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Battered Woman Syndrome and its Legal Implications

June 22nd, 2010 Comments off

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In American and other Western-modeled courtrooms around the world, an increasing insurgence of testimony pertaining to the innocence or guilt of thousands of battered women abused by their intimate partners, who later lashed out and killed their violent spouses, is being examined from a psychological standpoint.   Here, I will examine the positive benefits, negative consequences, and further implications of the use of testimony pertaining to Battered Woman syndrome in today’s judicial system. I also seek to establish a convincing claim that testimony concerning this syndrome should be admissible in all instances.

One million women are sent to doctor’s offices and emergency rooms around the country for treatment every year as a result of physical abuse, making battering by spouse or loved the leading cause of injury in American women (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).   To this end, nearly fifty percent of homeless women and children entering homeless shelters are fleeing from male violence, and nearly one thousand, four hundred women (or six percent of all murder victims) who are killed by abusive partners each year (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).   Similar statistics maintain that spousal violence contributes to one forth of all reported suicide attempts by women in any given year, providing a solid evidence that abusive relations create significant psychological harm.

Lenore Walk first coined the term “Battered Woman syndrome” in the context of a heated court decision in 1979, and continued to develop the term as classified by situational factors alone, insisting that no particular personality traits or factors predispose these women to engage in and maintain violent relationships by strongly rejecting the notion that battered women have masochistic personalities (McMahon, 1999). Although a precise definition of Battered Woman syndrome remains obscure despite growing acknowledgement by the scientific community and endorsement by the American Psychological Association, methodical studies by trained psychologists, many of which we will investigate in detail, have revealed in situations of domestic violence a typical pattern of behavioral functioning for the male batterer and his female victim in addition to typical responses on the part of this same female victim (McMahon, 1999).   By breaking down the two components of this theorized psychological impairment, we first define syndrome as a collection of symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular disease (Hubble, 1999).   Of great scrutiny, however, researchers question the usage of the syndrome classification because this term implies that all symptoms and responses are consistent for every woman in the applicable situation.   The definition of a battered woman as determined by Hocking (1999) applies to a woman who is eighteen years of age or older, and who has been in an intimate relationship with a man who repeatedly subjects (or in the past subjected) her to forceful physical and/or psychological abuse.   Bradfield (2002) suggests that Battered Woman syndrome can be defined as “a distortion of thought and perception, impaired ability to perceive and realistically appraise alternatives and delusions regarding the batterer and relationships,” although considerable debate continues on the breadth and specificity of the psychological impairment.   The duality of the term Battered Woman syndrome describes both the pattern of violence within a relationship, “as well as the psychological and behavioral sequelae for the female victim”, in addition to the behavioral and psychological characteristics of the abusive male and his female victim (Hocking, 1999).   Further described as a general pattern of reaction to physical and psychological abuse inflicted on a woman by her spouse, Hocking (1999) identifies those diagnosed with Battered Woman syndrome to possess a “collection of specific characteristics and effects of abuse that result in a woman’s decreased ability to respond effectively to the violence against her, and a set of particular symptoms, characteristics, and problems experienced by a woman in an ongoing physically abusive relationship with a man” (Hocking, 1999).   These extreme circumstances may produce a continual state of shame, isolation, guilt, depression, passivity, learned helplessness, implications of traditional sex role attitudes, low-self esteem, and dependency, propelling a battered woman to a situation of choosing to kill herself or the batterer or else face being reduced to a psychological state in which sustained physical existence has little or any meaning or value (Ewing, 1990).    Overall, the experience of a battered woman may include a history of fatal threats by her husband, prior life-threatening abusive incidents, and a belief that her husband could eventually kill her due increasing severity and frequency of the abuse, all factors which must be taken into consideration when analyzing the mental state of an individual on trial (Follingstand, Ponek, Hause, Deaton, Bulger, & Conway, 1989).

As the result of a perpetual state of fear produced by repeated physical abuse by one’s spouse, mental anguish may affect all aspects of human functioning in battered women, thus causing women in these circumstances to display a variety of characteristics similar to those exhibited by sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   Hubble (1999) has concluded that individuals assessed as having Battered Woman syndrome experience fear and terror with elevated levels of anger and rage towards their abuser, in addition to impaired functioning including an inability to engage in planful behavior, which can become particularly inhibitory in determining a safe and effective escape from the abuser when conditions are favorable.   This same source also focuses upon a finding that battered women may begin to lose the “assumption of invulnerability and safety that ‘things would turn out’ alright or ‘this won’t happen to me’”, concluding that such beliefs often dissipate in the onslaught of abuse and violence (Hubble, 1999).   Based on this determination, it is fairly easily to understand why women who are battered respond with hypervigilance to cues of danger, noticing subtle aspects of their partner’s behavior which others would deem inconsequential and ignore, and as a result may initiate a preemptive strike to what appears to be unrelated behavior.   Battered women also most often display a high tolerance for cognitive inconsistency, that is, they may express two logically inconsistent ideas but fail to comprehend the discrepancy (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).   Due to this phenomenon, many often do not assess their habitual situation and alternatives for habitation from a coherent standpoint, instead demonstrating in a diminished-responsiveness reaction focusing all energies upon survival within the relationship rather than seeking out other safe options outside of the marriage.   As evidenced when Walker interviewed four hundred battered women in 1993, eighty-five percent felt they could be killed at any point in the future, but failed to dissolve the union for an unspecified reason based on diminished alternatives (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).

A remarkable and often controversial aspect of Battered Woman syndrome which deserves considerable attention is the notion that many women are plagued by self-defeat in a theory of learned helplessness developed by Martin Seligman (1975).   Seligman established in his laboratory experiments with animals that, after being exposed to variable aversive and unavoidable stimuli repeatedly in a randomized fashion, his mammalian subjects subsequently failed to utilize available opportunities to escape from the painful stimuli (McMahon, 1999).   In a similar way, female humans learn that, as abuse by their husbands continue, regardless of any of her attempted actions to halt this violence, she cannot control the battering and hence, assume that she has no control over her own environment (Schuller, Wells, Rzepa, & Klippenstine, 2004).   Women in these instances of psychological paralysis eventually cease to avoid the painful stimuli, believing that nothing can be done to prevent being subjected to the abuse and fail to recognize available alternative avenues for escape (Ewing, 1990).

