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Male and Female Perpetrated Partner Abuse


Table of Contents


Chapter 1


Chapter 2 Part 1


Chapter 2 Part 2


Chapter 2 Part 3


Chapter  3 Part 1


Chapter 3 Part 2


Chapter 3 Part 3


Chapter 3 Part 4


Chapter 4


Chapter 5 Part 1


Chapter 5 Part 2


Chapter 5 Part 3


Chapter 5 Part 4


Chapter 5 Part 5


Chapter 5 Part 6


Chapter 6 Part 1


Chapter 6 Part 2


Appendix A


Appendix B


Appendix C



Male and Female Perpetrated Partner Abuse: Testing a Diathesis-Stress Model 

by Reena Sommer

Chapter 2, Part 3

CHAPTER TWO (part 3)

Sociological Perspectives

Resource Theory.

Goode's (1971) Resource Theory as well as others that have emanated from it (i.e., the exchange/ resource theory (Makepeace, 1987), social exchange theory (Goode, 1971) and interpersonal resource-exchange theory (Teichman & Teichman, 1989), provide an influential explanation of spouse abuse. According to this perspective, the family is viewed as a power system in which its members rely upon some degree of force to ensure that others serve their ends (Goode, 1971).  Force is viewed as one of several resources that forms the basis of all stratification systems.

Another important principle of this theory addresses the notion of exchange.  Within the family structure, people are bound to each other through ongoing transactions or exchanges (Goode, 1971).
     Violence is seen as an outcome of the inequity of exchange.  Goode  (1971), Makepeace (1987) and Peterson (1991) suggested that families from the lower social strata are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they have fewer alternative resources.  For example, they have less prestige, money, and power.  As a result, they experience greater frustration and bitterness.  In addition to these, Peterson (1991) also found that women seeking divorces (some of whom cited partner abuse as grounds) described their husbands as having meagre psychological resources.  For many, having limited social and psychological resources also translate into violent behaviour.

When addressing the issues of power status and frustration as they relate to violence, Teichman and Teichman (1989) developed a classification system of interpersonal resources that enabled them to offer several predictions with regard to the probability of abusive episodes.  Among their findings, they reported an increased likelihood for women to encounter violence when the resource-exchanges between the spouses were unbalanced in their favour. This was due to prevailing societal norms and beliefs regarding the placement of women within the structure of society.
     This research suggests that imbalances in resource-exchanges exist in both macro and micro levels of the social environment.

Social Learning Theory.

Social learning theory is a conceptual framework that has its origins in the work of psychologist, Albert Bandura (1965).  According to Bandura (1986), children's acquisition of many complex behaviours are due to their exposure to competent models that display appropriate behaviour in solving problems and coping with their world.  Inasmuch as positive behaviours can be acquired through positive role models, conversely, negative behaviours can also be acquired through the modelling of negative behaviours.  With this in mind, Bandura (1979) applied social learning principles to the acquisition and maintenance of aggressive habits.

It is the latter set of circumstances that has been of interest to those in the area of family violence.  Researchers have applied social learning theory to explain the following aspects of the development and transmission of family violence: the patterning of violence among adult children observing violence in their families of origin (Kalmuss, 1984), the intergenerational transmission of family aggression (Cappell & Heiner, 1990), the generalization of aggression from one relationship to another across time (Malone et al., 1989), and the continuation of marital violence in remarriage (Kalmuss & Seltzer, 1986).

The above examples of research provide support for the modelling effects of early exposure to violence within one's family of origin.
     According to Burgess and Youngblade (1988), families are the primary socializing agent of children and have an enduring effect on an individual's social development.  Furthermore, they suggested that abusive parent's reliance upon coercive patterns of family interaction will likely to also be emulated by children in later relationships.  For children, being a victim of abuse does not turn them against violence, but instead teaches it as a value (Straus, 1980).  Finally, Burgess and Youngblade (1988) suggested that a child's peer relations may function either as a deterrent or a causal pathway in carrying out those behaviours observed at home. It therefore appears that the influence of other significant role models may have a mediating or an indirect effect on the development of family violence.

