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Psychiatry: The Wife Beater & His Wife

2 minute read

Psychiatrists have delved for years into the psyche of the alcoholic in an attempt to understand what drives him to drink. But rarely have doctors investigated the unlovely but all too frequent byproduct of alcoholism — wife beating.

Now, in the Archives of General Psychiatry, three psychiatrists probe the personalities of the beater and the beaten. One of their findings: those who fight together and stay together do so because each needs the other to balance out his own mental quirks.

In their research, Drs. John E. Snell, Richard J. Rosenwald and Ames Robey dealt with 37 cases referred to them by Massachusetts courts. Most of the husbands, the doctors discovered, fell into a definite pattern. Though reasonably hard-working and outwardly respectable, they were in reality “shy, sexually ineffectual mother’s boys.” The wives also fitted a pattern—”aggressive, efficient, masculine and sexually frigid.”

Usually the wife was boss, and her weak-willed husband was content to play the subservient role—until he had a few drinks. Then “role alternation” would take place, and the husband would insist belligerently upon his conjugal rights. The wife, whose father had usually been a wife beater, would resist. The ensuing fight had, however, helpful overtones. “The periods of violent behavior by the husband,” the doctors observed, “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man, while giving his wife apparent masochistic gratification and helping probably to deal with the guilt arising from the intense hostility expressed in her controlling, castrating behavior.”

Such violent, temporary therapy is hardly what the psychiatrist would prescribe. But the doctors concluded that the battlers seem to need “a frequent alternation of passive and aggressive roles to achieve a working equilibrium” and seldom change their ways until a third party horns in. The third party is usually a teen-aged son with protective feelings toward his mother and a less than friendly attitude toward Dad. What with the size of teen-agers these days, the fight often gets so furious that Mom finally begins to worry that someone may get hurt. Then she calls the cops.

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