Saturday, June 23, 2007

Violent dimensions of marital breakdown

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman

The shocking death by murder suicide of two London police officers earlier this month has underlined once again that no Canadians are immune to the potentially violent consequences of a breakdown in marital relations. However, the extent of spousal homicide in Canada should not be exaggerated. The fact is that such tragic and deplorable crimes are rare, and getting rarer.

In a study published last year by Statistics Canada, Melanie Kowalskir eported that there were only 74 spousal homicides in all of Canada during 2004. Moreover, the rate of spousal homicides in 2004 was just 4.3 per one million spouses, down 16 per cent from 2000.

While most of the perpetratorswere male, fully 20 per cent were female. Common law spouses are especially at risk. According to Statistics Canada, they comprised just 13 per cent of spousal relationships, yet accounted forno less than 40 per cent of all spousal homicides between 1994 and 2004.

Of course, spousal homicide is only a small, albeit extreme, part of the overall issue of spousal violence. To get an accurate understanding of the full extent of the problem, Statistics Canada conducted a massive General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization in 1999. This study, the most definitive ever conducted on family violence in Canada, was based on arandom sample of approximately 24,000 Canadian men and women aged 15 and over.

The results were startling. Although government and the mass media concentrated then, as they continue to do now, almost exclusively on spousal violence against women, Statistics Canada found in this study that men are hardly less likely than women to be victims of spousal violence. Specifically, Statistics Canada reports: “Results from the 1999 GSS found that eight per cent of women and seven per cent of men who were married or living common-law experienced some type of spousal violence in the past five years.” A follow-up survey in 2004 produced similar results, although the number of victims had marginally declined by about 47,000 among women and 4,000 among men.

The GSS surveys have also found that men and women vary in the kind of spousal violence they experience. For example, far more men than women say they have been kicked, bitten, hit or slapped by a spouse, whereas far more women than men say they have been beaten, choked or sexually assaulted in a spousal attack.

Women are also more likely than men to use a weapon in a spousal fight. However, given the superior physical strength of men, it’s not surprising that women usually come out the worse in spousal brawls. The 2004 GSS survey found that 13 per cent of the female victims of spousal abuse, compared to only two per cent of the men, said they had sought medical attention for aninjury inflicted in a violent altercation with their spouse.

This same survey also indicated that spousal violence is more than “twice as common among homosexual couples compared with heterosexual couples.” Studies in other countries have come to similar conclusions. In 2003, the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that a representative, cross-sectional survey of men and women in England and Wales had found that “38 per cent of the gay men and 31 per cent of the lesbians admitted having been physically attacked during the preceding five years.”

Altogether, the data from Canada and elsewhere indicate that people living in common law marriages and same-sex unions are far more likely than legally married couples to become embroiled in spousal violence. Why is that?

A large part of the explanation is that common law relationships and same sex unions are much more prone to breakdown than are legally married unions.It is during the period when an intimate sexual relationship is breakingapart that tensions between the couples tend to escalate and the risks of spousal violence become the most acute.

Here, then, is one among many good reasons for Canadians to avoid informal sexual liaisons outside of marriage: There is overwhelming statistical evidence to prove that legally married husbands and wives who fulfil their wedding vows to love and cherish each other in a sexually exclusive relationship are exceedingly unlikely to experience spousal homicide or any other form of domestic violence.

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