A "General" Theory of Intimate Partner Violence: a working Paper 1

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A “General” Theory of Intimate Partner Violence: A Working Paper1

Michael P. Johnson

Sociology and Women’s Studies, Penn State

mpj@psu.edu, www.personal.psu.edu/mpj
A “General” Theory of Intimate Partner Violence: A Working Paper

This paper presents initial work on the development of a general, branching theory of intimate partner violence. It is rooted in the assumption that theory development in the area of intimate partner violence must make distinctions among types of violence and that different theoretical frameworks will be relevant for the different types. The quotes around “general” in the title thus reference the irony that as long as intimate partner violence is treated as a unitary phenomenon, there can be no general theory, and once the differences among types of intimate partner violence are recognized, multiple theories are required. The frameworks to be developed will draw upon theory from a number of disciplines, including sociology, social psychology, relationship studies, communication studies, family studies, feminist studies, and criminology. In most cases, each of the theoretical frameworks on which I draw is relevant primarily for one or another of the four types of intimate partner violence (such as family conflict theory for situational couple violence, or coercive control theory for intimate terrorism). Some theoretical frameworks, however, may prove to be central to the understanding of all four types, although playing out in different ways for the different types. The central goal of this paper is to begin to think broadly about the different types of violence that take place between intimate partners and to bring to bear the insights of theorists from a variety of disciplines.

Three theoretical frameworks provide the basic structure for the paper: (a) a typology of intimate partner violence, (b) the close relationships framework, and (c) gender theory. The typology of intimate partner violence is the basis of the four major sections of the paper, which correspond to the four types identified in the typology. The close relationships framework and gender theory provide structure within each of those four sections.

A Typology of Intimate Partner Violence

Although much of the domestic violence literature still treats violence between partners as if it were a unitary phenomenon, a number of scholars have proposed that it is useful, if not necessary, to distinguish among types of perpetrators or types of violence (Hamberger et al., 1996; Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 2000; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Johnson, 1995; Saunders, 1992; Swan & Snow, 2002). In a 1993 TCRM session I presented some of my early work on the development of such a typology, rooted in feminist analyses of the role of gender in intimate partner violence (Johnson, 1993). Initially, I made the simple distinction between violence enacted in the service of general control over one’s partner (patriarchal terrorism, later termed intimate terrorism) and violence that arose in the course of specific conflicts that escalated into violence (common couple violence, later termed situational couple violence). In later work (Johnson, 2006b), that typology was expanded into four types to include violence enacted in resistance to intimate terrorism (violent resistance) or involved in a violent struggle for general control by two coercive partners (mutual violent control).

Although the central role of coercive control in intimate partner violence was first articulated in the 1970s by the battered women’s movement (for histories of that movement, see R. E. Dobash & Dobash, 1992; Schechter, 1982) and by feminist theorists (R. E. Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Stark & Flitcraft, 1996; Yllö & Bograd, 1988), these theorists and activists argued that all intimate partner violence was rooted in heavily gendered issues of power and control. It was not until the 1990s that a convincing case began to be made that there was more than one type of intimate partner violence, and that the types were not equally represented in different research designs (Johnson, 1995). Research using agency samples (shelters, hospitals, courts, law enforcement) is dominated by the types of intimate partner violence that had been identified by feminist scholars and activists, while general samples are dominated by a type of intimate partner violence for which issues of power, control, and gender were much less central.

The typology that evolved from this initial insight involved four types of intimate partner violence, defined by the role of the violence in the relationship in which it is embedded. Intimate terrorism is violence enacted in the service of taking general control over one’s partner. It is identified by its embeddedness in a general pattern of coercive control, with the perpetrator engaged in a variety of behaviors that allow him2 to exert general control over his partner against her wishes. Violent resistance is violence enacted in resistance to intimate terrorism. Although it is not necessarily self-defense in the legal sense, it does in some cases involve a primary motive to protect oneself from physical violence either in the immediate situation or in the long run. However, it can also function primarily as an expression of anger or resistance even if the resistor expects that it may actually provoke greater violence from the controlling partner. And for some resistors its primary goal is retribution. Situational couple violence is violence that arises in the context of specific conflicts, conflicts that become arguments that escalate to violence. It is not embedded in a general pattern of coercive control, but it nevertheless can be chronic and severe, even homicidal. However, on average, situational couple violence involves fewer and less severe incidents than does intimate terrorism. Mutual violent control, which has been identified only in very small numbers and may even be an artifact of imprecise measurement, appears to involve mutual patterns of coercive control—in effect a violent battle for control of the relationship.

The Close Relationship Framework and Gender Theory

The discussion of each of these four types is structured by the close relationship framework from social psychology (Kelley et al., 1983b) and by the latest versions of gender theory in sociology (Ferree, 1990; Lorber, 1994; Martin, 2004; Risman, 2004). The close relationship framework is an extremely abstract framework, identified by its authors as essentially theory-free, that draws attention to both the internal dynamics of and the external influences on close relationships. Close relationships are defined as those that involve “strong, frequent, and diverse interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time.” (Kelley et al., 1983a, p. 38). Although the close relationship framework does draw attention to the variety of levels of analysis required for the understanding of close relationships, it does little in the way of suggesting even classes of variables of interest, let alone specific hypotheses. For that, I will turn to gender theory.

