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The Causal Chains of Partner Violence

Sometimes, the ones who love us the most, have the power to hurt us the most at the same time. This sadly true phrase illustrates one of the greatest issues in today’s society: partner violence. To illustrate, about 22% of European women have at one point since the age of 15 become the victim of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner, with approximately 43% of women have experienced violence of psychological nature (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), 2014). Prevalence rates for men are hard to estimate because they are rarely represented in European and international studies on (partner) violence, although some smaller-scale studies suggest that the rates are largely equal for men and women due to the violence occurring in dynamic, with for example psychological violence being answered with physical violence (e.g., Nowinski & Bowen, 2012; Straus, 2008). Nevertheless, actual prevalence rates are even harder to estimate, seen as such violence often goes unreported (Jaspaert, 2015; Jaspaert, Groenen, & Vervaeke, 2011).

Aside from the high prevalence rates, partner violence comes with detrimental consequences for those directly involved, as well as unwilling witnesses, for example, children. Adult victims are often physically injured or even killed, develop chronic physical pain and drug addictions, as well as suffer from trauma potentially in the form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Dillon, Hussain, Loxton, & Rahman, 2013).  For children, of course, violence is equally traumatic to experience, which is why they may also develop PTSD and/or depression (Katz, Stettler, & Gurtovenko, 2016). Unfortunately, child witnesses of partner violence are also up to 15 times more likely to be abused or neglected (Holt, Buckley, & Whelan, 2008) and may later continue the cycle of violence as victims or perpetrators (Widom & Wilson, 2015).

Whereas undeniably prevalent, it remains a difficult issue to tackle. Most victims are often not willing or able to talk about it, whereas most perpetrators live in denial of doing anything wrong.

With the research thus far conducted, the issue has been mostly targeted by focusing on person-related factors – particularly involving the perpetrator (e.g., personality, mental health issues, upbringing) – as well as the context in which the violence takes place (socioeconomic status (SES), social networks) (REFS). However, these factors – often referred to as “distal” or “static” factors by researchers (REFS) – are largely unsuitable candidates for intervention and prevention programs of partner violence, as they are very hard to change. To illustrate this, simply imagine trying to change someone’s personality or upbringing. Furthermore, seen as episodes of partner violence likely result from a complex interplay between numerous different types of factors (e.g., Bell & Naugle, 2008) focusing on any variable by itself most likely falls short grasping at the overall complexity of the occurrence.

Recently, however, a small team of researchers (Olsohn, Jaspaert, & Vervaeke, 2019) tried to tackle the issue of partner violence from a different perspective: the event perspective. Rather than focusing on specific (types of) factors, the researchers focused on the violent event itself. Specifically, they analyzed individual cases of partner violence through in-depth interviews with male perpetrators and therapists, in order to establish the causal chains of partner violence. The causal chains are build up out of factors interacting to have brought about the occurrence of partner violence. This method allowed them to not only gain insight into the distal individual differences contributing to partner violence, but also the more proximal factors and direct triggers of a violent episode, such as relationship dynamics or the thoughts and emotions of a perpetrator directly preceding an incident. This is important because such proximal individual differences are usually easier to influence than the distal ones (REF). Aside from that, by establishing causal chains, the researchers were better able to account for the complexity of partner violence and discover common patterns that may serve as a guide for intervention and prevention programs.

To exemplify, in one of the cases in the study, a man and his girlfriend already are in a hectic situation due to the planning of their marriage. At the same time, the man suffers from autism spectrum disorder (ASS) and childhood trauma, whereas the woman suffers the trauma of previous partner violence. Due to the man’s autism, he needs his girlfriend to state her expectations of him and the relationship explicitly. However, unfortunately, the girlfriend has a habit of only subtly suggesting how she would like things to be, which already forms a topic of heated discussion within the relationship.

On the day of the violence event described in the study, the couple had been invited for dinner by the parents of the girlfriend. The girlfriend comes home from work a little late, expecting that her boyfriend has already fed their baby and gotten their two other kids ready to leave. This, however, was unclear to the boyfriend. As this is already a sore spot within the relationship, the girlfriend immediately gets angry, which in turn triggers the boyfriend’s anger and frustration as well as past feelings of “never doing anything right”. All the boiled up emotion leads to a heated discussion consisting of insults, screaming, and humiliations until the woman sends a stop signal by trying to escape the situation by escaping to the bedroom. However, the man follows her, ignoring her stop signal, and thereby spilling oil in the fire. The discussion first continues, even more heated, until the woman makes a final attempt to flee with the baby in the car. This makes the man’s anger and fear erupt beyond his control, and the situation turns physically violent.

This case greatly illustrates how various factors interact in intricate ways through an escalating chain of various types of partner violence leading up to the physical violence event. In addition, in this case, there is a pattern embedded, which has been established by Olsohn et al. (2019) on the basis of the individual cases. This pattern begins with a trigger, followed by a verbal argument consisting of shouting, insults, and humiliations (in the case above -> unfulfilled expectation by the woman that her boyfriend would have the kids ready to leave for dinner). This trigger is connected to an already sensitive issue in the relationship (in the case above -> inexplicit communication of expectations in combination with ASS) and therefore immediately escalates into a heated discussion, which is interrupted by a stop signal by one of the partners (in this case -> woman leaves to bedroom). However, this stop signal is ignored by the other partner and leads to another episode of verbal arguments – usually more aggressive than the first – ending up in physical violence. This specific pattern is fittingly called “ the pattern of stop signal negation and mutual negativity”.

Overall, this study shows how it is of importance to not only consider distal individual differences between people, such as growing up with trauma or poverty, but also more immediate proximal factors. It is those proximal factors, which could offer an immediate avenue for intervention while taking the distal background of a person into account. Through the use of Event Sampling Methods, insights into day-to-day fluctuations in personal situations can be obtained. Through this, patterns can arise, showing that for example even someone generally low in neuroticism and high in agreeableness, can turn inward when faced with high pressure of having to hand-in a masters’ thesis; failing to read his partners cues and unload his inner stress onto the other, fueling a negative dynamic.

Uncovering the specific factors which lead up to an event makes it possible to provide specific tools on how to recognize, and prevent an escalation. The focus then shifts away from it being certain groups of individuals that commit specific wrongdoing, such as the general claims of ‘all’ refugees being thieves, women being gold-diggers or Muslim men abusing their partners. It is a specific interplay of events, in dynamic between different people, which can lead up to an event. Underlying distal individual differences increase the chance of a particular person experiencing a type of event, with specific patterns underlying the actual occurrence.

Only when truly understanding the intricate dynamic that brings about the day-to-day behaviour of a person, can we get closer to learning how to prevent certain dynamics of escalating, and hopefully decrease the occurrence of such a destructive event as partner violence.

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