Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Domestic Abuse or Conflict?

This post will continue our discussion about the difference between conflict and abuse, this time focusing specifically on domestic abuse and how it compares with conflict.

The terms “domestic abuse,” “domestic violence,” “intimate partner violence,” and “partner abuse” are often used interchangeably to describe mistreatment that occurs within an intimate relationship.  You may have heard differing accounts of this mistreatment, ranging from cruel comments (emotional abuse) to life-threatening or even life-ending violence (domestic violence).  You may have heard that domestic violence is perpetrated only by men against their female partners, for the purpose of humiliating and controlling them, or you may have heard that it is perpetrated equally by men and by women, and that it is quite common.  For years, fierce arguments raged between advocates working with domestic violence victims and researchers who studied family violence.  Advocates saw the serious impact of domestic violence on the women they served, while family researchers who polled the general public found a much less serious and much more common type of aggression, generally perpetrated equally by men and by women.  In the past two decades, we have begun to sort through the conflicting accounts of domestic abuse and come to understand that there are indeed multiple types of partner abuse.  One approach is unlikely to be helpful for all.  It is no longer enough to simply determine whether abuse is present.  Before we know how to proceed, we need to know much more about the individual circumstances.

Types of Domestic Abuse

Several researchers have focused on identifying types of domestic abuse, and although there remains much to be learned, helpful typologies have emerged.  For purposes of illustration and examples to consider, I will use the typology developed by Michael P. Johnson.  He describes abuse as broadly fitting into one of four basic categories:

Common Couple Violence (CCV)

Common couple violence or CCV is a type of mutual aggression that tends to arise out of an argument between partners.  CCV tends to be relatively symmetrical, engaged in by both parties, and unlikely to escalate or repeat over time.  It may be initiated by either partner.

Intimate Terrorism (IT)

Intimate terrorism or IT is generally a tactic or collection of tactics used by one partner to control and intimidate their partner.  The violence tends to be more frequent, more likely to escalate, less mutual, and more likely to involve serious injury.  It also is frequently accompanied or preceded by emotional abuse.  Although IT is most often perpetrated by men against women, research on lesbian relationships has demonstrated that IT may be perpetrated by women as well.

Violent Resistance (VR)

Violent resistance or VR occurs when a battered or abused partner, almost always a woman, fights back against her abuser.  The victim may strike back quite violently, sometimes even to the point of committing homicide in an effort to stop the abuse.

Mutual Violent Control (MVC)

We know less about the pattern Johnson called mutual violent control or MVC, however this is a pattern in which both partners are violent and controlling, in essence competing intimate terrorists.  This seems to be unusual, and this category is sometimes not included in the typology.

Domestic Abuse or Conflict?

If you read my last blog post about the basic differences between conflict and abuse, you’ve probably noticed that common couple violence sounds a lot like ordinary conflict that has escalated to the point of physical aggression.  This type of aggression seems to lack some of the characteristics of abuse we discussed last time, such as ongoing efforts to control, and a power imbalance.  CCV is indeed more like what we’ve called conflict than it is like the other forms of abuse I’ve described here.  This is how I would categorize the aggressive couples I have worked with whose violence has been limited to arguments punctuated by occasional pushing, shoving, or slapping.  Couple counseling may sometimes be effective with these cases, as the violence tends to be symmetrical, and neither party is fearful for their safety.  Initial steps (such as learning to take “time outs”) must be taken before the couple can begin to work on the relationship, however once basic safety has been established, these couples can often benefit from counseling or from conflict resolution interventions such as mediation.

The three other types of abuse described here sound much more severe, and you are right if you guessed that ordinary couple counseling or conflict resolution approaches are less likely to be effective in these cases.  When one partner uses tactics intended to humiliate and control the other partner, conjoint therapies (counseling with both partners in the room) are unlikely to be effective, and in fact may be dangerous.  It is not uncommon for the controlling partner to gather information in counseling that they will later use against the victimized partner.  It will be difficult or impossible to develop trust under these circumstances.  In these cases, individual or group counseling that is separate for the perpetrator and the victim may be needed before any conjoint approaches will be successful.  In the case of intimate terrorism, and especially if the violence has been severe, law enforcement intervention may be needed to halt the violence and motivate the perpetrator to make changes.  Even then, the prognosis is much less positive than it is for common couple violence.

If you or someone you know has been involved in a high-conflict or abusive relationship, keep in mind that what worked in one case may not be successful in another.  If the aggression has been relatively minor, and has not escalated or persisted over time, and neither party is fearful of the other, attending counseling together may be helpful, provided the counselor is knowledgeable about the dynamics of abuse.  If the aggression is repeated, escalating, and/or severe, and especially if there is evidence of power and control tactics being used by one or both parties, other strategies would be more appropriate.  Ensuring safety rather than resolving conflict should always be the primary consideration.  This may mean involving law enforcement, a domestic violence shelter, or other services designed to protect the victim rather than to resolve a dispute.

As with other forms of abuse, you may find the perpetrator and others anxious to portray abusive interactions as part of an ordinary conflict.  Often they will even blame the victim to divert attention from their own behavior.  Don’t buy it!


Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.