A common understanding of the causes of domestic violence can help communities develop more effective responses to the violence; such an understanding helps avoid conflicting responses that could undermine efforts to protect victims and hold batterers accountable.

When the battered women’s movement in the United States began in the early 1970s, the prevailing theory of why men batter was based on psychopathology. According to this theory, men who abused their wives were mentally ill and could be cured through medication or psychiatric treatment. Researchers found, however, that the behavior of perpetrators of domestic violence did not correspond to profiles of individuals who were mentally ill. Batterers attack only their intimate partners. People who suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia do not limit their violence to their intimate partners.

Initial studies also characterized battered women as mentally ill. The results of these first studies, however, were distorted because the studies examined women who were in mental hospitals; their batterers, who were calm and credible in contrast to their wives, were asked about the cause of their partners’ condition and thus given an opportunity to minimize and deny their partners’ account of the abuse. In reality, however, battered women are not mentally ill, and many of those who were institutionalized were misdiagnosed because of a failure to recognize or understand the physical and psychological effects of domestic violence. From Joan Zorza, Batterer Manipulation and Retaliation in the Courts: A Largely Unrecognized Phenomenon Sometimes Encouraged by Court Practices, Violence Against Women 47-48 (Joan Zorza ed., 2002).

Researchers next theorized that violence was learned. They argued that men battered because they had learned violence in their families as children, and women sought out abusive men because they saw their mothers being abused. This was the “learned behavior” theory of violence. Yet women who witness domestic violence are not any more likely to be battered as adults. (A recent study reported by the Family Violence Prevention Fund does indicate, however, that women who were physically or sexually abused as children may be more likely to be abused as adults.)

Although research does show that boys who witness abuse in the home are seven times more likely to batter, many men who witnessed violence as children vow not to use violence and do not grow up to be batterers. A more consistent explanation for the relationship between witnessing and battering is that witnessing is one of many sources of information; men also receive information from the larger society that it is appropriate to control your wife and to enforce this control through violence. Further, as emphasized in batterers treatment programs, boys who witnessed domestic violence and grew up to be batterers learned more than just violence; rather, they learned—and thus can unlearn—lessons about the respective roles of men and women that contribute to their abusive behavior as adults.

Closely related to the “learned behavior” theory were the theories that described violence as the result of a loss of control. For example, many believed that men are abusive when they drink because the alcohol causes them to lose control. Others explained men’s violence as a result of an inability to control their anger and frustration. These theorists argued that gendered societal expectations prevented men from expressing anger and frustration; these feelings would build up until the man lost control and released his feelings through the use of violence.

This “loss of control” theory is contradicted by batterers’ behavior. Batterers’ violence is carefully targeted to certain people at certain times and places. For example, batterers “choose not to hit their bosses or police officers, no matter how angry or ‘out of control’ they are.” From Ethel Klein et al., Ending Domestic Violence: Changing Public Perceptions/Halting the Epidemic 6 (1997).

Abusers also follow their own “internal rules and regulations about abusive behaviors.” They often choose to abuse their partners only in private, or may take steps to ensure that they do not leave visible evidence of the abuse. Batterers also chose their tactics carefully—some destroy property, some rely on threats of abuse, and some threaten children. Through these decisions, “perpetrators are making choices about what they will or will not do to the victim, even when they are claiming they ‘lost it’ or were ‘out of control.’ Such decision-making indicates that they are actually in control of their abusive behaviors.” From Anne L. Ganley & Susan Schechter, Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Family Preservation Practitioners 19 (1995). In fact, a recent study reported by the Family Violence Prevention Fund indicates that many batterers become more controlled and calm as their aggressiveness increases.

Another theory that was advanced was the “learned helplessness” theory. Lenore Walker, a psychologist in the United States, studied the behavior of women who stay in violent relationships. Walker hypothesized that women stay in abusive relationships because constant abuse strips them of the will to leave.

The learned helplessness theory, however, did not account for the fact that there are many social, economic and cultural reasons a woman might chose to stay in an abusive relationship. Women often have very rational reasons for staying—they may fear retaliation against themselves or their children, or they may not be able to financially support themselves or their children. They may be ostracized by their family and community if they leave.