Despite a presumption that most battered women do in fact live in this perpetual state of fear as an indication of learned helplessness, research has yielded evidence that some victims of domestic violence report a cyclic nature to the abuse, describing lulls in the destructive and painful behavior by their spouse (Schuller & Hastings, 1996).   The three phases of the described cycle begin in an initial tension building stage where the wife will often perceive her husband as becoming exponentially more “edgy and more prone to react negatively to frustrations” (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).   During this phase, as described by Wrightman and Fulero (2005), a woman’s hypervigilant nature may be engaged such that she begins to anticipate her partner’s transitions of moods and his needs in the presence of small episodes of physical and verbal abuse.   As a result of these more trivial abusive instances and a persistent fear of more painful episodes which will inevitably occur in the future, it appears that battered women most often kill their partners during this tension building phase.    Following this apprehensive stage full of anxiety by the wife, an acute battering incident occurs and can last anywhere from two to twenty-four hours.   As Wrightman and Fulero (2005) note, “anticipation of this second stage results in severe psychological stress for the battered woman; she becomes anxious, depressed, and complains of other psycho-physiological symptoms. ”  The final stage which often mitigates flight impulses in a battered woman occurs when the abusive husband admits that his violent reactions are unacceptable and attempts to make amends through apology and promises that he will never behave that way again.   This observation to be more thoroughly addressed is forensically significant in circumstances where a time gap between an abusive threat of death or seriously bodily injury by the husband and the battered woman’s prima facie criminal act (such as killing her abusive partner in his sleep) exists.   In the case of these discrepancies, a symptomatic cycle of violence provides a psychological link in the criminal proceedings for the battered woman between the two temporally distinct occurrences (McMahon, 1999).

As a result of the apparent manipulation of battered women in this incessant cycle of abuse and absolution as identified by those of us on the outside of a particular series of circumstances, the American public have adopted views and often times strong stereotypes against battered women which can hinder a fair unbiased jury composition during trial.   There is a tendency to characterize the violence of the murdered husband as ensuing from difficulties within the marriage rather than resulting entirely from a flaw in the violent partner himself, thus placing a slight yet significant degree of blame upon the battered woman (Bradfield, 2002).   A study conducted by Reddy et al. addresses an underlying belief that the battered woman is somehow responsible for her continued abuse because she places herself repeatedly in a situation where she has prior knowledge that she will continued to be beaten (Bradfield, 2002).   Society’s expectations assume that battered women should and will leave violent relationships prior to the actual murder of a spouse, and when this does not occur, individuals question the motives and rationale of the women in these relationships.   Therefore, although the accused may inform a jury fully of her reasons for remaining with her husband throughout the battering cycles, a common sense understanding by jury members may lead them to question the severity of her abuse claims.   Additionally, according to Bradfield (2002), these perceptions are further “reinforced by the dominant societal and legal conception of domestic violence that focuses on isolated and discrete episodes of violence which facilitates the position that leaving the relationship is the sole appropriate form of self-assertion” (Bradfield, 2002).   Several misconceptions continue to circulate throughout American courtrooms particularly that battered women provoke their abuse, remain in these relationship because they enjoy the physical abuse aspect, or that violence fulfills some dark and deep-seated need within each partner (Spring & Winston, 1994), many of which could bear considerable influence on the decision of a jury during trial.

Although the scientific community acknowledges these assumptions of pleasure derived from physical violence and verbal ridicule as completely inaccurate, one must question what distinguishes a battered woman from other wives who are not physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused, and also the factors which differentiate battered women who kill from those who do not.   Empirical research conducted by Hocking (1999) has revealed discrepancies between battered wives and those engaged in more healthy forms of marriage, stating that battered women are “over-socialized, submissive, dependent, conforming and self-less, cautious, controlling, superstitious, submissive, anxious,” and possess poor coping skills.   Bradfield (2002) further explains that women in violent dyads are more emotionally dependent on their husbands than those in nonviolent dyads, have lower self-image than those in nonviolent unions, and tend to perceive their husbands more positively than women who are in nonviolent marriages (Anson & Sagy, 1995).   On measures of marital and gender social organizational attitudes as assessed by Warren and Lanning (1992), it was determined that women in violent relationships responded significantly differently to four out of twelve statements concerning the division of labor and authority within the family than those in non-violent unions.   According to this study, more women in the violent condition agreed that their husbands had the right to decide about intercourse, when she is able to leave the home for an outing, and that assertive women harm the dynamics of their families (Anson & Sagy, 1995).   In terms of maintaining the relationship, battered women, it seems are more emotionally dependent on their husbands; “when their husbands go out, they feel, as may have been expected, more relieved and relaxed; they also, however, reported more frequent feelings of being angry, sad, and lonely (Anson & Sagy, 1995).   Findings from this research study contradict a proposition that battered women have lowered self-esteem in that, it was verified that the self-image of women in violent marriages were quite similar to those in the non-violent condition, although the battered women were more nervous and less happy compared to their peers as reported by Walker (1984).   Women in violent relationships, moreover, tend to perceive violence as commonplace, justifying their husbands actions with positive emotions, including love, and in many cases, actually believe that they bring their fate upon themselves.   It is still a matter of debate whether these perceptions are a result of early socialization or perhaps are developed as a reaction to the violent martial experience (Anson & Sagy, 1995).