Conflict Theory.

Murray Straus (1979) introduced the application of conflict theory to the study of family violencewhen he suggested that conflict within a relationship is a necessary condition to ensure its continued functioning.  Hotaling and Straus (1980) suggested that attempts to suppress conflict may result in the collapse of a family or any social unit either through its failure to adapt to changing conditions or because hostility accumulates, eroding group solidarity.  Moreover, an avoidance of conflict situations ironically tends to increase hostility as the possibility of violence (Foss, 1980).

Hotaling and Straus (1980) also suggested that the likelihood of conflict is greatest within the family because unlike other special purpose groups (i.e., academic departments, businesses or corporations), the activities and interests of a family are all encompassing, thus leaving more opportunity for arguments to develop.
     These authors cited the high frequency of interactions between spouses as having a major impact on the experience of conflict within a relationship.  Finally, these authors suggested that if particular conditions exist (i.e., unemployment, stress, history of violence in the family of origin), family members are more likely to engage in violent behaviour, which in turn also increases the likelihood for injuries to occur.

In presenting the rationale underlying the CTS, Straus (1979) distinguished among methods or "tactics" of conflict resolution.  He noted that a critical issue in gaining an understanding of conflict theory is not the existence or amount of conflict, but the methods in which they are resolved.  Studies examining the presence of conflict within marital relationships have found that conflict resulting in violence is affected by a number of variables.  Coleman and Straus (1986) found rates of conflict were lowest among equalitarian couples and highest among male-dominant and female-dominant couples.
     Moreover, when conflict did occur in dominant family types, it was associated with a higher risk of violence compared to similar levels of conflict in equalitarian couples.

Another study conducted by Lloyd (1990) compared violent andnonviolent marriages.  She found that the relationship between conflict and violence was mediated by level of distress. Her results indicated that distressed-violent couples were characterized by lower levels of squabbles, problem solving, negotiations, and apology, and by higher levels of verbal attack, withdrawal, and stable heated arguments.  Nondistressed-violent couples on the other hand, reported a more mixed picture of conflict strategies such as problem solving, negotiation, and compromise, combined with anger and verbal attack.

The research just presented illustrates the important role that conflict plays in family relationships.  As shown, the link between conflict and violence is affected by structural factors in addition to those related to the manner in which conflict is managed and resolved.

Stress Theory.

According to Straus (1980) and Hotaling and Straus (1980), the level of stress experienced in the family is related to the ongoing structural changes that it experiences.  Examples of these structural changes include marriage, the birth of children, divorce, retirement, aging, and death.  Moreover, the experience of stress is thought to be individualized.  According to Farrington (1986), stressful stimuli need not be catastrophic events, but instead, can take the form of routine and mundane circumstances.

The family is also vulnerable because of the effects of stress. "Together with the huge emotional investment typical of family relationships, it means that the family is likely to be the locus of more and more serious stresses than other groups." (p. 17, Hotaling & Straus, 1980).  Farrington (1986) outlined two additional characteristics of the modern American family that place it at risk for the occurrence of violence.  First, he argued that in spite of a family's reservoir of skills, attributes, and resources, it is not ideally suited to satisfactorily cope with a variety of stressor stimuli to which members come into contact.  The ability to cope is particularly impeded when families are faced with an overload of stressors such as unemployment, illness, and financial problems.

