'Till Death Do Us Part: Love, Marriage, and the Mind of the Killer Spouseby Robi Ludwig, Matt Birkbeck
Every day six people in the United States are murdered by spouses or intimate partners. The stories of killer spouses tend to captivate us, as they beg the question of how so many seemingly normal and happy people manage to go over the edge. Indeed, every relationship presents "extreme moments" where scary feelings surface, yet what happens when those feelings turn to action?
In Till Death Do Us Part, noted psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig, along with journalist Matt Birkbeck, presents the psychological profiles of notorious killer spouses -- from Scott Peterson and Clara Harris to Rabbi Fred Neulander and Betty Broderick. Ludwig reveals ten killer personality types. These ten personality types are defined in detail and illustrated with examples from high-profile cases along with in-depth analyses of the motivations behind the murders. The ten types range from the Betrayal/Abandonment Killer (who loses control and kills from a broken heart) to the Control Killer (who micromanages every aspect of the spouse's life) and the Black Widow/Profit Killer (who kills for money).
With gripping stories and probing insight, authors Ludwig and Birkbeck examine the concept of peaceful versus violent resolution and why certain spouses believe murder is the best and only response. In an age when spousal murder is headline news, Till Death Do Us Part explores a phenomenon that many spouses can't help but think about at some point in their relationships -- which sheds light on the very notion of "happily ever after."
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Marriage is a dynamic and ever changing institution with its share of potentially major problems. Although many couples find it extremely fulfilling, just as many, if not more, find it difficult and heartbreaking.
The stark reality is that the majority of marriages fail. And many marriages are full of violence and abuse, which sometimes escalates to murder. In light of these potential drawbacks, one can raise a very good question: Why marry at all? In fact, why do human beings pair off knowing there's a greater chance the emotional and financial investment will be for naught? One could ask the question, "What's the point?"
Marriage emerged some forty-five hundred years ago and evolved into a widespread and accepted institution that bonded families, maintained order, and created wealth. Unlike today, where many of us are searching for our romantic "soul mate," marriage was originally more about economics than deep emotion. In her book Marriage: A History, Professor Stephanie Coontz writes that until recently marriage was considered far too important to be determined by something as irrational as love and was more or less a business venture, an institution that provided for the necessities of day-to-day existence and survival of the species. It was only over the last century that the primary motivation to marry was based on feelings and emotion rather than the ability to provide stability.
Today, given the stark reality that marriage is prone to failure, are there psychological and biological underpinnings that pull us in this direction, and not only once or twice but over and over and over again?
According to Professor David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Texas, we as humans are designed to fall in love. However, we may not be equally as inclined to stay in love. Buss and others believe that it is "natural" for both men and women to become disenchanted with a mate, suddenly finding him/her irritating, unattractive, or totally unreasonable, their flaws revealing their true selves and the mind going into "the grass is greener" mode. For married adults this often leads to adultery.
One look at the numbers and it's easy to see that many people find their mates unsatisfactory on many levels. According to several studies, a whopping 80 percent of married males and 50 percent of married females have sex with outside partners. It's also natural for many married individuals to find some other person superior on most counts when compared to the terribly flawed spouse one is saddled with. Although this may sound hopeless in terms of achieving a successful relationship, what is natural is not necessarily unchangeable. On the flip side, long-lasting, happily married couples do feel better about their lives, and they live longer, too.
According to biological logic, men tend to look for women with physical characteristics that indicate they are at the peak of their childbearing years, while women seek security. But some believe the so-called logic of this theory is flawed.
All of us are evolutionary survivors. We had to be made of strong stock in order to survive the environmental challenges thrown our way. While both sexes are certainly vulnerable to infidelity, men are much more inclined to actually acquire additional mates (like a harem) or to engage in a casual fling.