Ewing (1990) suggests that battered women who eventually commit murder may be subjected to more severe abuse, more frequent abuse, threatened with weapons, subjected to threats of death, especially threats of retaliation for leaving, are somewhat older and less educated, thus left with fewer options for economic support in the absence of an abusive partner, and have fewer resources for coping than do battered women in general.   Additionally, women diagnosed as having Battered Woman syndrome are characterized with lower sociocultural and socioeconomic levels, more frequent use of alcohol and other drugs, greater anxiety and depression, more likely to still be habituating with an abusive partner at the time of the criminal offense, and exhibit significantly more deficits in cognitive functioning and disturbance in mental state on psychological tests than those who do not kill their spouses (McMahon, 1999).   This same source determined that those with Battered Woman syndrome also demonstrated an increased risk for obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosexual dysfunction and post traumatic stress disorder as consistent with Walker’s description of Battered Woman syndrome (McMahon, 1999).   But the true question at hand is whether situational factors, such as the husband’s repeated assaults, and the emotional state of his female victims, including feelings of helplessness and guilt, contribute to the manifestations of this syndrome rather than more enduring traits of the woman (Walus-Wigle & Reidmeloy, 1988).   One could suggest that possibly certain disorders for example, borderline, self-defeating, or dependent personality disorders predispose an abused wife to the clinical development of Battered Woman syndrome.   Walker cites research conducted by Rosewater (1985) assessing abused women using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to examine the possibility of such a claim, suggesting that Battered Woman syndrome is identifiable by high scores on the MMPI scales measuring depression, anger, suspiciousness, and confusion and that low ego strength was typically found as well in repeatedly battered women (McMahon, 1999).   As a result of this and previously discussed studies, it becomes apparent that battered women who kill do possess a particular pathology different from those who avoid this homicidal act, although it is not quite understood yet as to whether these psychological abnormalities result from the cycle of violence or by internal factors of the woman herself, the resulting syndrome represents a rationale for homicide in the courtroom.

In addition to a thorough psychological evaluation conducted by the defense counsel to assess a woman’s particular adherence to Battered Woman syndrome criteria, an examination of the previous history of abuse, attempts to leave the relationship, and a woman’s particular feelings concerning the deceased are taken into account when an abused woman who kills her husband is taken to trial.   Although attaining the status of a battered woman does not in itself justify a homicidal act against one’s husband, testimony pertaining to this syndrome is important for arguing the self-defense claim.   In many criminal proceedings, an expert witness is introduced to testify about the nature of the physical violence and psychological abuse the accused killer was being subjected to, offering, as Wrightman and Fulero (2005) suggest, “explanations for puzzling behavior by the [abuse] victim. ”  Such Battered Woman syndrome testimony is elucidated to the court in an attempt to mitigate or absolve the abused wife from her legal responsibility for the act of killing; however, evidence of this syndrome is not a defense to a criminal charge in itself and must be used in conjunction within the existing framework of self-defense (3).   Nevertheless, as McMahon (1999) also demonstrates, in some cases, American courts may rule that Battered Woman syndrome does not constitute a “scientific field of expertise”, and thus exclude expert testimony pertaining to this issue (3 year).   Finally, in evaluating the necessity of Battered Woman syndrome expert testimony in any given court trial, one must take into account the existence of community myths and stereotypes where jurors and spectators fail to understand the dynamics of the domestic violence incurred as well as the patterns of response for the abused spouses, ultimately impacting the decision-making process for guilt or innocence (Bradfield, 2002).   In such instances, a juror’s pre-existing beliefs about spousal abuse, belief in a just world, and his or her gender may influence the impact of expert testimony upon the outcome of the trial (Spring & Winston, 1994).

Expert testimony regarding Battered Woman syndrome has been met with mixed reactions and varied resulting verdicts in courtrooms around the world including those of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain since it was first deemed admissible in the 1979 trial of Ibn-Tamas versus the United States.   Expert testimony is most often presented in trials of battered women who kill to provide the first steps for understanding the syndrome in the ordinary person who approaches jury duty without knowledge of the woman’s heightened perception of danger, the impact of this extreme fear on her thinking, and her rationale for being unable to escape the relationship (Schuller, McKimmie, & Janz, 2004), often factors that even the woman herself cannot understand or explain.  Expert evidence of the pathology of Battered Woman syndrome may answer relevant questions pertaining to the individual case and the plight of the woman’s mental capacity such as “(1) why a person subjected to prolonged and repeated abuse would remain in such a relationship, (2) the nature and extent to the violence that may exist in such a relationship producing a response, (3) the accused’s ability in such a relationship to perceive danger from the abuser, and (4) whether the particular accused believed on reasonable grounds that there was no other way to preserve herself from death or grievous bodily harm than by resorting to the conduct giving rise to the charge” (Terrance & Matheson, 2003).

Despite the overwhelming landmark victory in the introduction of expert evidence for battered women who do kill their spouses, as Schuller and Rzepa (2002) indicate, “indeed the impetus it provided for the court’s eventual acknowledgement of the obstacles confronting a battered woman’s claim of self-defense, represents an important and significant legal achievement”, this form of testimony was met with opposition by legal and feminist scholars.   This same source notes that in a jury simulation study, the beneficial impact of Battered Woman syndrome testimony solely depends on the defendant’s degree of fit within the passive characterization of the battered woman as described within the context of the trial (Schuller & Rzepa, 2003). In the description of events leading up to the murder such as aggressive or self-defensive acts including physical harm, verbal insults, or other variations of striking out against the abuser, Schuller and Hastings have determined that expert evidence is not as effective in rendering a not guilty verdict (Schuller et al. 2004).   Schuller and Vidmar (1992) state that the presence of expert testimony, overall however, actually increases an individual juror’s tendency to give more credence to the woman’s claim of fear and danger, and when compared to a non-expert control condition, participants rated the likelihood of success with an insanity plea to be greater when taking into account the woman’s psychological situation as described in expert testimony.   Finally, a moderate shift towards the ruling of manslaughter and a verdict of diminished capacity were evident when jurors were provided with background evidence pertaining the woman’s situation and typical responses of other women in similar abused lifestyles in the form of expert testimony (Schuller & Hastings, 1996).

Despite the increased usage of expert testimony and improved public awareness of any psychological implications stemming from domestic violence, this knowledge, as Bradfield (2002) describes, fails to be translated into an unwavering acceptance of self-defense as the appropriate defense for women who indeed kill their abusive husbands.   Based on a principle which vows that those who are being unlawfully attacked by another human have the legal right to take reasonable and necessary steps in defending herself, the doctrine of self-defense is designed to apply equally to all persons, but meeting these criteria has proven a complex and controversial challenge for those plighted with Battered Woman syndrome when brought to trial (Terrance & Matheson, 2003).   When a battered woman murders her abuser and then pleads not guilty by reason of self-defense, she encounters many obstacles in conveying this claim to a jury of her peers, who often times have presumed beliefs concerning the consequences and effects of violent behavior by men against women in intimate relationships (Schuller & Vidmar, 1992).

