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Theories of Domestic Violence

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1582 words Published: 29th Mar 2018

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Various theories have emerged as an explanation to domestic violence. These include the psychological, socio-psychological and feminist perspective of studying battering. Some of the theories address why men batter while others explain why do women stay in abusive relationship? Our main focus will be on the theory of learned helplessness which accounts for the reasons why women stay in their abusive relationship.


A number of psychological theories tackle the causes of family violence. The most popular theories all acknowledge the abuse of power and control by the abusers, although the role of power and control varies by theoretical orientation. There are four main theoretical categories of family violence: psychoanalytic theories, social theories, cognitive-behavioural theories and family and systems theories.

According to Hyde-Nolan, M.E., Juliao, T., in their Theoretical Basis of Family Violence, the psychoanalytic theories places emphasis on the individual’s internal processes that create a need to be abusive or to accept abusive behaviour. Social theories focus on how aggression and violence are learned and transferred by one member to other family members. Cognitive behaviour theories also emphasise on how aggression and violence are learned and transferred among individuals, but these theories further explain why abusive behaviours are sometimes transmitted from generation to generation while other times they are not. Finally the family and systems theories focus on the interactions between family members and the shared responsibility for the events that occur within the family system.

Psychological theories of domestic violence have identified causes of battering as resulting from childhood experiences (for e.g. child abuse); personality traits (e.g. high need for power); personality disturbances (e.g. Paranoid personality disorder), head injury, psychopathology (e.g. antisocial personality trait disorder); or other psychological disorders or problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder or substance abuse.


A socio-psychological perspective places the phenomenon of domestic violence within a macro model of society where violence is seen as an outgrowth of social factors. It examines the interaction of the individual with the social environment. It consists of the social-learning theory, resource theory, exchange theory, and the conflict theory.

The social-learning theory explains that violence is a learned phenomenon. According to Albert Bandura, positive behaviours can be acquired through positive role models. Similarly, negative behaviours can also be acquired through the modelling of negative behaviours. Sommer (1990) noted that Bandura (1979) applied social learning principles to the acquisition and maintenance of aggressive habits. Social learning theory have been applied to explain the following aspects of the development and transmission of domestic violence: “the patterning of violence amongst adult children observing violence in their families of origin” (Kalmuss 1984); “the intergenerational transmission of family aggression” (Cappell and Heiner 1990); “the generalisation of aggression from one relationship to another across time” (Malone et al. 1989); and “the continuation of marital violence in remarriage” (Kalmuss and Seltzer 1986).

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The resource theory on the other hand, suggests a relationship between wealth and violence. This theory put forward that force and violence are resources that can be used to resolve conflicts. For example; the decision making power within a given family develops from the value of the resources that each person brings to the relationship. This may indicate financial, social and organizational resources.

The exchange theory is based on the evidence that a person acts according to a system of rewards or punishments. In other words, this theory proposes that domestic violence and child abuse are directed by the principle of costs and benefits. Abuse is used when the rewards are greater than the costs. The private nature of the family, the reluctance of social institutions and agencies to intervene and the low risk of other interventions reduce the costs of abuse and violence. The most significant reward is social control, or power.

The control theory is based on the notion that many family conflicts result from an individual’s need to obtain and maintain power and control within a relationship. “The motivation underlying the abuser’s behaviour is the power and control that she or he is able to exert over other members of the family” [Bostock et al, 2002]. “Threats, force, and violent behaviours are intended to prohibit the less powerful members of the family from engaging in behaviour that the controlling individual does not want, while establishing demand for ‘desirable’ behaviours to occur” [Goode W.J., 1971].


Feminist theorists see violence toward women as a unique phenomenon that has been concealed and dominated by what they refer to as a narrow focus on domestic violence. The main emphasis of the feminist perspective is on the patriarchal nature of society; a system of male supremacy (Purvis & Wood, 2005) which highlights man’s possession of power. The theory proposes that economic and social processes operate directly and indirectly to support a patriarchal social order and family structure. Patriarchy is seen as leading to the devaluation of women and causes the historical pattern of systematic violence directed against them.

In line with Bloomquist (1989), violence against women can be seen as the outcome of patriarchal social constructs which define the relationship between women and men as one of subordination and domination. The feeling of powerlessness and societies emphasis on violent imagery increases the temptation to route to violent control of women in order to assert manhood and a sense of personal power that is not being accomplished outside of the home.


The theory of learned helplessness sheds light on reasons why victims of family violence often choose to stay in somewhat unpredictable and unstable family relationships. This theory was originally proposed to explain the loss of will that accompanies repeated barriers to escape from an aversive situation [Seligman MA., 1975]. Experiencing repeated beatings or other abuse may lead a woman to become passive because she feels that nothing she does will result in appositive consequence. This theory of violence is “controversial because many women in a violent relationship do maintain a sense of dignity, learn skills to survive and may even fight back” [Downs D.A., Fisher J. 2005].


The theory that domestic violence occurs in a cycle was developed in 1979 by Lenore Walker. The cycle of violence theory explains how and why the behaviour of a person who commits domestic violence may change so vividly over time and it also provides an understanding to why the person affected by family violence continues to face a violent situation.

The cycle involves three phases (Walker L.E., 1979):


The first phase is characterized by minor battering incidents and emotional abuse over imagined or real violations of rules and expectations of the male partner. The woman responds to control the situation calmly or even defend herself for her dignity. Often the woman believes her adapting behaviour will act to control his violence. This tension building phase time lapse varies greatly from the relationship to relationship.


In the second phase, no controls are left, as the inevitable result of ever-increasing tension and anger brings out the most abusive violence. The acute battering incident is distinguished from other kind of incidents because of the intense discharge, major destructiveness, extreme negative emotional release and because this incident cannot be predicted or controlled in any way. The rage is so massive that even the batterer isn’t able to deny its presence, nor is the woman able to deny its effect on her.


During this phase the man may become very loving and exhibit tremendous kindness. He may also be apologetic and conciliatory offering to get help and promising never to be violent again. He wants to establish the hook which will keep her from leaving him. He will probably continue other forms of abuse though such as coercion, economic abuse, or emotional abuse in order to maintain his sense of control even during this phase. This phase may embody everything she ever wanted from this relationship. He tells her he will change, and she hopes that she can perpetuate this third phase. This is the time when it is hardest for her to leave.


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