Further, the learned helplessness theory is inconsistent with the fact that women surviving in abusive relationships attempt to leave many times and routinely act in very conscious ways to try to minimize the abuse directed at them and to protect their children. As Dobash and Dobash explain, “[w]omen are usually persistent and often tenacious in their attempts to seek help, but pursue such help through channels that prove to be most useful and reject those that have been found to be unhelpful or condemning.” Battered women do not live their lives in a state of “learned helplessness.” On the contrary, they often engage in a process of “staying, leaving and returning.” During this process,

women make active and conscious decisions based on their changing circumstances: they leave for short periods in order to escape the violence and to emphasize their disaffection in the hope that this will stop the violence. In the beginning, they are generally not attempting to end the relationship, but are negotiating to reestablish the relationship on a non-violent basis.

In addition, the learned helplessness theory was based on perceived characteristics ostensibly shared by battered women, such as low self esteem, a tendency to withdraw, or perceptions of loss of control. Those who espoused the theory, however, rarely took into account the fact that these “characteristics” might be, in fact, the physical and psychological effects of the abuse.

Finally, the static model of “learned helplessness” is contradicted by the fact that the violence, and the woman’s reaction to the violence, often changes over time. The first episode of violence is generally minor; victims may be surprised and shocked, and may not anticipate that it will occur again. Rather, as Dobash and Dobash explain, “they believe, as anyone might, in the potential for reform and are still committed to the relationship.” Victims may begin to then

look to their own actions for an explanation. This is not surprising in societies which allocate to wives the responsibility for happy husbands and families; women are expected to ask how their behavior ‘caused’ their husband’s violence. Women eventually realize that solutions to the man’s violence do not reside in a change of their own behavior. For some this realization comes fairly quickly while others take longer to overcome such culturally constructed notions.

The “learned helplessness” theory was accompanied by a resurgence of the psychopathology; theorists argued that women stayed in abusive relationships because they suffered from a personality disorder that caused them to seek out abusive relationships as a means of self-punishment, or were addicted to abusive relationships. Many also maintained that women were co-alcoholics with their spouses and thus could be “treated” through alcohol addiction programs. These theories were inconsistent with the fact that women had very rational reasons for staying in relationships. In addition, while battered women may be subject to an increased risk of substance abuse, this is a consequence, not a cause, of the abuse.

The “cycle of violence” was the next theory to gain popularity in the United States. This theory was based on the belief that men did not express their frustration and anger because they had been taught not to show their feelings. The man’s tension built until he exploded and became violent. The tension was released, and the couple enjoyed a “honeymoon” period, during which the husband was apologetic and remorseful.

This theory, however, was not consistent with women’s experiences. Many women never experienced a honeymoon period. Others stated that there was no gradual build-up of tension, but rather unpredictable, almost random, episodes of battering. This theory also did not explain why men directed their explosions of rage only against their intimate partners. Dobash and Dobash explain that

the conception of a cycle of violence is static rather than dynamic and changing, does not deal with intentionality, and the notion of the third phase as a ‘honeymoon’ phase belies the experience of women who indicate that even the process of ‘making-up’ or reconstructing the relationship is carried out against the background of a personal history of violence and coercion and in the context of few viable alternatives to the violent relationship.

From R. Emerson Dobash & Russel P. Dobash, Women, Violence and Social Change 222-23, 225, 229-32 (1992).

This theory was often paired with the “family/relationship conflict” model. According to this model, “both the man and the woman contribute to violence in an intimate relationship.” This model assumes either that the relationship is characterized by mutual violence, or that “in many cases a wife provokes her husband by ‘below-the-belt’ arguments prompting a violence response from her husband.” The woman’s behavior contributes to the build-up of tension in the man, until the man explodes in a violent rage, followed by a honeymoon period.

