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The chronic abuser and the hopeless offender:  Two sides of the same coin of intimate partner homicide

The chronic abuser and the hopeless offender: Two sides of the same coin of intimate partner homicide

Worldwide one in seven homicides involve the killing of an intimate partner. In the Netherlands this number is even higher: one in four homicides concern intimate partner homicides. But who are the offenders and victims of intimate partner homicide?

The chronic abuser

Intimate partner homicide (hereafter IPH) is mainly committed by men who kill their female intimate partner. Since females have an increased chance of becoming victims of IPH, this specific type of gender-based violence is often referred to as femicide. This political term refers to, simply put, women being killed because of their gender. It was initially developed by organizations and activists working for women’s rights to draw attention to violence against women. The term centers around the idea that women are killed by men because of their femininity, a male hatred toward women, a historical inequality between men and women and men perceiving women as their property. Critics, however, argue that IPH is a heterogenous construct and this term applies to a specific subtype of IPH, not to IPH in general. Femicide is often used to define those homicides that are the endpoint of a continuum of intimate partner violence. In scholarly work, they are referred to as the chronic abusers. This dominant, and most common, subtype of IPH concerns male offenders with a history of mental health and personal issues, who chronically abused their female intimate partners before the homicide. Their motivations for committing IPH mainly revolve around jealousy and separation.

The hopeless offender

However, there is also evidence of a virgin killer, a man with no history of violence. In their Murder in Britain study, Dobash and colleagues found that male offenders who kill their intimate partners are often conventional men with no known history of (intimate partner) violence or problematic personal history. In a recent Dutch sample, we found support for this notion. Based on an in-depth study of 52 criminal case files of male offenders convicted of IPH, we found evidence of, what we coined, the hopeless offender. This subtype of IPH concerns a male who kills his partner due to external stressors such as major financial problems. This offender does not have a history of (intimate partner) violence and the relationship between offender and victim is not troubled at the time of the offense. Consequently, the offender attempts to commit suicide after killing his partner to be able to re-unite with his partner. This symbiotic relationship between offender and victim is characteristic of this type of offender. Previous research on homicide-suicides has shown that suicidal offenders primarily kill their partners through fear of abandonment. When the victim threatens to end the relationship, the offender feels like he is losing part of his identity due to the symbiotic nature of his relationship with the victim. The victim has become part of the perpetrator. When the offender cannot convince the victim to stay, the offender kills her. When the offender commits suicide, he can rejoin the victim and retain the relationship he could not maintain in real life. In this current study we see a similar relationship between perpetrator and victim: these perpetrators saw no other way out than killing their partner. They did not dare to confess their debts, partly in order not to lose them, and they attempted suicide to avoid living without a partner.

A typology of IPH

Our finding, that IPH is a heterogenous phenomenon, is in line with previous international research. A recognition of the complexity of this phenomenon can offer starting points for the prevention of IPH and tackling intimate partner violence. With the development of a typology of IPH, professionals have a better understanding of which warning signals to pay attention to in order to be able to identify and intervene at an early stage. The next step is to investigate to what extent current early risk assessment instruments and intervention methods can be used to prevent the escalation of (fatal) intimate partner violence.

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