Abusive Endings: Separation and Divorce Violence against Women

Abusive Endings: Separation and Divorce Violence against Women

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Abusive Endings offers a thorough analysis of the social-science literature on one of the most significant threats to the health and well-being of women today—abuse at the hands of their male partners. The authors provide a moving description of why and how men abuse women in myriad ways during and after a separation or divorce. The material is punctuated with the stories and voices of both perpetrators and survivors of abuse, as told to the authors over many years of fieldwork. Written in a highly readable fashion, this book will be a useful resource for researchers, practitioners, activists, and policy makers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520961159
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Series: Gender and Justice , #4
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Walter S. DeKeseredy is Anna Deane Carlson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences, Director of the Research Center on Violence, and Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at West Virginia University. 

Molly Dragiewicz is Associate Professor in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology. 

Martin D. Schwartz is Professional Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at George Washington University, and Professor Emeritus and Presidential Research Scholar at Ohio University. 

Read an Excerpt

Abusive Endings

Separation and Divorce Violence against Women

By Walter S. Dekeseredy, Molly Dragiewicz, Martin D. Schwartz, Claire M. Renzetti


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96115-9


Conceptualizing Separation/Divorce Violence against Women

[M]ale partners believe they, and not their wives or third parties such as judges and lawyers, are primarily responsible for deciding when they are truly separated or even divorced from the female partners who left them.

Ellis, Stuckless, and Smith 2015, 2

The argument above applies not only to patriarchal married men but also to many sexist males in cohabiting and more casual relationships. As we have repeatedly stated elsewhere (e.g., DeKeseredy and Schwartz 2009), numerous men, regardless of the type of intimate union they want to maintain, have a "fanatical determination" to prevent their partners from exiting a relationship. They use a variety of means to try "to keep them in their place" (Russell 1990). Sometimes these methods turn out to be lethal, and the motivation may be mixed with some notion of "If I can't have you then no one can." Researchers have termed the killing of females by male partners intimate femicide (Adams 2007; Dobash and Dobash 2015).

Jody Lee Hunt has provided a recent example. On December 1, 2014, he murdered his former girlfriend Sharon Kay Berkshire, two of her lovers (Michael Frum and Jody Taylor), and Doug Brady, a business competitor, before killing himself. These were not Hunt's first violent acts nor his first act of violence against women. He had committed a number of the acts that many researchers claim are risk factors associated with intimate femicide, and, in fact, Berkshire herself had filed restraining orders against him in late 2013 and October 2014. For example, in 1999, Hunt had abducted and held his pregnant girlfriend at gunpoint for several hours in a Winchester, Virginia, auto-parts factory before surrendering to police. He was sentenced to three years in prison for this, though Virginia allowed him to serve his time concurrently with a five-year term in West Virginia for wanton endangerment (Licata, Fehrens, and Hoff 2014). With an earlier Pennsylvania conviction, this gave Hunt criminal convictions in three states. In 2006, he was court ordered to pay more than $12,000 in back child support (Stroud and Mattise 2014).

Mass murderers tend to be greeted with outrage in the media. In Hunt's case, however, his prior hurtful conduct received short shrift from the local mainstream media when compared to the journalistic attention focused on suggestions from friends and family that he was not, in fact, a violent man. After he killed four people, the press reported such reactions as "I just think the man had a total breakdown. Overwhelmed from the grief of a love lost and money problems" (cited in Mayo 2014, 1). One of Hunt's friends was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, "Our Jody wasn't that man." Hunt's second cousin said that he "was the type of person that wanted to help everybody out" (cited in DPost.com 2014, 1). And Brian Nicholson, one of Hunt's employees, said, "But he wasn't (enraged). He held it in. But a body can only take so much, I guess" (cited in Goldstein 2014, 1). After being sure to portray Hunt as basically a good man who suddenly "lost it," a local newspaper, the Dominion Post, published a lead story two days after the killings about a candlelight vigil held for Hunt at J&J Towing and Repair.

What compels a man such as Jody Hunt to commit murder? Certainly it is easy to dismiss him as a man who is sick or "mentally disturbed," as Monongalia County Sheriff Al Kisner did. However, one aim of this book is to debunk the myth that men who kill intimate partners are all mentally disturbed. Of course, some killers do have serious mental health problems (just as there are such people in all walks of everyday life), but the truth is that most men who engage in lethal and nonlethal violence against women are "less pathological than expected" (Gondolf 1999, 1). Men with serious mental disorders account for only about 10 percent of all incidents of intimate violence (DeKeseredy 2011). Much more will be said about intimate femicide in relationships and why men kill the women who want to, are trying to, or who actually leave them, in Chapters 2 and 4. Our concern in this book is with violence against these women (and the peripheral damage visited on people nearby, as seen in the Hunt case).

An important definitional problem faces us immediately, however. What is separation/divorce violence? Sometimes it is easy to define. Violence after a formal court ordered declaration of divorce can usually be simple to categorize. People who have court orders of formal separation can also be delineated. However, sometimes people are effectively separated without meeting the technical requirements for legal separation. Others, we argue, are effectively separated even without living apart. Thus, one of the objectives of this first chapter is to challenge the "common sense" notion that it is essential for a couple to be living apart to be considered separated or divorced. We will make the case for a broad, gender-specific definition of separation/divorce violence.


