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Explaining Domestic Violence using Cognitive-Behavioural Theory

March 28, 2011

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Cognitive theory originated with the works of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. This theory suggests that individuals who are experiencing any kind of distress (e.g., depression, anxiety, anger) are usually engaging in biased ways of thinking.

The role of the therapist when operating from a cognitive paradigm is to identify what some of these biases may be and help the client to create a “cognitive shift” where they begin to view their world and make conclusions in a more balanced way (Beck & Weishaar, 1995).

Therapists who operate from a strictly behaviourist theory of human functioning believe that the way a person acts is a result of their learning experiences. A person’s propensity for a certain behaviour (e.g., aggression or violence) is highly influenced by whether or not that behaviour was rewarded or punished in their past (Todd & Bohart, 1994). This is also known as the social learning theory of aggression. (Click here to read how Social Learning Theory explains Addiction).

Cognitive theory and behaviour theory eventually began to amalgamate into a form of psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioural therapy, or CBT, in the early 1980’s. The reason for their marriage is that researchers from both camps discovered that the cessation or modification of certain behaviours required a change in perception and interpretation – two aspects of cognitive function (Beck & Weishaar, 1995).

CBT Interventions with Aggression

For C-B therapists, the most important aspect in the acquisition of certain behaviours is how a person perceives, interprets, and processes the events in any given situation (Todd & Bohart, 1994). When someone behaves violently or aggressively, for example, their behaviours are being influenced by thought patterns – what they perceived and interpreted – prior to the behaviour. Changing these thought patterns, then, will theoretically contribute to a change in behaviour.

A common intervention is the use of an anger log. This log encourages participants to monitor and record the thoughts and behaviours which immediately preceded angry and violent outbursts (Koonin, Cabarcas, & Geffner, 2002). For example, some people indicate that before they become angry they can feel their heart rate increase, their palms become sweaty, and certain parts of their body become tense. Conjointly, they can also identify biased thoughts influencing these physiological reactions. Once clients begin to notice their bodies reacting to external events, they eventually begin to use their thoughts as a way of de-escalating these feelings. For example, they may say to themselves, “Getting mad won’t change anything,” or “I am just jumping to conclusions. I really have no proof that this individual wants to fight me.”

CBT also emphasizes that violence and aggression are choices. Contrary to claims that they were ‘forced’ to act and behave abusively, a C-B approach encourages the individual to acknowledge that they chose to behave aggressively and violently. They were completely free to choose another way of behaving. They failed to stop and alter their thoughts before reacting.

In the next blog, I will explain how cognitive-behavioural techniques can help victims of domestic violence heal and change.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

Dr. Richard Amaral,


Beck, A. T., & Weishaar, M. (1995). Cognitive therapy. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies. Itasca: F. E. Peacock Publishers.

Todd, J., & Bohart, A. C. (1994). Foundations of clinical and counseling psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

Koonin, M., Cabarcas, A., & Geffner, R. (2002). Treatment of women arrested for domestic violence: Women ending abusive/violent episodes respectfully (WEAVER) manual. San Diego: Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute.

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