Evolution of Theories of Violence
last updated April 2015

All parts of a community must share a clearly defined theory of violence to coordinate effective intervention strategies. In the United States, theories about the cause and contributing factors of domestic violence have evolved over more than 40 years.[1]

The battered women’s movement gained traction in the United States in the 1970s. At the time, the leading theory of causation for battering was psychopathology, which holds that male batterers are mentally ill and in need of psychological remedies such as therapy or medication.[2] This theory proved to be incorrect. The number of relationships that involved violence was much greater than original theorists guessed and psychological tests did not support the theory that mental illness causes violence.[3] One study showed that far fewer batterers have “clinical disorders” than previous studies supporting this theory of violence had indicated.[4] Furthermore, researchers found that batterers’ behavior was inconsistent with profiles of mental illness.[5]

The psychopathology theory of domestic violence has been revived in recent years as researchers look to psychological disorders and individual characteristics of batterers as the cause of domestic violence. However, this theory is criticized as inaccurate and shortsighted, in part because it serves as an excuse for batterers and ignores the role of gender in society.[6] Some researchers believe batterers are over diagnosed with these disorders, and treatments for psychological disorders have not consistently yielded successful results.[7]

Early studies also characterized battered women as mentally ill.[8] The results of these studies were distorted because they only examined women who were in mental hospitals. Their batterers, who appeared calm and credible compared to their institutionalized wives, minimized and denied their partners' accounts of the abuse when they were asked about the cause of their partners' condition.[9] In reality, battered women are not mentally ill. Many of those who were institutionalized were misdiagnosed as a result of society’s failure to recognize or understand the physical and psychological effects of domestic violence.[10]

Researchers next adopted a social learning theory, which considers abuse to be a “learned behavior” that men adopt and women seek out after observing domestic violence as children.[11] As with the mental illness theory, research has failed to show that women who witness domestic violence are more likely to be battered as adults.[12] In addition, the vast majority of men who witness domestic violence in childhood do not grow up to batter. Research shows that just 30 percent of boys who witness domestic violence in the home become batterers as teens or adults.[13] Thus, having witnessed violence as a child is insufficient to explain why one would become a perpetrator of domestic violence as an adult.

A better explanation for the relationship between witnessing violence and battering holds that witnessing violence is just one of many sources of information that influence men who batter. Batterers also receive information from the broader society that reinforces patriarchal norms by telling them that they are entitled to control their wives or partners and that it is acceptable to enforce their control through violence.[14]

Closely related to the "learned behavior" theory are theories that describe violence as the result of loss of control. Many theorists explain men's violence is a result of their inability to control their anger and frustration.[15] Some proponents of this theory believe that men are abusive when they drink because the alcohol causes them to lose control.[16]

The "loss of control" theory is contradicted by batterers' behavior. Batterers' violence is usually carefully targeted to certain people at certain times and places. For example, most batterers "choose not to hit their bosses or police officers, no matter how angry or 'out of control' they are."[17] Batterers follow their own "internal rules and regulations about their abusive behaviors."[18] 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.[19] Batterers choose their tactics carefully—some destroy property, some rely on threats of abuse, and some threaten children.[20] Through these decisions, "perpetrators are making choices about what they will or will not do to the victim, even when they are claiming they were ‘out of control.’ Such decision-making indicates that they are actually in control of their abusive behaviors."[21] In fact, studies have indicated that many batterers become more controlled and calm as their aggressiveness increases.[22]

Another theory holds that women stay in abusive relationships because of "learned helplessness." According to this theory, the constant abuse strips women of the will to leave.[23] The learned helplessness theory, however, does not account for the fact that there are many social, economic and cultural reasons a woman might choose to stay in an abusive relationship.[24] Women often have very rational reasons for staying. The process of leaving a batterer can be extremely dangerous for women, and they may fear retaliation against themselves or their children.[25] Women may not be able to financially support themselves or their children, or they may be ostracized by their families and communities if they leave.[26]

Further, the learned helplessness theory is inconsistent with the experiences of many women in abusive relationships. Many victims often actively attempt to secure their safety and that of their children in very conscious ways, such as leaving many times or otherwise trying to minimize the abuse.[27] Rather than surrendering to a life of "learned helplessness," victims often engage in a process of "staying, leaving and returning."[28]

The "learned helplessness" theory was accompanied by a resurgence of the psychopathology rationale. Theorists argued that women stay in abusive relationships because they suffer from a personality disorder that causes them to seek out abusive relationships as a means of self-punishment, or they are addicted to abusive relationships.[29] Some theorists concluded that victims of domestic abuse are co-alcoholics with their spouses and thus could be "treated" through alcohol addiction programs.[30] These theories are inconsistent with the fact that women often have rational reasons for staying in relationships.[31] In addition, while battered women may be at increased risk of substance abuse, it is not a cause of the abuse.[32]

The "cycle of violence" was the next theory to gain popularity in the United States. Similar to the “loss of control” theory, this theory is based on the belief that men do not express their frustration and anger because they have been taught not to show their feelings. The man's tension builds until he explodes and becomes violent. After the tension is released, the couple enjoys a "honeymoon" period during which the husband is apologetic and remorseful.[33]

The cycle of violence theory, however, is not consistent with women's experiences. Many women never experience a honeymoon period.[34] Others have stated that there is no gradual buildup of tension, but rather unpredictable, almost random, episodes of battering. This theory also does not explain why men direct their explosions of rage only against their intimate partners.