Although I will draw on quite a variety of theoretical frameworks for specific hypotheses, one consistent theme throughout this paper will be central role of gender in intimate partner violence. Gender theory, which I would identify more as a general framework than a theory per se (Merton, 19?), complements the close relationship framework nicely because each incorporates a truly social psychological model of human interaction that requires analyses that range from the characteristics of individuals and their development to interaction process at the situational level to the constraints and empowerments of social structural factors. The central point of contemporary gender theory is that gender is a characteristic not only of individuals, but also of social interaction and social structure (Risman, 2004). Thus, interactions can be more or less gendered depending upon the extent to which gender is made relevant during the course of the interaction. And social structures can be more or less gendered depending upon the extent to which routinized patterns of interaction are organized around gender. The four sections that follow, each focused on one of the types of intimate partner violence, will draw heavily on the sensitizing concepts of gender theory.

Intimate Terrorism

Intimate terrorism is violence or threat of violence used as one tactic in an attempt to take or maintain general control over one’s intimate partner. What are the conditions under which it is likely to be found in an ongoing close relationship? I would argue for four general conditions as central: (1) a perpetrator’s individual motive to take general control over the partner; (2) interpersonal and structural conditions that prevent that control from being exercised without at least the threat of violence; (3) interpersonal and structural conditions that either encourage, or at least do not prevent the use of violence or the threat of violence to exercise control; and (4) interpersonal and structural conditions that keep the victim of intimate terrorism from leaving the relationship.

Motive to Control One’s Partner

It is clear from the literature on male perpetrators of intimate terrorism that patriarchal or misogynistic attitudes are important. Unfortunately, an important literature review from the 1990s (Sugarman & Frankel, 1996) is still often misinterpreted as evidence to the contrary. Although the abstract of this review says that “Findings offer limited support for the ideological component of the patriarchal theory of wife assault” (p. 13), the reported effect size for traditional vs. nontraditional gender attitudes is .54, quite substantial. This finding is treated as “limited support” by the authors because the effect is most clear (d = .80) in studies in which women report their partner’s attitudes, not in studies in which men report their own attitudes (d = .??). I see this as further support for the centrality of gender attitudes in intimate terrorism but not in situational couple violence, as follows. Studies in which men report their own attitudes are almost all general surveys—a research design that is dominated by situational couple violence—and gender attitudes are not central. Studies in which men’s attitudes are reported by their partners are mostly agency studies—a design dominated by intimate terrorism—and gender attitudes are central. Traditional gender attitudes legitimize men’s control over “their” women. Of course, there is also considerable evidence in the qualitative work of feminist scholars who have studied intimate terrorism, such as the bridegroom who is reported to have replied to his bride’s complaints about violence on the honeymoon that “I married you so I own you” (R. E. Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Further quantitative evidence is available in the continuing work of Amy Holtzworth-Munroe and her colleagues (Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 2000). Without going into a lot of detail now (I’ll discuss this work further below), a series of cluster analyses of male “batterers” identified three types of perpetrators, two of which I would argue are involved in intimate terrorism, one in situational couple violence. The two intimate terrorist clusters are characterized by higher scores on misogynistic attitudes than either nonviolent husbands or those involved in situational couple violence (who do not differ from each other). I take this as another indication that gender attitudes are important in the development of intimate terrorism, but not of situational couple violence.

When it comes to individual motivation to control one’s partner, I do not believe that intimate terrorism is only about patriarchal attitudes, or I would have kept calling it “patriarchal terrorism.” In Holtzworth-Munroe’s work the two groups of intimate terrorists share a number of characteristics but differ in some important respects, and these findings resonate as well with the work of Jacobson and Gottman (1998). The first type, whom I will call emotionally-dependent intimate terrorists (Holtzworth-Munroe calls them “borderline/dysphoric,” Jacobson & Gottman call them “pit bulls”) scored highest on measures of borderline personality organization, dependency, and jealousy. Put colloquially, this type is so desperately attached to his partner that he feels he must control her in order not to lose her. These men are generally not violent toward anyone other than their partner and they have no history of generally criminal behavior. The second type, whom I will call sociopathic intimate terrorists (Holtzworth-Munroe calls them “generally violent/antisocial,” Jacobson & Gottman call them “cobras”), scores high on antisociality and is evidently broadly motivated to control his social environment in order to take what he wants, being violent toward people other than his partner and likely to have a record of run-ins with the law. The general point here is that there are at least two motivational scenarios related to control that have little to do with patriarchal attitudes, and that may have little to do with gender.

Nevertheless, as a feminist theorist I am always looking for the ways that social phenomena are related to gender. In the case of intimate terrorism, it is striking that in heterosexual relationships intimate terrorism is perpetrated almost exclusively by men. Can part of the explanation for this pattern be found in these motives to control? There is one obvious connection. Patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes support men’s control of women, while non-patriarchal attitudes support egalitarianism rather than female control. Thus, to the extent that patriarchal or misogynistic attitudes are the central motive to control or provide important support for the other two motives, we would find a pattern of male perpetration of intimate terrorism in heterosexual relationships. However, as far as I know there is not a heavily gendered pattern in antisociality or emotional dependence.3 If women are as likely as men to be heavily emotionally dependent or antisocial, then we would expect women for the most part to be as likely to want to control their partners as are men. Although there may be some gendering due to the role of patriarchal attitudes, the main gender effects are likely to be found in other parts of the model for intimate terrorism.