If we look at the DNA of love, genes don't speak per se, but they do affect our behavior by creating feelings and emotions that build and are maintained, thereby altering our brain chemistry. Anthropologists have discovered what laypeople have known for years -- that love between a man and woman is universal. Marriage, like love, is also universal. So marriage, at least from an evolutionary perspective, functions as a social reproductive arrangement that customarily involves the extended family and provides a way to raise a stable and healthy family.
Helen Fisher's essay "The Nature and Evolution of Romantic Love" concludes that all of these qualities -- love, attraction, sexual chemistry -- result in raising a family with children and increasing the chances for survival. So, to love a child and develop the appropriate paternal investment requires having certain relationships in place. From the biological perspective, the first step toward becoming loving and devoted parents was for a man and woman to develop a mutual attraction. The genetic payoff of having two parents committed to a child's welfare seems to be the main reason why men and women fall in love and swoon over one another.
Having two parents rather than one ensures a better chance for the offspring to survive and procreate. Unlike our nearest animal relatives, humans are a species of "high parental investment." In every known hunter-gatherer society, marriage is the standard -- not necessarily monogamous marriage, and not always lasting marriage, but nonetheless a marriage of some sort.
While marriages in the past were more practical unions than they are today (when marriage is supposed to be loved-based) people have been selecting mates since the beginning of time. And when we look for a person to spend the rest of our lives with we often imagine an ideal Mr. or Ms. Right. An ideal life partner is someone whose personality, compatibilities, and purposes align with our own. If someone corresponds to our internal image of the "perfect" dream lover, we may "fall in love" with him or her. But the fact is we can easily get turned on by men or women whom we would not and should not consider an appropriate marital partner.
So, if we decide we are going to spend most of our adult lives married to one person, we have probably built up some specific ideas about what kind of man or woman this person should be. The ideal mate for most of us would be someone who turns us on sexually, who would be a great parent, and who we can feel romantic toward. The more discerning person may select someone who he or she can live with even if their romantic feelings are not as intense as they may be with other people.
Even as adults, men and women still want to be taken care of, and many of us balk at the idea of committing ourselves to the often multiple grim realities of responsibility and adulthood. This inability to accept adult responsibility contributes to our romantic fantasies, in which we are completely and effortlessly cared for.
And that takes us back to our childhood.
Some of the most popular love songs could also be describing the mother/infant relationship, i.e., Leanne Rimes, "How Do I Live without You?" or Celine Dion's "I'm Everything I Am Because You Love Me." We're often pulled back to that blissful, chronic state of infantile helplessness. In other words, we hope when we marry, our childhood needs and wishes will be met.
These powerful fantasies and wishes underscore our deep yearning for an intimate connection to another person. This is ultimately who we want and hope we will end up with when we finally fall in love, choose our mate, and get married.
The characteristics of a person's attachments exist the day a person is born. In every romantic relationship our adult attachment style mimics the way a baby feels toward his or her mother, who is usually the main caregiver. Lovers can also see each other as a child that needs to be taken care of. From the crib to the tomb, this biological behavioral system governs our close relationships. And there is no adult relationship closer or that has more expectations placed on it than the marital relationship.
Freud viewed love from the perspective of the sexual drive and theorized that love and sexuality are rooted in infancy. A person's first love is his mother. The mother/first-love object provides the infant with not only food and nourishment, but also with a supply of sexual pleasure that he or she will later on seek from his or her adult lover. Freud looks at adult love and sexuality as an extension or rediscovery of motherly love.
According to researchers Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron, authors of Love and the Expansion of Self: Understanding Attraction and Satisfaction, love can be viewed as an expansion of the self. We are attached to others because they will help us be everything we can be, which, in addition to familiarity, is a major prediction of attraction. In the beginning of a relationship, similarity draws us to a person, helping us to feel familiar with and in sync with him or her.
Many people in the psychological community believe the unconscious mind plays the most significant role in who we fall in love with. Some profess that we fall in love because the unconscious mind believes it has found the partner who will finally make up for both the emotional and psychological damage we experienced in our youth, thus making us whole again. According to psychologist Dr. Harville Hendrix, from the moment we are born we are complicated and dependent beings who continue to have an ever-changing circuit of needs. Freud noted correctly that humans are "insatiable beings and no parent, no matter how devoted, is able to respond perfectly to all of these changing needs."
