Domestic violence, the other way round

All domestic violence is presumed to be perpetrated by men. But psychologists say it's not always the case.

Acouple sits in a counsellor's office for a joint session, and the therapist asks the husband what he thinks is amiss in his marriage. The man hesitates. The therapist encourages him to speak. He says his wife isn't loving enough. In a flash, she gets up and slaps him across the face for speaking against her.

The news about a man desperately dialling 100 as his wife thrashed him made headlines last week, but it wasn't surprising to psychologists. Psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty gets four to five cases a month of domestic violence against men; marriage counsellor Dr Rajan Bhonsle sees three to four. In sharp contrast, female clinical psychologists Salma Prabhu and Varkha Chulani report only three to five cases per year.

This contrast is down to the fact that it is very hard for men to admit they are victims of physical abuse perpetrated by wives. "And tt is easier for a man to talk to a man," explains Shetty. Unless it is to elicit pity, or the violence has become life-threatening, he will not talk about it to friends or family. More abused men are likely to seek help than abused women.

What drives women to violence? Retaliation? Fury? Conditioning? Those who see domestic violence as children, are likely to replicate it as adults; and it doesn't matter which parent was abusive. "We emulate the stronger role model," says Bhonsle. Largely, women are not conditioned to express anger through violence.

The female view
According to Chulani, social conditioning is the barrier. "A man defines himself through aggression and violence; a woman defines herself through gentleness and submission," she says. "It takes great 'courage' to assault the 'protector and provider' husband."

In Prabhu's experience, most cases of violence have acts of retaliation or fits of fury that follow discovery of infidelity. "The dynamics of this violence are different - a woman rarely initiates it; she retaliates after a long period of mental or physical subjugation," says Prabhu. Before she turns on the husband, a woman would have physically abused herself, for example, by banging her head against the wall."

Infidelity ranks high as the instigator of physical assault, and attacks to the groin. "When a man strays," says Chulani, "A woman sees this as a violation of the contract of exclusivity." Women who have been humiliated by the inlaws can also displace their anger on their husband.

Slapping, though widely enacted in movies, is not the assault of choice. If the man is bigger, wives will throw things from a distance than put themselves within reach. If it gets the desirable result - backing off, an apology, submission, etc - the violent behaviour becomes repetitive.

The male view
In the experience of male psychologists, there is habitual violence among wives, akin to the power asserting violence of men. "Domestic violence by women is grossly underreported as the law is heavily weighed against men," says Shetty. "Many get violent around their periods, while others have anger management issues. Women who sleep less are more prone to anger and aggression."

Shetty has found that anger and irritability are early signs of clinical depression. Interestingly, more women who beat up their husbands are found to be clinically depressed than men who beat up their wives - among a 100 female abusers, 50 percent would have clinical depression; among a 100 male abusers, only 10 per cent would be so.

Bhonsle has witnessed some of the most gruesome cases of suspicion. "I know wives who beat their husbands, saying he complains about her to his parents, or turns the children against her," he says. "They are usually physically bigger than their husbands and can even hit out in front of his parents and the children."

In extreme cases, he has seen men stabbed with scissors and bitten bitterly for not providing financial support or for behaving in a disapproved way. Most of the time, the provocation is in the mind and many of these are women with histrionic tendencies or have borderline personalities.

"Most weapons are kitchen equipment," says Shetty. "The violence is in spurts, and sometimes followed by bouts of apologies."

The truce
And what do the men do? Some men are loathe to react with violence and will seek help, before divorce. Many suffer silently, especially if the woman accuses them falsely of dowry harassment. Others revel in self-pity and are passive aggressive. "They instigate the women, knowing full well how she will react and then enjoy the martyrdom," says Bhonsle.

And then there is the odd couple that treats violence as foreplay or recreational activity. A couple in its mid 50s resorts to haathapaiee to settle domestic arguments. This eventually carries into the bedroom...

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