The “Need” for Violence

I am not sure why the feminist literature on domestic violence has never been informed by the literature on paternalism.4 Perhaps it is because most of the work on paternalism has been focused at the societal level rather than the interpersonal. The central organizing idea of theories of paternalism is that in continuing hierarchical relationships, it is in the interests of the dominant group to use violence only as a control tactic of last resort. My favorite explication of the reasons for this comes from Edmund Burke, speaking in the British Parliament in 1775 about the problem of controlling the Colonies. I have taken the liberty of inserting “woman” where appropriate:

First, Sir, permit me to observe that the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation [woman] is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered.

My next objection is uncertainty. Terror is not always the effect of force, and an armament is not a victory. If you do not succeed, you are without resource; for, conciliation failing, force remains, but, force failing, no further hope of reconciliation is left....

A further objection to force is that you impair the object by your very endeavors to preserve it. The thing [woman] you fought for is not the thing [woman] which you recover, but depreciated, sunk, wasted, and consumed in the contest. (E. Burke, [1775]1954, pp. 89-90 as cited in Jackman, 1994, pp. 62-63).

Control can be attained by many means other than violence or threat of violence. Social psychologists have expended considerable energy in identifying the various means by which one can influence the behavior of others, and have developed a number of typologies of social influence (Kelman, French & Raven). Most of the available means of social influence do not involve violence, or even punishment in the more general sense, relying rather on manipulation of rewards or information or psychological identification or legitimacy or some other nonviolent means of social control. Furthermore, psychologists have made arguments against the use of punishment that resonate with at least two of Burke’s eloquent political arguments for conciliation. First, the effects of punishment have been shown to decay much more quickly than the effects of reward (especially intermittent reward, for those of you who enjoy fine Skinnerian distinctions). Second, whether the punishment works in the short run or not, the association of the administrator of the punishment with pain erodes the relationship with the object of the influence attempt, leading to a distancing that may preclude any further influence.

Burke’s third point may be less relevant for the analysis of intimate terrorism than it is for macro-political control.5 In the colonial scenario the destruction of resources and infrastructure involved in war would clearly be against the interests of the colonial power, whereas the negative effects of intimate terrorism on one’s partner might not always be of concern to the intimate terrorist, as long as he is certain of access to the “services” he expects from her. But perhaps the appropriate analogy for colonialism lies in the services or the relationship, not in the woman.

One of the major tenets of Mary Jackman’s (1994) version of a theory of paternalism is that the more intimate the relationship between the dominant and subordinate groups the more motivated is the dominant group to control through means other than violence. Remember that theories of paternalism are about ongoing hierarchical relationships. The comparison here is not with a fleeting non-intimate relationship such as the mugger-victim relationship, but with ongoing less-intimate hierarchies such as colonizer-colonized, or capitalist-worker.

The person involved in a continuing intimate relationship with someone whom he wishes to control may be particularly motivated to control through means other than violence, but Lenore Walker’s book title, Terrifying Love (Walker, 1989) can serve to remind us that even in the most intimate of relationships, some people turn to violence as a means of control. We are often talking not only about an abuser who lives fulltime with his victim, but one who actually does love her deeply. There is almost nothing that love requires more than love in return (literatures on reciprocity and unrequited love and stalking would be useful here), and mutual love and coercion do not mix well.6 Perhaps the most relevant evidence for this principle is the literature on the effects of intimate terrorism itself on the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, effects that include decreased love and marital satisfaction, and ultimately, escape from the relationship (Campbell et al., 1998; Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Johnson et al., 2002; Johnson & Leone, 2005).

Hierarchy with love—how do you make that happen? Hegemonic patriarchal ideology. A hegemonic ideology, in Marxist parlance, is a set of ideas that convinces all of the participants in a hierarchical system that the hierarchy is in their best interests (Gramsci & Forgacs, 2000). At the macro level, patriarchal family systems are supported by hegemonic patriarchal ideologies that are successful when they convince both men and women that a woman’s subordination to her male partner is not only right, but in her best interests. In contemporary Western culture this task is addressed by a combination of the male-breadwinner/head-of-household complex (Coontz, 1992), the romantic love complex (Firestone, 1970), and ambivalent sexism (Glick & Fiske, 2001). The role of such ideologies in the control of women and the conferring of power on men in heterosexual relationships has been beautifully articulated in a classic piece by Aafke Komter on hidden power in marriage (Komter, 1989). Her basic point is that much of men’s power in marriage is not manifested in conflict, but flows rather from taken-for-granted routines that are unquestioned by either men or women. Although this may seem peripheral to my major interest in the use of violence to control intimate partners, it is primarily when these more ideological means of control are insufficient that some men turn to coercive means of control.

