Partner Abuse, Part 3: Helping Couples Find A Different Way Forward

Researchers and clinicians have worked on the premise that, when it comes to domestic violence, the experience is a one way street. That is, it is primarily a case of mens' violence against women. Certainly, there are many statistics to back this perception up. For instance, survey's show that 84% of spousal abuse victims are females, males account for 83% of spouse murderers, and almost one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. However, more recently, researchers have begun to make a distinction between severe violence and mild to moderate spousal violence. The statistics in the mild to moderate cases of violence appear to be much less dependent on gender.

When police statistics are used to determine the nature of domestic violence, the incidents tend to be more severe and as a result, the long understood pattern of mens' violence towards women is predominant. However, when nationwide surveys are conducted and people are interviewed over the phone, mild to moderate cases, the most common form of relationship violence, show a more evenly distributed representation of men and women as perpetrators. As a result, researchers are beginning to study how to intervene in these less severe cases in order to help prevent an escalation that could potentially prove more damaging to women.

Mild to moderate violence in relationships is typically defined by pushing, grabbing, slapping, and/or shoving. In contrast, severe violence is marked by choking, closed-fist hitting, kicking and use of a weapon. The researchers believe that, in contrast to severe violence whose purpose is to maintain power and control over another person, mild to moderate violence is often about poor social and communication skills, limited access to emotional language to express feelings and low frustration tolerance. When men who engage in severe violence towards their spouse are treated, therapy is often just as concerned about women's safety as it is men's rehabilitation. However, in the case of mild to moderate violence, treatment focuses on the safety and increased relationship skills of both partners.

Research reported earlier this year in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, involved in-depth interviews with couples who had engaged in mild to moderate violent behaviour toward one another. Patterns were uncovered with regard to the escalating nature of the conflicts that arise in relationships. First, subjects acknowledged the initial signs of conflict such as negative and accusatory statements. This stage was characterized less by externalized behaviour (44%), than by internalized feelings. Next, subjects felt that this escalated to a second stage they termed stirring the pot. That is, an increasingly intense argument ensued that was more external and behaviourally focused (62%). By the third phase in the conflict, what they termed the point of no return, where physical violence had occurred, none of the men or women reported internal feelings and 100% identified external reactivity in the form of physical violence. The pattern over these three stages is clearly one in which internal states become progressively more physical. The implication is that the earlier one or both of the people in the relationship intervene to circumvent this process, the more likely they are to have access to the internal thinking and feelings states that will help them stop the progress toward mild to moderately violent acts.

The study also looked at strategies for interrupting this sequence and creating non-violent alternative pathways for conflict resolution. Participants identified three main tactics. First, taking responsibility for ones' own actions and how they may be contributing to the conflict. Second, showing respect for ones' partner, for instance, by refraining from personal insults and blaming. Third, making an effort to improve communication, for instance, through better listen and by reflecting back what a person is thinking and feeling.

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