I sometimes find myself pausing in the kitchen when I hear a song on the radio in which the singer proclaims that he cannot live without the woman he loves. Or he makes a promise to the effect that “wherever you go I’ll be there”.
They’re just harmless, romantic songs, but it’s easy to hear them as unintentionally threatening. The murder of partners and children when a woman leaves the relationship is rare enough to be shocking, but sadly it is not rare enough to be unheard of.
Worldwide, these murders are committed by men and women, but the perpetrators are overwhelmingly men. That is why I am referring exclusively to male perpetrators in this article.
What is going on with them? Factors that we are all more aware of now than we used to be are the insistence on controlling the woman, coupled with the loss of that woman through separation or the threat of separation.
Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, has written extensively on this topic and he believes a third factor is involved also. This he suggests, in an article in Psychology Today, is the man’s belief that without this woman his whole world will collapse. Indeed his very self, his identity will be lost. This is consistent with (of course in no way justified by) what he calls “romantic ideology”. Ideal love, he writes, is “total, uncompromising, and unconditional”.
He quotes a murderer as saying “I couldn’t live, I couldn’t function without her ... I believed that I couldn’t function if I wasn’t with her.”
Coercive control is now illegal in Ireland and the first convictions were handed down in 2020
Another factor in this shocking crimes is that the man may have little else in his life that gives him a sense of meaning, a sense of something to live for.
Ben-Ze’ev is a co-author with Ruhama Goussinsky (Emek Yezreel College) of a book on this subject called In the Name of Love, and published by Oxford University Press.
So the dynamics, then, include a pathological belief that the perpetrator cannot live without the victim and a pathological conviction that he has an absolute entitlement to control the woman. When she leaves or threatens to leave, then the planning to murder her gets under way. He sees her loss as almost similar to the loss of his own life, which often follows on these crimes. He is also likely, Ben-Ze’ev suggests, to be inflexible in his behaviour and attitudes.
The murder of Hannah Clarke and their three children by her estranged husband shocked Australia in 2020. An article on the case in The Conversation noted that domestic violence is present in approximately 40-90 per cent of such awful events. But this isn’t the full picture, according to its author Denise Buiten, who lectures in social justice and sociology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Key to these cases is the perpetrator’s insistence on control of the family. As he begins to lose control through a threatened or accomplished separation, he moves closer to an out of the blue killing which isn’t really out of the blue at all.
All this said, most men who have similar beliefs to those mentioned above do not go on to murder though they may make their former partners miserable and afraid.
We haven’t pinned down that special factor that leads certain men to cross that bridge into murders almost too horrific to contemplate. That belief in the right to control, is, it seems to me, the most dangerous of all.
Coercive control is now illegal in Ireland and the first convictions were handed down in 2020.
Women who decide to leave need good advice and support, which could save their lives and perhaps even those of their children. If you think you might be subject to coercive control, or any other form of violence, check out the website of Women’s Aid at womensaid.ie or use their helpline at 1800 341 900. There you can get advice and a lot of useful information.
Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness — a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email