On Dobson, domestic violence and DARVO dynamics

White broken eggshells on a black background with the words: On Dobson, domestic violence, and DARVO dynamics - Busting the myth that wives 'bait' their husbands to violence. A post about James Dobson's 'Love Must Be Tough'. workthegreymatter.com

CONTENT NOTE: This post discusses the dynamics of domestic abuse and victim-blaming.

A few years ago I was volunteering for a charity that helped women facing domestic abuse. I remember my team leader explaining how survivors sometimes defend themselves with violence – but that this creates its own problems.

She wasn’t finding fault with survivors; she was explaining how if a survivor acts aggressively towards her abuser (or attempts to), then that one incident may be held over her as leverage, regardless of how serious the woman’s actions actually were. Such decontextualisation and blaming is, of course, an abuse tactic, aiming to reverse the victim and perpetrator in the eyes of onlookers (e.g. police). It’s also an example of what the acronym ‘DARVO’ is getting at: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.

I was reminded of this conversation more recently as I read about an instance of spousal domestic violence that seemed to fit this pattern. It was in James Dobson’s 1983 book Love Must Be Tough.

And I have many, many issues with how he used this example.

Dobson’s example of DARVO

If Dobson’s account is reliable (big if – I’ll come back to that), then it’s an unusual example because the wife appears to be acting as the abuser. Even by his own admission, Dobson says this example is not what happens in ‘most’ cases of domestic violence.

Anyway, this is what he says (emphasis original):

Let me offer another word of caution which is likely to be misunderstood by those who want to misunderstand. It deals with a very volatile subject that angels would fear to touch, but I feel it must be addressed. I have seen marital relationships where the woman deliberately “baited” her husband until he hit her. This is not true in most cases of domestic violence, but it does occur. …

At this point Dobson details how a wife can leverage her injuries to manipulatively bring law enforcement to her side; he also compares the situation to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour during World War II. Then he continues:

…I have seen women belittle and berate their husbands until they set them aflame with rage. Some wives are more verbal than their husbands and can win a war of words any day of the week. Finally, the men reach a point of such frustration that they explode, doing precisely what their wives were begging them to do in the first place.

I remember one woman who came to church with a huge black eye contributed by her husband. She walked to the front of the auditorium before a crowd of five hundred people and made a routine announcement about an upcoming event. Everyone in attendance was thinking about her eye and the cad who did this to her. That was precisely what she wanted. I happened to know that her noncommunicative husband had been verbally antagonized by his wife until he finally gave her the prize she sought. Then she brought it to church to show it off. It does happen.

It is obvious why this analysis is inflammatory to women like Laura [mentioned earlier in the chapter, who was suffering long-term physical abuse by her husband] who are victims in the true sense of the word. They may think I am suggesting that they are responsible for their husband’s violence. Not so! But domestic violence has more than one source of motivation, and that fact should be admitted. (p149-50)

What Dobson fails to mention

The sentence I find most telling is the last one: “But domestic violence has more than one source of motivation, and that fact should be admitted.”

Bear in mind, he presents this example in a section specifically talking to the issue of wives with violent husbands. And although he draws a distinction between the black-eyed wife and Laura (who describes her husband’s abuse in a heart-wrenching letter) he doesn’t give any other caveats.

So, presented with this black-eyed wife, a raft of questions are suddenly opened up for other wives:

  • “If my husband hit me once, are you saying that was my fault?”
  • “If my husband hits me, but not as often as Laura’s husband hit her, are you saying that’s my fault?”
  • “If I suggest I get a part-time job and my husband feels belittled, would you also defend him if he hit me?”
  • “Sometimes I want to hit my husband because he often berates me, but I don’t because I’m scared to; would you defend me if I did?”

It’s a mess.

Part of the problem is that Dobson doesn’t call out the physical violence as simply not OK. Even if the wife was abusive and using DARVO tactics, even if the husband had all kinds of stressors playing into his mental state, the punch was not OK.

