CONCERNING COUPLES WINTER 1997/98
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
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
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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