The relationships between murderers and their victims have traditionally been of great interest to criminologists. The sizeable literature encompasses the aggregate phenomenology of the subject’ as well as efforts to extract recurrent patterns from clinical case histories. Several recent clinical studies have focused specifically on the killing of one spouse by the other, a phenomenon which occurs with some regularity in many societies and, in the United States, represents 15% of all homicides in any given year.

The commentary on spousal homicide is surprisingly sparse, but the researchers appear to be in general agreement on several basic findings: These offenses are often end points in an intense but ambivalent relationship in which one spouse (or spouse equivalent), the eventual victim, assumes the role of “tormentor” and the other, the eventual aggressor, perceives himself or herself to be sorely abused but is unwilling or unable to terminate the relationship. The relationship often becomes cyclical, with periods of conflict leading to short separations, followed by temporary reconciliation and the emergence of new and heightened conflicts. Ultimately the relationship ends in a violent confrontation. In these cases, the victim and the offender “are intertwined in a sociocultural nexus and to study one in isolation from the other is to miss the truth about each.“ Spouse killings, in short, are often the classic illustrations of “victim-precipitated homicides."

This article has a twofold purpose. First, drawing on the case records and videotape library of the Forensic Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, we will depict a distinct and recurrent psychodynamic picture of the offender who kills his spouse and of his relationship with his victim, a description which refines and elaborates the picture which has thus far emerged in the clinical literature. Second, we will pay special attention to our findings regarding the offender’s mental state at the time of the killing, a topic which has been almost entirely neglected in both the clinical and legal literature.

Richard J. Bonnie, Virginia Roddy & C. Robert Showalter, The Spousal Homicide Syndrome, 3 International Journal of Law & Psychiatry 117–141 (1980).