Why Do (Some) Men Murder the Wives They Love?
Is killing out of love possible?
Posted Sep 22, 2014
“Let’s say I committed this crime, even if I did, it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right?” —O.J. Simpson
Globally, about 40 percent of all female murder victims (and just 6 percent of male murder victims) die at the hands of a former or present spouse or lover. The home becomes a dangerous place for women (as well as for children). Whereas almost all cases of homicides committed by males against their female partners occurred after the female ended the relationship or announced her intention to do so, most of the homicides committed by females against their male partners were reactions to severe male domestic violence.
Nearly all male murderers claim that: (a) they committed the murder out of love, and (b) it was a result of loving too much. We accept (a) and reject (b). Wife murder does not express profound love; rather, it is an abusive type of the problematic fusion model of love.
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 (see also Goussinsky, 2002).
The various explanations offered for the murder of wives share two common assumptions: (a) the murder stems from masculine possessiveness, it is the embodiment of the murderer’s personality, and sexual jealousy and anger are two emotions that trigger it; and (b) the murder is the climax of a history of violence that preceded it.
Our analysis of wife-killing rejects the above two assumptions; we believe that whereas wife-murder is undoubtedly the most extreme manifestation of male violence, it is not due to a single male quality, such as masculine possessiveness, and is not a “natural” or "inevitable" continuation of domestic violence. It is a phenomenon that is separate from other forms of male violence. Moreover, we believe that in an important sense, these murders are committed out of love, so that an understanding of which components of love play a role in these murders would increase our understanding of this phenomenon.
The simplicity of prevailing views evades the question of why certain men murder their wives. Instead, they lead one to ask how it is that so few men kill their wives. In 2007 in the U.S., the rate of male partner violence toward their intimate female partners (age 18 or older) was 4.5 per 1,000; the rate of intimate partner homicide for females at that year was 1.07 per 100,000 female residents—that is, 420 times smaller.
The murder is not an unintended result of violence that went too far—as most of these murders are well-planned. Furthermore, wife murder cannot be understood in terms of loss of control or local insanity. It is rather a deliberate act which is the result of an emotional ripeness that created the mental readiness for committing the murder as an act of profound despair that is ready to destroy the other, even if this means destroying oneself.
Conditions of risk: “There was writing on the wall”
“There was handwriting on the wall… but I think that even if the writing on the wall wasn’t so prominent for the people around, for the family, for friends, the one for whom it was definitely prominent was the victim… The victim ignored and believed that maybe it wasn’t what she thought.” —A murderer
Explaining the murder by referring to a single, central variable, such as male possessiveness or jealousy, is simplistic and partial. The murder should be understood as a phenomenon anchored in a certain constellation of factors that combine and create the “conditions for murder.” Although masculine possessiveness, as well as jealousy and anger, play a role in the full range of factors that produce a readiness to take the life of a partner, it is more accurate to consider the motive for murder in terms of conditions that are favorable for the development of murderous violence, rather than in terms of one central personality variable. There are complex conditions of risk, many of which are part and parcel of Romantic ideology. Here are the major conditions of risk.
- The man perceives the woman to be his whole world, so he feels that any separation from her entails a loss of his own identity.
- The man's life lacks other sources of meaning and reasons for living.
- The man's 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.
- The man's personal behavior is rigid and uncompromising.
- The man's 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 legitimacy for terrible crimes.
When all the above conditions pertain, the risk of wife murder significantly increases. The specific event that ignites the explosive barrel often revolves around the woman threatening to or actually separating from her partner. Knowing these conditions of risk will enable us to read the writing on the wall, thereby preventing many wife murders.
Romantic ideology and the murderers
“I couldn’t live, I couldn’t function without her… I believed that I couldn’t function if I wasn’t with her.” —A murderer
In light of the centrality of love in our lives, it is no wonder that cultures all over the world have depicted an ideal form of romantic love towards which all of us are supposedly striving. Many cultures have indeed considered romantic love to be crucial for personal fulfillment and a happy life. However, romantic love is also a major factor in people's misery, as it involves many disappointments and unfulfilled hopes. It has been claimed that Western culture has no history of happy romantic love within marriage. Love may be "many splendid things," but love also hurts a lot, can be dangerous, and may lead us to foolish deeds.
