1. What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive and threatening behaviors that may include physical, emotional, economic and sexual violence as well as intimidation, isolation and coercion. The purpose of domestic violence is to establish and exert power and control over another; men most often use it against their intimate partners, which can include current or former spouses, girlfriends, or dating partners. While other forms of violence within the family are also serious, this site will address the unique characteristics of violence against women in their intimate relationships.

Domestic violence is behavior that is learned through observation and reinforcement in both the family and society. It is not caused by genetics or illness. Domestic violence is repeated because it works. The pattern of domestic violence allows the perpetrator to gain control of the victim through fear and intimidation. Gaining the victim’s compliance, even temporarily, reinforces the perpetrator’s use of these tactics of control. More importantly, however, the perpetrator is able to reinforce his abusive behavior because of the socially sanctioned belief that men have the right to control women in relationships and the right to use force to ensure that control. From Anne L. Ganley & Susan Schechter, Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Family Preservation Practitioners 17-18 (1995).

Additional resources offer overviews of domestic violence issues, anti-violence strategies for advocates, professionals and communities, and gateways to articles and other documents on domestic violence.

Theories of Violence: Why Men Batter

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 Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS). 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 that force women to 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.

Forms of Domestic Violence

Batterers use a wide range of coercive and abusive behaviors against their victims. Some of the abusive behaviors used by batterers result in physical injuries that harm the victim both physically and emotionally. Other techniques employed by batterers involve emotionally abusive behaviors. While these behaviors may not result in physical injuries, they are still psychologically damaging to the victim. Batterers employ different abusive behaviors at different times. Even a single incident of physical violence may be sufficient to establish power and control over a partner; this power and control is then reinforced and strengthened by non-physical abusive and coercive behaviors.

Forms of domestic violence can include physical violence, sexual violence, economic control, and psychological assault (including threats of violence and physical harm, attacks against property or pets and other acts of intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, use of the children as a means of control). Because they occur in intimate relationships, many kinds of abuse are often not recognized as violence. In many places throughout the world, marital rape is still not understood to be sexual assault because a husband is deemed to have a right of sexual access to his wife. Stalking, as well, has only recently been recognized as a form of violence and a severe threat to the victim.

A diagram called the “Power and Control Wheel,” developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, identifies the various behaviors that are used by batterers to gain power and control over their victims. The wheel demonstrates the relationship between physical and sexual violence and the intimidation, coercion, and manipulation of the wife and children that are often used by batterers.

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