How Our Obsession With Marriage Enables Abuse

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Earlier this month, an online column in the Washington Post caused a stir by arguing that getting married is an effective way for women to protect themselves from rape and abuse. Though it was beset by methodological problems, it reignited a familiar debate about the merits of marriage. 

Over the weekend, the Times published a column by Sara Shoener, a gender-violence researcher who recently completed her dissertation at Columbia, which adds a great deal of useful nuance to the conversation. In it, Shoener argues that the United States' fixation on marriage and keeping two-parent families intact often makes women more vulnerable to abuse.

Science of Us spoke to Shoener via email, and she elaborated on her work and on the dark side of our idealized notions of matrimony and child-rearing.

Would you mind summing up your research in a few sentences?
Broadly, it's an investigation of the barriers female intimate-partner-violence survivors’ face when they attempt to end their abuse, and the role local services play in those attempts. During my fieldwork I lived in a variety of communities of different sizes and interviewed survivors of abuse about what was going on in their lives when they decided to start seeking help to get safe, and ultimately how that process worked out for them. When I wasn’t doing that, I was spending time in places like family courts, shelters, and community-based domestic-violence organizations, observing services for myself. One of the big lessons I learned was that survivors, as well as their surrounding communities, were often more concerned about maintaining two-parent households for their children than ending the abuse. 

Can you give an example of how this dynamic plays out?
I saw it in a few different types of situations. A lot of survivors were very hesitant to end the relationship or use formal domestic-violence services (like getting a protection order) because they didn’t want to jeopardize their children’s relationship with their father. They would tell me, "I don’t want my kids to think their father doesn’t love them," or "Changing our family is such a big decision, I’m afraid I’m not doing the right thing," or "If I call the cops, he’ll go to jail and the kids won’t get to see him."

One woman said, “I didn’t have a father growing up, and I wanted my kids to have a father, so I was like, I guess I’ll have to sacrifice myself.” When women did turn to friends or family or service providers for help, they often had this guilt and shame reinforced by people who encouraged them to work harder on the relationship for the sake of the children. 

These effects tend to operate a bit differently among wealthier victims, right? Is it more of a keeping-up-appearances thing since wealthier couples often experience more social pressure to stay together than poorer ones might?
I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Women experiencing economic hardship often faced fierce public scrutiny for being single mothers. This profound stigma was often exacerbated by the daily realities of poverty — having the money for things like child care, housing, transportation, utilities, and health care all on one person’s wages was just impossible for so many people. My point in the essay was that when we as a community frame marriage as a universally good thing for families, we bolster the obstacles intimate-partner-violence survivors must overcome to secure safety for themselves and their children, no matter their place in the social structure.

But things do work a bit differently further up the income ladder?
Since the op-ed ran, I have been inundated with messages from women in upper-middle-class families who have been hiding their partners' violence. Particularly for women who have dedicated their lives to raising children while their partners were the primary wage earners, leaving a violent marriage would entail an upheaval of their entire social and economic lives.

For example, one woman wrote and said she was afraid that if she left her violent husband, she wouldn't be able to afford her children's school and extracurricular activities, thereby disadvantaging her children and removing herself from her support network. She described a life filled with tennis lessons, PTA meetings, afternoon play dates, and couples' activities that would have to be sacrificed. The disadvantages of single motherhood look different for different women, but are frequently a factor in their decision-making. 

So based on your research, it’s not an exaggeration to say that our system exposes kids to potentially violent fathers for the sake of attempting to keep two-parent families intact?
I would put it this way: I observed a lot of social service and court systems that operated with the baseline goal of giving each parent quantitatively equal access to their children. A 50-50 split of child custody was an end in itself, and as a result, safety considerations were often overlooked in the service of the broader goal. When survivors resisted this arrangement, they risked being considered uncooperative or vindictive. In fact, many attorneys who represent survivors told me that they try not to bring up their clients’ experiences of abuse to avoid being seen as selfish or petty. Abusers could exploit this reality to garner more power.

How would you re-frame our conception of marriage, at least in these sad abuse cases, given all the cultural weight it’s accumulated, and given the fact all our leaders and politicians praise it as a unalloyed good?
I would absolutely agree that children who are lucky enough to have two loving parents are going to fare better on average than those who do not. But I’d argue that value is derived, in large measure, from economic and social resources — a house in a good school district, money for extracurricular activities, time to check homework — that single parents have a more difficult time accessing. There’s a large body of research that suggests that abusive relationships drain those resources, rather than contribute to them.

I wrote the essay to try to make a case for a more nuanced understanding of the values of marriage — of which there are certainly many. In my estimation, we could build a stronger community by better meeting the needs of parents in a variety of family structures, rather than focusing solely on incentivizing one that isn’t going to work for everyone. 

This interview has been lightly edited.