The insufficiency of ideological control involves two major elements. First, there is one’s partner. As long as he or she accepts a subordinate role in the relationship there is no need for coercion. Thus, we would expect to see more coercive control from those who are motivated to attempt to control an uncooperative partner. The second element is the social context, which under some conditions might facilitate the control of the partner to such an extent that the personal exercise of coercive control is unnecessary. In fact, it was findings along these lines that first led me to start exploring the paternalism literature in connection with intimate terrorism. In an analysis of data from India, Nividetha Menon and I made what we thought was a perfectly straightforward prediction—that the more patriarchal the social context, the more domestic violence (Nividetha Menon, 2003; Niveditha Menon & Johnson, in press). In fact, for a series of indicators of patriarchal familial and community context, we found just the opposite. Our interpretation was that in the Indian context there were conditions under which patriarchal control was so effective that men who wished to control their wives seldom had to use violence themselves. Individuals who wish to control their uncooperative partners in contexts that do not in some sense exercise that control for them may turn to coercive means of control. This control may not involve violence and therefore does not necessarily rise to the level of intimate terrorism, but it is coercive nonetheless. So, before I move on to discuss conditions that support the use of violence, let me discuss coercive control in general.

My discussion of coercive control draws heavily on the framework recently developed by Dutton and Goodman (2005) that re-establishes the theoretical foundations of coercive control in the classic work of French and Raven (French, 1959; Raven, 1992, 1993). In the paragraphs that follow, I will relate Dutton and Goodman’s discussion of the basic elements of coercive control to the most commonly used graphical representation of intimate terrorism, the Power and Control Wheel (Pence & Paymar, 1993). The control tactics included in the Power and Control Wheel (see Appendix) did not follow from a theoretical analysis of coercive control, but were simply compiled from the reports of women who came to the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project for help in dealing with their partner’s violence. What I discovered when I began to work with Dutton and Goodman’s model is that the control tactics involved in intimate terrorism follow quite clearly from the coercive control model. The comparison that I will present involves only the nonviolent aspects of the wheel in order to describe coercive control that does not necessarily rise to the level of intimate terrorism. Intimate terrorism is a particularly virulent form of coercive control that adds physical violence to the other requirements of coercive control, but I’ll get to that momentarily.

In Dutton and Goodman’s conceptualization, coercion involves getting someone to do something they do not want to do by “using or threatening… negative consequences for noncompliance” (Dutton & Goodman, 2005, p.?). Effective coercive control requires, first, that the perpetrator make it clear that he/she is willing and able to impose punishment if “necessary.” What forms of punishment will be threatened will depend upon the resources of the controller and the needs of the target. An intimate partner can threaten to withhold sex or to leave the relationship or to take the children or (in the case of same-sex relationships) to out his or her partner. The list is endless, and need not involve the threat of physical violence. This is where the threats that are often reported by battered women come in, threats to leave or threats to take the children or in the case of illegal immigrants threats to report the partner to the INS or in cases of same-sex relationships threats to out the partner at work.

A second requirement for effective coercive control is surveillance. In order to punish for “misbehavior,” the controller has to monitor his or her partner’s behavior. Victims of intimate terrorism report everything from a rigid schedule to the demand to be on-call by cell phone at all times.

Another basic element of coercive control is wearing down the target’s resistance, and intimate terrorists use a variety of tactics to undermine their partner’s willingness or ability to fight for freedom from control. This is the source of the emotional and psychological abuse that have been the focus of so much research in psychology and social work. Coercive partners work to convince their partners that they are lazy, incompetent, stupid, over-sexed, sexually frigid, bad parents, poor wives—in a word, worthless. An individual who feels worthless does not have the will to resist. A related tactic for reducing the will to resist is legitimation, convincing the target that the intimate terrorist has the right to control and punish. The legitimation may take the form of an assertion of status as male head of household, or it might be closely tied up with the psychological attacks on self-esteem just discussed above, as in “You are so incompetent and useless that I have to take control.” This tactic may then lead to blaming the coercion on her—if only she could do her job, or behave herself, or understand his needs, etc., then he wouldn’t have to be so controlling.

With regard to the ability to resist, intimate terrorists do what they can to cut the target off from the resources required for effective resistance. One important resource is money. Employability can be controlled by refusing to allow continuing education, or by harassment on the job, or by undermining job performance with late night fights or sudden unavailability for promised childcare. Paychecks, welfare payments, child support, and other income may be confiscated. The target may be given a strict allowance, barely enough to meet the everyday shopping needs for the family. Another important resource is social support, and intimate terrorists isolate their partners. Sometimes the isolation is physical, accomplished by moving away from friends and family, living in a remote area and controlling the only means of transportation, or eliminating all means of communication with the outside world. In other cases the isolation is accomplished psychologically, by threatening and harassing friends and family until they avoid all contact, and by undermining employment or education that might provide opportunities to talk with others.

Well, if you’ll look over this discussion of the elements of coercive control, you’ll see that we have completely covered the Power and Control Wheel (except intimidation, which is specifically tied to the use of violence and which we will get to later). Basically, what this means is that we now have a theoretical understanding of the pattern of behaviors that battered women have told us characterize their partner’s behavior. Anyone who is serious about using coercion to control their partner has to engage in enough of these behaviors to make their attempts to coerce effective.

