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In Harm’s Way

Profile of a Batterer

Men who abuse their pregnant partners often blame money pressures, stress, and the added responsibilities of having a child. But all expectant fathers face these pressures. What makes batterers different? Often, they are emotionally immature, self-centered men obsessed with controlling their partners, says Sandra Baca, Ph.D., a Los Angeles psychotherapist who counsels batterers and survivors. They use ridicule, sarcasm, and threats before resorting to the ultimate control tactic -- beatings. "Violence gets results," says Baca.

Rhonda Alvarez's* husband followed the pattern of a typical batterer. Early in their marriage, he hurled insults. Then, when Alvarez was six months pregnant with their first child, an argument flared out of control and he slapped her, pulled her hair, and left her with a huge bruise on the side of her abdomen. Alvarez wept because her stomach ached; he accused her of faking the pain. She stayed up all night brooding over the beating. "I blamed myself. I felt that I shouldn't have said what I did." She tried harder to be a good wife, but more beatings followed, usually after her husband's weekend drinking binges. Like many women living with violent men, Alvarez saw two sides to her husband. "He's very funny and friendly and sociable, but when he drinks, his personality gets aggressive," she says.

For a man prone to battering, his partner's pregnancy can trigger deep fears of losing the spotlight in a relationship and losing control over someone who caters to all his needs, says Adams. "They're bugged that they're not the center of attention anymore." It seems astounding, but some abusers are so jealous of their own baby that they focus attacks on the pregnant abdomen. And they often resent the attention outsiders lavish on mother and child. Says Parsons, "You're carrying the child, so people are more happy for you than they are for him."

Abusive men also tend to see gender roles in black and white. Instead of pitching in around the house, they expect their partners to do "women's work" and they have little patience when fatigue or morning sickness gets in the way of cleaning and cooking. Alvarez's husband called her a slob and berated her for neglecting the house. Even though she worked the graveyard shift during her pregnancy, she scrambled to keep their home tidy. "I had to make sure everything was perfect, just right, the way he wanted it. His dinner had to be ready and the house had to be clean," she recalls.

Some batterers get upset over their partners' changing appearance. Instead of seeing a wife or girlfriend as nurturing their growing child, they only see her putting on weight. When these twisted dynamics are added to the emotional and financial stresses future fathers experience, abuse can escalate quickly, as it did in Parson's case. Because pregnancy brought about so many changes beyond her husband's control, she says, "the only thing he could do was make it worse."

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