Reflecting on the Domestic Abuse Debate: Why it Needs to Change

(Image Credit: Pixabay.com)

The mainstream perspective on domestic violence sees it thusly:

Domestic abuse/violence is perpetrated predominantly by men, against women, to establish power and control over them. The ‘batterer’s’ actions are consciously chosen patterns to gain power over women. He feels entitled to abuse women, and he is the end-point of a culture of brutal masculinity that sees men as the rightful patriarchs over women. Women do not abuse men usually — sometimes, in odd cases, they might, but women’s violence is frequently in self-defence.

The interdisciplinary research over the last several decades has punctured this perspective significantly. It has brought to attention the existence of both male victims and violence in same-sex intimate relationships. It has also found striking numbers of mutually abusive couples, and has shown that the use of violence is more complex and often more likely to be associated with attachment distress, psychopathology, poor conflict skills, economic despair and senses of powerlessness than simply patriarchal conditioning.

Historically, patriarchal society was an influence in domestic violence perpetration in the Western world. Women were little more than chattel for much of our history, having no legal rights and viewed essentially as children. Furthermore, in the medieval period women were conceived of as morally inferior and in need of men to correct them and train them; a view that later changed into women as figures who were expected to embody idealized delicacy, innocence, submission, and purity through their pre-existing nature in the Victorian period. Our cultural narratives have certainly seen the ‘ideal’ view of intimate relationships as being male dominant. Of course, the belief in a man’s ‘right’ to physically discipline ‘his’ woman still exists in many more patriarchal societies in the modern world, where male control is still religiously and culturally enforced and women’s rights are minimal.

Historically, we see the normalization of violence against women as a man’s status as ‘master of the house’. For example, marital rape was, of course, not recognized as a crime until 1991 in the United Kingdom. It was not until the 20th century that the law generally came to view domestic violence as a crime when the it reached severe levels (battery). Still, little was done to intervene: the feminist movement in the 1960s brought to public notice both the frequency of domestic assaults in the home, and also the legal practices’ striking indifference towards it. Arrests were usually only made when the violence reached critical levels — often murder. The outrage towards this propelled the shelter movement forward.

A fierce debate has been fought since then. The two opposing sides of the domestic violence argument are fairly entrenched in their respective views. On one hand, the feminist movement remains the dominant ideology in addressing intimate abuse. It views it as an act, primarily, of violence against women, completely removed in its context from general violence. In feminist theory, the culture of male dominance over women is what drives men to behave in this way. Men are taught that control over women is their cultural right and violence (or varying forms of verbal and psychological abuse) is their way to reinforce it. Women’s violence is framed frequently as being in self-defence against a powerful male partner; and nothing a woman does can influence his use of violence. On the opposing side has been the family conflict theorists, those who have cast doubt on the phenomenon as a purely male-perpetrated one and find that violence in the home is more likely to be explained by stresses within the family unit. Patriarchal influence, they argue, can only explain some use of male violence, not all of it. And it cannot explain other forms of observable intimate violence not perpetrated by men against women.

Research over the years — now numbering hundreds of studies — finds itself supporting the ‘family conflict’ theories. Indeed, decades worth of research on perpetration statistics has unearthed a few recurring truths: 1) a significant number of violent relationships (up to 60% in some studies) are, in fact, mutually abusive with both partners contributing to the violence 2) women hit men slightly more unilaterally than men do women 3) abuse perpetration can be committed by either gender, in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships 4) a great deal of violence is not the commonly understood ‘battery’ where severe force and chronic abuse are observed, but significantly more moderate (slaps and shoves) and 5) the research into the use of violence indicates that there is little difference between why men and women use violence, with the same reasons being given by both genders. While some continue suggest women’s violence is usually defensive, John Hamel notes in his book, ‘Family Interventions in Domestic Violence’:

…despite claims by victim advocates to the contrary (Hamberger & Potente, 1994; Henning et al., 2003), self-defense is not the predominant motive for assaults by either gender. Reports of self-defense by women range from as low as 5% in clinic samples (Cascardi & Vivian, 1995) up to 40% among women residing in shelters (Saunders, 1986). General population surveys and studies of dating populations (Follingstad et al., 1991; Sommer, 1994) fix the rates of self-defense at only between 10% and 20% for men and women, respectively.