Viability of Violence

Now we can move on to intimate terrorism, which adds violence to this coercive mix. What are some of the conditions that make viable the use of violence as part of such a coercive pattern of behavior? First, there is ideology. Those patriarchal family ideologies of which we spoke often support the use of some violence to punish disobedient wives. If the husband in question (and even his wife) accept such an ideology, he will be more likely to turn to violence as one control tactic.

The second factor, the absence of social control, can also involve elements of such an ideology. If one’s immediate family and social network either support or at least do not intervene in the use of violence, its use as a control tactic will be more likely. Similarly, if the authorities who control violent behavior treat family violence as a less serous problem than other violence, it will be more likely to be used against one’s partner. Another element of social environment that has been identified as contributing to the use of violence is social isolation or privacy. When one’s behavior with respect to one’s partner is either unobserved or considered to be one’s own business, one may feel freer to use violence. There are at least three theory tie-ins that are relevant here. Of course there is the feminist theory focus on patriarchal ideology (R. E. Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Second, family violence theory has always emphasized the importance of the privacy of family life as one element of social context that can contribute the intimate partner violence, including intimate terrorism (Straus, 1977; Straus et al., 1980). Third, routine activities theory in criminology identifies the absence of competent guardians, i.e., observers who can intervene in deviant behavior, as a factor in the perpetration of violence (Outlaw, 2001).

A third factor is the potential perpetrator’s comfort with violence and skill level. In many cultures men are more familiar with violence, more comfortable with it as a control tactic, and more skilled in its use than are women.

Finally, the more vulnerable one’s partner, the more likely one will be to use violence. This is best conceptualized as a relative matter, addressing the question of the likely effectiveness of violence in the case of a particular relationship. Gender would be an important factor here, both because of the average size and strength difference in heterosexual relationships, and because of the gender difference in likely comfort and skill with respect to violence.

Entrapment of Victim

The final set of conditions that we need to consider arise because we are considering the continuing use of violence in an ongoing relationship. The evidence is clear that victims of intimate terrorism engage in a variety of tactics to eliminate that violence from their lives (Campbell et al., 1998), including leaving the relationship or killing their partner (Browne, 1987; Kirkwood, 1993; Walker, 1989). I will leave discussion of the more violent responses to the section on violent resistance, and focus here on barriers to leaving the relationship. I find commitment theory to be a useful framework for conceptualizing the factors that might keep a victim of intimate terrorism from leaving (Johnson, 1998, 1999).

The core concepts of commitment theory are personal, moral, and structural commitment. Personal commitments flow from the personal attitudes and beliefs of the two partners in the relationship, including attraction to the relationship, attraction to the partner, and incorporation of the other into one’s self-conception. Even victims of intimate terrorism may love their partners (Strube, 1988a, 1988b), and there are many aspects of the relationship that may not be tainted by the violence (Johnson et al., 2002). In many cases of intimate terrorism, the perpetrator plays on these attachments in order to persuade the victim to stay in the relationship (Rosen, 1996).

Moral commitments are those factors that lead partners to feel that they have some moral obligation to stay in the relationship. The most common are values regarding the ending of a particular type of relationship, such as anti-divorce sentiments. However, another major source of moral commitment involves moral obligations to others who might be harmed by the dissolution of the relationship, such as one’s partner and one’s children. In the U.S. ,these moral obligations are felt more strongly by women than they are by men (Kapinus & Johnson, 2002).

The final set of commitments is structural commitments, including loss of irretrievable investment, the steps one must take to dissolve a relationship, social pressures to stay together, and the attractiveness of alternatives to the relationship. I have discussed the gendering of these commitments elsewhere {Kapinus, 2002 #1783;Johnson, 1998 #545}; not only do they generally make the costs of leaving a relationship greater for women than for men, but intimate terrorists manipulate them to purposely entrap their partners.

The Incremental, but Large Role of Gender in Intimate Terrorism

If all of these factors function as a synergistic combination of elements that have to come together to produce intimate terrorism, you can see how gender, playing a small to moderate role in a a number of elements along the way, ends up being so central that intimate terrorism in heterosexual relationships is perpetrated almost entirely by men (R. P. Dobash et al., 1992; Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2003). Beginning with the motive to control, while the differences between men and women with respect to emotional dependence and sociopathy may be small, the difference in terms of sense of patriarchal entitlement would be significant enough to produce a meaningful gender difference. Of course, some of these men who want to control their girlfriends or wives would be involved in relationships that supported male entitlement, but very few such women would find support for their entitlement. Among those who are then willing to turn to coercion, more of the men than the women would find that they possessed the resources required to exercise the various tactics required to weild control over a resistant partner, although this difference might be quite small. The next big gender impact would be with respect to the use of violence, which would find support in patriarchal contexts, support both within the family and from institutions in which it is embedded. Furthermore, the average sex difference in size and strength would be enough to it make the use of violence and the threat of violence a more feasible means of control for men than it is for women. Finally, add the layers of entrapment of women from patriarchal institutions that encourage them to defer to the needs of others rather than their own need to escape an abusive relationship, that assign them the major responsibility for children, that encourage their economic dependence on men. Each of these gender differences may be small to moderate, but they all lean in the same direction, making it more likely that men will feel entitled to control “their” women, that they will be able to exercise such control, that institutions will be less likely to intervene when they do, and that the victims of their intimate terrorism will be unable to escape without considerable time to plan and prepare for a new life outside the relationship.