Despite the prevalence of the self-defense plea, most battered women who kill are convinced because as Wrightman and Fulero (2005) describe, the “requirements of the current self-esteem law equate self with only the physical aspects of personhood”, thus eliminating those instances where women kill sometime following beatings or threats from falling within this category.   As a result, some battered women may plead not guilty by reason of insanity, arguing that they were unable to tell the difference between right and wrong at the time of the incident due to mental incompetence from sustained head injuries or by mental anguish from an abusive husband’s behavior, and therefore, should be exempt from culpability (Terrance, Matheson & Spanos, 2000).   However, as experts contend, this defense can be construed as demeaning to the woman as she is merely acting to save her own life (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).   Based on 1987 statistics, Browner concluded that fifty-six percent of battered women who murdered their spouses pled not guilty by reason of self-defense, thirty-three percent pled not guilty to lesser charges in return for leniency, and only eight percent of all battered women brought to trial pled not guilty by reason of insanity (Follingstand et al. 1989).

To understand the failure of self-defense pleas, one must extract all applicable meaning as defined by American laws to address how each aspect could be argued to imply innocence for the defendant on trial.   The principle of self-defense is governed under the standard of reasonable necessity, however, when the homicide is committed outside of an actual instance of battering, the jury may have a hard time deciphering an adequate legal ruling on this issue. As Bradfield (2002) finds, “absent [of the] raise[d] knife-pointed gun scenario – the immediate confrontation – where the threat conforms to the paradigm case of self-defense and the seriousness of the threat is obvious, battered women need to be able to convey to the jury the necessity of the resort to fatal force in their circumstances,” thus proving a woman’s fate to be largely dependent on have convincing her argument is constructed.   To assess the legitimacy of a woman’s claim for self-defense, domestic violence must be understood in the realm of an overall pattern of power and control within the violence, not just as a series of isolated events.   Attorneys highlight the culminating incidents of battery to provide a backing for the reasonableness of the woman’s actions so that, as the law has traditionally required, it seems logical that an “ordinary man” would attempt these same deadly actions in a similar situation (Schuller & Rzepa, 2002).   This definition and understanding of reasonableness of deadly force varies by jurisdiction in the United States, so that in some courtrooms a subjective standard is utilized such that reasonableness is based on the cognition of the defendant rather than that of an ordinary person (Schuller et al. 2004).

The laws of self-defense equate self in terms of corporeal aspects of human existence, including those processes required for sustaining life, but fail to encompass aspects of psychological functioning and dimensions of the battering experience, which can prove problematic for an abused woman who kills her husband (Schuller et al. 2004).   A doctrine of psychological self-defense has been proposed to fill this gap in self protection in order that an individual who kills to preserve the normalcy of her psychological state to safeguard the meaning and value of her physical existence be justified in this killing (Ewing, 1990).   If laws were amended to reflect this understanding, jurors would be provided with an expanded understanding of the defendant’s circumstances, and as a result, I believe that those assessed as having Battered Woman syndrome would be permitted a more realistic and fair trial.

An important component in the homicidal situation to be considered both as consequence to mental health criteria and in the courtroom is the imminence of threat the victim was in at the time of her decision.   As mentioned previously, self-defense criteria demands that the defendant must prove to a jury of her peers that her actions were reasonable when taking into account the degree of danger she was under.   In these laws of self-defense, a precise and narrow legal focus is placed on discrete incidents of violence, the most recent deemed most significant without regard to the evidence of the history of the relationship, determining these facts merely contextualize the abusive incident (Schuller, Wells, Rzepa, & Klippenstine, 2004).   As a consequence Schuller et al. (2004) insist, “there is a failure to elicit at trial the experiences and effects of living a life of being abused. ”  This distortion is further reinforced in the very design of how the evidence is presented in the question and answer format of the examination-in-chief and cross-examination.   When unable to understand the abuse as a continuous cycle rather than purely in isolation, the imminence of danger to the defendant may not be obvious to the court or jury despite the appropriateness of the self-defensive action (Follingstand et al. 1989).   Additionally, when taking into account that nearly twenty percent of these murders were committed outside of direct confrontation (Schuller et al. 2004), during a period of relative calm such as when the husband is sleeping, rulings of not guilty by reason of self-defense dropped from seventy-six percent in attack conditions to forty-four percent when no immediate threat was apparent (Terrance, 2000).   Due to the delay between the batterer’s last violent act and the woman’s deadly response, not surprisingly, (Schuller et al. 2004) also found that these factors exerted a large degree of influence on the jury’s perception of the act as defensive, rendering more guilty verdicts in this condition.   In conclusion, however, one must keep in mind that like a modified definition of self-defense, the threat of imminence can be construed in favor of the battered woman.   In these instances, jury members may understand the context of imminence in terms of the perpetual state of fear model, such that the threat exists based on the very nature of the violent partner and his presence within the home which could instigate further abusive encounters (Schuller & Hastings, 1996).

