Military Wives and Emotional Abuse: A Literature Review

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by Valerie J. Packota

It appears that military wives experience much the same types of emotional abuse as civilian wives. However, their options and the culture in which the abuse takes place differ from the civilian experience. Issues include isolation, subordination, economic abuse, required secrecy, humiliation and psychological abuse, coupled with the potential for physical abuse, the proprietary nature of male domination over wives, children and the family home are just some of the issues of military wives.

Military culture demeans all that is "feminine" in males. This attitude is prevalent in language spoken in the military and defence industry. The active and conscious view of life asa struggle and power being synonymous with life pervades the military mentality. An example of how the language distorts reality can be seen in reports where the deaths of humans are called "collateral damage", which diminishes in the public eye the horrific damage that they are actually causing. The act of disarmament is equated with impotence and "getting rid of all your stuff". In the testing of nuclear weapons on the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific, the U.S. military gave every crater they gouge out of the earth a woman's name. Phallic imagery pervades military language and acts as a ideological curtain with macho overtones. (French, 1992)

To many military wives, the Canadian Forces is an alien and intimidating environment which focuses on the military member and treats spouses and children as unimportant. Alien to most civilians, the activities engaged in by members include cult-like trappings such as uniforms, parades, mess dinners (that only military members are allowed to attend), unit cohesion (similar to a brotherhood). This hypermasculine military culture marginalizes all that is female making spouses feel devalued. Also, military wives= knowledge that weapons are kept in the house and abusive military members threats to use them, often puts the military wife in a state of apprehension. (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre et al, 2000)

The fact that the military member is the "breadwinner" and frequent geographic moves, limits the military wife's options to develop a career, continue a career or even to keep a paid job. In addition, the home may be a PMQ (Permanent Married Quarters) where the military wife has no claim to the home if she separates.Given her employment vulnerability and her fear that making waves could disrupt her husband's career, she often retreats to her domestic responsibilities, exacerbating her isolation. American research indicates that abuse in military families living off-base is seldom reported to the military so that steps can be taken to hold her abuser accountable. Reasons cited for this phonomenon are that the civilian police and military police often do not cooperate, or there are jurisdictional issues. (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre et al, 2000)

Although Canadian Forces have policy on abuse and family violence, and some think that this policy embraces zero tolerance, there is no policy that states this explicitly. Above all other principles, it appears that military unit cohesion is extremely important to keeping up morale to prepare the military members for deployment or isolated postings. A military member with a black mark on his file such as a criminal conviction is no longer considered promotable. Thus secrecy and group protection from reporting abuse plays a major role in keeping abuse situations off records of members.

The Canadian military is enshrined in a "culture of secrecy about social problems." The commanding officers' lack of knowledge about woman abuse can often be the result of supervisors' failure to report up the chain of command or failure to take the issue seriously. Frequently, supervisors who were approached stated to the husband "get your wife under control so she will shut up." There is often complicity with each other when military members and their wives know of a woman being abused but do not report. Group cohesion and presenting a united front for the sake of the unit's future are important issues. Any negative issues reflect badly on unit commanders and the unit itself. (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre et al, 2000)

Military doctors and social workers are expected to report abuse up the chain of command, but the ethics of their professions puts them in a conflict of interest position. They cannot act as an advocate for their patient or client as they are also employed by the Canadian Forces. They will not report up the chain of command without their patients' or clients' permission. The padre (spiritual counsel on base) and social worker may be sympathetic, but often they counsel the victim to be more patient and understand the military members workplace stresses. Blaming the victim is intrinsic in this approach. (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre, 2000)

The Canadian Forces are beginning to recognize that family support should play a role in military life. Therefore, there have been Family Resource Centres emerging across the country. Their role is to maintain member retention and readiness for deployment or postings. They can also provide daycare, life skills, family life enrichment, assertiveness training and counselling. These resource centres are intended to be quasi-independent from the chain of command. They provide short-term counselling and must include a crisis component. Woman abuse comprises half of the caseloads. Effectiveness of these centres varies from very effective in assisting the abused woman to actually reporting abuse to the abuser's unit. Some employees were fired for insisting on maintaining confidentiality of the clients' issues. (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre, 2000)

Although some military wives appear to turn a blind eye to their neighbours' dilemma, some reach out to their abused neighbour. There was evidence of empathy in statements like "you don't deserve this", to establishing networks of support to assist in coping with the abuse. However, this compassion is laced with repression and fear. Her supporters are also military wives and the closing of ranks is evident in the secrecy of this support. (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre, 2000)

The emotional abuse of military wives appears to begin when wives are shut out of much of their partners' lives in an insidious and gradual way that wears them down to accept the military's pre-eminence. Their expectations are lessened over time much more than women in civilian life. (Harrison & Lalieberte, 1994)

Reports by military wives themselves have indicated that emotional abuse is a communicative act that can be verbal, non-verbal, active and passive. These acts may take the form of demeaning verbal assaults that assert the authority of the male partner and keeps them in a subservient role. The act of taunting her in public or when in mixed company, or ignoring her completely causes her to feel humiliated.

A more active form of humilation includes withholding money for food so that the victim needs to beg to keep food on the table and has no say in the economy of the family. A report by one emotionally abused military wife stated that the abuser always had enough money to socialize with other military members, but not enough for the children's or her food and activities. This economic dependency revealed itself in the feeling that she and her children could be abandoned at any time.

Fears of abandonment are also present in the narratives of military wives. One military wife indicated that her partner stated "you have two days, you have one day, this time tomorrow you and the kids will be gone." This fear ultimately rules the life of abused military wives. (Benson-Jestin, 1995)

Isolation is also a major feature of emotional abuse of military wives, due to the constant moves from base to base and to assignments in communities that are isolated. This breaking of contact with friends that were made and support systems keeps the military wife and mother in a state of utter frustration which allows the abuser's control to increase. (Benson-Jestin, 1995)

Besides physical isolation because of transfers to unfamiliar geographical locations, military wives whose first language is French are often put in a position of being linguistically isolated. Women who were married to Canadian military members in Germany and returned to Canada with underdeveloped English language skills were further isolated and reported being taunted by their partners. Only rarely does the military provide funds for a separating military wife to return to her home community.

In conclusion, one word would characterize the issue of woman abuse in the military and that word is "containment". (Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre, 2000)

A comprehensive list of solutions regarding this issue are discussed in the report entitled, Report on the Canadian Forces Response To Woman Abuse in Military Families is available at:


Benson-Jestin, Cathy (1995). The experience of wife abuse among women married to military members. Unpublished master=s thesis, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

French, M. (1992). The War Against Women. New York: Random House.

Harrison, D. & Laliberte, L. (1994). No Life Like It: Military Wives in Canada. Toronto: Lorimer and Company.

Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick and the RESOLVE Violence and Abuse Research Centre at the University of Manitoba. (May, 2000). Report on the Canadian Forces - response to woman abuse in military families.