For example, it may be that an extremely emotionally dependent partner, male or female, will only be motivated to attempt to take general control over his/her partner if he/she sees such control as legitimate, which may only be the case for men in heterosexual partnerships who hold patriarchal or misogynistic attitudes. And such an attempt may only turn to violence if the emotionally dependent partner is comfortable with violence (as men are more likely to be than women), there is a considerable size difference between the partners (as in heterosexual relationships), and the other partner is entrapped in the relationship by structural commitments, such as primary responsibility for children. As this example illustrates, patriarchal attitudes and structures can be central to the development of intimate terrorism and its extreme gendering even when other factors such as emotional dependence are a necessary part of the theoretical structure.

The example also illustrates the various levels at which gender comes into the model. At the individual level, gender differences in size, strength, attitudes, and personality come into play. At the interactional level, the social construction of gendered power in the relationship would be central, as well as the social construction of structural commitments such as economic dependency. At the social structural level, the gendered labor market and socially gendered responsibility for children might serve as structural commitments, and the extent to which the family and community context is organized to effectively control women’s behavior without the use of violence would affect the need for potential intimate terrorists to use violence to control their wives.

Situational Couple Violence

There are two major theoretical problems that must be addressed with respect to situational couple violence. The first is the paucity of qualitative research. One of the reasons why we know so much about intimate terrorism is that much of the research in that area involved in-depth qualitative studies conducted with agency samples. The research on situational couple violence is mostly large-scale survey research that yields only relationships among variables rather than theoretically rich insights into the interpersonal processes that lead to such violence. The second problem is the tremendous diversity of patterns of violence in this type, with the majority of such relationships involving only one or a few such incidents, and situational couple violence rarely involving chronic violence. The general framework presented here will, however, focus on chronic situational couple violence because it is those cases that are most likely to present themselves for intervention. Although some of the same processes might be involved in one-time incidents if situational couple violence, chronicity calls for attention to long-standing patterns of individual or relationship factors.7

Sources of Conflict

Because situational couple violence involves the escalation of partner conflict into arguments that escalate to violence, the first focus for a theory of chronic situational couple violence must be the major sources of chronic intimate partner conflict. I would identify three major classes of such conflict: individual problems, relationship problems, and social problems. At the individual level I am thinking of individual behavioral patterns that one’s partner finds problematic. Although in some sense this could be almost anything, there is one particular class of behaviors that has received considerable attention in the domestic violence literature: addictions. Drug and alcohol abuse have been shown repeatedly to be related to intimate partner violence in large scale survey research, i.e., in samples in which the violence is dominated by situational couple violence. I expect that one of the reasons for this pattern is that the partners of drug and alcohol abusers object to this behavior because it drains joint resources and because it interferes with the kind of interpersonally responsive behavior that is necessary to keep an intimate relationship viable.

At the relationship level, the sources of conflict would be matters that require interpersonal coordination, such as division of labor, sex, and patterns of communication. These examples are all areas in which there is good reason to believe that gender theory would be useful. Of course, the household division of labor is a major source of coordination and potential conflict in any household and is to a large extent organized around gender (Coltrane, 1996; Ferree, 1990; Thompson, 1991). Sex is another area that has been identified as a major source of conflict in heterosexual relationships, where a gender perspective can probably shed considerable light on the sources of such conflict (Ehrenreich et al., 1986). There is also a rich literature on the various ways in which gender differences in communication can lead to conflict in heterosexual relationships (Tannen, 1990, 1996).

The third class of causes of conflict in intimate relationships is stressors introduced in to relationships by general social problems. The literatures I would want to tap into here would be those on the relationship between violence and community or group factors such as poverty, racism, and community violence. The relationship between poverty and intimate partner violence has been a major focus of research, but primarily in research that does not distinguish among types of intimate partner violence. Although that literature has generally found a negative relationship between income and incidence of violence (Kantor & Jasinski, 1998), I have found (in unpublished data) that the relationship holds only for situational couple violence, not for intimate terrorism. The small literature on the effects of community violence includes two major strands, one dealing with general level of criminal violence in the neighborhood (Benson et al., 2000; Jenkins, 1996; Miles-Doan, 1998), the other dealing with the impact of organized violent intergroup conflict (McWilliams, 1998).

Sources of escalation

Factors that affect the ability of a couple to resolve disputes have been studied most thoroughly in communication studies (Johnson, 2006a; Olson, 2002; Olson et al., 2005), with the major focus on argumentative skill deficiency. The basic scenario involves a disagreement in which one or both of the partners “[lacks] the verbal skills for dealing with social conflict constructively” (Infante et al., 1989, p. 166). This skill deficiency leads the deficient partner to turn to verbal aggression as a means of winning the argument. A general norm of reciprocity in relationships then contributes to escalation, as each partner responds to verbal aggression with more verbal aggression (negative reciprocity).