In addition to the influence of understanding and instructions for the applicability of self-defense provided by the court to jurors during deliberation, the personality and previously held convictions of jury members as relevant to Battered Woman syndrome play a primary role in determining whether the defendant will be charged with murder or released from custody.   A statistical analysis of verdicts prior to 1980 concluded that twenty-seven percent of all adults attributed equal or predominant blame to the wife in the instance of abuse, and based on this determination, one can conclude that during this time period, at least one fourth of jurors also possessed this inherent bias towards a woman’s liability (Follingstand et al. 1989).   Such assumptions may be a result of a strong subscription to the belief in a just world, such that, individuals feel that those who violate ethical and moral boundaries deserve and will receive proper punishment by external forces around them.   An empirical study by Rubin and Peplau established that individuals who strongly accept this belief in a just world tend to devalue victims and actually merit abusive occurrences because, as proposed, they are unable to identify with being in the same position of the victim (1989).   However, a follow-up study conducted by Follingstad et al. revealed that only eight percent of the total variance in jury verdicts was due to the participants’ belief in feminism theories and in a belief in a just world combined (Terrance et al. 2000).   In general, Spring and Winston (1994) support this finding in explaining that those who express a weak belief in a just world are often more lenient in their not guilty verdicts, also concluding that expert testimony more strictly applies to the defendant in the described individual case than for those who were strong believers of a just world.   Gender also had a strong influence in verdict leniency in that women, compared to men, are more likely to deem the defendant’s claim for self-defense more credible (Schuller et al. 2004). Specifically, Schuller et al. (2004) explains, “in comparison to male participants, women were more likely to find the defendant’s claim of fear more plausible and to believe that she was trapped within the relationship,” but noted no gender differences in terms of perception of other available options to the defendant instead of murder.   In conclusion, it becomes clear that individual personality traits, attitudinal beliefs, and predetermined factors such as gender moderate the influence of expert testimony and self-defense pleas in trials of battered women who kill abusive spouses.

Despite the many controversial issues surrounding the assessment and usage of Battered Woman syndrome testimony in court, one must understand that the inquiry as to whether an accused woman did indeed kill her husband due to a mental disorder diagnosis and thus should be pardoned from conviction is solely at the discretion of the legal system.   Psychological findings and evidence of pathology are only as effective as they are conveyed to jury members and judges through expert testimony, and therefore, steps must be taken to refine and increase the saliency of all presented information for the defense.   It is important to note, however, that by introducing this terminology into today’s courtrooms, attorneys and psychologists alike are perpetrating negative connotations of battered women.   When emphasis is placed on the personal inadequacies described under the realm of learned helplessness to explain a battered woman’s failure to flee from her abuser, the legal shift away from the objective rationality of her actions to preserve her own life paints a picture of a dysfunctional and incapable human being.   This is not to say that the theory of learned helplessness should not be applied to women in similar circumstances, but instead, I deem it important to fully educate the general public against stereotypes disseminated and supported through misinterpretation of this evidence.   In a comparable light, Schuller et al. (2004) found that the presence of expert evidence providing a diagnosis of Battered Woman syndrome without adequate explanation led mock jurors to perceive the defendant as more distorted in her thinking and less capable of making responsible choices, factors which could be of great consequence in later child custody hearings.   Taking all of these findings into consideration, I must agree with the use of Battered Woman syndrome testimony when applied properly with full explanation, but also concur with Hubble’s (1999) recommendation that the court should examine the defendant’s financial situation, access to affordable childcare, and the likely effectiveness of legal protection that could have been provided prior to murder as well.   Finally, as is now evident, Battered Woman syndrome is a plight endured by many thousands of Americans and must be sufficiently examined by legal and psychological scholars alike to provide a proper setting for expert testimony and an adaptive role for the psychological self-defense plea in the courtroom.

References

Anson, O. Sagy, S. (1995). Marital violence: Comparing women in violent and

nonviolent unions. Human Relations, 48, 285-305.

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Battered Woman Syndrome and its Legal Implications (Part 2)

June 22nd, 2010 Comments off

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Bradfield, R. (2002). Understanding the battered woman who kills her violent partner –

the admissibility of expert evidence of domestic violence. Psychiatry, Psychology,

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Ewing, C. (1990). Psychological self-defense: A proposed justification for battered

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Follingstand, D. Ponek, D. Hause, E. Deaton, L. Bulger, M. Conway, Z. (1989).

Factors predicting verdicts in cases where battered women kill their husbands.

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Hocking, B. (1999). Limited (and gendered? concessions to human frailty: Frightened

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6, 57-66.

Hubble, G. (1999). Self-defense and domestic violence: A reply to Bradfield. Psychiatry,

Psychology, and Law, 6, 51-56.

McMahon, M. (1999). Battered women and bad science: The limited validity and utility

of battered woman syndrome. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 6, 23-49.

Schuller, R. Hastings, P. (1996). Trials of battered women who kill: The impact of

alternative forms of expert evidence. Law and Human Behavior, 20, 167-189.

Schuller, R. McKimmie, B. Janz, T. (2004). The impact of expert testimony in trials of

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Schuller, R. Rzepa, S. (2002). Expert testimony pertaining to battered woman syndrome:

Its impact on juror’s decisions. Law and Human Behavior, 26, 655-673.

Schuller, R. Vidmar, N. (1992). Battered woman syndrome evidence in the courtroom: A

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Schuller, R. Wells, E. Rzepa, S. Klippenstine, M. (2004). Rethinking battered woman

syndrome evidence: The impact of alternative forms of expert testimony on mock

juror’s decisions. Canadian Journal of  Behavioural Science, 36, 127-136.

Spring, M. Winston, V. (1994). Juror’s decisions in trials of battered women who kill: The

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Terrance, C. Matheson, K. Spanos, N. (2000). Effects of judicial instructions and case

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Wadsworth.

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Premarital Cohabitation’s Influence Upon Stability and Satisfaction in Subsequent Marriages

June 15th, 2010 Comments off

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In my examination of premarital living arrangements, I seek to explain cohabitation as a predictive factor for subsequent martial stability and satisfaction based on the analysis of selectivity into such a relationship, the experience of cohabitation itself and the contrasting characteristics of which cohabitating and married couples exhibit in their individual relationships. Evaluating marriage and cohabitation from a utilitarian perspective which focuses on the cohesiveness of each couple as a function of partners’ joint investments in the relationship, I intend on determining whether the principles governing stability and satisfaction contrast by the type of union and thus address the implications of these disparities upon theory through numerous research studies of modern couples.

