Conventional wisdom suggests that women usually kill their spouses in self defence or as a final, desperate reaction to chronic battery, the burning-bed syndrome that is sometimes cited as a defence in murder trials. A new Canadian study, however, suggests that barely a quarter of husband-killers are victims of domestic abuse, less than half suffer from any identified psychological problem, and fewer still have had trouble with police.
The majority of the slayings – perpetrated by knife, gun and strangulation — appear generally unheralded, suggests the analysis of 20 years of Quebec homicide files.
“Women rarely gave a warning before killing their mates,” concluded the study, co-authored by Dr. Dominique Bourget, a forensic psychiatrist at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. “In the vast majority of cases of women who killed their mates, there were very few indicators that might have signalled the risk and helped predict the violent, lethal behaviour.”
Women who end their partners’ lives have been an under-examined group, the researchers note, given they represent a minority of the total partner homicides. Almost 80% of the 738 spousal killings in Canada between 2000 and 2009 were committed by men, who the study said are also responsible almost exclusively for bloody massacres where children, as well as the partner, are murdered in one act.
Working in conjunction with the Quebec coroners’ office, the Royal Ottawa researchers pored over the files of the 276 spousal homicides in the province between 1991 and 2010, 42 of which, or 15%, were carried out by the female partner. The information included the coroner’s report, police records and autopsy results and medical charts.
Although 35% of the male victims had a history of at least one act of past violence, the researchers say they found evidence that just 26% of the women had been physically abused by their partners. That differs markedly from the findings of a 1989 American study that indicated almost all women who committed spousal homicides did so in an environment of domestic violence — and a Canadian paper from the same period that attributed the motives for most such killings to self defence, notes the study, just published in the journal Behavioural Sciences and the Law.
To Don Dutton, a UBC psychology professor who has examined domestic violence for decades, the results of the new study are no surprise, despite what he called an erroneous understanding of “intimate-partner” assault that continues to prevail in society.
“We’ve got a stereoptye about domestic violence … that the oppressor or perpetrator is the male and when female violence happens, it’s a reaction against male violence,” he said. “The stereotype is so strong, that when you look at the actual data, you’re shocked.”
Prof. Dutton, author of the book Rethinking Domestic Violence, suggested that such assumptions evolved from the feminist view that family violence was a socio-political act of “patriarchal men suppressing women.” He argues instead that personality disorders in both male and female offenders better explain family violence than do social norms.
Prof. Dutton, not involved in the Quebec research, cited a number of studies in the United States that concluded the most common type of domestic violence was not abuse of women by men, but “bilateral” violence where both spouses hurt each other with similar severity.
The Quebec review also found that just over one in five of the women had documented psychiatric conditions such as major depression or schizophrenia, though a similar number suffered from acute intoxication at the time of the homicide, the research indicates.
Only three of the women were known to have had contact with the police or the justice system previously because of violent behaviour and there was evidence of just two having seen a psychologist or psychiatrist for depression or psychosis.
About 14% of the women tried suicide or succeeded in killing themselves, compared to 45% of the male murders.
About half the female spouses used a knife to do in their partner, 35% committed the deed with a gun, while two women strangled the man and one used a blunt instrument.
A larger percentage of the male killers than women strangled, bludgeoned or beat their spouses to death, as opposed to using a knife or gun.
Women who killed husbands ‘rarely gave a warning,’ and most weren’t abused, study finds