The other characteristic relates to the acceptance of violence as a reasonable response to stress and frustration in American society (Farrington, 1986).  Farrington (1986) suggested that the existence of powerful social norms both encourage and reinforce the relationships between stress, frustration and violent behaviour.
     Although the rates of violent crimes are lower in Canada than in the U.S. (Browne, 1987; Statistics Canada, 1988), the dynamics underlying violence are thought to be similar.  The high prevalence and incidence rates of abuse reported previously seem to suggest that the legitimization of these norms are especially evident within the context of the family. Summary.  The theories reviewed above are reflective of a perspective concerned with gaining an understanding of the social underpinnings of intimate relationships experiencing violent interactions. Straus et al. (1980) and other proponents of sociological conceptual frameworks have been responsible for alerting the public to the seriousness surrounding the problem of family violence. As a result of their efforts, violence between family members is no longer considered a private matter, but one that is a concern of society, in general.

Sociologists' explanations of partner abuse are nevertheless incomplete. First, in a review article on family violence, Emery (1989) noted that the application of social learning theory to the study of family violence ignores the role of emotion in mediating some forms of family violence.  Moreover, whereas social learning models explain how family members are socialized into becoming abusive, they do little to explain how people learn to inhibit violence. In as much as violent behaviour can be learned, those principles involved in its learning should also be operative in its repression.

Finally, Emery (1989) noted that much of the related data has been retrospective.  Reliance on this type of data is subject to the effects of respondents' changing recall over time, as well as limited opportunities to verify their accounts.  Research aimed at assessing both couples' and parents' past and current conflict resolution strategies may shed some light the validity of the relationship between adult relationship violence and violence in the family of origin.  Research employing this type of methodology has yet to be tested.

Psychological Perspectives

Researchers conducting psychologically based investigations have studied constitutional factors such as temperament or emotionality, aggression, and personality, as well as situational factors such as alcohol or drug abuse as explanatory agents in family violence.
     However, there is considerable controversy over the role of psychopathology in the occurrence of violence.  For example, the effects of psychological variables in violent modes of conflict resolution have been minimized by Gelles and Straus (1988).
     Nevertheless, some researchers have recently begun to emulate the general population survey methodologies popular among sociologists through the investigation of psychological risk factors (Sommer et al., 1992; Bland & Orn, 1986).

Psychoanalytic Theory.

Studies that employ a psychoanalytic theory of spouse abuse focus on the intrapsychic forces within the individual.  Violence against women is seen as an attempt on the part of the abuser to seek confirmation of a masculine identity (Gondolf, 1985).  By hating women, it is thought that the abuser is able to contain and control the feminine aspects of his upbringing. To date, psychoanalytic theory has been applied only to the explanation of male perpetrated violence.  Explanations of violence by women have not been attempted.
     Although the psychoanalytic theory possesses intuitive appeal, hypotheses derived from it are difficult to test.  At best, this theory's value lies in post hoc explanations of a phenomenon.  As a result, this theoretical perspective is limited in its application to empirical research.

Disinhibition Theory.

The application of the disinhibition theory is evident in research conducted by both sociologists and psychologists.  While the former are interested in the effects of alcohol consumption as a social force (Kantor & Straus, 1987),  the latter focus on the biochemical effects alcohol has on the behaviour of individuals (Gustafson, 1985).

According to this theoretical perspective, alcohol consumption is linked to violent behaviour through its physiological effects releasing an individual's violent impulses, tendencies, and inhibitions (Hamilton & Collins, 1981; Spielberger, 1970).  Kantor and Straus (1987) explained that "alcohol's effects on the central nervous system release inhibitions by depressing brain function or suppressing super-ego function thereby allowing the expression of rage" (p. 214).  Walker (1979) proposed that there may be similarities between the specific blood chemistry changes evident under a generalized stress reaction such as battering and those found in alcoholics.

There is also evidence that in addition to the physiological and cognitive effects of alcohol on the individual, personal vulnerability (Barnes et al., 1991) and the context in which the interaction occurs (Shapiro, 1982) play a role in determining the likelihood of violent behaviour.  The high rates of alcohol consumption associated with family violence suggests that the disinhibition theory is an appropriate conceptual framework for the study of partner abuse.

Personality Theory.

