Guest Blog: Pitfalls of Existing Theories Explaining Domestic Violence and a Mental Health Perspective

By Kathleen Beall

Domestic violence (DV) is seen as a multilayered issue. Theorists and researchers have varied perspectives on the best way to make sense of this pervasive problem within our society. In previous blogs, we’ve highlighted warning signs and definitions. We’ve also distinguished between different types of domestic violence and what types of assessments and interventions can be utilized by clinicians and advocates helping families who struggle with each type. Today we are featuring guest blogger, Kathleen Beall who has provided her perspective on the Pitfalls of Existing Theories Explaining Domestic Violence and a Mental Health Perspective based on a recent article by Corvo & Johnson (2013) [1].

Woman with bruised face
[Flickr, The Last Straw by Jarkko, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 23, 2015

Pitfalls of Existing Theories Explaining Domestic Violence and a Mental Health Perspective

Domestic violence is a family problem with far reaching consequences. Two key views are commonly used to explain why such violence occurs: the Feminist/ Sociocultural view and the Social Learning Theory/ Intergenerational Transmission view point. Today, I’m exploring the pitfalls of these two theories and offer an explanation as to why it may be helpful to include a psychological and psychosocial viewpoint as proposed by Corvo, & Johnson, (2013) [1].

Tackling the Existing Theoretical Perspectives:

Feminist/ Sociocultural Viewpoint: This viewpoint is the basic groundwork upon which many DV intervention programs are built. This perspective asserts that domestic violence stems from  an underlying patriarchy that is engrained into the culture of our society. From this perspective, violence is considered a form of power and control that is used to oppress women.

Pitfalls:

  • The term “patriarchy” is often ambiguous and imprecisely defined
  • This viewpoint asserts that the violence is only against women which has proven to be incorrect based on the amount of female-on-male DV that occurs each year and refrains from looking at same-gender couple violence.
  • Violence against men has been proven to be more culturally acceptable than violence against women (Dixon & Graham-Kevan, 2011) [2].
  • While this viewpoint has shown to have some research to back up its claims, the statistical significance is very limited and lacks sufficient empirical evidence to support the theory as a whole.

Social Learning Theory/Intergenerational Transmission: Social Learning Theory is based on the concept that we learn from watching those around us. This can be a child watching a parent or an adult modelling the action of their peers; we learn from those who are more experienced than ourselves. Based upon this idea, the Intergenerational Transmission viewpoint was formed. This perspective asserts that domestic violence is a learned act, passed down from generation to generation. Men watch their fathers abuse their mothers and are therefore more inclined to abuse their intimate partners.

Pitfalls:

  • Although this theory has more empirical support than the feminist perspective, meta- analysis shows only a modest overall effect size of r=.18 (Stith, Rosen, Middleton, Busch, Lundeberg & Carlton, 2000) [3].
  • There are likely other variables that are causing the violence in the cases that carry a strong correlation.
Sign saying "A Life Without Fear"
[Flickr, Special Emphasis by Fairfax County, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 23, 2015

Ockham ’s Razor: Sometimes Simple is Better

A review of existing theories and literature has brought Corvo et. Al. to a more simplistic conclusion: maybe mental disorders can be used to explain  the domestic violence. Much of the widely used research and literature on domestic violence have concluded that perpetrators of domestic violence are no more likely to have mental disorders than their non-abusive counterparts. However, research by Danielson, Moffitt, Caspi, and Silva (1998) [4] has shown conflicting results. These researchers looked at data from 1,037 participants in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study and found that 58% of participants who were considered perpetrators of physical domestic violence met criteria for “some diagnosis” based upon the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM). That number jumped to 88% among the perpetrators of severe physical violence.

Although it seems like a simplification of domestic violence to say that all those who abuse their partners have some form of psychopathology, it is a perspective that can be taken into deeper consideration when researching domestic violence patterns. Rather than blaming society or culture for the actions of individuals, it may be time to look more closely at those who carry out the violence and less at society as a whole. This could lead to progress with how the mental health community approaches treatment with perpetrators of violence. While years ago, a child who couldn’t sit still or focus in class would be labelled a trouble maker or a class clown, now we know that the child is likely suffering from ADHD. This is a clear diagnosis with viable treatment and interventions that have been found helpful. Perhaps, if looking with a mental health lens, the actions of an abuser may be the symptoms of underlying personality disorders, PTSD, or depression. This is an area in which one must tread carefully, however, so as to not strip the responsibility of the abuse away from the perpetrator. Instead, perhaps we could consider adding mental health evaluations when treating domestic violence in an attempt to address the problem holistically.

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