New studies on the topics covered in this book are being conducted, and some new theories are being constructed, but one thing the social scientific community has not agreed on is a firm definition of separation/divorce (DeKeseredy and Schwartz 2011). Among those who study intimate relationships, the problem of defining violence against women has led to scholarly debates that are "old, fierce, and unlikely to be resolved in the near future" (Kilpatrick 2004, 1218). This debate has been duplicated in this newer and more narrow field of conceptualizing separation/divorce violence. Although researchers here tend to admire each other's work, they remain divided into two camps (DeKeseredy and Rennison, 2013b) over the question of whether there must be physical separation to be included in this category. This is hardly a trivial concern, because how relationships and behaviors are defined can have major effects on the lives of people. Definitions are used as tools in social struggles. For example, one powerful political tool has been the rate of unemployment in a society, but little attention is paid by the general public to how these figures are derived. Is a graduate research engineer who works twenty hours a week for minimum wage at an ice cream stand over the summer fully employed? Is someone who has spent years looking for a new job but has now given up and sits at home awaiting word of some new opportunity an unemployed person? Usually, the answer is that the first is fully employed, and the second is no longer unemployed because she has stopped actively applying for jobs. Similarly, the definition of the poverty line is both a political tool and a practical one. Setting the line low, or not changing it with inflation, means that fewer people are "living in poverty," although they are as poor as ever. If the poverty line determines things such as who qualifies for shelter or subsidized housing or food aid, it can have major health consequences also. Violence against women is another politicized topic, and the definitions we devise and the way we use concepts turn back on us and reflect a particular reality (DeKeseredy and Schwartz 2011). Just as we can reduce the number of people living in "poverty" by changing the definition of poverty, we can devise definitions in the violence against women arena that ignore and abandon many women.

Thus, to define separation/divorce violence, we must first decide what constitutes "separation." One way to do this is to look at the legal definition. Jody Hunt and Sharon Berkshire had lived together, but she had moved out. However, West Virginia law defines legal separation only in terms of a temporary status for married couples preparatory to divorce (HG.org 2015). In fact, Berkshire had completely severed the relationship with Hunt and had begun a new relationship with Michael Frum, and later moved in with him. Hunt had no legal ties to her of any sort. Does this mean that they were not "separated" and that his crime was not one of separation/divorce violence?

But that is not the major problem here. Most social scientific studies of separation/divorce assault are willing to assume that any couple formerly living together and now separated physically can be considered to be separated or divorced. For example, Brownridge (2009) restricts his analysis to "post-separation violence," which he defines as "any type of violence perpetrated by a former married or cohabiting male partner or boyfriend subsequent to the moment of physical separation" (56). Although this definition would cover Hunt/Berkshire, we would disagree with both his conceptualization and with state laws as being too narrow. Separation and divorce are not functions only of proximity and physical space. We agree with Brownridge that a woman does not have to be legally related to a man to experience separation/divorce abuse. The problem is that many women remain in the same households as their male partners but are emotionally separated from them. One definition of emotional separation, a major predictor of a permanent end to a relationship, is a woman's denial or restriction of sexual relations and other intimate exchanges (Ellis and DeKeseredy 1997). Of course, it may involve a variety of activities to disentangle oneself emotionally from a partner, even if a strategic decision is made to continue to engage in sexual relations. This distancing, indeed, may not involve any outward behavior changes in the woman. However, recognizably emotionally exiting a relationship can be just as dangerous as physically or legally exiting one because it, too, increases the likelihood of male violence and other types of abuse, including stalking and sexual assault (Block and DeKeseredy 2007; DeKeseredy and Schwartz 2009; McFarlane and Malecha 2005). Of course, many women emotionally exit a relationship before ending it with physical separation and are not subjected to violence, just as many women physically separate and divorce men without later physical violence. The issue here is that, by defining separation as requiring physical separation, one defines away the great many cases where women who are not yet ready economically or emotionally (or are too frightened to leave) are subjected to physical, psychological, or economic violence — or even lethal violence.

Female emotional exits are common, especially if women are in abusive relationships and have difficulties leaving. This may not be a linear process, where emotional separation builds until the day that she moves out or begins a discussion of why he needs to move out. All too often it is unplanned, precipitated or propelled forward by unexpected events or playing out in unplanned-for directions. A difficulty in moving forward might be financial, in that she may not be able to set up a new household, especially if she has children. Sometimes the difficulty is fear, when she believes his claims that he will kill her if she leaves. She may leave, only to have him track her down and force her to return. Often the problem is that she has no support from her family, her friends, the police, or the clergy, who all may tell her that her place is with her husband (R. Klein 2012). Of course, there are other reasons and stories. None of this is new or unknown to workers in the field. These are not the women who, according to a popular belief, are "unable to make decisions in their own interest" (Davies, Lyon, and Monti-Catania 1998, 14). Rather, Okun (1986) found that women left their abusers an average of five times before permanently successfully ending the relationship. Horton and Johnson (1993) reported in their study that it took women who were leaving abusive men an average of eight years to permanently exit.

