Theories of Violence
last updated August 2013
To be effective, intervention strategies for domestic violence must be based on a clearly articulated theory of violence. To the extent possible, all parts of the community must share this view of violence to effectively coordinate their responses to the problem.
Information regarding the evolution of theories of violence in the United States is useful because various forms of these theories are being discussed in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (CEE/FSU). The first theory developed in the United States was that men who battered women were mentally ill and that women who remained in violent relationships were also mentally ill. This theory proved to be wrong. The number of relationships that involved violence was much greater than original theorists guessed and psychological tests did not support the theory that violence was caused by mental illness. In fact, many batterers and their victims tested "normal" under psychological tests.
Another theory developed that men battered because they learned this behavior in their families. Although there is a statistical relationship between boys who witness their fathers battering their mothers (they are seven times more likely to batter their own wives), there is no significant statistical relationship between girls who witness battering and those who later become victims. Further, many men who witnessed violence as children do not abuse their partners as adults.
A third theory was that women suffered from a "learned helplessness" as a result of repeated battering, which prevented them from resisting the violence or leaving the relationship. This theory does not address the economic, social, and familial reasons why a woman might stay in the relationship; it is also inconsistent with the experiences of many women who actively attempt to secure their safety. Research indicates that battered women resist the abuse in many ways and engage in a variety of survival or coping strategies.
Yet a fourth theory was that batterers follow a "cycle of violence" with intermittent violent and repentant episodes. The "cycle of violence" theory did not conform to many battered women's experiences. Many women reported that their partners never repented in their violent relationships, and that violence was not cyclical but rather a constant presence in their lives.
These theories evolved into the current understanding of why violence against women happens. This understanding of how and why men batter was developed though many years of interviews with victims and batterers. According to this model, batterers use abusive and threatening behaviors to exert and maintain control and power over their victims.
Although there are no simple explanations, research indicates that domestic violence has its roots in the subordinate role women have traditionally held in private and public life in many societies. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women describes violence against women as "a manifestation of historically unequal power relationships between men and women." At the same time, violence is used to perpetuate and enforce women's subordinate role. In the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the United Nations and its member countries denounce domestic violence as one of the "crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into subordinate [positions] compared with men."
For a more in-depth discussion of theories of domestic violence, click here.