Theories based on “mutual” violence do not take into account the different ways that men and women use violence in intimate relationships. Further, any theory that describes violence as a response to “provocation” from the other partner is simply another form of victim blaming. Nor does this model account for instances in which a husband explodes over trivial issues or starts beating his wife while she is asleep.

From Michael Paymar, Building a Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence: An Overview of the Problem 3-4 (1994).

What was missing from all of these theories was a recognition of batterers’ intent to gain control over their partners’ actions, thoughts and feelings. The current understanding of abuse, represented by the “Power and Control Wheel,” evolved out of many discussions with battered women and batterers through the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) in Duluth. The Power and Control Wheel describes the different tactics an abuser uses to maintain power and control over his partner.

In an abusive relationships, the batterer uses the pattern of tactics described in the Power and Control Wheel to reinforce his use of physical violence. Violent incidents are not isolated instances of a loss of control, or even cyclical expressions of anger and frustration. Rather, each instance is part of a larger pattern of behavior designed to exert and maintain power and control over the victim.

The Power and Control Wheel is based on the assumption that the purpose of the violence is to exert power and control over the woman. The elements that formed the basis of earlier theories—a boy witnessing abuse as a child, or substance abuse—may be contributing factors, but are not the “cause” of the violence. Rather, the batterer consciously uses these tactics to ensure the submissiveness of his partner—to ensure that he gets his way. As Schecter and Ganley explain, perpetrators of domestic violence

bring into their intimate relationships certain expectations of who is in charge and what the acceptable mechanisms are for enforcing that dominance. Those attitudes and beliefs, rather than the victim’s behavior, determine whether or not perpetrators are domestically violent.

Schechter & Ganley, Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Family Preservation Practitioners 19 (1995). The exercise of male violence, though which women’s subordinate role and unequal power are enforced and maintained, is, in turn, tolerated and reinforced by political and cultural institutions and economic arrangements.

Over time, however, DAIP began to realize that even this theory—that batterers use violence in order to gain control and power—did not sufficiently capture the phenomenon of violence. While the Power and Control Wheel (i.e., coercive behaviors that establish power and control) did describe women’s experiences, batterers in batterers treatment groups did not articulate a desire for power and control when they talked about their use of these behaviors. Consequently, DAIP began to conceptualize violence within the larger context of society. Under this theory, violence is

a logical outcome of relationships of dominance and inequality—relationships shaped not simply by the personal choices or desires of some men to [dominate] their wives but by how we, as a society, construct social and economic relationships between men and women and within marriage (or intimate domestic relationships) and families. Our task is to understand how our response to violence creates a climate of intolerance or acceptance to the force used in intimate relationships.

From Ellen L. Pence, Some Thoughts on Philosophy, in Coordinating Community Responses to Domestic Violence: Lessons from the Duluth Model 25, 29-30 (Melanie F. Shepard & Ellen L. Pence eds., 1999).

Adapted from Loretta Frederick’s Presentation on Theories of Violence at the Domestic Violence Workshop, sponsored by the Bulgarian Centre for Human Rights, the Gender Project for Bulgaria Foundation, and Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, on June 2, 1997, and the introduction to Ellen Pence and Michael Paymar’s book, Education Groups for Men Who Batter: The Duluth Model (1993).

The American Bar Association’s Myths and Facts About Domestic Violence provides additional discussion of the myths about domestic violence that have been generated by these theories.

A 1998 literature review, Alison Cunningham et al., Theory-Driven Explanations of Male Violence Against Female Partners: Literature Update and Related Implications for Treatment and Evaluation (1998), provides an in-depth analysis of many of these theories, their origin and foundations, advantages and limitations of each, and the implications of these theories for treatment and prevention strategies.

UNICEF’s, Domestic Violence Against Women and Girls, 6 Innocenti Digest 1, 7 (2000), provides an extended discussion of some of the cultural, legal, economic and political factors that help perpetuate violence against women. In particular, UNICEF links macro-economic dislocation and women’s increasing economic activity with family violence.

The Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse presents an interesting history of the international battered women’s movement from 753 B.C. to today. The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers a detailed history of the battered women’s movement in the United States.

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