Research based on personality theory is well documented in clinical data, and more recently, in general population survey data.
     Generally speaking, researchers have tended to agree that male abusers can be distinguished from the rest of the population based on a number of personality characteristics.  For example, while some researchers agree that male abusers can be characterized as having low self esteem and exhibiting high levels of anxiety (Barnes et al., 1991; Goldstein & Rosenbaum, 1985; Walker, 1979),  other investigators have found female perpetrators of violence to have higher levels of sociopathy (Bland & Orn, 1986; Scheurger & Reigle, 1988).

Proponents of personality theory believe that individuals are born with an inherent predisposition to develop certain personality traits (Buss & Plomin, 1984).  According to Buss and Plomin (1984), this is evidenced in variations in temperament found among infants.
     Eysenck (1965) developed a genetic theory of personality that proposed that the nature of an individual's biology is a determinant of his or her personality make-up.  He suggested that some of the variability in human behaviour could be accounted for by the finding that criminals consistently score higher than the general population along extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism personality dimensions (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985; Wilson, 1981).  Research by Malamuth (1988) demonstrated that high scores on psychoticism among males were also associated with sexual aggression and predicted aggression against females in a laboratory setting.

The existence of a continuum of antisocial behaviour (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985) ranging from minor infractions (i.e., drinking alcohol at a bar while below the legal age) to major criminal offenses (i.e., armed robbery) is indicative of an individual's predisposition toward criminality.  It is along this continuum that the perpetration of partner abuse is thought to lie.  Based on Eysenckian theory, an individual most likely to abuse his/her partner would be one who is:  1) impulsive and disinhibited, therefore failing to acquire social rules (extravert), 2) anxious and whose anxiety acts as a trigger to learned deviant responses such as violence (neurotic), and 3) uncaring and unlikely to feel guilt, empathy or sensitivity, therefore having little difficulty behaving anti-socially (psychotic) (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985).  While heredity is thought to be "a strong  predisposing factor, ...the actual way in which a crime is carried out... is subject to the vicissitudes of everyday life" (p. 79, Eysenck, 1977). This delineation suggests that the interface between a person's inborn characteristics and those found in his/her social environment is extremely important in determining the likelihood that a deviant mode of conduct will emerge.


Research employing the psychological theories described above have contributed to our understanding of violence between intimate partners.  Their findings confirm the wide range of effects contributed by individual differences in the occurrence of family violence.  In spite of the limitations associated with methodological precision and the omission of variables measuring the social origins of abuse (i.e., unemployment), research based upon psychologically based frameworks have provided support for the inclusion of related factors in family violence research.

Family Systems Perspective

The application of family systems theory to family violence research was initially concerned with the investigation of child abuse (Emery, 1989).  Since that time, researchers and family therapists have found family systems theory to be a useful tool in explaining the development and maintenance of other forms of abuse within the family.  This theoretical framework has also provided the means to develop strategies for the treatment of abuse (Gelles & Maynard, 1987). Much of the appeal of this approach has been in its ability to be jointly implemented with other theoretical perspectives such as the feminist (Bograd, 1984) and social learning (Emery, 1989) approaches.

According to systems theory, domestic violence is viewed as a phenomenon affecting all members of the family; not just those individuals identified as either perpetrators or victims of abuse.
     Straus (1974) described the family as an adaptive goal seeking system with the resulting violence as a "system product" or output. His systems model specified positive feedback loops thought to be responsible for the escalation of violence as well as negative feedback loops that were conversely thought to either maintain or lessen the present level of violence.

Much of the strength of this perspective lies in its ability to focus on the entire family system without losing sight of the influences and effects of individual family members.  However, family systems perspective has been criticized by feminists because of its apparent subtle biases against women (Bograd, 1984).  These biases are thought to be found in the language of family systems theory, in the formulations of how domestic violence develops and in types of interventions recommended.  Ironically however, inasmuch as Bograd (1984) attempts to make a case for proponents of the feminist perspective, his critique is also inherently biased because it is based on the assumption that only women are victims of abuse.