And this is important for two reasons:

  • Firstly, if we entertain the notion that a punch is OK under provocation, then it paves the way for people to say ‘a little’ abuse is OK. No, it’s not.
  • Secondly, if we want to advocate for survivors, we can’t act with bias. Violence is not OK, regardless of who it comes from.

To be clear, I am not saying that a person ceases to be a survivor the moment they act in violence; far from it. There is a hugely important qualitative difference between violence that exerts control and violence that resists control. Advocates recognise that. But when they discern the nature and level of risk presented by survivors, and how that risk should be addressed, they also refuse to accept the violence as OK.[1]

This leads on to another thing that Dobson fails to do: he doesn’t prompt readers to consider what control dynamics might be present.

Control is more relevant than violence

By failing to mention control, Dobson gives the impression that cases of domestic violence are a continuum with abusers at one end and “true victims” at the other. If however, he had explored whether violence was to exert control or resist control, then we’d be asking different questions.

Is the black-eyed wife’s use of verbal force a mechanism of control, which she reinforces through social isolation when she sports her bruises to her church? Or are her words an expression of desperation to a husband who gives her the silent treatment and insists he and he alone is the final decision maker for the household? Either is plausible.

As much as I’d love to speculate that this was a case where control wasn’t an objective on either side and where both parties gave as good as they got, that seems unlikely. Dobson indicates that he’d already been speaking to the husband about their difficulties, which means either the husband or both the husband and the wife had already sought outside help.

As for the wife displaying her black eye so publicly: yes, it does look like a DARVO tactic because survivors of abuse commonly hide their injuries out of shame. But, even so, who’s to say her actions weren’t an angry protest against the church’s leadership for failing to help her adequately?

Dobson doesn’t begin to discuss this.

Instead he focuses on verbal skill like it’s a gender equaliser.

Dobson’s real worry

Dobson argues that some wives are advantaged because they “are more verbal than their husbands.”

This completely de-contextualises the issue.

Abuse is about control; control is easier for men.[2] Maybe the black-eyed wife wasn’t a very nice person. But whatever her motives, if she went to a church that strongly emphasised gender roles and its leadership was exclusively male, I struggle to believe her verbal wit could have competed with her husband’s social standing.

Especially so once Dr James Dobson sided with him.

Bear in mind, this whole discussion is in a section titled “The wife of a violent spouse.” But instead of helping battered wives, Dobson spends most of his word count discussing the faults of the black-eyed wife. In other words, he’s diverting the subject to his big worry: female-on-male abuse, and false/misrepresentative accusations.

Honestly, it’s like someone is saying they were injured in a non-fault traffic collision and all he can reply with is, “I must warn you! There are crash-for-cash scammers out there…”

Not helpful.

I’d even go so far as to say that what Dobson is doing is itself DARVO.

He claims that women like the black-eyed wife will sport their bruises to law enforcement and deny their husbands access to their children. This betrays an incredibly naïve and misinformed view of how abuse allegations are handled by the US legal system.

It’s been anecdotally known for a while that family courts too often deny a mother’s claims of domestic or child abuse and instead place a child in the care of a dangerous parent.[3] Now, however, we have the research to back this up. In a study of custody outcomes over 10 years, Joan Meier has shown that a wife in the US is more likely to lose a custody battle if she alleges that the husband is unsafe for the children; that risk is doubled if the husband alleges alienation.[4]

Oh, I understand that measuring domestic violence is difficult and has been hotly debated over the years. I also appreciate that there was significantly less research available when Dobson wrote this book in 1983 (though the same can’t be said for when it was reprinted in 2007).

Even so, domestic abuse is a gendered problem.

If you’re in doubt about this, consider the US and UK research that reliably shows:

  • malicious allegations of abuse are a low percentage of total allegations,[5]
  • women are more likely than men to suffer serious violence and to be repeat victims,[6]
  • domestic homicides are more much likely to be committed by men,[7]
  • where domestic violence studies have attempted to measure control, they indicate that men use control more than women.[8]

I have no issue with anyone who wants to say that male victimisation is under-provided for, or that male survivors under-report even more than female survivors. But when a wife asks how to respond to her husband who continuously abuses her, or who hit her one time, we shouldn’t turn decontextualise the problem and divert the topic.

