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Explaining Domestic Violence using Feminist Theory

March 21, 2011

Read this post on my updated website:

In the next few blogs, I’ll be discussing some of the more common theories and approaches used for understanding and treating intimate partner abuse. In today’s blog, we’ll look at feminist theory.

Feminist Theory and Domestic Violence

Feminist theory in domestic violence emphasizes gender and power inequality in opposite-sex relationships. It focuses on the societal messages that sanction a male’s use of violence and aggression throughout life, and the proscribed gender roles that dictate how men and women should behave in their intimate relationships (Pence & Paymar, 1993). It sees the root causes of intimate partner violence as the outcome of living a society that condones aggressive behaviours perpetrated by men, while socializing women to be non-violent.

Proponents of feminist theory acknowledge that women can also be violent in their relationships with men; however, they simply do not see the issue of women abusing men as a serious social problem, and therefore, does not deserve the same amount of attention or support as violence against women (Kurz, 1997).

Treatment Approach

The “Duluth Model” represents the dominant treatment approach aligned with feminist theory. This model was created following a serious domestic violence homicide that took place in Duluth, Minnesota (Pence & Paymar, 1993). Community and government officials wanted to address the problem of domestic violence, but did not know where to begin. They wanted to create a treatment approach that involved the courts, police services, and ‘human services’. Guiding the model’s development were the following questions:

Why is she the target of his violence? How does his violence impact the balance of power in their relationship? What did he think could change by hitting her? Why does he assume he is entitled to have power in the relationship? How does the community support his use of violence against her? (Pence & Paymar, 1993, p. xiii).

Domestic Violence

Much of the Duluth model revolves around the power dynamics inherent in opposite-sex relationships, which is a reflection of the different ways men and women are socialized on issues of power and equality. The goal of treatment is to educate men about gender roles, and how behaviours and values identified as ‘masculine’ have been shaped by societal messages and attitudes that reinforce patriarchal privilege and unhealthy ways of relating with women.

Limitations of Feminist Approach

Limitations of feminist theory can be found when trying to explain violence in same-sex relationships (Lawson, 2003). While issues of power, control, and autonomy have also been identified as reasons for intimate partner abuse in lesbian relationships, issues such as dependency and jealousy also exist (Renzetti, 1992). The point is that partner abuse in same-sex couples requires a more comprehensive analysis and theoretical explanation.

Secondly, a feminist approach is also limited for explaining abuse perpetrated by women. Feminist theory typically explains women’s use of violence in the context of self-defence and retaliation for previous abuse. Yet, by doing so, a strictly feminist orientation denies that women can also feel angry and enraged without provocation in their relationships with men (Nolet-Bos, 1999). Additionally, while much of a woman’s use of violence does exist within the framework of retaliation and self-defence, feminist theory does not explain why women perpetrate violence outside their intimate relationships (e.g., at work, with children, or with peers).

In the next blog, I’ll discuss how cognitive-behaviour theory can be used to explain and treat violence in relationships.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

Dr. Richard Amaral


Kurz, D. (1997). No: Physical Assaults by male partners: A major social problem. In M. R. Walsh (Ed.), Women, men, & gender: Ongoing debates (pp. 222-246). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lawson, D. M. (2003). Incidence, explanations, and treatment of partner violence. Journal of Counselling and Development, 81, 19-32

Nolet-Bos, W. (1999). Female perpetrators and victims of domestic violence: The contribution of feminist and psychoanalytic theories. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Rutgers, New Jersey.

Pence, E., & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter. London: Springer

Renzetti, C. M. (1992). Violent betrayal: Partner abuse in lesbian relationships. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

  1. Hi I appreciate your article and could you suggest any theoretical explanations that could expound on the factors that contributes women to perpetuate abuses among men and/or the reversed explanatory of feminism theory Im interested to know about some theoretical explanations regarding the abuses experienced by men could email it to me Thank you so much (

    • Hi Daryl…Great request. Not a lot has been discussed on women’s use of violence in their relationships with men. I plan on writing a post on this topic on my blog site http://www.psychologyforgrowth. In the mean time, look up people like Michael Johnson and Murray Straus. One feminist explanation of women’s use of violence is that women will use violence as a form of expression, whereas men will often use it as a form of control. There are exceptions to this, of course. But for the majority of cases of women’s use of violence, it does NOT seem to be an attempt to control men. Rather, women will often use violence as a means of retaliation.

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