THEORIES OF VIOLENCE
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.