Articles & Essays


Apples and Oranges: Another Look at Couple Violence
By Rosanne Farnden Lyster

Which is true? Violence in intimate couple relationships is the result of the dynamics of the relationship - or the outcome of systematic, patriarchal attempts by males for control? Not an easy answer to provide is it? Some readers will quickly move to one perspective, and then shuffle back to the "well perhaps both point". Others will step into one arena and not budge. Yet another group will look back and forth between the two as if watching a tennis match.

According to Michael P. Johnson, both answers are correct. Violence in couple relationships is more complex than we have assumed, he claims. Perhaps, in trying to understand the problem, we have been assuming that there is only one dynamic, one issue to examine. According to Johnson's study, this assumption is incorrect. There are at least two different dynamics at work. Assuming the two are similar, trying to develop singular modes of prevention and intervention or one theory to explain the reality of violence is like comparing fruit as diverse as an apple and an orange, and claiming that they are the same.

Typically, there are two major schools of studying, and then forming policy and practice related to couple violence. The first is often referred to as the family violence perspective, while the other is the feminist perspective. The two schools often assume that the other doesn't understand the true nature of violence. Perhaps reality is that they are studying two different and distinct phenomena (Johnson, 1995).

The feminist approach has typically examined families terrorized by systematic male violence enacted as patriarchal control. Johnson labels this approach as patriarchal terrorism - violence that is the result of "patriarchal traditions of men's right to control their' women." It is a form of terroristic control of wives by their husbands that involves the systematic use of not only violence, but economic subordination, threats, isolation and other control tactics" (p 284).

What he terms as common couple violence (that type portrayed by the family violence perspective), is less a product of patriarchy, and more a product of the less-gendered, causal processes researched by Strauss and colleagues in the family violence perspective. In common couple violence, the families experience occasional outbursts of violence from either partner - male, female or both. This dynamic is one in which conflict occasionally 'gets out of hand' leading usually to more 'minor' forms of violence, and much more rarely than patriarchal violence escalating into serious, sometimes even life-threatening, forms of violence. This is not to suggest that common couple violence is not a major concern when words such as "minor" forms of violence are used as descriptors. Johnson simply uses it in an attempt to compare what is difficult to compare. Two types of fruit. Two types of couple violence.

One of the surprising findings to many people reviewing the work of the family violence perspective of Strauss et al is the extent to which women are likely to use violence. National US studies conducted by these researchers indicate that women are as likely to resort to violence as men in response to couple conflict. Many people scoff at these findings saying if women are so violent, what aren't there battered men's shelters? One response to this would be that shelters are designed typically for women in the patriarchal terrorism situation.

Comparing the Apple and the Orange

Some of the differences between the two approaches are as follows. In terms of frequency, common couple violence (CCV) is less frequent. In CCV, escalation is also less likely, and in fact, the violence may even de-escalate. Thus, we may do a dis-service to people when we claim that once violence happens it will get worse. What happens to the person who experienced CCV in their relationship and then it went away because the couple learned to deal with violence in a healthy manner, or the stressful situation that was contributing to the violence was resolved? S/he may well be confused about whether violence has been a part of their experience or not, and then healing as necessary might well be impeded (they told us it would escalate, it didn't, so therefore it couldn't have been violence).

In terms of control, CCV is an intermittent response to the conflicts of everyday life ? motivated by a need to control a specific situation, not a more general need to be in charge of the relationship. There is not a pattern in these relationships of one party trying to gain general control over their partner. Patriarchal terrorism (PT), on the other hand, is all about total relationship control ? by any and all necessary means. It is about a need to control, and to display control. The latter suggests that even if the man is in control, he continues in the violent acts as a demonstration of his control.

Another difference between the two is in terms of reciprocity. In CCV, women both initiate and reciprocate as often as their male partners. In PT, it is evident that few women reciprocate the violence, and if they do, they quickly learn not to. Reciprocation for these women may mean homicide, and is certainly self defence. Women in a PT relationship also rarely initiate violence, and when they do, it is to get it over with.

It should be obvious that we are observing two different phenomena here - two different types of violence. Both are unhealthy and unacceptable, but both operate from a different basis.

It is essential in working with couples that we recognize the differences between the two - otherwise the strategies that we employ will not be appropriate. Policies will be incorrectly set; educational programs won't present the whole view, and therapeutic interventions will be ineffective and inappropriate if we assume couple violence as following one pattern.

Think for a moment about prevention programs - marriage enrichment, marriage preparation, and couple enhancement. How might these two different views of violence be taken into account? Common couple violence suggests that there is something in the couple dynamic, likely related to the ways in which conflict and anger are handled. Programs which address effective conflict resolution and anger management skills may well be of use in preventing this type of violence, particularly if one is clear about violence never being acceptable, and that there are other means of resolving differences. Couples attending the program who are experiencing this type of violence as part of their relationship need to realize that change is possible, and that they are beyond the primary prevention stage. They need to be encouraged to make plans for how to make their relationship one that is healthy and life-giving, and made aware that change will be more likely for them if they seek appropriate intervention-type assistance.

In terms of patriarchal terrorism, prevention programs would do well to outline what is meant by this, the types of control tactics that women need to be aware of, the subtleties involved, as well as the realities of it (i.e., this type of violence does get worse, it doesn't go away, the cycle involved). A checklist of attitudes and behaviours might be an in-session activity. Women in these types of relationships need to be aware that they too are past the point where a prevention program is going to be of assistance. Providers need to be aware of the community resources that they could refer a woman in this situation to.

The last word goes to Johnson who says: "Yes, all violence is abhorrent - but not all family violence is the same. If there are different patterns that arise from different societal roots and interpersonal human dynamics, we must make distinctions in order to maximize our effectiveness in moving towards the goal of peace in our private lives" (pg 293).

This article is based on: Johnson, M.P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: Two forms of violence against women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, May, pp. 283-294.

This article first appeared in the Winter 98 edition of FAMILY CONNECTIONS, a publication of the BC Council for Families. The author, Rosanne Farnden Lyster, MA CCFE is a family life educator who lives with her husband Jim and infant twins, Margaret and Jeremy in MacDowall SK.
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