Til Death Do Us Part
*This essay was written more than ten years ago, and I'm sad to say that there have been countless examples of spousal abuse and murder since then, too many to count. Since the essence of the problem has remained unchanged, I have decided to let this essay remain without updating it.
May 1, 2001: A 27 year old woman was sleeping at home just after her boyfriend had left for work. Around 7 a.m her ex-husband broke into her room and set her on fire, accidentally lighting himself in the process. He held her down on the bed, even as he himself burned, and prevented her from leaving the room. The landlord who tried to help was also prevented from entering the room. The woman burned to death in that room, her attacker four hours later in hospital.
July 23, 2000: Another 27 year old woman, in the middle of a troubled nine year common law marriage that was ending, was attacked by her husband who threw sulphuric acid on her face, which ate away her skin and sent her into shock.
June 25, 2000: A man involved police in a standoff in his ex-wife's shotgun blasted home after holding her hostage for three hours. The couple had been married for eleven years with two children, but were in the process of divorce. The man kicked down the door of the house and hit his wife in the head with the shotgun as she called 911. She was able to crawl to safety, and after the police attempted to talk him out he shot himself in their backyard.
June 23, 2000: A man who had been ordered by the courts to stay away from his ex-wife wrote out a detailed note of explanation and arrived at her new home with a back pack full of weapons. She ran screaming from her house, naked and with her infant son in her arms, and was barely able to hand the child over to a neighbor before her ex-husband dragged her back into the house and shot her in the head. He then killed himself, his note claiming he killed his ex-wife in an attempt to "save" his son from some evil the police won't reveal, but very likely from the fact that his former wife had found a new boyfriend.
These are just four of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases that have made the news in the last few years.
I cite these cases not in an attempt to vilify men for their violence or hatred of women, as many feminists would do given these facts. Nor do I cite this to call attention to domestic violence - in a future page I will address the reality of domestic violence. The purpose of this page, and in bringing to light the above examples, is to discuss a point that never gets mentioned in any news reports or commentaries, the very thing that causes these tragic situations and the very thing no one ever considers.
These couples were all married - or living together with enough of a commitment to consider themselves common law married - and in each case, the relationship was ending or over. In most cases, even if not expressly mentioned by police or the media, the former wife had found a new boyfriend, and the former husband was enraged at the idea of her having moved on. In almost every case, the attacker in question referred to the woman he was attacking as his "wife" - even though in every case the relationship was over.
There have been notable cases over the years of jilted wives killing their former husbands, but in the last few years, every single case has involved an outraged man. This is not feminist propaganda or a distortion of the facts; it is a simple truth we should pay attention to if we ever hope to understand why these things happen.
These men were either unable to accept the fact that their marriages were over and that their former wives had found someone new, or else they were outraged that she would dare seek out someone other than them. They were either devastated lovers who felt betrayed and abused by someone they had loved, or else they were megalomaniacal tyrants whose egos could not tolerate some woman choosing to be with someone other than them. Either way, no matter what the circumstances or how bad the breakup might have been, the common denominator here is that each of these men took their rage to the extreme, killing the person they claimed to have loved, sometimes killing their children, almost always killing themselves.
This kind of behavior is as bizarre as it is unprecedented. It used to be when you got dumped you just smoked cigarettes for days and listened to Jim Croce albums alone in your room. Maybe you ripped up old photos or burned up letters. Very often you tried to get on with things, tried to salvage a kind of friendship at least, wished them well if they moved on to someone new no matter how hurt it made you feel. You might have been more cautious the next time someone caught your eye, but you learned to get over your former love and find a new one, so that in time the memory of all that pain faded and you appreciated your new found love even more. You most certainly never strapped an automatic weapon to your chest and broke into your old lover's house. Breakups never used to mean funerals, inquests, criminal charges and shattered lives.
There are lots of possible reasons for why this has changed. Maybe it's because, in general, the justice system refuses to keep violent offenders in jail, and away from people they could hurt, but instead turfs them back out onto the street without the slightest consideration for their victims. Maybe it's because the threat of violence is not taken seriously enough when it is made by a spouse. Maybe it's because too many women get involved with men of little character and stay involved with them well past the point any rational person would. Maybe it's because our society has so embraced the notion of non-responsibility (it's not my fault, it's parents/television/drug use/stress/poverty/race/capitalism/insert-theory-here) that we end up pitying the attacker and refusing to put the blame where it belongs.
Or maybe it's because our culture now places such a high value on love - but "love" based only on how good she looks in a bikini or how good he is in bed - that every television show, every music video, every movie trumpets out our failure to us if we can't make a relationship work. Maybe it's because we have no idea what marriage is, and assume that once we're married to someone we've got some sort of lifetime contract that entitles us to unlimited love, sex and romance, no matter whether we deserve it or not.
This is why I maintain it is crucial that as a society we learn to genuinely understand and appreciate that marriage is a completely voluntary mutual relationship that can end at any time if it is not respected and cherished. I maintain it is vitally important to impress on people that a marriage certificate does not entitle anyone to lifetime loyalty or devotion, that each partner in a marriage must totally respect the other's autonomy and right to exist in and of themselves, regardless of marital status. I believe it's crucial to see marriage as a wonderful gift in our lives, something that we earn through character development and the pursuit of our values, not something that we are owed or entitled to simply because we want it. I believe that as long as we have proprietary attitudes towards marriage, as long as we continue to view our spouses as property regardless of whether they like this idea or not, we will see outraged spouses willing to kill in order to salvage their wounded egos.
That's why it's also incredibly important that we institute some sort of divorce ceremony to further establish that when a marriage is over, it's over. I think we may even want to consider developing a new word for people we were married to but no longer are. Simply inserting the little syllable "ex" in front of the words husband and wife doesn't take away the impact or meaning of what follows. It may be too much of a reminder that you called them husband or wife for many years, and too difficult to remember to say when referring to them now. It may also dilute the words you use for the people who currently hold that position - "ex-husband" and "husband" are not that far off. Neither, it seems, are "wife" and "ex-wife" when it comes to gun-toting maniacs who think she has no right to be with anyone else.
Some breakups are terrible, of that I have no doubt. Some men commit adultery and abandon their families, transferring assets into new girlfriends' names to prevent their children from ever benefiting. Some women live off their husbands' hard work only to commit adultery when he's off working, and then concoct outrageous stories of abuse to keep him away from the kids after she leaves. There are horror stories of relationships gone sour terrifying enough to make everyone question the rationality of ever getting married in the first place. But whatever pain a breakup causes, whatever injustice you perceive, no matter how much hatred you harbor in your soul or for how long, a rational adult has to understand that an ex-spouse is entitled to live his or her life as he or she pleases, even if that means without you. It doesn't matter if the whole thing is cosmically unfair, or if your ex is the most unreasonable, vicious person you've ever had the misfortune of knowing - keep these thoughts to yourself, and let them be. If they're that bad, that horrible, you're better off having nothing to do with them anyway. If they don't love you, don't waste time loving, or hating, them.
Simply calling the above cases "violence against women" or "misogyny" is inaccurate, and only masks the real issue. Men or women, ex-husbands or ex-wives, must learn to let go of their exes with grace and goodwill, no matter how bad it feels. All of us need to understand that a wedding ring is not a slave's chain - and that no one's life is unquestionably yours, to enjoy, to share, or most of all, to take.