domestic violence problem is taken for granted. Until present, criminologists have been relatively successful in developing their theory of exposure reduction: Dugan, Nagin and Rosenfeld (1999) proposed that the increase in employment among men could potentially reduce domestic violence by reducing the amount of time men and women spent together. However, it is difficult to imagine how women’s employment will affect domestic violence: based on today’s psychological and sociological theories of crime, women’s employment should be considered relative to their partners’ financial and employment position (Renzetti, 2011). A woman who works and earns more than her male partner may readily become an object of domestic violence, even if she does not spend a lot of time together with her male partner. Here, MacMillan and Gartner (1999) also propose a male backlash theory, which suggests that the probability of domestic violence against women will increase with an increase in their financial independence. Apparently, all these propositions require further analysis, although the importance of economic influences on domestic violence can hardly be overstated. Moreover, it is possible to assume that the lack of valid criminological explanations impedes the translation of the research findings into effective policy decisions. The latter remain one of the central objects of criminal justice concerns.  

Economic Stress, Domestic Violence, and Policy Implications

For many years, the criminal justice system tried to reduce the scope of domestic violence by punishing and incarcerating men who were found guilty of battering their female partners. Domestic violence was regarded as a serious crime. However, that domestic violence originates from males’ socioeconomic difficulties means that it is a social, not legal, problem (Hoyle & Sanders, 2000). Bailey (2010) writes that, apart from the fact that domestic violence lacks a consistent legal interpretation, it also remains a predominantly private matter, making the task of implementing laws and regulations virtually unachievable. Fearing violence, revenge and even death, women are simply unwilling to uncover their private problems and report the incidence of battering against them. Everything described in this paper points to the need to develop a complex, multidisciplinary strategy that will go beyond criminology and criminal justice and deal with domestic violence as a social and psychological problem.

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Dealing with domestic violence is not an easy task, and the best criminal justice professionals can do is to shift away from prosecution-centeredness and empower victims of domestic violence to take decisions that benefit their future (Hoyle & Sanders, 2000). Moreover, it is high time to reconsider the effectiveness of the current domestic violence laws and finally realize that not laws but complex perpetrator programs can become the best way to reduce battering. Bearing in mind the psychological, social, and criminological roots of domestic violence, incarceration can never stop men from battering their women. Incarceration is just a temporary solution to the complex problem. A more inclusive approach is needed to make sure that the wishes of the victims and their batterers are met: it is no secret that many victims of domestic violence are against incarceration (Hoyle & Sanders, 2000). Women whose batterers are incarcerated feel disappointed that incarceration decisions do not offer any treatment and do not deal with the social and economic problems causing violence in their families (Hoyle & Sanders, 2000). It is at least incorrect to believe that incarceration can help women and men to improve their economic wellbeing. Therefore, criminal justice professionals and social service providers need to develop collaborative relations and work together to end, not punish, domestic violence against women.

Domestic violence remains one of the most controversial criminal justice problems. Economic stresses are frequent causes of battering against women in families. Numerous theories were created in an attempt to explain the relationship between financial wellbeing and violence in families. Yet, the problem of domestic violence continues to persist. One of the greatest mistakes made by criminal justice professionals is treating domestic violence as a purely legal problem. Men are incarcerated, when found guilty of battering. In reality, incarceration is neither proactive in treating women and men from violence, nor can it help families to improve their economic wellbeing. Translating criminal justice theories into policy solutions is possible and desirable, but only when criminal justice professionals and social service providers need to develop collaborative relations and work together to end, not punish, domestic violence against women. 

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