During a time when stories of child abuse, wife beating, and now husban beating have moved into the headlines, some of us night assume that household violence is epidemic in modern society. In fact, the authors of "Behind Closed Doors" do find the problem widespread.
But there is, ironically, an encouraging sign in the public airing of this once hushed-up aspect of family life.
Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, two sociologists, and Suzanne Steinmetz, a home economist, state in their book that "historical facts argue that family violence certainly is not new and that, probably, we are no more violent and perhaps a little less violent toward our won families than were our ancestors."
(In Colonial times, parents with unruly children were legally entitled to kill them,
They conclude that the apparent increase in cases of child abuse, for example , probably comes from public awareness of the problem and less toleration of cruelty to children. In short, we know more about family violence, and we care more. And this is the first step toward ending it.
This useful and compact book is based on an eight-year study, including interviews with 2,000 members of American families. It offers interesting statistics, although it is weak on anecdotal examples, which for the most part are taken from newpaper reports instead of from the authors' own study, and it fails to deal with abuse of elderly family members.
The authors found that violence cuts through all social classes, income groups, and educational groups. It is found in the homes of professionals and truck drivers alike, although it is more common in homes where there is unemployment and low or middle income and in some ethnic groups.
While the authors don't claim to give us all the answers to the problem, their careful outlining of it points us in the direction of solutions.
One of most important factors in family violence is how a person was treated as a teen-ager, the authors say. "The people who experienced the most punishment as teen-agers have a rate of wife-beating and husband-beating that is four times greater than those whose parents did not hit ehtm."
Sex, money, and children are commonly though to be the main issues in family conflicts. But Mr. Straus et al. found that most flare-ups are touched off by more mundane matters -- the cooking, cleanng, and house repairs. The study found that one of three American couples "always" disagrees on these subjects.
The study found a close tie between violence and the method a couple uses for making decisions. If the husband makes almost all decisions, he is far more likely to hit his wife or be hit by her. To a lesser extent, if the household is dominated by the wife, the couple is more likely to be violent. But between husbands and wives who share the decisionmanking, there is almost no violence.
The authors see hope in the fact that some Americn households are becoming more democratic in their approach to decisions.
Other conclusions that the study draws:
* Women are more likely to abuse children than are men -- a fact that the authors say stems partly from spending more time with childrten.
* Women who are beaten by husbands are more likely to abuse their children. Similarly, husbands who feel pressures from employers or others outside the household are more likely to be violent at home. According to the authors, a man might beat his wife of children for two reasons: "It is more socially acceptable to beat your wife and children than to hit someone at work," and, "In a world which is growing more diverse and more impersonal, the last place where a man can be boss and control his own life is in his own home."
* Husbands and wives who have no religious ties are more likely to have violent marriages than those who do have a religious affiliation.
Individual counseling is often used to deal with family violence, but the authors see little help from that direction. Counseling has been a stopgap solution at best, they write. And they discount "let it all hang out" theories that say families need conflicts to be healthy and that verbal conflict will forestall dangerous physical abuse. The authors maintain that conflict begets conflict and that "certain 'modern' therapies often do more harm than good."
It's hard to argue with statistics that say that the more verbal conflict, the more physical abuse. However, the authors fail to distinguish between verbal abuse and verbal communication. A mere "venting" of bottled anger can be violent, but logic and experience say that families need genuine communication of feelings.
Some of the long-range solutions they propose include:
* Building a society that tolerates no violence in the home -- even the wellmeaning spank on the hand to train a mischievous child.
* Full employment.
* Networks of relatives and friends to give family members support (4-H clubs for youth, homemaker clubs for adults, and close-knit neigborhoods).
* An armistice in the "battle of the sexes" at home by establishing equality, so men no longer need to defend their "supposedly superior masculine position by using violence toward their wives and children."
The authors say: "The concept of 'woman's work' must be eliminated and with it, the implication that jobs filled by women are less important and therefore should have lower salaries. Only then can we begin to develop equity in the world of work and in the home."
Such goals call for a major restructuring of society, and the authors cite more practical measures for the short range. They recommend better family planning (since the unwanted child is more likely to be abused), self-help groups such as Parents Anonymous, and programs to assist families during crisis periods.
It is important to keep before us the ideal of a society in which violence has no place in families, and this book is a good reminder. If violence is to be stopped in the world, the first step is to eliminate it in the home.