There is no typical marriage, however, this is a format that can more and less be found in many new couple’s life.
What goes on in an abusive relationship? How does a marriage turn into a prison for a woman or a man? What do we mean by domestic violence? Is domestic violence specific to a certain culture?
These are questions that many of us might have when thinking about relationships that are abusive or become abusive soon after marriage. Today there is an overwhelming amount of research about violence in relationships and about the dynamics of violence. We should know that:
· The cycle of abuse and the cycle of violence live hand in hand.
· Violence in relationships does not distinguish between cultures and it happens everywhere, in every culture, and around the world.
· Victims of domestic violence, who are mostly women (although men can also be victims), generally come from all ages, all classes, and all races.
· The cycle of abuse has a pattern, a routine, a form, a shape. Research in this area defines the cycle as: triggering moments, argument, aggression, assault (physical, verbal, or psychological), moments of regret, promises to resolve issues, gifts and flowers for the victim(s), a couple of days of peaceful communication, another trigger, another fight, another argument…
· The issue of power imbalance is the key in domestic violence; the victim is cut off from family, friends, society, financial dependency, and /or self-esteem.
· Cultural issues such as the involvement of extended family in a couple’s fight or their private situations may contribute to tension and conflict.
Since we are not going to solve a “world problem” and we need to learn the signs of abuse in our own culture, we will concentrate on couples with an Iranian background. We will also look into some cultural elements of the patterns and the behaviours.
In our Iranian culture, women are in many times bound to some traditional, cultural. and societal form of oppression. By law a woman has the cultural obligations to obey her husband. However, we know that this is not always the case and the level of obedience depends on many things. Our Iranian men are also learning new ways of communicating, however, in most case scenarios men have the power.
The level of cultural capital (education, knowledge, and world view) and the type of family plays a huge role in how women are being treated.
Most women in abusive and domestic violence situations have to carry the blame for the issues occurring in their homes. There are some typical reasons for this: either women are not “listening enough” or they are not “behaving well” or they are not “dressing properly.” We can find hundreds of other “reasons” for why men have to “react” and teach women how to be what is required.
The blame on women is an issue that also happens cross-culturally, however, in Western societies legal protective measures are in place for these women. Many Iranian women, who ask for divorce while here in Canada or other Western countries, talk about the fact that they could not ask for divorce in Iran for many reasons. These include risking their family’s disgrace and feelings of guilt (aberoo and sharm).
Some men in our Iranian culture are given permission by the culture and even by law to “take care” of their “disobeying” wives. Once they immigrate, they learn that in their new country, for example here in Canada, the same behaviours are unacceptable and in most cases punishable by law. Some men are scared to death that their wives will leave them, so they use different strategies to keep them in the relationship: putting them down, name calling, accusing them of “having affairs,” “becoming whores,” or being bad mothers etc.
In order to understand what happens inside a home, we need to have studied cases. As this topic is a huge taboo in our Iranian culture and since we lack proper case-based research, it is hard to illustrate what really leads to an abusive relationship. Many anti- violence organizations and women’s support groups have done a tremendous amount of work here in North America to find out why the woman stays and under what circumstances she leaves the abusive relationship.
The world of research and the scholars of today should focus on more culture-specific and holistic approaches to finding out what cultural elements of abuse are most hard to break.
We can make a typical case in a fictitious way. We have to realize that in our Iranian homes there are some patterns of culturally accepted behaviours and norms, yet, due to many other factors, no two families live the same lifestyle.
A typical case scenario and a typical marriage in Iran (with reservation for diversity of cultures) that we all can relate to, could unfold in this way:
A young Iranian girl is getting married to a man, most likely older, who approached her family to ask for her hand. Either the two already know each other or a third party has suggested the match. The young girl will marry this man, usually not out of personal choice, but for various other reasons such as the man’s financial situation, the man’s family name, status, or a perceived love. Also, some parents would not like to keep an unmarried daughter in the home for a long period. So the reason this girl might say “yes” to a marriage might not be even close to “love.” Some delusions and illusions are always involved.
A contemporary traditional marriage is what happens in most homes today; parents and extended family members are involved, conditions for the wedding (mehrieh, Jahaz), cake, dinner, the number of guests for the party, the size of the party, and many other details are taken care of at this point. Some hidden conflicts due to various disagreements can be kept out of the equation and parents try to keep on happy faces to help their young daughter get through this important event in life.
Our fictional couple settles down either in the husband’s home or a home with the husband’s parents. In the best case scenario, the young bride moves into her husband’s home. In some wealthy families, the parents either purchase or rent a place for the new couple. Most parents, usually the bride’s, have made arrangements in form of furniture and other such details by this point. Also, most probably, the husband has a job with his father or at his father’s business. In more traditional or religious families, there are a number of customs that play a role. The main point is that the couple does not have much say in most cases, either because families want to help or want to make sure that their daughter gets married and finds a family life.