Indeed, there is considerable evidence from work done in this tradition that situationally violent couples are more verbally aggressive and deficient in argumentative skills than are nonviolent couples (Infante et al., 1994; Infante & Rancer, 1996; Sabourin, 1996). Similarly, Feldman and Ridley (Feldman & Ridley, 2000; Ridley & Feldman, 2003), working in a family conflict tradition, find that both men and women in violent relationships show more unilateral verbal aggression, more mutual verbal aggression, less constructive relative to destructive communication, and less problem solving.

The primary model constructed from this line of research most closely resembles what we know about situational couple violence. It is not very gendered, and seems to involve an almost inadvertent escalation of conflict into violence. The core problem is one of communication skill deficiencies for which an individual compensates with verbal aggression that then escalates into violence. All we need to do to intervene is to improve the couple’s communication skills through methods such as cognitive restructuring or argumentative skills training (Sabourin, 1996, pp. 215-217).

Most work in this area simply compares violent couples with non-violent couples, lumping together violent couples that might be quite different from each other and creating an “average” communication pattern for comparison with nonviolent couples. Olson’s (2002) work demonstrates the importance of abandoning this approach and differentiating among types of violence. She conducted in-depth interviews with individuals involved in aggressive and violent relationships and identified three different communication patterns, only one of which seems to represent situational couple violence (for further discussion of the other two, see Johnson, 2006a). Olson (2005, p. 118) describes these relationships as having “a dyadic pattern of control …[in which] the shared control fluctuated back and forth between partners…. As a result, these relationships were fraught with power struggles, resulting in reciprocated aggression and violence” (p. 118). She also points out that these couples described a typical wife- demand, husband-withdraw pattern, often involving the wife’s use of aggression to get her withdrawing partner’s attention. Olson’s discussion supports a model in which verbal aggression functions as a catalyst to provoke violence from the target of that aggression—if the target already has a hostile predisposition and is prone to violence, and especially when the couple is likely to engage in negative reciprocity of communication.

Turning to violence

So, what are the conditions under which such an escalating argument will turn to violence? Communication studies have found that physically violent relationships almost always also include verbal aggression, defined as an attack on a person’s self-concept, including character attacks, competence attacks, physical appearance attacks, and so on (Infante & Wigley, 1986). In studies of the communication patterns of violent couples, the relationship between verbal and physical aggression is most often treated as causal, the most common model being some version of the catalyst hypothesis (Roloff, 1996) in which a hostile predisposition turns to violence when provoked by verbal aggression. It has also been noted, however, that verbal aggression does not inevitably lead to violence, for a number of reasons. Infante’s model presumes that verbal aggression leads to violence only when it sets off a hostile predisposition in the recipient. In the absence of such hostility, the verbal aggression may be “ignored or viewed as good-natured kidding” (Infante et al., 1989, p. 166). More recently, Roloff (1996) has made effective use of the social psychological literature on the interaction processes involved in violence (R. B. Felson, 1984) to identify four general factors that might cause verbal aggression to lead to physical aggression, implying that when these factors are missing, verbal aggression may not escalate to violence. The first factor is face loss, especially when the verbal aggression involves central aspects of the individual’s self-concept and when the attack is public and seen as illegitimate and unmitigated. The second is desire to control, which we have already discussed in the section on intimate terrorism. The third escalating factor is violence potential (experience with and willingness to use violence), and the fourth is anger.

Another promising line of work is Eli Finkel’s analyses of the role of impulse control in intimate partner violence (Finkel, 2006; Finkel & Foshee, 2006). His work suggests that while the factors discussed above might impel violence, there is an intervening inhibiting process that prevents the enacting of that violence in most cases. I would suggest that his line of reasoning is related to Holtzworth-Munroe’s finding that some of her groups of batterers are low on impulse control (Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 2000). In addition to personality factors in inhibition, there may be some important cognitive factors that are related to gender. One aspect of Murray Straus’s useful discussion of women’s intimate partner violence (Straus, 1999) is the perception that women’s violence is not as serious as men’s (Fiebert & Gonzalez, 1997). Of course this perception is generally true, but the important point is that the perception of little harm from women’s violence relative to men’s might disinhibit women in an escalating argument, who feel that their violence will do little harm. Furthermore, such beliefs, combined with the norms of male chivalry, might inhibit many men’s use of violence in such incidents (R. Felson, 2002, pp. 67-94).

Situational couple violence: Gendered or not?

Looking through all of the factors discussed above, there is little to suggest a dramatic gendering of the incidence of intimate partner violence. While the factors that increase the likelihood of conflict or that lead disagreements to escalate may involve gender issues or gender patterns in communication, the step to violence is where we have to look for the gendering of situational couple violence. While it is possible that men are more impelled to violence because of their experience and comfort with it, they are also inhibited by norms of chivalry. While women are perhaps less comfortable with violence, they also see their violence as relatively harmless. Thus, the general finding that incidence of situational couple violence is roughly gender symmetric (Archer, 2000) makes sense. That is not to say, of course, that the impact of that violence is the same for men and women. One of the most consistent findings in the survey literature on intimate partner violence (which is dominated by situational couple violence) is that men’s violence is much more likely to inflict serious injury (Straus, 1999).

