In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Why Do (Some) Men Murder Their Beloved Wives?

Love makes a person stupid.
There ain't nothing in our way baby, nothing our love couldn't raise above. (Celine Dion)
I said to myself: I will fight against everyone, but I will take her. No one will take her from me, and this is what I did. (A murderer)

Explaining the phenomenon of wife-killing is difficult, as love is concerned with benevolent activities toward the beloved, whereas killing is the annihilation of the beloved. In our book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims (Oxford, 2008), we (Aaron Ben-Ze'ev and Ruhama Goussinsky) suggest a novel approach for understanding this terrible phenomenon.

The prevailing assertion is that wife murder can be explained in terms of a personality mechanism that is categorized as "pathological jealousy" or "sexual possessiveness." We claim that wife murder cannot be explained on the basis of a single male personality trait, but that it is rather a combination of various factors that together produce the foundations for this lethal violence (which is also why this phenomenon is relatively rare in comparison to other forms of domestic violence). We argue that there are conditions of risk that combine together and act upon each other. Such conditions include:

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-- When the man perceives the woman to be his whole world so that he feels that any separation from her entails a loss of his own identity
-- When his life lacks other sources of meaning and reasons for living
-- When the traditional perception of masculinity, which dictates that the male has full power, honor, and control, runs counter to his dependency upon his wife, making that reliance appear evidence of his weakness and humiliation, and an affront to masculine honor.
-- When personal behavior is rigid and uncompromising
--When prevailing beliefs about love appear to justify the sacrifice of his wife on the one hand and of persistence on the other. In this case, the ideology behind love provides the legitimacy for terrible crimes.
When all the above conditions pertain, the risk of wife murder increases.

Another prevailing assumption in the literature is that wife murder is an unintended result of violence that went too far. We argue rather that wife murder cannot be understood in terms of loss of control or a moment of insanity, but is rather a deliberate act, one which is the culmination of emotional distress that has prepared the psychological grounds for committing the murder. As such, it is an act of profound despair, represented by the readiness to destroy another even if this means destroying the self.

Wife murder has been investigated and conceptualized as part of the phenomenon of violence toward women and is often regarded as the pinnacle of such violence. According to the prevailing view, male violence toward women is a continuum, the furthest point of which is murder. This view regards male to female violence and wife murder as issuing from the same basis, and so having a common source and a common explanation. In contrast, we argue that the two phenomena are quite distinct. Violence toward women, according to the accepted view, is a strategy of control. It is behavior intended to ensure obedience and to express authority and power. Murder, however, cannot achieve such a goal. Murder seeks a quite different goal: the destruction of the wife.

Romantic beliefs are not merely abstract ideas; they intervene and color the practice of love. They become standards by which people interpret their experiences of love and guide their own behavior. However, what makes love dangerous does not lie in Romantic Ideology per se, nor is it related to the inevitable disappointment in the face of actual experience. The danger in love lies in its extreme and deceptive nature when, like a religion, it becomes the central symbol of ultimate significance.

Consider, for example, the following testimony of a man who murdered his wife: "She was everything to me. She was my soul. You don't always kill a woman or feel jealousy about a woman or shout at a woman because you hate her. No. Because you love her, that's love. My wife was the kind of woman you'd never murder in your life, unless it was for love, because of madness, at that moment, at that moment a person loses everything, he doesn't think, it's a moment of madness. ... The only thing that I can say is that she was more honest than a Torah Scroll. So why murder someone like that? ... At that moment, you don't remember. You don't remember anything. You don't know what you're doing. Love makes a person stupid. Or maybe, maybe it's not worthwhile loving a woman so much. Maybe you have to love less, less madly, that's the madness of love. ... It's written this way in the Bible, that woman-maybe they mean a woman stranger, but it's my wife, but I'll tell you: 'A good man before God will flee from her, the sinner will be trapped by her.' Did you understand that verse? Maybe I wasn't good before God. Maybe I was a sinner. I was trapped by her. What is that trap? It's love."

The literature on the question of how to understand the murder of women by their husbands maintains that wife murder is motivated by male possessiveness that is expressed in a form of violence toward women that is extreme but not distinct from other expressions of violence. Our findings, however, show that the basis for understanding wife murder is in identifying and acknowledging the rarity of the phenomenon; therefore, our understanding of wife murder is necessarily different from the understanding of the phenomenon of violence towards women. The act of murder is (a) rooted in a unique constellation of factors and circumstances, which together create the infrastructure for the development of murderous violence; (b) the result of a process, the fruit of emotional maturation that creates the psychological resolve needed in order to be able to commit murder, rather than a temporary loss of control, which ostensibly makes the killer unable to understand the consequences and costs of his act; (c) motivated by a mood of deep despair, which creates the desire to destroy another person, even at the cost of self-destruction; (d) a phenomenon distinct from violence against women.

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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