Traditionally, the husband is expected to be the breadwinner, the wife is expected to care for the home and have children. In some families, women go out and work, but most husbands persuade their wives to stay at home since life “out there” is not the best for women. In upper middle class families, the husband goes out to work and the wife may go participate in various activities, though these are “protected.” In any case, not much real initiative is encouraged.
Culturally it is acceptable for the husband to be tough and angry; he works hard and when he comes home, he has the right/permission to rule over his wife.
In families with no boundaries or respect for the couple’s private life, many parents and extended families get involved. Parents usually advise their newly wed daughters to become pregnant and bring a child into the world with the belief that “the child” will keep the husband at home! Many times the bride is forced to have children to make the husband’s parents happy. Culturally, children serve the purpose of making adults happy and causing the husband to become more attached to the home.
Tensions start to appear; if the couple does not have a good foundation in life, they trigger each other. Sensitive areas such as “my mom” vs. “your mom” are often the reasons for conflicts. When a lack of respect, name calling, and negative attitudes are involved, most women tend to be quiet and to avoid conflict so as to stay in the marriage in any way they can. Yet there are some who would think of their options.
There is a notion in our Persian marriage culture that the couple will “become like each other,” meaning they will get used to each other and adopt behaviors from each other. Alternatively, from the beginning whoever has the most power will try to make the other one like him/her, so there’s no chance for individuality. Men are physically stronger, have deeper voices, can be physical, and can threaten as well.
Battering, if it starts early on, occurs because the husband is attempting to express the gender differences and gender dominance. Expressing masculinity, in all patriarchal systems, is considered to be a good thing for men, who need to act like men, who do not feel emotions, who “put” women in their places, who can punish, and who can maintain control over family life. Research shows that gender identity is established between ages 1 to 3. Boys in most families are taught to be men and to stand up for their families, while girls are taught to be caregivers and nurturers.
If the wife’s mother was also abused and controlled, she learned early on that she has to become like her mother, that she has to care for her husband, who like her father, kicked, screamed, and yelled. The daughter has to learn from her mother, who loved and nurtured her angry and hostile husband.
The couple in our example may bond with each other and attachment will happen, even in the presence of family violence and abuse.
After a few years, the couple decides to move to Canada. The couple gets excited over the move and thinks that their issues will soon be solved–life outside Iran sounds and seems so different. However, unresolved conflicts move with this family to their new community. In addition, the problems and adjustment issues related to migration need to be taken care of in the first couple of years of life in a new country. This prompts promises after promises from the husband, that now the couple has to stay together because of new life situations. Children have to be sent to school and adjustment issues for them are sometimes overwhelming for parents. If the relationship is still abusive and violent, the victim who is mostly the woman will wait for the children “reach somewhere,” whether a certain point in school, or a certain age before acting/leaving.
In the midst of a life in a more woman-friendly country, the wife learns that she has rights and indeed that help is available; she also knows her rights intuitively, yet, she needs time to learn to stand up for herself. The husband does not want to let go of his excessive anger, resentment, and violent behaviours, and he still hangs on to the macho man he was before.
The wife asks her husband to go for counselling; someone has advised them to see a counsellor. The husband thinks his wife is crazy and that she alone needs to go for counselling—he denies having any problems. The wife is blamed for being the source of the problem, the one who needs to attend a “mental hospital.”
Sometimes, the wife denies having any problems and she misuses her power in the family to hurt and to cause pain!
All the fights, arguments, or silences suffered by both parties happen inside the home and their children witness this. Children are often caught in the middle. If the husband is a suspicious type, he will use his children to spy on their mother.
If divorce comes in to the picture, the husband is still trying to intimidate his wife, threatening her for various reasons, telling her how useless she is, blaming her for having affairs with other men, and involving children in this marriage-custody-divorce battle.
Everyone is hurt, though mostly the children and the wife. The husband is also in pain, but he has hard time accepting the reality and asking for help.
Some couples do seek the proper help and they resolve issues; some fight until the end. Things can be prevented if the couple learns to deal with the problems early on.
We can always talk about our differences and issues in order to find our similarities and common interests! We need to learn how to build healthy relationships; this is why marriage counselling and pre-marriage counselling exists!
Get the help you need and deserve. No one should suffer in a relationship. If we cannot make a good couple, sometimes we can be good friends, and we can live our lives and co-parent if we have to.
The list is much longer in some families and different in others. What we know is that the cycle of abuse and violence knows no border. It is universal, yet, cultural influences are huge and they have to be identified in our Iranian one!
December 3, 2007