What is often not discussed in the field is that large numbers of women emotionally exit their relationship but remain physically "based on whether they have the resources and social support necessary to leave an abusive relationship, the assailants' expected responses, and the fact that the assailants' behavior is not within their control unless society cooperates" (Goodkind et al. 2003, 350). Resources and social support are vital if a woman is to safely exit a dangerous relationship. This may involve neighbors providing a safe place to sleep, supportive relatives, community social service agencies willing to help her set up a new home, or finding the fairly large amount of money that it takes in many cities to get an apartment and make down payments on utilities, in addition to obtaining furniture and clothes. If she has children, the financial and emotional toll expands dramatically (R. Klein 2012), and many options may be legally closed off to her.

If a survivor's neighbors, relatives, or community members adhere to "nonintervention norms" (Browning 2002), she may have no options but to stay and instead to engage in emotional exiting. A survivor of separation/ divorce assault interviewed by DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2009) provides a powerful example:

There was too many of them that stood out of their homes and it was really aggravating, really aggravating when, I mean, it took my son to beg for my life. But here is our neighbors out here, seeing this man beat this female off the swing set, beating her with his fist, kicking her with his feet, grabbing her by the hair of her head, smearing her face and what, ... you're gonna stand up there and aren't gonna call the law? Or you are gonna stand up there and you aren't gonna come down? ... But they could clearly see us. And they was outside standing and he was just thumping me so hard, so hard. And nobody called the law. Nobody did. Nobody came down to yank him off me. Nobody did anything. (11)

Although social scientists have long studied events where witnesses fail to help someone being attacked, it is unclear whether nonintervention norms are more prominent in rural than in urban areas. Recently, online bulletin boards lit up across the country debating the wisdom of intervention after the July 4, 2015, stabbing up to forty times of a young man being robbed on a busy MetroRail (subway) train in Washington, D.C. (CBS News 2015). There is no guarantee that neighbors or the public will intervene in any attack, and there are plenty of people and police to argue that it is always a bad idea for untrained members of the public to intervene, because they too can then get hurt (Dvorak 2015).

As will be made more explicit in Chapter 4, many women can only emotionally exit because they have a well-founded fear of physically leaving their partners due to these men's extremely jealous and possessive behaviors. We could provide readers with numerous examples of women terrified to "flee the house of horrors" because they have routinely heard their partners say "If I can't have you, nobody can," "You have no right to leave me," and "I own you" (Adams 2007, 166; Sev'er 2002). Such fear is not at all irrational. These threats are all too often real: the risk of lethal and nonlethal assaults peaks in the first two months following separation and when women attempt permanent separation through legal or other means (DeKeseredy and Schwartz 2009; Ellis, Stuckless, and Smith 2015). It is thus not surprising to hear that many of Stark's (2007) female clients told him that "they were never more frightened than in the days, weeks, or months after they moved out" (116).

The above relatively short time frame is referred to by Ellis, Stuckless, and Smith (2015) as the proximal phase of separation: the two- to "six-month period immediately following the female partner's move to a separate residence and the initiation of formal separation proceedings" (9–10). More specifically, Ellis and his colleagues identify two other phases, covering the period before the man finds out that she plans to leave (acute), and the period more than six months after separation (distal). They found that the risk of male-to-female violence varied in each phase, with the risk highest in the proximal phase. Although these categories are quite helpful and do underline the great danger in the period immediately following the physical separation, there is another phase that these researchers left out: the period between the time that the man realizes that the woman is going to separate, and the time that she actually does. This would include the time when she is actually in the process of moving out. Although this area has not been well studied, we would argue that this is, in fact, the most dangerous phase of all. One important piece of evidence came in DeKeseredy and Schwartz's (2009) qualitative study of separation/divorce sexual assault in rural southeast Ohio. There, thirty-two (74 percent) of the forty-three victimized women interviewed were sexually assaulted when they expressed a desire to leave a relationship but before they actually took the physical step of separation. Twenty-one (49 percent) were sexually abused when they were trying to leave or while they were leaving, and fourteen (33 percent) were victimized after they left. Sexual assault may or may not have a slightly different dynamic than the physical assault that we are talking about in this chapter, but it does give us reason to believe that physical assault would follow the same pattern. Much more difficult to measure might be lethal assault (Dobash and Dobash 2015), which we also suggest would peak right after the woman announces a decision to leave.


Excerpted from Abusive Endings by Walter S. Dekeseredy, Molly Dragiewicz, Martin D. Schwartz, Claire M. Renzetti. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Conceptualizing Separation/Divorce Violence against Women
2. The Extent and Distribution of Separation/Divorce Assault
3. New Technologies and Separation/Divorce Violence against Women
4. Explaining Separation/Divorce Violence against Women
5. Children as Collateral Victims of Separation/Divorce Woman Abuse
6. What Is to Be Done about Separation/Divorce Violence against Women?


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