Committing suicide because of unrequited love is not an unusual story; some even regard it as a perfect manifestation of true love. As a result of unrequited love, men commit suicide three to four times more often than women, and it is virtually only men who kill their partners when the latter leave or intend to leave them. In this sense, women are more realistic; they tend to be more accepting of the fact that love might not endure forever.
The basic characteristics of the Romantic ideology concern its profound significance, its ability to prevail, and its long duration; the two lovers are fused into a unique entity, the beloved is irreplaceable and exclusive, and love and the beloved are morally pure.
The various related aspects of ideal love—its being total, uncompromising, and unconditional—as formed by Romantic ideology indicate the extreme nature of that ideology. When ideal love is total, then it suffuses all aspects of the beloved's life. Love pervades all of life’s components in an uncompromising manner. In this sense, the beloved is all the lover needs; true love lasts forever and can conquer all; the two lovers are totally united; love is totally irreplaceable and exclusive; and it is totally benign, as it can do no evil.
The fusion model of love
“I've got you so deep in my heart, that you're really a part of me.” —Frank Sinatra
“I felt as if she was my air, as if she was the only thing that sustained me.” —A murderer
A central model of love in the Romantic ideology is the fusion model in which the two lovers form a profound union (or fusion) as if they were a unique single attitude, two faces of the same coin. The notion of fusion may be associated with the fact that in sexual intercourse, corporal penetration literally fuses the two bodies. As Zygmunt Bauman (2003) nicely puts it, "Wherever I go, you go; whatever I do, you do… If you are not and cannot be my Siamese twin, by my clone!" David Schnarch (1997) also argues that we have embraced a Siamese-twin model of intimacy, where every single movement of one of them would require consensus. If you don't have your twin's validation and acceptance, you are in trouble. In this model, the more your spouse becomes his/her own person, the more you would feel controlled and torn apart.
The love of the murderers
“Because of love, I killed her… If I didn’t love her, if I didn’t love her, I don’t think I would feel so much pain… It’s like she took an arrow and stabbed me in the heart.” —A murderer
The murderers’ love involves the fusion model, and in most instances, it is the murderers who are the weaker partners. It is often the case that the wife was independent, stable, and strong, and the man was weak and lacked the control that made her useful to him. She was his source of strength. She gave him a feeling of self-worth; therefore, he needed her, and he was dependent on her. As one murderer said: "That was me, when I was dependent on her, that was me, when I enslaved myself to a situation like that I believed that I couldn’t function if I wasn’t connected to her." Dependence of that kind necessarily gives rise to the need to control. Precisely because she was a source of existence for him ("I used her as a source of existence, because I didn’t have anything else"), he had to control her. Control over the source of existence, like control over the supply of oxygen for a patient who needs it, assures existence.
The weakness of these men enables them to exploit their wives. The murder is done then out of weakness and not out of strength. The extreme dependence, which confines the man to a position of weakness, can also be used as a self-defense claim with which to supposedly “explain” the murder. In this case, desperation bestows power. A person who has nothing left to lose is empowered to commit hasty acts more than someone who has a hope to cling to. In this sense, the person who has lost everything has an advantage over the person who still has something to lose. Thus, the weakness becomes a source of power. The deeper the desperation is, the stronger the power it engenders. From this perspective, the ultimate exercise of force—murder—is merely an expression of complete weakness and loss.
“Without you, I’m half a man; without you, I’m really nothing.” —An Israeli song
Needless to say, explaining the men’s horrific behavior as stemming from love is in no way a justification for their actions. Understanding the men’s state of mind could prevent future murders; hence, we should examine the real state of mind that leads these men to kill their partners, without worrying about whether our findings are politically correct.
In the name of love, people are ready to use other people; in the name of love, people are ready to be used. In the name of love, women want to leave their male partner, and in the name of love, these men murder them. The woman is the man’s whole world and the condition of his existence. If the man’s ability to maintain his view of himself as a human being depends on the woman being part of his life, how can he let her go? Thus, love turns the woman into a hostage—a hostage to the man’s life—and this puts her own life at risk. The words of many love songs may be no more than superficial clichés about love, but when these clichés are adopted wholeheartedly with no attention to reality, love becomes a loaded gun.
Bauman, Z. (2003). Liquid Love: On the frailty of human bonds. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goussinsky, R. (2002). Was the handwriting on the wall?! The meanings perpetrators attribute to intimate murder. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Haifa.
Schnarch, D. (1997). Passionate Marriage: Love, sex, and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. New York: Norton.