Given the academic weight of this research, it would suggest that more gender-neutral discussions should be had regarding both the perpetration of domestic violence and in supplying support for victims. Yet the ideological stance remains culturally and politically dominant: male victims are still a relatively unheard group, violence is still depicted as predominantly male-perpetrated for control over women, and same-sex abuse is blatantly ignored. Regarding stopping abusiveness, the perpetrator intervention schemes — most famously the Duluth Model — are themselves ineffectual. The current intervention methods to stop domestic abuse seem misguided given that they ignore the multifaceted realities surrounding this phenomenon. Simply put, not all victims, perpetrators and couples are the same.

Despite this, these models remain the primary way in which we ‘treat’ the issue of domestic violence. They are far from appropriate, having a minimal success rate, and have invariably done some harm in the broader understanding. Men who are abused by women are often seen and interrogated as the ‘real perpetrators’, mutual abuse is dismissed as ‘non-existent’ and the underlying causes of abusive behaviour are not given appropriate treatment. Indeed, some states, and the United Kingdom, actively forbid using non-Duluth approved methods to try to treat domestically abusive persons. However, some hope that, depending on the perpetrator, Restorative Justice interventions might work, and mindfulness-based programs may prove useful in diminishing the use of violence and abuse.

In an attempt to try to connect the two schools of thought, researcher Michael P Johnson created a typology, placing these different forms of violence into distinct categories. The most common, and most moderate, was called “situational couples violence” which was defined as the fights that occur when two partners get into an argument, escalate, and shove, slap or throw the TV remote at one another. The most extreme he called “patriarchal terrorism” (also called ‘intimate terrorism’ and ‘coercive controlling abuse’) and was seen to be perpetrated almost exclusively by men against women.

The balance appeared restored: men were still the primary culprits of this intimate terrorism, using their male desire for power and control to terrorize women. However, problematically, this form of abuse is significantly less common than the other forms, yet many agencies and campaigns continue to conflate all forms of domestic violence into one with no note of distinction. Even more problematically, recent research has found that there is less of a gender gap between terroristic domestic violence than originally thought.

Despite these realities, there are critically few resources for both male and same-sex victims to utilise. The ideology is strongly against their being acknowledged, possibly as they pose too much threat to the belief in patriarchal control as the root of domestic abuse in society. If decades of research have indicated anything, it is this: men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, are both capable of behaving abusively and are both able to be victimised. Going forward into the next decade, more awareness must be brought to the abuse of men and LGBT people who have for so long fallen to the wayside. All types of victims should have their own support networks in place, tailored — as best as can be done — to their pressing needs and desires.

The Causes of Domestic Violence?

In his book ‘Why Does He Do That?’ Emerge-program veteran Lundy Bancroft provides a list of the myths surrounding domestic abuse. The list includes things that ‘do not cause abuse’ such as: alcoholism, impulsivity, experiences of child abuse, poor mental health, abandonment issues, and stress amongst others. In 2016 the United Kingdom charity group Women’s Aid also ran a campaign where it called many of these things myths as well. The underlying point is that the abuser alone is responsible for his behaviour, which is a concentrated effort to have power and control over his victim; something he has been taught he is entitled to.

Much like the rates and distribution of abuse perpetration, the research has not found this to be true overall. One of the tenets of the domestic violence activism is that it is ‘never’ not a premeditated attempt at control, that poor mental health does not ‘cause’ it, but is instead a cover to excuse it. But when one digs through the murky battlefield of the two camps, one finds that much of the evidence suggests that those myths are indeed reasons why abuse occurs.

Alcoholism, poor anger and stress management, abandonment sensitivity, personality disorders, and a history of abuse or violence in the family, are, in fact, very important factors in why a person becomes abusive. Poverty, also, seems to be a factor, suggesting, like other types of criminal behaviour, economic suffering may be an influence in some cases. A more recent longitudinal study (Costa, 2015) continued to find these as predictors for domestic abuse perpetration and concluded early intervention was central in prevention. Another study also found that both men and women show an increased likeliness to perpetrate intimate violence when they suffer from: depression, generalized anxiety, or panic disorders.

In terms of ‘abuser’ categorization it seems that the feminist movement has also taken varying types of perpetrator and merged them together into one. These men and women’s violence have different causes, reasons, and will likely require different forms of treatment. Social psychologist Don Dutton noted in his book ‘Rethinking Domestic Violence’ that the feminist conception of the power-motivated and deliberate abuser is likely drawn from psychopathic perpetrators and then projected onto all other men on the programs.

In fact, psychopaths tend not to form strong emotional attachments, so they don’t typically experience abandonment panics. They may just routinely use violence as a form of control. The feminist view of all abusive males seems to have been generalized from psychopaths.

