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Types of Violence in Relationships

March 7, 2011

Today, I wanted to extend upon my last blog (Feb. 28, 2011) where I wrote about the use of surveys as a means for quantifying spousal violence. The blog discussed how surveys and questionnaires do not always paint the most accurate picture of what happens when opposite-sex couples use violence in their relationships. Some studies, for example, will portray women as being equally abusive as men. Typically, these are large-scale studies that use questionnaires and surveys to investigate the problem. Other studies will portray men as being the primary aggressor and perpetrator of violence, and that women are primarily victims. These types of studies will often use qualitative, or interview-type, methods for investigating spousal violence.

So how does one make sense of the debate between those who believe that men and women are similar in their perpetration of intimate partner violence, and those who believe that domestic violence is really a problem of violence against women?

Types of Violence in Relationships

Michael Johnson (2006) and others (e.g., Macmillan & Gartner, 1999; Olson, 2002) believe that there are distinct forms of violence that exist in relationships.

1. Situational-Couple Violence. Large-scale/community sample studies generally tap into this form of violence. This form of violence is not generally reflective of a need to control the other partner. It usually arises out of an argument, rarely escalates over time, and is more likely to be mutual. Neither the individual nor the partner is violent and controlling.

2. Intimate Terrorism occurs when the individual tries to control the other partner. While violence is the most common method of control in this form of spousal abuse, other non-physical forms (e.g. verbal abuse, financial abuse, psychological abuse) are usually involved. This form of violence is usually identified in studies that have sampled from women in shelters and other services for abused women.

3. Violent Resistance is used to describe relationships where the partner (who is non-controlling) is using violence to resist attempts at control from a violent and controlling partner. This form of violence has been typically used in courts to defend a woman’s use of force in her relationship with an abusive husband.

4. In Mutual Violent Control, both partners are violent and controlling. This is also the most rare form of intimate partner violence.

Macmillan and Gartner (1999) also support the argument that there are qualitatively different forms of spousal violence. These are interpersonal conflict, which involves pushing, grabbing, shoving and slapping; non-systematic abuse, which involves a range of violent acts from threats to kicking and hitting; and systematic abuse, which involves a high risk of all types of violence, such as beating, choking, and attack with knives or guns. Similarly, Macmillan and Gartner argue that the different categories of abuse identified in studies are influenced by data collection and analysis efforts.

In summary, recognizing that there are different types of violence in relationships gives context to the numbers and stories from abuse victims, whether men or women. Large-scale survey studies tap into a type of violence that is qualitatively and quantitatively different from studies using participants from women’s (and men’s) shelters. Understanding the circumstances in which abuse takes place can help treatment providers (and arresting officers) to distinguish between victims who use violence to defend themselves, versus perpetrators who use violence to control the other partner.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

Dr. Richard Amaral


Johnson, Michael P. (2006). Conflict and control: Gender symmetry and asymmetry in domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 12, 1003-1018.

Macmillan, R., & Gartner, R. (1999). When she brings home the bacon: Labor-force
participation and the risk of spousal violence. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61,

Olson, L. N. (2002). Exploring “common couple violence” in heterosexual romantic
relationships. Western Journal of Communication, 66(1).

  1. Great entry Richard! Very informative and I appreciate the references as well.

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