Fairy tales and folklore also influence our ideas about love, marriage, and relationships. The attractiveness of many myths and legends comes from the basic human needs and experience they reflect.
One of the major themes in many legends is love and marriage. The most appealing characters are the heroes and heroines. The typical hero is the knight in shining armor while the leading female character tends to be the passive princess, waiting for that one special man to rescue her and carry her off into the sunset. What is of note is that most of these myths and legends are written by men. The knights, for instance, were often murderers and rapists. But these myths embody the male fantasy of what men want women to be and how men want to be viewed by women, as heroes who transform women and so become their saviors.
Almost every little girl wants to be a fairy-tale princess. My 2 1/2-year-old daughter is going through this phase right now. On the most fundamental of levels these princess stories, such as Cinderella, are tales of transformation. Most of them are about turning one kind of girl into someone fantastically different, which is also a common thematic element in books, television, and film. Today there's a huge appetite for these kinds of stories among viewers of "reality" TV for example, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Extreme Makeover, to name just a few.
The princess theme or syndrome is a story of social mobility, the idea that a women rises or climbs socially by virtue of the man she chooses to be attached to. It's not politically correct or progressive but nevertheless still holds credence today. There is still a princess attitude, if you will, among some girls and young women -- that marrying well, especially financially well -- will lead to the life of a princess.
The conflict is that the princess has a fundamentally passive role: She must wait to be chosen. In abusive relationships, it is often this very power imbalance that contributes to and in some cases exacerbates the violence and mistreatment in an intimate partnership. Sleeping Beauty is probably the most extreme story of the passive-role princess; she does absolutely nothing but sleep yet is transformed into a princess and lives happily ever after with her prince.
So what's the psychological appeal of such fairy tale romances? It doesn't matter what time period these stories are set in or what professional choices the hero or heroine makes. After the "Once upon a time . . ." opening, there later comes that much anticipated magical moment in any great fairy tale (just like in real-life romance): the perfect ending, when the couple walks into the sunset to finally . . . "Live happily ever after." The happily-ever-after is always there to look forward to. This firmly engrained idea can actually blind some people and help them stay in relationships that are potentially damaging, even lethal.
Fairy tales and romance are intimately linked and reflect both our deep wishes and deep fears. The fairy tale ends with the prince and the princess marrying and riding off into the sunset to start a new and amazing life together as husband and wife. Their life is full of promise, romance, and above all love. The problem is that no one tells us how it happens, why it succeeds, or if in fact it does. It alludes to this notion that true love is effortless and automatic if it is right and meant to be. Again, a major falsehood when it comes to real-life relationships.
Although few women expect to literally marry a royal prince, subconsciously they have assimilated these culturally essential messages. They transfer the fairy tale fantasies into real life and exalt acquiescence to male power, believing marriage to be not only an ideal state, but the ultimate domain toward which a woman should aspire. This idealization reflects a cultural attitude toward marriage and maternity as not only praiseworthy but predestined.
So fairy tales, aside from encouraging fantasies, also transmit romantic myths that encourage women to internalize ultraconservative aspirations which include what our real sexual functions should be within a male-influenced society. Interesting that this cultural fairy tale idea is closely linked with the evolutionary perspective of the primary function of marriage, which is to raise strong offspring so a man and woman can continue to spread their genes.
In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast's magical transformation into a devastatingly handsome prince makes it possible for Belle to have a love affair that is no longer grotesque. The story exemplifies the female hope that one can change a man's dark side with the right kind of love. Other characters, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, are rewarded for dreamily waiting for their prince and their patient servitude, while the Beast's transformation rewards Belle for accepting traditional female virtues.