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Introduction

In the midst of turbulent family patterns that have become progressively normative by twenty-first century standards, several explanations compete to explain why some couples are able to remain together post cohabitation through marriage while others experience marital dissolution. According to Nicole and Baldwin (1995) although the rates for first marriages and remarriages have been declining, the rates of cohabitation and divorce have been steadily climbing, thus providing speculation as to whether each of these relationship steps or statuses influence one another. At the onset of coresidential unions the perspective upon which partners view their cohabitation and the goals established to be achieved from this sharing of households strongly affect the outcome of these relationships. Cohabitation may be envisioned as a trial marriage in a process of a prolonged marriage search to effectively “weed out” incompatible partners, thus, one would predict a regression in later divorce statistics between these groups; however, this is not always the case due to selective or experience factors. In this way, cohabitation may act as an additional step in the transition from singlehood to marriage, offering a “functional developmental tool for those who are uncertain about marriage,” (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995). The following paper reviews assertions as to whether cohabitation represents such a developmental tool for a stronger, more egalitarian union that lessens the likelihood of subsequent divorce.

Rationale for Premarital Cohabitation

Societal movements since the early 1970s have produced modifications in the rates of cohabitation, marriage, and divorce, challenging traditional conceptions of what exactly binds heterosexual couples together in a specific union (Brines & Joyner, 1999). Numerous national surveys predict that the convergence in martial and family forms has occurred as a function of the global capitalist system which has given rise to an increased emphasis on individuation, a selective factor to be examined in depth shortly. According to Hall (1996, p. 1) “by improving the status of women and undermining patriarchal authority, the process of capitalist industrialization encourages the growth of informal and unstable martial patterns across cultures. ” Further evidence to support this prediction is found in the favorable attitudes toward cohabitation as expressed by women based on their levels of formal education and labor force participation, while negative attitudes towards this informal cohesiveness in relationships are associated with the traditional values of religion and desire for children (Hall, 1996). Additionally, the increasing emergence of sexuality from the confines of reproductive purpose has produced plastic sexuality, “sexuality that is largely freed from reproduction as well as institutional, normative, and patriarchal control,” (Hall, 1996, p. 2). Because this sexuality has evolved as unbounded by the limits of legal union, plastic sexuality has been identified as malleable and able to be defined even so informally as that of a personality trait on an individual basis (Hall, 1996). This significant emergence of plastic sexuality as a determinate relevant to eventual martial satisfaction functions as a powerful catalyst for the evolving transformation of the human intimacy in relationships that are “organized and sustained primarily from within the relationship itself, not materially supported by, nor anchored in external social criteria such as norms, traditions, or formal institutions,” (Hall, 1996, p. 2). These relationship classifications are more democratic and egalitarian in economic, sexual, and household task duties, thus providing a more compatible relationship structure for the work force participation of both partners. Improved birth control methods and more permissive societal attitudes toward premarital sexual intercourse in addition to a “greater unconventionality in family ideology, economic insecurity, and less commitment to religion” are cited by Woods and Emery (2002, p. 102) as fundamental reasons as to why couples may choose to live together in the absence of marriage. I hypothesize through these literary findings that the desire for egalitarian constructs as a result of an evolving societal movement act as a significant factor in addition to several others towards the dissolution of marriages with cohabitation prior to wedding.

Data

Empirical research on the linkage between premarital cohabitation and subsequent martial stability and satisfaction remains surprisingly consistent, suggesting that premarital cohabitation is indeed associated with an increased risk of martial dissolution. According to the data presented by Teachman (2003, p. 1), “marriages preceded by a spell of cohabitation are as much as 50% more likely to end in divorce at any marital duration than marriages not preceded by cohabitation. ” Evidence suggests that the progression of cohabiting couples for adaptation into this union of shared household follows along an identical pathway in comparison to marital adjustment. Couples establish mutually satisfactory affectional and sexual relationships, separate from families of origin, and develop a couple identity in the first few months of cohabitation, either within the confines of marriage or outside of them (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995). This statement provides a hypothesis that while individuals who first share a household following marriage enter into this legal union with an exciting prospect of joining together to resolve these issues, those who have cohabitated prior are exempted from this process, and therefore, may be left wondering “now what?

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Premarital Cohabitation’s Influence Upon Stability and Satisfaction in Subsequent Marriages (Part 2)

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” in a search to differentiate their premarital from their martial relationship.

Although accounting for similarities of adjustment experienced during the initial sharing of households among both groups, an inference has been made that very different principles bind cohesiveness in cohabitating versus married couples. This governing assumption predicts that couples who reside together prior to marriage will engage in a less traditional marriage dynamic following legal union in keeping with previous masculine and feminine roles established during premarital cohabitation. According to Brines and Joyner (1999), the greater the financial “equal-power” ratio experienced between partners during premarital cohabitation, the lower the likelihood of dissolution in this informal institution of union due to a separation of economic resources. Cohabitors who engage in a traditional division of labor are 2. 75 times more likely to end their relationship in dissolution than those who engage in more equal labor practices. However, once a marriage has been entered into, a pooling of resources is most often expected, and thus discrepancies may occur in wage earning. The less traditional roles adopted by those in a premarital cohabitation as demonstrated by the above data may offer an explanation of instability and lower satisfaction once married.

Selectivity as a Factor of Instability

Contrasting theories pertaining to individual processes occurring during cohabitation offer an explanation of lower stability and satisfaction once a transition from cohabitation to marriage has been initiated. A main focal point on the first theory emphasizes the proposal that men and women in weak marriage-market bargaining positions are more likely to cohabitate prior to marriage, producing a selective factor towards a lower quality and consequentially less stable outcome. Numerous studies provide evidence that selectivity either through direct measurement of differences on important characteristics, including age and religion, or “the use of statistical procedure that adjust for unmeasured heterogeneity” (Teachman, 2003, p. 5) distinguish outcomes between cohabitors and noncohabitors. Brines and Joyner (1999, p. 335) suggest that when couples choose cohabitation prior to marriage, “the choice signals uncertainty and a short-term time horizon, prescribing a cautious approach to the relationship that might produce patterns of sharp bargaining between partners. ” These conditions of uncertainty allow cohabitating couples a certain degree of freedom to experiment with organization forms that are “less responsive to external norms or contractual obligations and more responsive to the needs of each partner” (Brines & Joyner, 1999, p. 5), however, at the expense of incentives to jointly invest in the relationship. As Nicole and Baldwin (1995) state, cohabitation allows for a relatively safe period during which a couple can investigate deeper levels of compatibility, disclose needs, feelings, and vulnerabilities without pressure for a life-long commitment. Conversely, when a couple with individualistic tendencies concentrated on the maintenance of equality enters into marriage, frequent monitoring of each partner’s holdings may create constant friction between husband and wife. Additionally, as a result of an egalitarian and unconventional viewpoint, cohabitants are more individualistic in partner selection and thus less concerned with age and religious homogamy (Hall, 1996), key components explained as crucial by Hall and Zhao (1995). Finally, those who are prone to relationship dissatisfaction in accordance with data provided by Woods and Emery (2002) are more likely to select partners who are vulnerable to divorce as well.