Violent Resistance8

Violent resistance is non-controlling violence enacted in the face of intimate terrorism. Thus, the most basic condition for it is finding oneself in an abusive relationship. It will be important for the analysis of violent resistance to be framed developmentally because victims’ coping strategies have been shown to change dramatically as their understanding of what is happening to them changes (Ferraro, 1997). My feeling is that a comprehensive theory of violent resistance will have to deal with three types of such violence, related to a developmental perspective and distinguished in terms of what one might call their “spontaneity.” The first is the violence that happens as an immediate reaction to a violent attack, a type of violence in which one almost automatically “fights fire with fire.” I know of no theory regarding this type of violent resistance.

The second type of violent resistance is a somewhat thoughtful means of resistance to an ongoing terror. In some sense this is violent resistance as one means of coping with intimate terrorism and probably will have to be addressed in the context of theories regarding the coping strategies used by victims of intimate terrorism (J. G. Burke et al., 2001; Carlson, 1997; Ellsberg et al., 2001). We know very little about it, although interviews with women victims of intimate terrorism suggest that about 2/3 do resist with violence in the early stages, but most desist and turn to other means of coping, including planning for an escape.

Finally, there is the violent resistance that consists of lethal attacks on intimate terrorists by their victims. In most cases, this violence is a last desperate means of escape from a hopelessly unbearable situation (Richie, 1996; Walker, 1989).

Mutual Violent Control

Finally, the mutual violent control discussion is likely to have a decidedly different tone. Many of the experts with whom I speak believe that this pattern is not “real,” that it is an artifact of measurement imprecision. In the quantitative research that predominates in published social science, distinguishing between a couple pattern of “intimate terrorism plus violent resistance” and one of mutual violent control (intimate terrorism plus intimate terrorism), hinges in most cases on dichotomized information gathered at one point in time about patterns of control that may be changing rapidly. Put simply, some scholars believe that the small number of cases that seem to represent mutual violent control in what little research has assessed it may be cases of “mistaken identity,” misidentifying the actions of an intimate terrorist and a violent resistor for those of a “mutual” attempt to take general control.


The clear imbalance in theoretical development for the major types of intimate partner violence above is striking. Although the imbalance is to some extent a product of my own background, and to poor planning on my part as I was preparing this paper, I do not think that is the whole story. Because of the almost single-minded focus of feminist researchers on intimate terrorism, and because of the predominance of intimate terrorism in the agency samples that are the source of most qualitative research in this area, what we know most about is intimate terrorism. We desperately need good qualitative research on the interpersonal processes that produce situational couple violence and violent resistance. I do not believe that the large scale survey research and correlational analyses that are now the primary business of social scientists will ever provide the insights necessary to develop adequate theories of these types of violence.

When I submitted my proposal for this paper, I did it with the idea that this deadline would force me to get my act together to develop serious theoretical statements regarding the three major types of intimae partner violence. The task was much more complex than even I had thought, and I don’t think I have even come close to finishing the journey I set out on. I plan to continue to work on various pieces of these puzzles, and I hope that some of the ideas presented here will encourage others to do the same.


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The Power and Control Wheel

1 This really is a working paper, laying out ideas that are not particularly well thought out but that seem promising to me.

2 I use “him” because in heterosexual relationships intimate terrorism is perpetrated almost entirely by men. We have almost no information about the incidence of intimate terrorism in same-sex relationships, other than that it does occur (Island & Letellier, 1991; Renzetti, 1992; Renzetti & Miley, 1996).

3 I could use some help here from colleagues who are more familiar with these literatures than I am.

4 If I am wrong about this lacuna, I would be most happy to have references to work that does make the connection.

5 One of the theoretical strategies that I employ here that requires serious scrutiny involves constantly moving back-and-forth between the macro and micro levels of analysis. This can, of course, produce serious errors of analysis if done thoughtlessly, as when the macro analysis of the benefits of rape for all men (because the self-protective measures taken by women work to the benefit of all men) is moved to the interpersonal level (as in men rape particular women in order to control women in general). This is the mistake made by Brownmiller (1975) in her otherwise brilliant analysis of rape. I would appreciate any feedback you can give me on the similarities or differences among the various macro and micro processes to which I will refer. For example, at the macro level intimate terrorism may have a benefit for the dominant group similar to one of the macro benefits of lynching—the beating of one woman for insubordination can in some sense put all women on notice and the more attention an incident gets from the media, the more widespread the deterrent effect. Thus, even a small amount of intimate terrorism can work to support a patriarchal family system.

6 References on the negative relationship between coercion and love would be helpful here.

7 There is a third problem for this paper—that I haven’t yet had the time to familiarize myself with the wealth of recent work on family conflict and communication. I’m afraid this section of the paper will involve a few of my own thoughts combined with references to some literatures that I believe will be useful sources of theoretical insight.

8 I am fast approaching the page limit for this paper.

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