Marriage serves as a bridge between these worlds of fantasy and reality. "Once upon a time" pulls us into a world of timeless fantasies and wish fulfillment with the wedding ceremony placing a person back into a more contemporary reality.
"Once upon a time" is then superimposed on the reality of marriage and becomes a major influence shaping a woman's experience and ideas on what her part of marriage should be. So again, even though women do not expect a fairy godmother to transform their rags into couture ball gowns, marriage is a state sought by many women. Women often expect or want marriage to provide them with happy domesticity, complete with a doting male to rescue them from the future dangers of life.
As illogical as these fantasies may be, in real life it is often true that romantic myth rather than actual experience influences women's expectations of men and marriage. If she cannot be a "real" princess, a woman can at least hope to become a sheltered wife, admired by a "prince of a man" who gives her children and maintains a happy home.
Even today many women still internalize romantic patterns and ideas that reference ancient tales. Although most women are aware that men are not princes and, in fact, some are unchangeable beasts, there still remains a deep-seated longing and female dream of the "perfect and fabulous man." Some believe as long as women buy into these romantic ideas they will be even more vulnerable to deceptions and disillusionments.
The dedicated romantic, or in extreme cases romantic obsessive, will reconstruct her reality into unsubstantiated, self-deluding fantasies by overlooking flaws and vehemently clinging to the more glorious aspect of matrimonial life. In the most severe cases, this rose-colored-glasses approach to a relationship can be devastating or even lethal for a woman (think Laci Peterson).
Everyone wants to have a love that is more powerful than anyone or anything in the world, and that is precisely what romance novels and soap operas deliver. An amazingly handsome, sexy, intelligent, and empathic man falls madly in love with a fiercely independent and beautiful young woman. They tease each other and flirt and eventually make mad, passionate love. The story concludes with a proposal or wedding, sometimes a baby, and they live happily ever after -- the end.
The heroes in these romances are not ashamed of their desires, and their heroines are flattered by them. The relationship is held together by butterflies-in-your-stomach, breathless, passionate love. Women want all of this. They are drawn to these stories of seduction and passion. Soap operas and reality TV shows explore these themes of romance, and finding one's only true love appeals to audiences. These are modern examples of how we believe the right relationship can transform our lives, so they can resemble the lives in the fairy tale romances we so desperately admire.
According to the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah, "forty days before conception a bat kol (heavenly voice) calls out that this one is destined to partner with that one." The noted Kabalist Isaac Luria further expands on this idea by stating that each of us is a part of different soul types and that certain soul types are more likely to connect than others.
The concept of the soul mate is another powerful idea that influences romance and who we want as a marital partner. Today, some believe in the esoteric notion that a soul mate is a person whom you have shared several lifetimes with through reincarnation. Others share the belief of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who opined that a soul mate is a person's "other half."
Today people all over the world embrace the idea that we are all searching for someone to complete us and make us whole, much like the hero played by Tom Cruise in the film Jerry Maguire. Lines such as "you complete me" and "you had me at hello" underscore the theme of finding the one and only perfect person designed especially for us, someone to share this journey of life with.
Most people think that a soul mate will accept and love every part of our personality, and that therefore life with a soul mate will be natural and effortless. I often hear disgruntled married patients in my office talk about how frustrated they are when a spouse does not know what they want and need, even if they have not shared or stated just what it is they need from that spouse.
The soul mate concept is a compelling one. Our soul mate is supposed to share our deepest thoughts and longings no matter what goes wrong around us. We are supposed to feel safe around this person who makes our life seem worth living. There is a divine grace surrounding the soul mate connection.
The dictionary defines soul mates as two persons compatible with each other in disposition, point of view, or sensitivity; between whom there is a deep affinity and temperamental harmony. Our perceptions of a soul mate and love relationships are largely based on movies, books, television, and fairy tales. Hollywood reinforces their notions of fate and soul mates, often examining the idea that people are effortlessly drawn together by destiny or fate, carrying over their love even after death.