Psychopathic individuals show a callous calmness when they harm others: for them the violence is a casual and chosen means to ‘get what they want’ from others.However, these men are estimated to be significantly rarer and have, as the current research goes, no real means of treatment. Thus far, nothing has worked to minimize their abusive and violent behaviour. In contrast to the concept of male violence against women being a separate category from other forms of violence, research also finds that most of the chronically violent perpetrators are frequently as violent outside the home and have ties with other criminal activities. Dutton calls these the antisocial or ‘generally violent’ category of abusive men.

Most domestically abusive people are more likely to fit what has been called ‘reactive’ and ‘impulsive’ categories of violence. These categories do not fit the instrumental paradigm where violence is a concerted effort to deliberately have power and control over another. In many cases, powerlessness is a better descriptor for their abuse, often related to psychological problems such as alcoholism, emotional dysregulation, poor impulse control, attachment disturbances, abandonment terror and shame-based rage. Studies indicate this is applicable to both male and female perpetrators, heteorsexual and homosexual, with both showing increased signs of jealousy and dependency issues.

A variety of researchers have found an extremely high incidence of personality disorders in assaultive populations. Studies have found incidence rates of personality disorders to be 80–90 percent in both court-referred and self-referred wife assaults…. compared to estimates in the general population, which tend to range from 15–20 percent. As the violence becomes more severe and chronic, the likelihood of psychopathology in these men approaches 100 percent. [Excerpt from ‘Rethinking Domestic Violence’]

Researchers have found that the closer a person comes to perpetrating a consistent pattern of abusive behaviour, and especially the more severe and chronic the abuse becomes, the likelier it is that individuals committing these acts are personality disordered — primarily Antisocial, Borderline and Narcissistic. Complicating further, there can, of course, be co-morbidity between these disorders. Studies have found that children raised in violent and abusive homes are far more likely to develop abusive personalities themselves, and far more likely to enter relationships with people who have similar conflict resolution styles and who have been raised in similar backgrounds. This potentially reinforces the mutuality in many of the findings. A large sample study also suggests that children’s witnessing of violence in the home relates to externalised aggression and future intimate abuse perpetration.

These subtypes of abusive personalities tend to suggest that abuse often stems from complex psychological issues and that abusiveness can take on varying forms with differing motivations underlying it. The ‘patriarchal model’ is only applicable, perhaps, to some types of perpetrators and they might be increasingly rare in our more gender-equitable society. It is simply no longer culturally normalized for a man to physically strike a woman, whatever his reasons.

Complicating the debate even more, and noted by Hamel, is that the adherence to the unilateral victim-perpetrator framework confuses more than it necessarily reveals. How does one classify partners engaging in mutual, equally-matched violence? Or relationships where one partner is physically violent whilst the other engages in chronic psychological and verbal abuse? Some partners may be the primary perpetrator in one relationship, but in the changed circumstances of their new partnership they might be the primary victim. Many abusive persons were abused as children, their behaviour a manifestation of trauma and deeply-held rage — how are their issues to be understood and responded to? What of the victim’s own potential susceptibility to abuse — many may find themselves having entered into several abusive relationships, what of the victim with an established pattern of choosing violent partners? Feminist organizations suggest that women in severe terroristic relationships may be driven to kill their abusers out of desperation, but would a male victim of such a relationship be offered the same support, empathy, and excusing, or would he be deemed the true perpetrator and his murderous violence held up as proof that he was the true abuser all along?

Our mainstream conception of domestic abuse not only muddies the waters of who can be a victim, leading to increased suffering for men and marginalized identities who have been victimised, it also blatantly disregards many of the psychological and sociological factors contributing to the development of abusiveness in individuals. Even more evidence arises to further frustrate the mainstream view of this issue, such as the conflicts surrounding what kinds services victims of abuse might want. Lawyer and social work professor, Linda G Mills, has written two books detailing the ways in which the current models fail to relate, fully, to what many women want and need from support services: some do not wish to leave or have their partner jailed, some want to work on the abuse through forbidden couples therapy, and black women, for example, have racially specific issues which the models, designed primarily by middle-class white women, fail to address or consider.

In the 1960s the feminist movement brought to light the harsh reality of the extent of male violence in the home, and fought to discredit the myths and cultural indifference surrounding it. Over the years, it seems, and through its own impressive successes, the same movement has unfortunately bred its own myths, now casting a complex issue in relatively simple terms.

My passions include cinema, literature, fantasy, psychology, music/guitar, photography and ancient/medieval history.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store