[T]he 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.[35]

The cycle of violence theory is often paired with the systems or family/relationship conflict model. According to this model, both the man and the woman contribute to violence in an intimate relationship because “[t]he behavior of one member and the probability of a reoccurrence of that behavior are affected by the responses and feedback of other members.”[36]

The family/relationship conflict theory of violence assumes either that the relationship is characterized by mutual violence, or that the victim provokes her husband or partner into using violence.[37] The woman's behavior contributes to the buildup of tension in the man, until the man explodes in a violent rage.[38]

Theories based on "mutual" violence do not take into account the different ways that men and women use violence in intimate relationships.[39] Nor does this concept account for instances in which a husband explodes over trivial issues or starts beating his wife while she is sleeping.[40] Further, this theory blames the victim for provoking violence and, by so doing, reduces the batterer’s responsibility for his actions.[41]

These early theories evolved into the current understanding of why men batter women. What was missing from all of these theories was the recognition of batterers' intent to control their partners' actions, thoughts and feelings. The current understanding of abuse evolved out of many discussions with battered women and batterers through the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) in Duluth, Minnesota, USA.[42] DAIP developed a visual representation of this theory called the “Power and Control Wheel[43] which describes the different tactics batterers use to maintain power and control over their partners.

In an abusive relationship, 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.[44] The elements that formed the basis of earlier theories—a boy witnessing battering as a child, or substance abuse—may be contributing factors, but do not "cause" the violence. Rather, batterers consciously use violence to ensure the submissiveness of their partners.[45] The exercise of male violence through 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.[46]

Over time, however, DAIP began to realize that even this theory—that batterers use violence to gain and maintain control and power—does not sufficiently capture the phenomenon of violence.[47] While the Power and Control Wheel does describe women's experiences, batterers in batterers' intervention programs did not articulate a desire for power and control when they talked about their use of these behaviors.[48] Consequently, DAIP began to conceptualize violence within the larger context of society. Under this expanded 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.[49]

Recent studies are finding women who are victims of domestic violence often have “alarming rates of medical, behavioral, and psychological problems found among no other population of assault victims.”[50] This led researchers to study coercive control: “a strategic course of self-interested behavior designed to secure and expand gender-based privilege by establishing a regime of domination in personal life.”[51] Abusers often control everything in their partner’s life, from depriving them of basic needs, to creating rules about daily life, and even cutting them off from the outside world.[52] Researchers are now studying patterns of controlling behaviors as opposed to studying episodes of physical violence alone.[53] Recent studies are finding 60 to 80 percent of abuse victims who seek help experienced coercive control rather than exclusively physical violence.[54] When researchers study physical violence alone, it is estimated they are missing 95-97 percent of all cases.[55] This has a grave effect on women as they experience abuse in myriad ways. Failing to recognize this fact has made their experience invisible and has caused victim-blaming responses in society.[56]

Although there are no simple explanations, research indicates, and the United Nations and Council of Europe recognize, that domestic violence is rooted in the subordinate role women have traditionally held in private and public life in many societies.[57] Although knowledge about the prevalence and dynamics of domestic violence has increased dramatically, the characterization of domestic violence as a private aberration continues to thwart efforts to obtain data.[58] The old theories of violence continue to influence interventions despite being disproven. The often misplaced understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence continues to impede efforts to protect women and hold batterers accountable for their criminal conduct.

[1] Richard J. Gelles, Violence in the Family: A Review of Research in the Seventies, 42 (4) Journal of Marriage and Family 873, 874 (Nov. 1980).

[2] Margi Laird McCue, Domestic Violence: A Reference Handbook, 12 (2nd ed. 2008).

[3] Shirelle Phelps and Jeffrey Lehman, Domestic Violence, 3(2) West’s Encyclopedia of American Law 504 (Mar. 2005); Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence, 21(2) Contemporary Economic Policy 158 (Nov. 2003) (explaining that initial estimates of domestic violence were lower than the reality because the crime was significantly underreported).

[4] Edward W. Gondolf, MCMI-III Results for Batterer Program Participants in Four Cities: Less “Pathological” Than Expected 14(1) Journal of Family Violence 13 (Mar. 1999).

[5] Id. at 12.