Such notions of love and romance can be very misleading, because they present only part of the picture of what relationships are all about. To make the story more appealing, we see only the harmonious or marketable aspects of relationships with the underscoring theme that if we could just find our other half we could then reach true bliss and harmony.
According to psychologist Erich Fromm, "the desire for interpersonal fusion is the most powerful striving in man. It is the most fundamental passion. It is the force which keeps the human race together, the clan, the family, the society."
Why is this pull for a soul mate so powerful and universal? Well, logically, it stems from a place that we all have experienced, the womb. The intrauterine bonding occurrence is probably the most organic and influential experience we will ever have. Although it predates language and therefore can't necessarily be described in words, this experience is registered in each person's psyche.
A remarkable body of research suggests that the unborn child is aware, feeling and remembering what happens during those nine months which mold and shape its personality and ambition. Many believe that consciousness exists from the moment of conception -- from the sixth month on, a fetus can hear, remember, and according to some even learn.
The womb is a child's very first experience of the world, and how he or she experiences it plays a major role in who this child will be both in character and temperament. While in utero everything the fetus needs is provided: food, oxygen, security, and safety. Nothing needs to be said or done; it's all automatic. When you think about it, this is the feeling state that finding a soul mate ideally should give us, a feeling of oneness and of automatically being taken care of.
As previously discussed, relationships, especially marital relationships, once were more for practical and economic reasons. Societal pressures dictated that couples, no matter what they were feeling, were supposed to stay together. This is certainly not the way things are today. People are following their hearts and their gut feelings when choosing the kind of partner and relationship they think is best for them. We expect a lot from marriage, and if a relationship is not meeting our needs, then a marriage is likely to end.
As a result of cultural brainwashing, we are programmed to believe that we need to find that one perfect person to meet all of our needs for the rest of our lives. This, of course, is impossible. But many of us still strive for it and believe we have failed if our expectations are not met. This distorted idealism and over-the-top expectation can set one up for major disappointment. For the fragile or disturbed mind, this disappointment can lead to violence and murder.
Spousal violence has been well documented throughout history (think Henry VIII). Women were viewed as nothing more than property, the home was the man's castle, and women were to worship the man or face the consequences.
In past societies, getting rid of an inadequate wife was considered a legal right. Early Roman law allowed a man to beat, divorce, or murder his wife for the slightest offense, from dishonoring him to threatening his property rights. During the Middle Ages, when spousal violence was systemic, women who sought advice from their local priest were told only to be even more devoted and obedient to their husbands to win their approval, and hopefully lessen the abuse.
If the wife sought a divorce she could be beaten or killed, so she often had little choice but to grin and bear the abuse. However, in some instances, women fought back. For a woman the murder of a husband was, in some cases, a reflection of a societal need for an adequate divorce system, her unspoken defense: "Society gave me no other choice."
Today, there are plenty of choices for men and for women. Yet as you read through the ten motivations and triggers I found behind these murders, you will see that some people are unable to cope via modern-day resolutions, and in the end resort to handling their problems the old-fashioned way, through violence and murder. Copyright ©2006 by Dr. Robi Ludwig and Matt Birkbeck
Meet the Author
Dr. Robi Ludwig is a nationally known psychotherapist and award-winning reporter. A frequent guest commentator on a variety of programs, including CNN's Larry King Live, Nancy Grace, NBC's Today show, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Ludwig provides commentary on the motivations behind the criminal mind. She lives and works in New York.
Matt Birkbeck is the author of A Beautiful Child: A True Story of Hope, Horror, and an Enduring Human Spirit and A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst. A reporter for The Morning Call, he served for nearly a decade as a correspondent covering crime and human interest stories for People magazine, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Reader's Digest, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other periodicals. He lives in Pennsylvania.
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Seeing shades of these types of personalities in my law practice, this book sheds light on danger signals, motiviations, thought processes of these types of individuals. However, it is only a primer, and goes without saying that a more in depth examination could have been included.