Moreover, evidence supports the notion that cohabitors and married persons differ substantially in terms of what they seek from the relationship, even those who cohabitate with eventual intentions to marry. As discussed previously, cohabitors are more likely to embrace individualism and seek personal autonomy and equity in terms of household contributions between partners. Once a definite marriage commitment has been established, fear is often generated that individual enterprises may be eliminated based on the evidence that marriage may reduce activities related to an individual’s career, friendships, hobbies or family of origin that defined a certain degree of importance in the individual’s life (Hall, 1996). A drop-off of these activities following the transition from cohabitation into marriage may further perpetuate a sense of martial dissatisfaction.

Finally, personality problems as well as behavioral and social adjustment problems, difficulty expressing emotions, alcohol and drug abuse, financial irresponsibility, legal problems, and unstable employment history are common characteristics of those who seek to cohabitate premaritally as they view themselves to be poor marriage material. Additionally, Woods and Emery (2002) determine that cohabitors tend to resemble high self-monitors, and thus alter their behavior depending on the situation and person with who they are interacting within any given instance. These tendencies lead to the report of lower trust levels, less faithfulness and loyalty, and an overall decrease in commitment for any individual relationship, which can subsequently lead to martial conflict and undermine martial stability.

Experience as a Factor of Instability

An alternative to the theory of selectivity is the asscertation that the actual experience of cohabitation influences martial outcome and overall levels of satisfaction within the relationship. In this theory, it is argued that a causal effect is exhibited as a result of having lived with a romantic partner prior to marriage. According to Wu (1999, p. 2), “because most cohabiting relationships are short-lived, the ephemeral nature of cohabitation as observed in everyday life may undermine the notion that intimate relationships are lasting and permanent. ” Additionally the experience of cohabitation may foster less conventional attitudes regarding marriage, perhaps resulting in a subsequent increase in approval of divorce. Data by Hall (1996) provides evidence of a small but significant effect on the frequency of divorce when considering cohabitation in the absence of personal characteristics in finding that eighteen percent of those who had cohabitated prior to marriage ended their relationship in divorce in comparison to the eleven percent of noncohabitors that endured the same outcome.

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Premarital Cohabitation’s Influence Upon Stability and Satisfaction in Subsequent Marriages (Part 3)

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In addition to the rationale that cohabitation takes time to experience, a delay from informal union into marriage for cohabiting couples is also a factor relative to the coresidential experience. Using data from the 1990 General Social Survey, it becomes evident that cohabitational experience delays the timing of a first marriage by approximately twenty-six percent for women and nineteen percent for men even when selective factors have been controlled for (Wu, 1999). Finally a lack of joint investment as a general mechanism to bind couples together has been proven to be relevant in the experience of cohabitation and subsequent marital dissolution. Economic division of income and resources works against a theory that suggests that through both partners’ joint investment in the relationship, each become increasingly dependent on one another as gain from the current relationship exceeds prospective gains from any alternative (Brines & Joyner, 1999).

Although less research has been conducted pertaining to the thesis of a causal effect of cohabitation upon martial success, significant empirical support emphasizes a generated hypothesis that martial outcome may in fact be due to a combination of the working factors of selectivity in partners for a cohabitating experience. Often partners who enter into a premarital coresidential relationship with previously described personal qualities and individualistic tendencies learn that these functionings of self are well maintained in the constructs of cohabitation through experiences encountered during the relationship, thus further reinforcing this distinctive behavior. In couples where no cohabitation prior to marriage has taken place, the adults may enter into marriage with an independent and individualistic view, but these traits may transition into interdependence as the individual adapts to a more traditional view of marriage due to societal pressures and conformity norms.

Division of Resource

As a result of preselectivity, effects from certain experiences within cohabitation or a combination of both these factors working simultaneously, a variety of contrasts between concrete dynamics in married versus cohabitating relationships may lead to eventual marital termination. In keeping with this argument, Brines and Joyner (1999, p. 339) define a “distinction between the individualistic ethos of cohabitors and the more collectivist orientation of married partners” which contributes to an expression of different patterns in resource management. Couples who share households outside of marriage often do not share joint ownership of these homes or joint bank accounts, thus reducing any risk through avoidance of investment activity in the relationship. Due to a higher degree of emphasis on equality as theorized by selective factors, premaritally cohabitating partners contribute nearly equal earnings into joint purchases and living expenses. Among couples with an employed male, Duvander (1999) found that female cohabitors earned on average ninety percent of their partner’s salary versus a wife’s earnings of just over sixty percent of her husband’s salary. Because the female member of a relationship provides an increased level of income during cohabitation in comparison to her previously married peers, when she herself enters marriage, an expectation for her to continue bringing in this income is apparent. However often times while these women contribute a significant percentage to the overall income, they continue to perceive themselves as being overburdened at home, causing large numbers of women who are no longer economically dependent on men to question the benefits of being legally married (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995). However, some data published by Stafford, Backman, and Dibona (1977) suggests that cohabiting couples share more household tasks than married couples, and thus, this breakdown of tasks may be carried over into marriage. Furthermore, Stafford, Backman, and Dibona (1977) determined that married men without cohabitating experience do less cooking, cleaning and laundry than those who cohabitated prior to marriage. This finding places a high degree of importance on equality of division of tasks for eventual marital success in couples who have previously cohabitated and thus share an equal level of employment.