[6] Allison Cunningham et al., Theory-Driven Explanations of Male Violence against Female Partners: Literature Update and Related Implications for Treatment and Evaluation, London Family Court Clinic ii (1998), http://www.lfcc.on.ca/maleviolence.pdf; McCue, supra note 15, at 12-13.

[7] Cunningham et al., supra note 6.

[8] Joan Zorza, Batterer Manipulation and Retaliation in the Courts: A Largely Unrecognized Phenomenon Sometimes Encouraged by Court Practices, 3(5) Domestic Violence Report 67 (June 1998), http://www.ncadv.org/conferences/2012handouts/Zorza,%20Joan--Batterer.Manipulation.&.Retaliation.in.Courts.pdf.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] McCue, supra note 2, at 13.

[12] Id.                    

[13] Id. at 14.

[14] Id. at 15.

[15] Neil S. Jacobson & John Gottman, When Men Batter Women: New Insights Into Ending Abusive Relationships, 42 (1998).

[16] Larry W. Bennett, Substance Abuse and Woman Abuse by Male Partners, National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, 1 (Feb. 1998), http://theduluthmodel.org/pdf/Substance%20Abuse%20and%20Intimate%20Partner%20Violence.pdf.

[17] Ethel Klein et al., Ending Domestic Violence: Changing Public Perceptions/Halting the Epidemic, 6 (1997).

[18] Anne L. Ganley & Susan Schechter, Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Family Preservation Practitioners, Family Violence Prevention Fund, 19 (1995), reprinted in Anne L. Ganley, Understanding Domestic Violence: Preparatory Reading for Participants, Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, 71 (Feb. 2002), http://andvsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/60-ganely-general-dv-article.pdf; see also, Carole Warshaw & Anna L. Ganley, Improving the Health Care Response to Domestic Violence: A Resource Manual for Health Care Providers, The Family Violence Prevention Fund, 23 (2nd ed. 1996), http://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/userfiles/file/HealthCare/improving_healthcare_healthtrainer.pdf.

[19] Ganley, Understanding Domestic Violence: Preparatory Reading for Participants, supra note 18, at 62-71.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 71.

[22] John M. Gottman et al., The Relationship Between Heart Rate Reactivity, Emotionally Aggressive Behavior, and General Violence in Batterers, 9(3) Journal of Family Psychology 245, 227-248 (Apr. 1995), http://www.johngottman.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/The-relationship-between-heart-rate-reactivity-emotionally-aggressive-behavior-and-general-violence-in-batterers.pdf.

[23] Lenore E. Walker, Battered Women and Learned Helplessness, 2 Victimology 525-534 (Aug. 1977).

[24] Lynn M. Short et al., Survivors Identification of Protective Factors and Early Warning Signs for Intimate Partner Violence, 6(3) Violence Against Women 276 (Mar. 2000).

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] R. Emerson Dobash & Russell P. Dobash, Women, Violence and Social Change 232 (1992). (“Women 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.”).

[28] Id. at 224.

[29] Id. at 221-223.

[30] Id. at 223.

[31] Short, supra note 24.

[32] Brenda A. Miller & William R. Downs, The Impact of Family Violence on the Use of Alcohol by Women, 17(2) Alcohol Health and Research World 137 (May 1993).

[33] Lenore E. Walker, The Battered Woman, 55-57 (1979).

[34] Dobash & Dobash, supra note 28, at 229; See note 76.

[35] Dobash & Dobash, supra note 28, at 229.

[36] Cunningham et al., supra note 6, at 2.

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

[38] Id.

[39] See Section I(D).

[40] Paymar, supra note 38.

[41] Cunningham et al., supra note 6, at 2.

[42] Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, http://www.theduluthmodel.org/ (last visited July 14, 2014).

[43] See Appendix A. These tactics include coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, economic abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying and blaming, using children and using male privilege.

[44] Melanie F. Shepard & Ellen L. Pence, Coordinating Community Responses to Domestic Violence: Lessons from Duluth and Beyond, 27-30 (1999); see also, Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, “What is the Duluth Model?,” http://theduluthmodel.org/about/index.html (last visited July 14, 2014); Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, “Frequently Asked Questions,” http://theduluthmodel.org/about/faqs.html (last visited July 14, 2014).

[45] Ganley, Understanding Domestic Violence: Preparatory Reading for Participants, supra note 18, at 72.

[46] Shepard & Pence, supra note 45, at 33.

[47] Shepard & Pence, supra note 45, at 28-29.

[48] Id at 29.

[49] Id at 30.

[51] Id at 21.

[52] Id at 18.

[53] Id.

[54] Id at 17.

[55] Id at 20.

[56] Id.

[57] See Section I(E).

[58] United Nations Population Fund, Dimensions of Violence against Women and Girls, and How to End It (Mar. 8, 2014), http://unfpa.org/public/site/global/home/news/pid/13634.