Feminist Perspectives

The women's movement has been responsible for bringing the issue of "wife battering" to the forefront.  Dobash and Dobash (1979) were the first to suggest that the fundamental causes of violence against wives is "a patriarchal society". According to feminist ideology, wife abuse is viewed as being the result of an imbalance of power between men and women.  Feminists have asserted that throughout time, women have been subjugated by the greater patriarchal society that has placed limits on their opportunities and leaving them vulnerable to a number of abuses.

Two theories explaining why women stay in abusive relationships have emerged from this ideological perspective.  The first is the "Cycle of Violence" theory which describes the dynamics of an abusive relationship, and the second is the "Learned Helplessness" Theory which explains the victimization process. While both theories integrate structural features of sociological frameworks and psychodynamic features of psychological frameworks, only the first will be discussed because of its relevance to the perpetration of violence.

Cycle of Violence.

The Cycle of Violence Theory was born out of the research conducted by Lenore Walker (1979) on battered wives.  This theory is based on the premise that women are not constantly being abused, and their willingness to remain in an abusive relationship is related to cyclical fluctuations betweenperiods of abuse and relative peaceful coexistence.  The theory also explains how women become victimized, how they fall into "learnedhelplessness" behaviour, and why they do not attempt to escape(Walker, 1979).

The cycle of violence is made up of three separate and distinct phases. The first stage is called the "tension building" phase where upon the abusing spouse exhibits moodiness, is short tempered, and is critical of his spouse.  It is during this stage that the other spouse may feel as if she "were walking on egg shells", and attempts to avert any further escalation of the tension.  The second stage is called the "explosion" phase.  This is a relatively short lived period in which the tensions of the previous stage reach crisis proportions and a physical assault ensues.  The third, and final stage, has been called the "honeymoon" phase because it is during this stage that the abusing spouse shows great remorse for his actions and promises never to repeat the episode. According to Walker (1979), it is not uncommon that the abused spouse and her perpetrator will engage in lovemaking soon after the assault.

It is thought that the interchange between caring and abuse keeps the abused wife from leaving the relationship and the abuser from changing his behaviour.  In spite of its cyclical nature, it is, nevertheless, difficult to predict the timing of each phase or the repetition of the cycle due to the influence of situational factors (Walker, 1979).


The cycle of abuse provides an explanation of partner abuse that is consistent with the large number of women who refuse to press charges against their partners, and those that welcome them back into their homes following an arrest or imprisonment.  At the same time, it should also be kept in mind that the development of the cycle of violence theory and the application of learned helplessness theory by Walker (1979) were based on a self selected sample of abused women.
     Thus, while these theoretical frameworks may exemplify abuse within this specific population, their generalizeability to abuse occurring within the general population needs to be considered cautiously.

Feminist scholars subscribe to the belief that "women subjected to domestic abuse need to be portrayed realistically as oppressed and victimised" (Knight & Hatty, 1987, p. 460). This statement implies that within the context of an intimate relationship, only women can be viewed as victims, and conversely, only men can be viewed as perpetrators.  As demonstrated previously, this is inconsistent with much of the data on spousal violence.  This view is also incompatible with other research that women are over-represented as perpetrators in incidents of physical child abuse (Coleman & Charles, 1990; Star, 1983; Straus et al., 1980). Finally, the empirical evidence demonstrating the occurrence of violence within lesbian relationships (Marie, 1984) challenges the argument that violence against women is the result of men's overt attempts to dominate women.

Summary of Theoretical Perspectives

Regardless of the conceptual framework employed, each serves the purpose of providing an explanation of a particular phenomenon and in so doing, guide the research investigating it.  The above review has highlighted several theories commonly applied to the study of partner abuse.  This review has demonstrated that each theory has uniquely contributed to the explanation of abuse between partners.  However, in spite of this, none are complete in their account of domestic violence, nor void of limitations.

Next: Chapter 3 Part 1

2001 02 10 (format changes)
2003 10 01 (format changes)