We also shouldn’t offer the outrageously dangerous advice that Dobson gives Laura, but I’ll postpone discussing that for another post.

Concluding thoughts

Tellingly, when Dobson argues that wives can abusively antagonise their husbands to aggression, he doesn’t mention that husbands can do the same. It makes me wonder how many husbands have come to Dobson with stories of how their wives struck them, and it never occurred to him to think that these men were twisting and misrepresenting what were in fact desperate acts of resistance against much more serious abuse.

Or plain and simple self-defence.

The bottom line is that abusive control is poison for a person’s agency and their very ability to feel like a human being. In that context, a person may well do things to remind themselves that they have a will and agency of their own. Not all of those actions are what I’d call healthy or wise. But even when they don’t fit well with our concepts of self defence, even when they’re not options that will work in the longer term, these actions aren’t about abuse. They’re about survival.

Meanwhile, abusers will often blame their victims, saying things like “she made me do it”; and they’ll do this when the survivor is aggressive and when they aren’t. Either way, we shouldn’t be giving credibility to the abuser’s case.

Because the truth is survivors aren’t responsible for any abuse perpetrated against them. They never were, they never will be.

And it’s time the church was clear on this.

 


If you are in the UK and you can ring the National Domestic Violence Helpline on: 0808 2000 247 or visit the Refuge website: https://www.refuge.org.uk/

If you’re in the US, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit their website: https://www.thehotline.org/


I wrote this post after reading this one from Homeschoolers Anonymous: James Dobson on Domestic Violence: Women “deliberately bait” their husbands.

Sheila Gregoire has some great resources on marriage:

Margaret Mowczko also has some fabulous reading:

Or if you want more of my writing, there’s:


[1] I recently read a really helpful comment on Facebook on a related topic: “it is true that many abusers (of all varieties) do have a history of being abused themselves (in various forms by various perpetrators) or of having witnessed the abuse of important people in their lives. It is important to note though that being abused does not make a person an abuser.  It is far more likely to cause a pattern of repeated victimization until they get healing. In those cases where a victim does become a perpetrator, their previous victimization may help explain their behavior but it does not justify or excuse it.”

[2] As Evan Stark explains, sexual discrimination “gives men privileged access to the material and social resources needed to gain advantage in power struggles.” [Coercive Control, p105]

[3] See ‘A gendered trap’: When mothers allege child abuse by fathers, the mothers often lose custody, study shows (Washington Post, July 2019)

[4] See U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show? (Joan Meier, Jan 2020)

[5] Estimated as between 2% and 10%; for further reading see PSMag: False Reports of Sexual Assault Are Rare. But Why Is There So Little Reliable Data About Them?

[6] See, for example, this study in the US from 2000, and this one in the UK in 1999.

[7] In the UK, from April 2014 to March 2017, 73% of victims of domestic homicides (homicides by an ex/partner or family member) were women. In the same period, four in five female victims of domestic homicide were killed by a partner or ex-partner (239, 82%); of which the vast majority of suspects were male (238). See the Women’s Aid website.

[8] See p104, Stark, Evan; Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Oxford University Press: 2009). Stark discusses the findings of Michael Johnson’s empirical analysis of existing domestic violence surveys and studies. One finding was that control was used significantly more by men that women. Although there are flaws in Johnson’s findings and conclusions, Joan Meier wrote of his work: “Johnson’s enterprise of distinguishing between violence used to enforce a regime of terror and control and violence which is expressive or conflict-driven but does not instill ongoing fear, is a valuable addition to the field.” I would highly recommend reading Meier’s paper “Johnson’s Differentiation Theory: Is It Really Empirically  Supported?” (Journal of Child Custody, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 4-24, 2015) to anyone who wants to understand Johnson’s work, especially the problems associated with the concept of ‘common couples violence’ and how this is (mis)used in family courts.

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