Perceived Quality of Communication, Satisfaction and Stability

In addition to a reassignment of traditional division of task and resource, premarital cohabitation may also contribute to an eventual decrease of overall satisfaction in many aspects of a relationship following marriage in comparison to those who do not cohabitate prior to wedding. In a study based on the data analysis from the 1987-1988 National Survey of Family and Households measuring relationship quality across the five dimensions of disagreement, fairness, happiness, conflict, management, and interaction, it was determined that those who cohabitate experience disagreement with a higher frequency than their married counterparts, thus providing implications that such disagreement may continue into marriage if this level in relationship is achieved (Brown & Booth, 1996). Also determined from this data, people in marriages that were preceded by cohabitation have significantly lower levels of martial interaction and higher levels of disagreement and instability than those who had never cohabitated outside of the confines of marriage. Such an increase in the frequency of disagreements amongst couples who cohabitated before marriage may be attributed to the fact that, “many couples fail to develop conflict resolution abilities during the early stages of their relationship and encounter trouble later when they face problems that are complex and serious enough to require a high degree of such skill,” (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995, p. 6). Additionally, spouses who cohabitated before marriage reported lower levels of commitment to marriage as an institution, providing further evidence for instability within their individual relationships.

A previous empirical study conducted approximately twelve years prior to the analysis of the National Survey of Family and Households revealed similar results, finding that premarital cohabitation was associated with significantly lower perceived quality of communication for wives and significantly lower marital satisfaction for both spouses after controlling for sex-role traditionalism, church attendance, and other significant sociocultural factors (DeMaris & Gerald, 1984).

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Premarital Cohabitation’s Influence Upon Stability and Satisfaction in Subsequent Marriages (Part 4)

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This discovery contradictions a common sense expectation that would determine a higher degree of both communication and dyadic adjustment due to a screening of potential partners that occurs during cohabitation as well as an assumption that adjustment problems common in the first year of marriage for noncohabitors have been previously resolved during premarital cohabitation. Discrepancies from the predicted and actual outcomes in terms of martial satisfaction and communication may in part be due to the fact that once partners marry, often a spouse will expect more out of the marriage and seek a more traditional dynamic than before, thus leading to conflict. Finally, because selectivity predicts that cohabitors view divorce as more favorable than those who marry at the outset, Brown and Booth (1996, p. 671) find it plausible that “they would be less willing to accept a unit decline in relationship quality than married persons, implying a greater willingness to reject the status quo. ” In other words, those who have cohabitated prior to marriage may utilize a different scale to determine happiness within a relationship than those who did not premaritally cohabitate, and consequentially report essentially equal levels of happiness but view these levels with contrasting minimal expectations. Despite these explanations, there is strong evidence of a correlation between premarital cohabitation and lower levels of martial satisfaction as a whole.

Limitations

Constraints on previously conducted research hinder a greater understanding of martial outcome as predicted by premarital cohabitation based on methods of research, a lack of diversity in sample sizes, and perceived biases by researchers on the constructs of relationships maintained during analysis. The interpretation of cohabitation as a form of trial marriage in addition to the superficial living arrangements which mock that of married couples has produced a tendency for researches to interpret couple behaviors within the constructs of marriage instead of independently as a distinct institution. Criteria for the selection of research participants may exclude relationship factors, specifically as noted by Brines and Joyner (1999) where only legal marriages and cohabitating arrangements that survived at least one year were included in results. Additionally, individuals in their mid-thirties to late forties were excluded from much of the research and thus, because long-term cohabitation tends to delay age of marriage, the use of younger cohort samples may have produced an “upward bias in the positive effect of marital cohabitation on the risk of divorce,” (Brines & Joyner, 1999, p. 342). Also most of the data I was able to find provided no information pertaining to the development of relationship skills within cohabitation and marriage, and in the work of Teachman (2003), no evaluation of the premarital relationship histories of husbands in the analysis of effects of premarital relations on marital stability were included. Lastly, most data that I came across was confined to correlational studies on college student relationships or was based on large scale national surveys that limited the availability of attitudinal, behavioral, and basic sociodemographic variables.

Conclusion

Although a strong argument has been presented that cohabitation acts as a selective agent for people more willing to break social norms and less committed to marriage, it can be inferred that during the subsequent decades of the twenty-first century due to a rapid increase of premarital cohabitation, this institution will become less selective of people possessing specific characteristics related to martial stability. However, problems created during cohabitation pertaining to communication and division of finances and labor may continue to extend into marriage, creating an instability and dissatisfaction despite a hypothesized virtual elimination of selective agents. Overall, an emphasis on non-traditional experiences within the confines of premarital cohabitation, concrete differences in relationship dynamics that arise from marriage following cohabitation, and therefore a less predictable transition into marriage continue to shape successive satisfaction and stability.

References

Brines, J. & Joyner, K. (1999). The ties that bind: principles of cohesion in cohabitation

and marriage [Electronic version]. American Sociological Review, 64, 333-355.

Brown, S. & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: a comparison of relationship

quality [Electronic version]. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 668-678.

DeMaris, A. & Gerald, L. (1984). Cohabitation with future spouse: its influence upon martial

satisfaction and communication [Electronic version]. Journal of Marriage and the Family,

46, 77-84.

Duvander, A. (1999). The transition from cohabitation to marriage: a longitudinal study of

the propensity to marry in Sweden in the early 1990s [Electronic version]. Journal of

Family Issues, 5, 698-717.

Hall, D. (1996). Marriage as a pure relationship: exploring the link between premarital

cohabitation and divorce [Electronic version]. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 27,

1-11.

Hall, D. & Zhao, J. (1995). Cohabitation and divorce in Canada: testing the selectivity

hypothesis [Electronic version]. Journal of Marriage and Family, 57, 1-11.

Nicole, F. & Baldwin, C. (1995). Cohabitation as a developmental stage: implications for

mental health counseling [Electronic version]. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 17,

1-8.

Stafford, R. Backman, E. & Dibona, P. (1977). The division of labor among cohabiting and

married couples [Electronic version]. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 39, 43-57.

Teachman, J. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent

martial dissolution among women [Electronic version]. Journal of Marriage and Family,

65, 1-16.

Woods, L. & Emery, R. (2002). The cohabitation effect on divorce: causation or selection?

[Electronic version]. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 37, 101-121.

Wu, Z. (1999). Premarital cohabitation and the timing of first marriage [Electronic version].

Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 36, 1-18.

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